Knock, Knock— Let Us In

Banging on the celluloid closet.

The last time the very gay, now-defunct Broadway Market Cinemas seemed to be doing really well was in the mid-'90s—when it drew a different kind of "family" crowd with Disney premieres. Once it turned art house, showing more queer films than any other venue in the city, things started to go downhill. When a tiny theater in the heart of a queer neighborhood can't survive showing mostly queer fare, what does that say about the state of queer film? Are we over it?

If we are, it seems grossly premature. Were our goals for queer film really so modest that we've achieved them with the release of Kissing Jessica Stein, or through the one or two people who reference their partners at the Academy Awards? Of the 200 or so studio releases this year, only a handful have significant queer content, and those that actually get a theatrical release generally fall into one of a few tried-and-true categories: the earnest coming-out story; the sexless romantic comedy; the wacky mistaken-identity farce. No wonder people don't want to see them.

We're 30 years into a civil rights movement that has hundreds of years ahead of it, and our cultural productions reflect that. Queer film is bad to the extent that it is shaped by the homophobia and heterosexism of our culture at every aspect of production and distribution.

And let's face it—there's a lot of bad queer film out there. It's self-involved, it's didactic, the plots are trite, the production values low. Why is this the case? Because we're not, as we're being told, "post-gay." The haste to declare ourselves so seems to be about escaping the humiliation of being confronted with our own oppression on an ongoing basis. To forsake identity politics is to assume that they're no longer necessary. In this way, being "post-gay" is a luxury of the urban middle class. But when A Beautiful Mind needs to be de-gayed to win an Oscar, it also seems like denial.

Let's start with the much-maligned coming out story. While the proportion of queer films that have to do with coming out can make for tedious viewing, it also reflects the fact that for many gay people coming out continues to be an ordeal. The stories we have to tell reflect the realities of our experience, and when children are no longer presumed to be heterosexual until proven otherwise, maybe this story will cease to be such a compelling one.

The state of queer film also reflects the economic realities queer filmmakers face. Film is a phenomenally expensive medium, and access to resources in the world of filmmaking mirrors that of the world at large. American features about queer men with a budget of more than a million dollars outnumber comparable features about queer women by 10 to 1. While transgendered characters sometimes figure in gay (and straight) narratives, narrative features by trans directors remain rare, even at film festivals. There are maybe a dozen queer narrative features about African Americans, half a dozen about Asian Americans, two about Native Americans (including Sherman Alexie's recent, fantastic The Business of Fancydancing).

And then there's the question of distribution. Distributors (and some filmmakers) routinely downplay the content of their films to avoid being "pigeonholed" (this even happened to the clearly queer-themed Boys Don't Cry, of all things). Part of this desire to disassociate is a frank recognition that, by and large, straight audiences don't want to see queer films (the studios' target demographic being boys age 12 to 18). While Spider-Man has grossed nearly half a billion dollars worldwide in the past five weeks, queer films rarely make over $10 million. This should tell us all we need to know about the mainstreaming of queer film.

To say that there's a lot of bad queer film out there is not to say that all queer film is bad. Some filmmakers transcend limitations by virtue of their own personal resources, force of will, genius, or good luck. But queer film won't really have arrived until a film's queerness is no longer a bar to its commercial success. Or until the number of queer films reflect the number, and diversity, of queer filmgoers. Or until queer films—let alone straight ones—no longer rely on the most tired of stereotypes and caricatures in an effort to make their films more "accessible." What will be remarkable then is less what queer film will look like to the world and more what the world will look like for queer people.

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