When I was about eight or nine, I walked home in the dark from a childhood friend’s house to my own only five houses down. Except in this particular case we had just seen IT, Stephen King’s clown-demon, terrorize kids through unsuspected sinks, shower nozzles, sewer systems, and caves. Surrounded by menacing suburban trees shaking in the darkness’ wind, my whole body was wrapped in fear. Irrational. Even then I knew this clown wasn’t real, but for some reason, I still rushed past the water drain in the street court of my upbringing, and on a path I tread over and over growing up, knowing it was perfectly safe. But watching this, my first horror movie, made me feel like I wasn’t, that something horrific could easily enter my life. I didn’t want to go near a bathroom for a solid month. Horror as a genre is often looked down upon, and understandably at times. Yet it can be one of the most powerful types of movies in that, if it gets everything right and immerses someone in the story, it has the ability to alter the viewers’ consciousness to the point their lives no longer feel secure.
After I got over it — still question whether I really did fully — and was able to bathe without fear of a balloon full of blood blowing up out of the drain, I was a glutton for punishment. On weekend movie rental nights, while being able to sneak away from my mom’s radar, I crept into the forbidden Horror section and eyed the VHS covers with fearful glee, and sometimes, before checking on both sides and with ears tuned in to make sure no one else was around to catch nine-year old me in a treasure trove of R ratings, I would swipe a read of a back cover, engrossed with the then-titillating melodramatic plot description, and maybe catch a frightening picture, like the glint of a Jason Voorhes machete, evil bump faced Leprachaun peering through a dimly lit door, the creepy blank stares of the Children of the Corn kids, or sharp Freddy Krueger claws coming down on a victim’s head. My fascination was partly due to the off limits status set by my parents, and rightly so. But, the other part was the need to experience an intoxicating thrill of unease and trepidation, of witnessing seemingly real terror in the comfort of a spectator’s role, and the unreasonable feeling the monstrosity could enter into my own life. I eventually was able to see some of these movies, of course, and sneaking Scream at eleven only made me more interested. I would imagine if I were to watch a few again, I would probably LOL forever at some of the god-awfulness. And, by laughing at the movies, I would be laughing at myself for allowing them to scare me. There comes a transition period, though I can’t identify a clear time frame for when mine happened, where we realize the movie, like our fear, was silly. The bubble bursts.
After seeing Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods this weekend, I’ve been dwelling on the nostalgia for my relationship with the genre. I recommend it to anyone who has ever enjoyed any horror movie. Without spoiling anything, all I will say is that it is a horror movie about horror movies. Yeah, yeah, I know. Movies like Scream and Drag Me to Hell had the meta self awareness going for them too. The difference here is that it’s self-aware while also taking that knowledge to create something original. We all know how flawed the genre can be at times — misogyny, pointless gore, the dehumanization as a result, lack of any character work, triteness, unintentional camp, plot structures with more holes in it that Pinhead’s needles, and the list could go on. But, horror wouldn’t exist if the masses didn’t create it by consuming it. And, who knows what kind of primal need that taps in to. The monsters represent the real-life kind, or more likely it’s not so much metaphor, but that the made up Hollywood creatures provide a popcorn distraction from our true fears. Or maybe a little bit of both.
Straight people don’t care about gay stuff. At least this is the general impression I get. Yet, I have to be inundated with and am demanded to care about movies, TV shows, music, art work, and news with hetero-centric focus. It’s a double standard expressed by a character in my favorite movie last year. He makes the ironic and funny, yet true point that people will praise and welcome art work with images of war, violence, poverty, etc. but anything with gay sex, and it is immediately taboo and shunned. LGBT material has been placed in a small niche market in pretty much every media form. Especially as a writer and reader of fiction, my hope is for a transition where it will be accepted in to the main cadre of the respective format (i.e. a well written and layered book classified as gay literature will be seen as good literature in general, and accepted as such within the literary community.) With the buzz of Oscar season, recently I’ve been thinking more about the discrepancy and gap in movies. Straights can find themselves represented in film easily. The majority are made for you. If you give Brokeback Mountain as a counter-example, I will throttle you. It’s more difficult for us gays. They’re either these cheesy, campy romps often a nudge-and-wink parody of a mainstream non gay movie but with cheeky exploitative stereotypes or seedy underground films that are essentially softcore porn under the veil of being edgy (look no further than 90% of the selection in the Netflix Gay and Lesbian section, like this one or this one) The similarity between these two categories is awful acting, fake dialogue, and no real characters. The third category is the Hollywood movie pre-packaged for a safe portrayal to cater to heteros — don’t want to push their limits too much! — that is an opportunistic way for a straight actor to be lauded for playing gay while gay actors themselves struggle getting roles, and new actors in the biz are forced to remain closeted (think A Single Man and Milk, both of which I like but still take issue with). A number of great counter-examples are out there though. I watched a good deal of LGBT movies in the past year — many of which occupy the realm of the gay genre and haven’t gained much audience outside of gay people, which is why I feel the need to share my top 3 (note these are movies I saw for the first time last year, not necessarily with a 2011 release date but made within the last 10 years):
3. Strapped (2010) rating: 9/10 – Some may find this plot a little gimmicky and unrealistic, but it worked for me. If you suspend your disbelief enough, it may for you. A young gay hustler — don’t walk away yet!, I know you may be thinking “Again?!” or “Typical,” but I beg you to look past this routinely used character type — finds himself in an apartment complex after a trick. But, he can’t seem to find his way out, as the complex becomes almost maze-like. On his journey to find the exit, he encounters about 5 different types of gay men. I like the way this one is structured in arcs, each exchange a different act in itself. I also like how it plays on stereotypes but then breaks them by peeling back the layers to reveal authentic people.
