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The New Wave of
Post-Gay Filmmaking?

The New Wave of
Post-Gay Filmmaking?


Sundance 2009 marked a turning point in gay cinema -- gay films that aren't actually gay films ... a "post-gay" response to the death of the coming-out movie.

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.

"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.

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.

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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