Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Homosexuality On Film

I've been hearing a few less than pleasant things about what's going on for homosexuals in the world lately. There's some messed up stuff going on in the United States but I've also heard about Putin's idea to outlaw homosexuality in Russia and the madness that has been going on Uganda. This isn't a political blog and politics is definitely not a field I'm particularly well-versed in, but in light of the insanity that seems to be going on just when I started to think society had finally gotten somewhere I thought this might be a good opportunity to write about the long-controversial subject of homosexuality.

For years it was considered morally corrupt, and up here in Canada we might be starting to get somewhere but between people enforcing anti-gay laws in Russia and Uganda and persistent movements to deprive homosexuals of their basic human rights throughout the United States they're not exactly in the clear yet. However, as I said, this is a not a political blog so I'm going to try and keep my ranting on the topic under control.

This did lead me to an interesting topic to look at, namely the depiction of homosexuality on film. This is especially interesting given it's something that has only been able to crop up fairly recently, largely due to the prevailing ideologies that governed classical cinema. In fact, that seems like a good place to start.

So for those of you who don't know, the classical period of Hollywood was responsible for some great things. Many of the greatest actors came from that era, and we have some great classics like Casablanca. However, the part that is easy to forget was just how strict Hollywood was at the time. The studios were run on a very tight factory-like model, and movies were required to follow a specific formula with just enough variation to keep the audience interested. As you can imagine filmmakers had to get creative figuring out how to make their projects work while keeping the studio satisfied.

Among the many rules of Classical Hollywood was a strict series of instructions on what you could and could not show on film. This of course brings us to a particularly infamous example in 1951's A Streetcar Named Desire. I had the chance to both read the original Tennessee Williams play and see the movie in high school, during which time I also learned about the controversy surrounding the adaptation.

This was a film that got its crew into a lot of trouble when it was first made, to the point where studios sometimes made a huge deal over a seemingly trivial few seconds. The result was a lot of changes from the play, such as the fact that Stanley does get a sort of comeuppance (since they couldn't have him get away with committing rape as in the play), while the scene in which Blanche was sexually assaulted only alluded to those events without actually showing them.

However, one particular note was a scene in which Blanche, played here by Vivien Leigh of Gone With the Wind fame, talks of what happened to make her life a train wreck. Basically, the short answer is that her husband was a homosexual, but because the society in which he lived was so bigoted he ended up committing suicide after being found out, and then Blanche ended up having to "prove" her womanliness by becoming a prostitute which in turn made things even worse.

Now, in both the play and the movie all this happens off-screen, and Blanche isn't so clear-cut in her description. In the play, she is incredibly vague on the details. In fact you might even be forgiven for not cluing into the fact that the husband was supposed to be a homosexual at first. Of course, the studios couldn't have their movies acknowledge the existence of homosexuality, so the film version took this already vague explanation and distorted it even further.

Here's another good case in point from later on after directors started to get a bit more free reign. You remember back in my discussion of James Bond I pointed out that Goldfinger had a blatantly sexist moment when the hero commits an act of rape and it's played as charming? This has come up before so if you're thinking about making this argument; yes, it IS rape. Bond forces himself sexually onto a woman who tries to resist. Last I checked that was the basic definition of rape.

Anyway, shortly after I wrote that article and posted it to Facebook, a friend of mine posted a comment noting something that I had completely missed. It turns out that Pussy Galore was supposed to be a lesbian, and get this: not only does Bond raping her convince her to change sides, but it also somehow "cures" her of being gay. Admittedly, from what I've heard the original books are even more blatantly racist, sexist, and homophobic but I'm not going to get into that right now.

So now let's look at some more contemporary and more positive depictions. I'm not sure precisely how common it is now, but once in a while a filmmaker manages to release a film with a sympathetic gay couple. In fact there was one we got back in 2013 which got a lot of attention: the French movie Blue is the Warmest Color. Now I can't comment on that particular film but I can look at two others from the past decade.

I've mentioned before my fondness for David Lynch. I like all of his films (I even managed to find a few positive things to say about Dune) but one of his finest is the 2002 film Mulholland Dr. This surreal psychological deconstruction of Hollywood's glamour is already a great movie in itself, but there is something interesting in the relationship between its two central characters of Betty and Rita.

In fact, a casual viewer will probably remember this particular movie less for the mystery or the disturbing moments and dream-like atmosphere than they will for the sex scene between Naomi Watts and Laura Harring that happens towards the end. Even so, there is a strong relationship between both women, and the result is really something and makes their close friendship interesting long before we get to that particular moment.

The other good example I can refer to was released a few years later, in 2005, and this time focused on a male couple. Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain is well known as the "gay cowboy movie", but it also does a very good job of illustrating the kind of things people who were homosexual would have endured. In particular, the sort of things they would have dealt with roughly at the same time time when classical films like A Streetcar Named Desire were being made.

So I suppose that while homosexuality is still a very controversial subject, it seems that at least from a cinematic standpoint some progress has been made. Even in America, where gay rights are still a hotly disputed topic, we have gone from not being allowed to even so much as acknowledge the existence of homosexuality and the idea that if it is present it must be "cured", to directors like David Lynch, Ang Lee, and possibly a number of other cases I'm not aware of successfully producing movies with strong and sympathetic homosexual couples.

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