2. Red Without Blue (2007) rating: 9/10, instant streaming on Netflix – An excellent documentary. I could’ve picked a great political one exploring aspects of the struggle for gay rights, because there are many out there, but I chose this one because of the personal quality of it. It’s about one family –specially two twins, Mark and Alex Farley. They grew up in the typical fake cookie-cutter nuclear family, but in the onset of their parents’ divorce, they both came out. The film explores their struggles: Mark’s depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, Alex’s identity as transgender in her transition to become Claire, the way their parents handle their sexuality, and the connection that both of them have to one another despite their recent decision to live apart. I also picked this one because it not only explores gay issues, but gender and identity overall.
1. Weekend (2011) rating: 10/10, instant streaming on Netflix – Real, raw, and honest, Andrew Haigh’s Weekend is now my favorite LGBT film, and beyond that, my favorite movie period of 2011, and definitely my favorite love story in the past 5 years. The review over at Slate can probably do a better job outlining for you, but I’ll give you the basics if you don’t want to read the whole thing (also a bit of a spoiler alert in their review). It’s main character is Russell, an average, ordinary gay guy in Nottingham. Haigh’s aim was to depict gay culture in Nottingham specifically, so it has a regional flare, but this depiction will easily resonate with any gay community in a city. We’re put in to his POV immediately — please note this, Darren Aronofsky as an example of how to effectively follow your main character with a shaky cam shot without giving the unsettling feeling that we’re stalking them as viewers — as he goes to a gathering at his straight friends’ place (a sequence shot in a way that’s coated with the very real feeling of outsidership as a gay man). He leaves early and heads to a local gay club, where he meets Glen. What starts as a one night stand slowly becomes something more neither of them wants to admit. Glen is an artist and records Russell as part of a project he’s working on, the catalyst for a gradual weekend long exploration they go on with each other. Their conversations address the gay struggle in one of the most apt and contemporary ways I’ve seen. Glen is a bit of a radical who is angered by oppression and thinks gay marriage is conformist to heteronormative power structures, whereas Russell is shy, sweet, and is looking for a monogamous relationship eventually. I see myself and my outlook in both. It embraces the tropes of romance dramas in a self-aware way, but turns them on their head by breathing new life in to them within a gay love story. What is so refreshing about this movie is the intense attention to the specifics of character and what it’s like to connect with someone, whether gay or straight, providing a gleaming, novel view of what love can be. (Advice: may want to turn on subtitles at times. We’re dealing with British low talking mumblers, here)
I’m hoping with movies like Weekend, gay cinema is headed in a great new direction, and maybe it has to be the indie scene to break the barriers. In his recent Salon review of Keep the Lights On, an upcoming similar film which currently made the Sundance rounds, Andrew O’hehir predicts something comparable to New Queer Cinema of the early 90’s, except hopefully a turn away from that to something more expansive, something that resonates not just with the LGBT genre, but with open movie goers willing to experience another perspective than their own and discover the reason for the differences while identifying with the similaries of a shared human existence. And, in the end realize a good movie is a good movie. Also, if I can sit through Katherine Heigle trying to find a boyfriend while being a bridesmaid for the 34th time, Micky Rourk trying to date a stripper, Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt going through a break up set to the tunes of The Smiths, or Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhal screw and sit around naked while she’s dying, you can sit through a gay sex scene.