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What Makes a Film 'Gay'?

What Makes a Film 'Gay'?


The director of The Skeleton Twins makes a case for the place of gay films in the modern age.

In my most recent film, The Skeleton Twins, Bill Hader plays Milo, a gay man whose life isn't going the way he wants it to. Milo is the co-lead of the movie alongside his twin sister, Maggie, played by Kristen Wiig. I am an openly gay director, and the film has an epic lip-synch scene set to Starship's '80s ballad "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," which was the love song from the movie Mannequin. By all accounts, my film is a "gay" movie.

And yet when I introduced the film at L.A.'s Outfest this year, I found myself musing on the definition of a "gay" film, because I actually wasn't sure how my film fit into the equation. I knew I owed a debt of gratitude to the pioneering LGBT filmmakers who came before me, folks like Almodovar and Gus van Sant, but I wondered openly, How does one define a "gay" film in 2014? By its sensibility? Target audience? The presence of a gay character? The presence of Parker Posey? Does the term even have any relevance in 2014? To try to answer these questions, I thought back on my formative movie years.

When I was about 14 or 15, I rented the movie Longtime Companion, Norman Rene's account of a group of gay friends in the '80s struggling with the early years of the AIDS crisis. I didn't really know what it was about. I rented it because it got a good review in Rolling Stone and I fancied myself a movie connoisseur in the making.

What I saw was shocking and fascinating: Men kissing and living together like men and women do, like it was no big deal! Super out of touch with my own sexuality in those years, I didn't have an "I'm just like them" moment. What I did have was my brain opened to something totally new: the idea that gay men were around, living normal lives, and dealing with an impossibly horrifying disease. I remember getting choked up at the end and wanting to learn more about AIDS and how to find a cure for it.

A few years later, during my freshman year of college, I saw a newspaper ad for an indie film called Totally F**ked Up that featured an image of two hot teenage dudes kissing. Still closeted, I snuck off to that movie by myself, nervous as hell, feeling like I was doing something illegal. Needless to say, I thought the movie, directed by Gregg Araki, was super hot, though I had some issues with certain plot points and clunky performances. The gay kid and the filmmaker were already battling it out in my brain.

By the time I came out, I was a full-fledged movie buff and had plunged myself into the world of queer cinema. Todd Haynes was my favorite, but I also went nuts for Francois Ozon, John Waters, and John Cameron Mitchell. But I wouldn't go see a film simply because it had gay content or was courting a gay audience. I went because I loved the filmmaker or because the movie was well-reviewed. In fact, my favorite film of any gay filmmaker is Todd Haynes's Safe -- a film without any overt LGBT characters. And yet that film, starring Julianne Moore as a suburban housewife who becomes allergic to her environment -- and perhaps her own empty existence -- reads as queer as queer can be with its suffering female protagonist, creepy '80s suburban setting, and unsettling AIDS metaphors.

It was becoming clear to me that my favorite queer films had less to do with the fact that they were about a queer character but more that they were great films that integrated queer characters into a compelling story. This is just good filmmaking. And if you make a good film, if it resonates on a universal level, chances are the audience will expand beyond an LGBT audience, as we've seen with films like Brokeback Mountain and Milk. And I think there's nothing wrong with that.

One of my favorite movie moments of the last few years is from the stop-motion animated film ParaNorman, directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler. At the end of the film, the character of Mitch, a hunky high school jock who's not the sharpest tool in the shed, casually mentions that he has a boyfriend. It's a small, blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, and yet, because of that casualness, it may be the most progressive LGBT movie moment in ages. To me, this is the future of queer cinema, where gay characters and straight characters can coexist, in a freakin' animated family film, and no one really bats an eyelash.

In The Skeleton Twins, the character of Milo has all kinds of issues -- he's depressed, self-destructive, bratty, narcissistic, and flirting with a drinking problem. And yet none of his problems stem from the fact that he's gay. It's the one part of his identity he's at peace with (aside from a drunken experimental night with a Debbie Harry look-alike). But I never would have had the confidence to think I could get away with this -- a gay main character that's No Big Deal -- if it weren't for the seeds planted in my young mind by Longtime Companion,Totally F**ked Up, and Safe, which were movies that said it's OK to be gay on film. So is The Skeleton Twins a "gay" film? Sure. But not exclusively. And it's a privilege to be able to say that so offhandedly.

Now let's take it a step further: Why can't we have a gay superhero? Why can't we have a gay James Bond (we were close in Skyfall!)? Hell, why can't we have a gay Ninja Turtle? OK, maybe I've gone a little too far ...

By the way, a gay James Bond casting suggestion? Michael Fassbender. Just sayin' ...

CRAIG JOHNSON is the director and writer of The Skeleton Twins, a gay film starring Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader. It opens in theaters Friday. Watch the trailer below.

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Craig Johnson