Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Gay Sex, Queer Cinema

"I Am Happiness on Earth"  (All Photos: Used by Permission from Frameline38)
                                                                                                       
Every man in this theater sucks cock, I thought. I was sitting in the Castro Theater during Frameline, San Francisco’s LGBT film festival, the world’s oldest and maybe largest queer fest. And I was not just thinking about fellatio, but musing about the ways that gay movies mirror the sexual zeitgeist.

Despite the fact that there’s always a creative time lag—some of the films took years from concept to completion—there were, as usual, interesting filmic trends to be discerned. In the past, there’d been a spate of films about AIDS, then a few years later, about marriage equality. (Though regardless, the festival, being what it is, always shows films about dick.)

And this year? Trans. Take the charming, wistful Swedish film Something Must Break. In some ways, it was the typical coming-of-age-young-guys-find-each-other film, replete with cute young men with cute young visibly uncut dicks. A can’t-miss staple of gay festivals, and who can resist the sight of another naked romp at the swimming hole? But this time, the central character was gender-variant, androgynous Andreas, who longed to be “Ellie.”

And there was Yann Gonzales’ gorgeously startling You and the Night, a genre-bending mashup of Dario Argento horror films, Luis Buñuel surrealism, and Rocky Horror Show weird shit. Sure, there was the indisputable charm of retired soccer star Éric Cantona flaunting a huge prosthetic-but-passable penis. But then there was the transvestite maid and the pro-lust message that, given the opportunity, anyone would fuck just about anybody else….even if they were dead. Cool!

Yep, from a revival showing of groundbreaking trans drama Boys Don’t Cry to a program of shorts about female-to-male guys, the festival was decidedly more trans-centric than in years past. The charming Off Road told the tale of a feisty female car mechanic who used to be a guy, Lady Valor the story of a male-to-female Navy SEAL. There was even the documentary The Dog, the fascinatingly weird true story of John Wojtowicz, whose bank-robbing quest to finance his lover’s sex change was the basis of Dog Day Afternoon.

Why such a heavy trans presence in queer film? And why now? One obvious answer is the increasing visibility of transpeople, and the increasing strength of their movement. That’s a good thing, of course; so much hatred is based in rigid ideas of gender. Then, too, like gay and lesbian artists before them, increasing numbers of creative transpeople are coming out.
"Gerontophilia"

And maybe another reason is the very success of so much of the lesbian and gay movement. In significant ways, queers have entered the mainstream at a dizzying pace. In celebration of that, the excellent HBO documentary The Case Against 8 opened the festival, giving a blow-by-blow account of the triumph of marriage equality in California.

Even erstwhile cinematic badboy Bruce La Bruce seems to have settled down, dishing up Gerontophilia, a charming, touching dramedy about an 18-year-old boy with a hard-on for men old enough to be his grandpas. Who’d have dreamed that the auteur behind such edgy cinema masterworks as L. A. Zombie and No Skin Off My Ass would come up with the gay Harold and Maude?

"Boys"
But drama thrives on conflict. Sure, there’s a place for happy films about happy couples getting hitched. But transgendered people are still—the old-hatness of Chaz Bono notwithstanding—on the cutting edge of change, and their narratives are every bit as riveting as plain old coming-out-as-gay movies used to be. (Though there most assuredly will always be room for films about sensitive young shirtless cisgender males like the Dutch Boys or the Polish Floating Skyscrapers. Because, well, you know….)
"Floating Skyscrapers"


Not that the Festival was all sweetness and light. There was Mentor, a heartbreaking film on bullying. An ex-neo-Nazi gay basher was profiled in the absorbing Oscar-nominated short Facing Fear, and The Last One examined the thorny problem of new HIV infections through the prism of the Names Project quilt. But in a year so filled with unprecedented victories, it was hard not to feel upbeat.

There were also fascinating looks back at queer history. Who knew that 1950s Zurich housed a major gay organization, as detailed in the beautifully crafted film The Circle? And Limited Partnership, a documentary about a bi-national male couple who were, astonishingly, legally married in Colorado all the way back in 1975, brought the audience to its feet in a standing ovation.

Then there was Folsom Forever, a laudatory documentary about the history of San Francisco’s notorious Folsom Street Fair, replete with leather, chains, and plenty of cock. The film details what most of us long-time Bay Areans already know: what was once shockingly cutting edge is now mainstream— the upcoming movie version of “Fifty Shades,” anyone?—And what was once liberated gay territory is being gentrified into oblivion.

Even some porn looked to the past. Mondo Homo gratifyingly resurrected French gay smut from the 1970s, back when guys didn’t shave their pubes. Fucking! Fisting! Foreskins! Ooh la la! Fetch le lube.

Yes, in the 38 years since the first Frameline festival, the LGBT movement has succeeded past damn near any queer’s wildest dreams. We stand in danger of committing the greatest gay sin: being boring. It would be foolish to be too triumphalist It’s-a-Small-World about this: after all, the Archbishop of S.F. celebrated Pride Month by giving his blessing to an anti-gay rally in DC, and it’s still not easy being a homo in East Jesus, Oklahoma. or Uganda or St. Petersburg. Indeed, the festival featured four programs on Russian anti-gay oppression.

One of my straight friends recently asked me, “Why should there be a gay film festival any more, anyway? There are all those gay people on True Blood.”
Well, sure, right.

But though it’s somewhat hard to imagine HBO giving airtime to, oh, the festival’s exquisitely moody avant-garde Mexican film, I Am Happiness on Earth, perhaps a better question is why, in a downloadable world, there should be film festivals at all. You can stream just about any damn thing you desire to your Roku, and Frameline itself has a major online presence, one well worth checking out.

But a minority group’s culture is the glue that holds it together, and—Netflix notwithstanding—the sensation of sitting in a darkened theater with hundreds of other queers, all enjoying (or sometimes suffering through) the images on the silver screen is still a heartening communal experience.

Especially when every man in the theater sucks cock.

Simon Sheppard

Simon Sheppard, is the author of Man on Man: The Best of Simon Sheppard, The Dirty Boys' Club, Sex Parties 101 and Jockboys. Visit him at www.simonsheppard.com, and email him at simon@simonsheppard.com.

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