Gus Kenworthy
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The New Wave of
Post-Gay Filmmaking?

The New Wave of
            Post-Gay Filmmaking?

Johnny is
neck-deep in water in the swimming pool at his house and Ben
is sitting on the ledge in his bathing suit. The two
have been drinking champagne, and though this is
basically the first conversation they have ever had,
Ben has already challenged Johnny on his sexuality and
declared his interest in him. When Johnny demurs and
moves into the pool, Ben tells him in a pathetic voice
that he has never even been kissed before. Johnny
tells him to come closer, which Ben does, and then Johnny
grabs him with both hands and kisses him hard and fast
on the cheek. This only satisfies Ben for a moment,
then he moves in to kiss Johnny some more, which
Johnny allows, but only for a time, then he swims away and
goes to sit on the opposite ledge of the pool.
Undeterred, Ben swims over to Johnny and starts
kissing his chest; he eventually pulls down his pants
and goes down on him. Johnny lets him, though he is not
gay.

This is the
climactic scene of the film Dare, a new black comedy
about life as a teenager as seen through the eyes
of three characters. Dare premiered at the 2009
Sundance Film Festival and is one of the most honest
films about being a teenager ever made. It is also
part of a trend at this year’s festival, and perhaps
among films in general -- gay films that aren’t
actually gay films. Some may call them
“post-gay,” but call them what you will, the
death knell of the coming-out film has been ringing
for some time, and each year there are articles
written and panels organized exploring the question
"What next? What is the future of gay cinema?"

A year ago I
moderated a panel at the Queer Media conference in Los
Angeles that asked this same question, and the answer then
was that LGBT storytellers would continue to mine
different aspects of queer life: the intersections of
sexuality and religion, sexuality and race, etc. And
many films -- Save Me, For the Bible Tells Me So,Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom
-- have done just that. But if this
year’s Sundance Film Festival is any
indication, the next wave of films will be about the
fact that the evolution of homosexuality in American culture
has gone so far as to call heterosexuality into question.

In Dare,
Johnny (played by Friday Night Lights's Zach Gilford)
is a popular football player who is disconnected from
his family. He is seeing a therapist and taking
medication to sleep. His stepmother is cold, his
mother is gone, and he has no one in his life who really
cares about him. When he meets Alexa, played by Emmy
Rossum, he begins a sexual relationship with her, but
it is not until he meets her best friend Ben, who has
only recently realized he is gay, that Johnny finds someone
he feels really sees him and -- he thinks
-- cares about him.

Ben (Ashley
Springer) is exploring his homosexuality, so Johnny
allows him to explore it with him because he wants Ben to
love him and stay with him. Along with Alexa, they
form an unlikely trio. Ben and Alexa both conspire to
seduce Johnny at a party. And when Alexa tries to get
Johnny alone, he's always quick to include Ben; the three
end up rolling around on the bed together, with Johnny
allowing Ben to make out with him for a while before
gingerly stopping his advances to pay attention
to Alexa. When Johnny is kissing Alexa, he at first resists
Ben’s attempts to guide his hand toward Ben’s
crotch but then gives over to Ben's pleasure.
Nothing groundbreaking here, except that Johnny is not
gay, nor is he really exploring his sexuality…not in
the way we typically think of when we see films with
gay characters.

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“I never
felt Johnny was gay,” says Dare
screenwriter, and co-producer David Brind. “What
I did feel is that there is this moment where he sees
the way Ben is looking at him, and in the pool Ben
says ‘you are fucking amazing’ and he is aware
that Johnny is lit up and longing. Johnny mistakes or
interprets that as a deeper connection. That desire to
feel love and to be seen allows him to go to a sexual
place. But I don’t think he secretly has a hard-on
for Ben.”

Nor is Johnny
particularly concerned about being labeled gay.

