It’s now clear how influential the film was in defining what ‘gay cinema’ looks like and how these stories of sex, violence and love are represented onscreen
In a usual year, the film world turns a customary gaze toward the political right around now, when the buzz of awards season and the publication of critics’ end-of-year lists provide a pause for reflection, measures of the way the industry’s output has spoken, or failed to speak, to contemporary issues. This year, amidst the chaos of the political moment and the industry’s own crises about power and abuse, the relation of the cinema to the world outside it has been intensified and inescapable, and films which offer active provocations to their audiences, like Jordan Peele’s Get Out, have flourished accordingly. This turning tide could be felt back in February with the Oscars success of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, a beautiful meditation on black gay experience whose success felt representative not only because of its intervention in the Academy’s embarrassingly white track record, but because the unfortunate gaffe in which Best Picture was first handed over to Damien Chazelle’s La La Land felt symbolic itself, drawing attention to the way that such films have for too long been after-thoughts, not main events.
Jenkins’ film has no doubt cast its light on the rest of the year – as well as bringing race to the fore of the conversation, it has also presided over what the mutable category of ‘gay cinema’ looks like in 2017, along with the accompanying issues of how sex, violence and love are represented. If Luca Guadagino’s Call Me by Your Name, Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats and Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country aren’t exactly following in its footsteps, premiering close by at this January’s Sundance, much of their reception has been framed in post-Moonlight terms, revisiting the same critical tropes and hot takes, as if these films were cut from the same cloth because all of them show men having sex. Kind of.
In the case of Guadagino’s film, one of the critical sticks to beat it with has been its relative lack of nudity or explicit scenes, seen mainly as a pandering to straight audiences, as if gay sex on screen is in and of itself radical. Moonlight was met with similar criticism: one critic went as far to write that he doubts Jenkins’ film would have won Best Picture if it had ‘culminated in a graphic scene of intercourse’ instead of a tender embrace. This could be true, hypothetically, but is also not really the point. Fabricating this scene for its own sake or as some kind of pay-off is asking for Moonlight to be a different film, and seems to miss its intricate portrait of desire in a dangerous and hyper-masculine environment, where a touch or a glance between men might be just as life-affirming as a fuck. In imposing a politics of candour, criticisms like this side-step the politics of the film itself, holding it to a standard it has never claimed or asked to meet.
“Isn’t Armie Hammer eating a peach covered with Timothee Chalamet’s cum still way less vanilla than a tastefully shot sex scene thrown in for good measure?”
Call Me by Your Name, while similarly criticised, is a wildly different film from Moonlight. Where Jenkins’ woozy aesthetic seeks to recuperate both Liberty City, Miami and the black body from erasure, the sumptuous craft of Guadagino’s film is materially upheld in its moneyed North Italian setting, and its young protagonist’s sexual awakening is framed around sensual pleasures and supportive parents that are surely rare in real-life coming out stories. The relative coyness of its sex scenes are consonant with this classicism, a principle of suggestion over reveal which emphasises the erotic rather than the sexual. (And anyway, for argument’s sake, isn’t Armie Hammer eating a peach covered with Timothee Chalamet’s cum still way less vanilla than a tastefully shot sex scene thrown in for good measure?)
The otherwise resounding affection for this film, however, in the face of this curiously apolitical quality, poses an interesting question about what gay films can or should be doing for their audiences. At Sundance, Call Me By Your Name debuted alongside the smaller independent Beach Rats, which tells the story of a closeted young man in a working-class Brooklyn neighbourhood who meets men online for casual sex, a world away from the romance of sunny Italy. The film is almost unremittingly dark and ends with a haunting scene of violence that several gay viewers have taken issue with – as one put it at a Sundance Q&A, ‘I’m really angry to see this story told yet again, in a way that makes me feel almost hopeless for so many of my brothers.’
The impact of ‘this’ story for gay audiences is perhaps generational, and on one level it is understandable why a film which dwells in the darker crevices of queer experience, and the potential dangers of the closet, might jar with audiences who have witnessed the leaps and bounds made for gay rights and social inclusion. ‘The world demands that gay life be ultimately sad’, a character in Andrew Holleran’s classic 1979 novel Dancer from the Dance writes, because everyone in America believes ‘deep down’ that happiness equals a ‘wife and 2.6 kids and a station wagon’ – the queer alternatives will inevitably be ‘violent’ or ‘tragic’. This kind of gallows humour has an unfashionable ring today, a campy and fatalistic adage that barely resonates for a community that has weathered the Aids epidemic and fought tirelessly for ways of being in the world that include, for those who desire it, the ‘happiness’ of cookie-cutter normalcy. But, as Matthew Todd’s 2016 book Straight Jacket argued, modern gay life is hardly without sadness, for every perceived victory in marriage equality there is a sobering statistic about rising HIV rates and sustained mental health issues. Surely anything resembling ‘gay cinema’ as a genre needs to have room for all these stories, not making any one of them representative as standalone films?
“Anything resembling ‘gay cinema’ as a genre needs to have room for all these stories”
These films are not myths or tales but have tangible settings with their own political circumstances – of course it’s different, and harder, being gay in South Brooklyn or Liberty City than a villa in Northern Italy. There is surely no one measure that can apply to all of them, and their relative stakes in sex, darkness, or hope depend on the stories they are telling, not a value system imposed from without. Francis Lee’s stunning debut God’s Own Country is just as much about the Yorkshire landscapes of its title as it is the gay relationship between a farmhand and a Romanian migrant, precisely because these two parts of the story aren’t separable. The range of 2017’s ‘gay cinema’ surely suggests we be careful about using that term to group films together such that their distinctions fade, for these films, immediately politicised, should still be afforded same aesthetic freedoms as any other kind. That said, if there’s one film which navigates these issues, balancing pleasures with politics and hope with despair, it’s Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM (which will be released in the UK in April.) This retelling of the Paris ACT-UP movement in the 90s is an impassioned rallying call for collective action in the face of oppressive structures and the Aids epidemic. In a post-Moonlight landscape, it embodies more than any other film why these love stories are worth fighting about, and for.