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Are Queer Characters Really Queer?

To have a conversation about gay and lesbian film is to talk about the representation of gays and lesbians in film. Which is to say that the terms “gay” and “lesbian” only speak to sexuality.

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Stills from Reeling Film Festival

Reeling Film Festival explores gay and lesbian vs. queer roles in cinema

There are currently fewer than ten films that have gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender characters in wide release, according to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Included in this list of films is I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, which is arguably homophobic and probably not winning the queer community any favors.

To have a conversation about gay and lesbian film is to talk about the representation of gays and lesbians in film. Which is to say that the terms “gay” and “lesbian” only speak to sexuality. But can the terms gay and lesbian mean more than that? A quick survey of film history shows us that there are hundreds of LGBT characters in film. Whether those characters are positive or not, or did anything to help and or uplift the community is another story altogether.

These characters are often portrayed as killers, psychopaths, vampires, monsters, or pathetic suicidal characters only worthy of our pity. Some films that spring to mind include: The Children’s Hour, Basic Instinct, Silence of the Lambs, The Crying Game, Boys Don’t Cry, High Art, Heavenly Creatures, The Hunger, And the Band Played On, Longtime Companion, Swoon, and Philadelphia.

Nearly all characters throughout LGBT film history have been portrayed in a less-than-empowering way. Heterosexual directors largely make much of what we consider to be gay and lesbian film history. Even when LGBT filmmakers are directing these films, more often than not they are telling the stories of homosexual characters that are killed, or kill themselves, or are depicted in other dire straights. This trend has shifted slightly in the past five to 10 years, though we would argue, only minimally. We may see LGBT characters that are portrayed in a more positive light, but they are rarely central to film plots.

Regardless of the emergence of gay characters and gay-themed stories in mainstream films, we still cannot find the queer cinema we are looking for. And with LGBT film festivals, film studios, and corporate sponsors falling into bed together, it’s not the queer orgy we’d expected. Shari Frilot, programmer for Sundance and OUTfest LA, says of this phenomenon, “It’s as if the mainstream media have come to play a more important role in determining what a ‘gay’ film is than the queer festivals.”

1981 marked the start of the Reeling Film Festival here in Chicago. Reeling is the second-oldest LGBT film festival in the country (San Francisco’s Frameline being the oldest, having started in 1977). Reeling was launched by folks who were committed to showcasing experimental queer film. Many LGBT film festivals started this way, but one would never know that by looking at current rogramming. Because of sponsorship and issues of marketability, films are often being chosen not for their filmic merit, but for their ability to pack a house.

According your standard film encyclopedia: “Many classical Hollywood performances, directors, and genres might be considered queer rather than gay, in that they do not explicitly acknowledge homosexuality, but nonetheless allow for spaces in which normative heterosexuality is threatened, critiqued, camped up, or shown to be an unstable performative identity.”

To illustrate the distinction between queer and gay/lesbian film, we spoke with filmmaker Sam Feder who said, “Queer politics has gone beyond sexuality—it’s about queer- mindedness and being open to non-conformity.” Most people who choose queer as a way to define themselves do so from a political imperative. They actively reject the purely sex-choice-identity categories for a term that more accurately defines them. Queer seeks to disrupt essentialist notions of gay/lesbian and encompass the broader community that could only be queer.

“What makes a queer picture queer? Is it the sex that’s depicted? Is it the gender of the people having sex? Is it the inclusion of a variety of genders, more than two, within the picture? I think a queer picture arises from all these things, but I suspect there’s something more to it,” ponders Gregg Bordowitz, SAIC faculty member, queer filmmaker and activist.

So, then to discuss queer cinema, we must open up the conversation to larger issues such as content, structure, identity of characters, identity of the actual filmmaker, agenda, etc. We have, perhaps, more questions than answers, which in itself might be queer. Some questions include: is a film queer simply because it includes one or more queer characters? Is a film queer because the maker is queer? Is the film queer because the narrative or non-narrative structure somehow subverts our expectations of those things? Or is queer merely a feeling or sentiment?

For instance, Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know somehow feels inherently queer. However, July neither outwardly identifies as queer, nor are there any queer characters in the film (barring the online relationship between the older woman and the young boy, which was pretty darn queer), yet one is left with the overall feeling that this film is queer. Perhaps it is the non-normative presentation of characters and approach to storytelling that makes it queer.

On the other hand, a movie such as Brokeback Mountain, which was well-received by both straight and LGBT audiences alike, and had gay characters and an arguably gay plot line, was certainly not queer. Brokeback Mountain followed traditional fiction film structures, in which the façade of normality is privileged over queer desire. The gay characters in this film are yet again relegated to the position of misery, unable to escape from the trappings of heterosexuality, and when they do they are punished by death. This film illustrates that just because the filmmaker is gay, and the characters are gay, does not automatically make the film queer.

Films that pack theaters tend to lack a queer sensibility, and queer films often don’t make it to theaters in the first place. The unfortunate reality is that even with the more than 60 LGBT Film Festivals nationwide, and the considerable rise of mainstream media representation of queers, we are still wondering where to find queer cinema.

26th Reeling Film Festival
November 8 to November 18, 2007

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