Is wider social acceptance causing queer cinema to lose its edge? That’s the consensus that emerges from a recent “Critics’ Notebook” dialogue between Hollywood Reporter reviews editor Jon Frosch and critic David Rooney.
Frosch sets up the debate by recalling the sense of anticipation that built up earlier this year for what appeared to be a strong fall slate of gay-themed films, only to declare, “What a sense of deflation, then, to discover the squarest, stodgiest group of movies imaginable.” Frosch dismisses Freeheld and Stonewall as “bland, gloppy slices of history”; notes that the Weinstein Co. unceremoniously yanked trans teen drama About Ray from its autumn slate; and then declares himself unimpressed by The Danish Girl and Carol. “This is a relentlessly somber, self-important group of films—all tears, torment and tragic poses, with characters who register more as causes and symbols than flesh-and-blood humans,” he writes. Finally, he declares himself nostalgic for the guilty pleasures of gay cinema past—movies like The Birdcage, Bound, and even The Boys in the Band.
Rooney also calls the current crop of LGBTQ movies “toothless,” comparing them unfavorably to oldies like Milk, Brokeback Mountain, and The Kids Are All Right, and he wonders why this year’s big queer films lack the “ballsiness and complexity” of television, where shows like Orange Is the New Black and Transparent are telling new kinds of stories. Finally, both men pine for the lightweight American gay indies of the 1990s—films like Trick, Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss, The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love—and rhapsodize about the transgressive joys of foreign gay films.
I offer this extended summary because I found the exchange fascinating—even as I disagreed with most of it. Many things surprised me, not least that such experienced gay critics should be nostalgic for some frankly terrible old movies—films that I, too, loved when they were first released, in part because they were exploring territory that had thus far been overlooked or actively disparaged in mainstream cinema. But viewed today, most seem amateurish and one-dimensional.
What about their assessment of this year’s movies? If you compare five films that just happened to be released within a few months of each other with the entire canon of queer cinema, it’s hardly a surprise that the canon might come out on top. Similarly, even critics who see as many films as these two need to remember that the foreign films that make it to U.S. screens are the cream of the crop—we see the one jewel, not the dozens of mediocre or bad films that comprise each nation’s contribution to world cinema.
The comparison with television is striking. I agree completely that OITNB, Transparent, and I would add Sense8, are wonderfully innovative and different, but it bears mentioning that all were developed and distributed by streaming services that are actively disrupting the established TV distribution system. They’re the equivalent of scrappy indie projects like Sean Baker’s Tangerine and Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior, which, along with Sebastian Silva’s Nasty Baby, all receive praise from Frosch and Rooney later in their back-and-forth. So the critics’ dismissal of 2015’s gay movies as being “somber” and “self-important” is really a verdict on the big studio releases, not the whole cinematic universe. (I also wish they’d remembered Grandma, the story of a septuagenarian lesbian widow, played fabulously by Lily Tomlin, which seems like exactly the kind of film they’re longing for—nothing “square” or “stodgy” there.)
My responses to Carol and Freeheld are very different from Frosch’s and Rooney’s—I was blown away by the former and agree with my colleague J. Bryan Lowder that it’s the queer movie of the year (albeit with some competition from Grandma and Tangerine).
Still, it is odd that so many of the queer projects big studios and A-list names are investing in are set in the past—and I have found myself wondering why people want to tell these stories now. Roland Emmerich said that learning about contemporary LGBTQ youth homelessness made him want to make a movie about the key role of homeless youth in the Stonewall riots—surely the most written-about event in LGBTQ American history, which had already been the basis for multiple feature and documentary films. It’s a worthy goal—but why not just make a movie about contemporary homeless queer youth? The real-life events told in Freeheld—a closeted police detective with a terminal disease must fight local government officials so she can assign her pension to her lesbian partner—couldn’t happen today, thanks to the Supreme Court’s rulings on same-sex marriage. And while The Danish Girl is lovely to look at and beautifully acted, I didn’t quite see the point of it. As Dana Stevens put it in her review, “The Danish Girl is a baby-steps movie made at a time when it shouldn’t be necessary to tread quite so gingerly.” Yes, Lili Elbe, who began life in 1882 as Einar Wegener, was one of the first trans women to undergo gender confirmation surgery, but do Elbe’s experiences—both internally and in terms of her interactions with the wider world—and, needless to say, with the medical profession, share anything in common with those of a trans person in 2015? Very little.
In the end, I suppose the focus on history is in part a reflection on the cinema’s relatively slow development process, especially for LGBTQ-themed movies (let’s not forget that screenwriter Phyllis Nagy spent nearly 20 years fighting to get Carol made), and partly a recognition of Oscar preferences. After all, “tears, torment and tragic poses” is a pretty good list of things the Academy likes. And from a business point of view, the gay films that had done well at the box office have generally been period pieces—the events told in movies like Milk, The Imitation Game, Brokeback Mountain, and Philadelphia were squarely in the past. Still, experienced critics like Frosch and Rooney should know better than to make sweeping statements about the state of “LGBT cinema” when they’re really talking about the tip of the queer film iceberg.