“He is
trying to build a family around Ben and Alexa and he is
willing to go along with the sexual part of it with
Ben. The sex is not a nonissue but it is not the
biggest issue. ‘I’m not gay,’ he tells
his therapist. The point being it is not his prevalent
fear. He is most consumed with wanting to be loved and
wanting to have a connection.”

Gay and lesbian
viewers usually assume that the characters in these
situations are either exploring their sexuality and emerge
on the other side heterosexual, as in films like
Nico and Dani, or homosexual, as in Wild
Reeds
. But in this case, the outcome of
Johnny’s sexuality is not the point. 

In the film
Humpday, directed by Lynn Shelton, two best
friends decide to make a porn film to enter in
Seattle’s Hump Fest amateur pornography competition.
Their theory is that the most progressive,
button-pushing thing they could do for their film is
to have sex with each other. After all, what could be more
revolutionary than capturing two straight friends
negotiating having sex together. This premise is also
the point of Humpday, which was entirely improvised
and shot so that the actors would evolve with the
characters.

Scenes were
mapped out in advance, except the final scene, when the two
finally get to the hotel room to tape their big scene, and
ultimately chicken out.

“I had no
idea what was actually going to happen when we got to that
hotel room,” says director Lynn Shelton.

Ben is married
and has settled down. He and his wife, Anna, are trying to
get pregnant. One night his old friend Andrew (Joshua
Leonard), a perpetual rolling stone, arrives at
his door. Ben envies Andrew’s lifestyle of
freedom, made more poignant by a decision made many years
before not to join him on a big trip, staying home instead
to take a responsible job. Andrew, it turns out,
envies Ben’s domestic lifestyle and sense of
stability.

The two challenge
each other, and the proposition to make a porn film
together, forged under the influence of alcohol at a
bohemian party one evening, cannot be called off by
either party lest it confirm each other's suspicions:
Ben’s that Andrew is actually more square than he
seems; and Andrew’s that Ben is as square as he
seems.

 HUMPDAY STILL 02 x390 (PUBLICITE) | ADVOCATE.COM

As the story
evolves -- and the actors as well, one must assume,
since every line of dialogue was improvised -- Ben
reveals a moment in his youth when he had a sort
of crush on a male video clerk when he first
moved to Seattle and had no friends. He tells Andrew that he
rented a boring multi-video documentary just to have a
reason to go back again the next day, and each
time he said he agreed with the clerk's feelings
that the documentary was brilliant even though
he hated it. He then reveals that he imagined what it
might be like to kiss the clerk and that he
thought it would feel good. Then he imagined the
clerk's “balls”…and the fantasy ended
there.

However brief,
that moment becomes a catalyst for Ben, and he feels
compelled to find out just how deep his feelings for men
could possibly run. He is not afraid that he might
be gay, nor does anyone in his life venture to
call him gay, but he feels there is a flexibility to his
sexuality that he never before questioned.

In the hotel room
Ben and Andrew are terrified. They take off their
clothes -- and then put them back on -- multiple times. At
one point they decide to just close their eyes and go
for it, and they share a long kiss, which they both
agree is not something they really enjoy. They decide
to hug with shirts off, but it does little for them. At no
point do they feel like they are having fun; instead
it is a challenge, one that they end up concluding is
the most frightening thing they can think of, and they
can’t even fathom why.

The film
Everything Strange and New, about a
depressed man trying to figure out how he ended up married
and with kids and what it all means, suddenly takes a
left turn when, in the last 15 minutes, one of his
good friends reveals while they are watching a porn
film that he is bisexual and would like to give him head.
Wayne, who for most of the film has been wandering
helplessly in a passive state of ennui, allows him to.

“I was
looking for a way to really activate conflict, internal
conflict, in that character,” says director
Frazer Bradshaw. “It struck me as a powerful
way to do it. You don’t see any resolution. Does this
bring up romantic feelings? I like to create
circumstances that don’t portray anything
specific, and leave the audience to answer questions for
themselves.”

