I have a confession to make, and in making it, I could well be painting a target on my forehead: I don’t believe I’ve seen a single Gay Film. Oh, I’ve seen Aureus Solito’s Ang Pagdadalaga Ni Maximo Oliveros. I’ve seen Raya Martin’s Next Attraction. But I’m not exactly sure they’re what I meant. I’m not sure if I meant Charliebebs Gohetia’s The Thank You Girls either. Or Brillante Mendoza’s Masahista. Or, indeed, Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together and Andy Warhol’s Blowjob. Or New Queer Cinema - - -that was a genuine movement of 90s American independent cinema, as aesthetically diverse as the French New Wave, sure, having counted Derek Jarman and Gregg Araki and Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant among its proprietors, but unified by an explicit sociopolitical schema: to tackle the permutations of queer culture explicitly, intimately, from the inside looking out.
The Gay Film I mean is its own odd, unique phenomenon. It is, in many ways, a permutation of Queer Cinema philosophies and aesthetics, but in the thick of the whole domestic independent cinema boom, the Gay Film detonated into a boom of its own, sprouting like haywire mushrooms and with such a maddening profusion that it was a task to be oblivious to them. And, perhaps as fallout from the push and pull of supply and demand, or perhaps from the incontrovertible fact that these things did moderately brisk business , or perhaps through sheer ubiquity, or perhaps because laymen tend to be shortsighted and tremendously lazy about fact-checking things they don’t give a shit about, or perhaps all of the above, the Gay Film has become the de facto definition of what an indie film is, or rather what indie film is full stop.
It isn’t, of course, but what exactly is an indie film? The coinage isn’t ours,mind. It’s mostly American, and you know they have this hard-on for coinage. Indie films, back then, meant films made outside the rigid studio system, meaning films made with far less money and no kowtow to formula at all, meaning films with more aesthetic wiggle room, meaning films with more experimental nerve, meaning that other superfluous coinage: art films. But as is its wont, the mainstream co-opted and housebroke the indie film into its own bland make and model, mutating them into little more than slightly edgy mainstream films. Where Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise used to be the working definition of what an indie film is, these days, that would be Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Little Miss Sunshine, or worse, Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer.
Given how much we share with Hollywood, particularly the rigid studio system, our indie boom, facilitated and democratized by cheapjack technology, underwent the same thing. But rather than studio indies, which do abound but not as much anymore, the default make and model of indie film is a lot more robust and enduring than it seems. Cris Pablo, easily the most prolific director of Gay Films thinks “Indie is associated with gay films perhaps because the gay audience has the stronger voice in the independent scene.” He also notes that with the rapid emergence and growing profile of independent films such as those by Brillante Mendoza and Lav Diaz that are making the international festival rounds and getting the media mileage, the associations are starting to blur and divide. “Still, it’s the gay films that are making the mark.” Pablo remarks. Having never seen anything longer than a random trailer, I have no idea if it has an aesthetic stance and I shall go by wild rumor and conspiracy theory and hearsay and reputation here. The Gay Film I’m talking about, the Gay Film as we know it, the Gay Film that people equate with indie films, is unified by the same sociopolitical schema as Queer Cinema ,sure, but more than that by tawdry production values, samey soapy plots, horrible acting, excessive and explicit and unnecessary sex scenes. Allegedly. That,and a palpable exploitative fervor.
This exploitative fervor has to do with the alleged roping in of young, often talentless, nubile male hopefuls psycho for the blare of the spotlight or the mere promise of bathing in it for a living, whose only credentials are their physiques and willingness to show it off. All it takes sometimes is a minute of trailer to tell that the vacuum of talent is not so alleged. Everything else,though, is conjecture, although sometimes you can tell that from the trailers,too. Pablo makes his films with all the rigidity and stricture of a business deal, leaving very little room for its participants to be exploited unwittingly. “There will be members of the team who go overboard and there are actors who do things you don't ask them to. I always advise them to be very careful and to never do anything they do not want to do.” But he doesn’t discount the possibility that exploitation does occur.
Which is to say that all of this, in and of itself, is nothing far-fetched nor new nor shocking. The unholy communion between cinema and exploitation is a longstanding one. Before there was such a thing as independent cinema, anything made outside the studio system , anything made with no money and all the freedom to do whatever the hell it pleased, gravitated to sex and violence but mostly sex. And if looked at one way, the current vogue of Gay Films has very little to distinguish it from the Japanese Pink films of the 60s, or really, the local bold movie explosion of the 70s and 80s, and if you push it a little, has little to distinguish it either from Kerry Fox giving Mark Rylance a real oncam blowjob in Patrice Cheareau’s Intimacy or the unsimulated sex that make up two-thirds of Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs, unless you factor in aesthetics and philosophy and taste and ratchet the noise to a whole new platform of discourse.
I liken it more myself to the Blaxploitation films of the 70s, which refracted the African-American experience through a sieve of transposed genre films. It’s the more promising, and really, more apt parallel, in terms ,at the very least, of its bullish, insulated sense of community. And it is a community under siege. Targets of ire and revulsion and mostly of internet twats with no lives and no balls who like to lob insults online anonymously. The fans have been stalwart in their defense. A friend of mine who watched Pablo’s Duda remembers how fervent the audience was in their love for the film. Like the Blaxploitation films, the Gay Films are similarly transposed (only by gender) pop films. But more than that, they are a society unto themselves upheld by a die-hard and often fiercely protective constituency. More than you can say for the rest of the fractured, factionalized indie community.
But do Gay Films really, truly deserve the vitriol? And if so, why? For misrepresenting independent cinema? For exploiting their actors? For being little more than softcore porn in disguise? For having an overly sensitive fan base? For being annoying? These are all valid complaints. And yeah, I do find some of those trailers annoying. But many many films and filmmakers and film producers have been guilty of all of these at some point then and now. Not having seen a single Gay Film, of course, means I have no place defending it nor condemning it. But, in the end, if all the piss and vinegar is out of how these films are just flat-out horrible, isn’t it all just a little . . . meh? “TV exploits. Radio exploits. Print exploits. So does film. So does independent cinema. So why point a finger?” Pablo says and he has a point. Do we really need to isolate an entire subgenre with a genuine cult to feed, just to take potshots at bad cinema that’s successful? Don’t we have Michael Bay films for that? And Star Cinema?
*Originally published in Monday.