1. Maybe you've noticed that there are two new movies about gay conversion therapy. One of the movies, which stars Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, has been criticized for being made by straight men, whereas the other -- about a lesbian teenager -- was written and produced by gay women. I haven't read reviews of the first one, but reviews of the second -- which is now playing -- have praised the quiet and restrained depiction of a conversion camp in which the violence is more psychological than physical (no shock therapy, for example). Many of the reviews note that gay conversion therapy is still legal in 41 states and people are still going or being sent to them, with the implication that these movies help to highlight an ongoing tragedy in our culture by creating empathy for the victims, something that's even more important now as we teeter on the edge of a backlash and rollback of gay rights at the hands of 'religious freedom' activists and their political leaders who happen to be running the country. There is a kind of underlying and unspoken assertion or justification that, but for the existence of these movies, nobody would understand that gay conversion therapy is a horrific idea. In short, we need these movies (even if they're made by straight men) to help the masses understand the plight of gays in our homophobic society.
2. Years ago, I would have agreed. There were so few depictions of gays in movies that I wasn't capable of discerning anything beyond an astonishment at the existence of a gay character, plot, or theme. Maybe there were flaws in the execution -- and maybe watching felt more like an obligation than a pleasure -- but it was important to have our stories told. Empathy was the key to political advancement. These days, however, I'm not so sure. In the post-Brokeback Mountain era, we remain stuck in a mode of fictionalizing realities that don't need to be fictionalized. Lately I've become more critical, asking myself what these movies are really telling us. Last year, there seemed to be two camps regarding the two biggest buzz-worthy gay movies: some liked Call Me By Your Name -- a postcard look at a teen's affair with a graduate student that ends in heartbreak -- while others preferred BPM (Beats Per Minute), the French movie about a Parisian activist group (modeled on ACT UP). My longstanding dislike of Call Me By Your Name is not worth rehashing here, but I was also disappointed by BPM. The first half of the movie, which focused on the inner workings of the group, was interesting, but as it shifted focus to one of its members as he grew sick and died, I found myself deflated, wondering why I needed to see something like this when there are a number of amazing, heartrending documentaries about the same period of time, films that depict actual people who fought and died (and didn't die) using archival footage and interviews.
3. There are so many gay movies focused on gay misery, movies about sickness, abuse, being in the closet, violence, despair, self-hatred. The message of these movies, if you had to boil it down to one sentence, always seems to be the same: "Wow. Gay people have it bad." And maybe this message was necessary at one point: after all, recognizing another's capacity to suffer is an important part of empathy. But it's also a very short step to a form of pity that doesn't do gays any favors, either politically or artistically. Here's a question: when's the last time you watched a movie -- and especially one that's getting buzz in the mainstream media -- and, after you finished watching, you thought, "Damn. Gays are awesome." (Or could imagine other viewers -- even non-gay ones -- having the same reaction.) What I'm envisioning is not empathy but a kind of fictionalized empowerment, a means of subverting the real world -- which we already know is horrible for gays (and if you don't believe that, a movie isn't going to change your mind) -- by presenting a non-reality (or aspirational one) in which gays maybe aren't all dying or suffering or self-hating or even locked in a kind of mundane reality that makes them (us) seem "just like" straight people. This, of course, is the essence of queer futurism, which is what we should be thinking about now instead of rehashing Brokeback Mountain and Philadelphia.
4. Fiction offers us an opportunity to escape the real world. Gay movies -- or at least some of them -- should be a beautiful park in the middle of the city, a place to ignore the subways and the litter and bad smells and everything else that makes life so tedious and burdensome, a place to feel amazed by our creative powers, our ability to manipulate color and pattern.
5. We know these parks exist; now is the time to find them.