Bradshaw’s
intentions themselves are evidence of a shift in thinking
when it comes to gay content in films -- that
homosexuality could be just a catalyst, just another
in a long set of possible instigators of conflict and
tension that make up complex characters, without making the
characters or the film gay. In all three of these films,
straight characters are being asked to push the limits
of their sexuality and, to some extent, their sexual
identification.

But have we come
so far that these characters can exit the narrative
without any labels? Do homosexual acts make characters
definitively gay or bisexual to viewers? Does anyone
even care anymore? 

“I would
like to skip past the whole gay thing,” Glen Ficarra
tells me after his press conference at the Queer
Lounge for his new comedy I Love You Phillip Morris,
which he wrote and directed with his Bad Santa
writing partner, John Requa.

The true story of
con man Steven Russell's many prison escapes to be with
the man he loves, the film is about two gay men who, though
never identified as such, will resonate with gay
audiences as other gay characters have in the past.

Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey in I Love You Phillip Morris x390 (publicity) | Advocate.com
 

What is
different, however, is that somehow the story manages to
unfold without really being a gay film.

“It
isn’t about the gay experience,” says Ficarra.

“There is
never any mention of them being gay,” adds John
Requa. “It just comes natural to them, as it
did with the real guys. I mean, I don't know, but when
two gay guys meet, they don't sit there and pontificate
for hours about the climate of homosexual culture in
America.”

Phillip Morris is made by two straight
directors, starring two straight actors, and hopes to get
past the audience’s views on being gay, be they
negative or positive, because they are not essential
to the telling of the story. However, unlike other
films in the past that have attempted to do this, this
film in no way avoids gay content.

In an early scene
Jim Carrey is seen having anal sex; in another Ewan
McGregor is seen spitting into the ocean after performing
oral sex on Jim Carrey aboard a boat. Still, unlike
movies like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and
Larry
, these straight filmmakers never poke fun at
the characters in order to appease the audience’s
feelings of discomfort.

“Our style
is to treat sexuality in a very casual way,” says
Requa. “We have always done that. We felt there
was no reason to change our style just because it
happened to be two men. If this were a movie between a
man and woman, there would have been all those raw
jokes.”

Similarly, La
Mission,
directed by Peter Bratt and starring his
brother Benjamin, tells the story of a young man who
comes out to his widower father amid the macho culture of
San Francisco’s Latino Mission district
community. But the film is not about the son’s
journey to come to terms with his sexuality; rather, it is
about the father’s journey to accept his son.

“In the
story, when he discovers his son is gay, that is a catalyst
that causes him to examine himself,” says Peter
Bratt.

In Lee Daniels's
second film, Push, about a black teenage girl
living in horrific circumstances in 1980s Harlem, her
salvation comes in the form of a lesbian teacher who is the
first one to care enough to help her learn to read,
get her out of her abusive situation, and help her
move on with her life. Always told that gay people
were bad by her mother, she looks at them rather
matter-of-factly one evening after some have taken her
in to save her from the violent assaults of her
mother.

“It’s just so politically incorrect that
it’s fabulous,” says director Lee
Daniels.

He is happy to
have made a film about the black experience that gets
in a progressive message about homosexuality. In this way,
he has made a black film with gay content, not a gay
film. Ultimately the film will be seen by black
audiences in a way that a film like Noah’s Arc:
Jumping the Broom
would never be seen.

So does
homosexual content necessarily make a film gay, or are we
seeing an evolution into a new kind of filmmaking, one
where the gay experience is incorporated into films,
or left unquestioned and undefined?

“I hope
so,” says Dare director Brind. “I
don’t buy into the separate-but-equal mentality
of storytelling. I don’t think we have to tell
a story for a specific audience. I don’t think that
is how people generally really are. I think some
people hold on to their sexuality as an identity, but
that is not something I do, nor do I think that is
something the majority of people do.”

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