Film Studies: Gay films? Well there's 'Raging Bull' and 'The Godfather' for starters...

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The Independent Culture

There are festivals for gay and lesbian film all over the world - now so much so that one day soon we may anticipate such films simply taking up their normal place in festivals that are otherwise devoted to film.

There are festivals for gay and lesbian film all over the world - now so much so that one day soon we may anticipate such films simply taking up their normal place in festivals that are otherwise devoted to film. In other words, we do not have films for left-handed people, or blondes, or people who stammer. We are apparently able to digest such minority habits and practices in the corpus of films about ... well, I suppose life is the word. This is not a sneer at gay and lesbian festivals, or at any festivals built around minority concerns (here in San Francisco, or in the Bay Area as a whole, we have about 30 film festivals a year - which may be a touch too festive). For instance it amuses me a little that we have a Jewish film festival when it has become politically incorrect, or volatile, to observe that the thing called Hollywood functions now, as it has always done, with an unusual, or disproportionate number of Jews.

Of course, it's valuable for a modern Jewish film festival to seek out films that do concentrate on Jewish experience, and it's legitimate for them to say that for far too long Hollywood did far too much to bury or forget its Jewish heritage. But the same charge is harder to make about gayness in film. Yes, it's fair to say that for several decades the mainstream of American film did not acknowledge gayness as part of American life. Still, it's crazy to ignore the underground ways in which gayness was at work in American film - and that is no huge surprise when one considers how many gay people there were functioning successfully in Hollywood in this craft or that, and leading gay lives (though sometimes that got them into trouble). I want to go farther, still: I think that the movies have no equal as a cultural force maintaining, or demonstrating, for decades the place of a gay sensibility in life as a whole. The question that remains fascinating is how far that pressure was consciously exercised, and how far it comes from a medium that redefined fantasy in fresh ways.

So I thought to start with that I'd name a few well-known American pictures and nominate them for their happy and useful (if tacit) cultivation of gay themes: Raging Bull; The Godfather; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Rebel Without a Cause; Casablanca. To take them in reverse order: in Casablanca, Rick's apparent neurotic condition over Ilse, is happily resolved when he sees the light and lets her fly of with Victor so that he and Louis can embark on "a beautiful friendship". Well, yes, that selection is a touch perverse or capricious, and I do concede that Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains (Rick and Louis) had 10 marriages between them. That sounds thoroughly heterosexual, although so many failures could speak to a deeper yearning than they admitted to. Truth to tell, that's what makes me think Rick and Louis are naturals. Rick and Ilse aren't alike: she's high-minded, he's a compromiser. That's where Rick and Louis have so much in common.

On Rebel Without a Cause, I can actually point to several key figures on that film who had had some gay experience - director Nicholas Ray, and stars James Dean and Sal Mineo. But look at the film again, and see how Judy (the Natalie Wood character) becomes like a new mother to the two strange boys in class, and notice how thoroughly they are depicted as this American oddity - the tender male. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the two guys are content to roam the world in each other's company, and though Sundance has Etta as a "girl friend" she knows she will have to leave them just before the end, their end, because well ... The thing they have is special and deeper.

As to The Godfather and Raging Bull, remember how Jake La Motta's natural existence as a fighter is put in jeopardy by having sex with a wife, and notice how he is always being watched, admired and teased by a coterie of male gangsters because he is their boy, their prize and investment, their hero. And the dread code of The Godfather is one in which brothers kiss brothers (even as they plan their execution) and men sit eternally with other men in these gloomy rooms whispering about power, while women are excluded, ignored, hired for mating and given a closed door in their face. In nearly all of these films, the personality of the female is restricted, abused or mocked, while the culture of men is glorified and trusted. Now, I can see that this code is not too far from the American cult of macho-self-sufficiency, but if you look at the love between men, the sacrifice, and the very way in which they look on each other, I think there is a tremendous half-buried ardour breathing there - a kind of illicit rapture; in truth, an affection or an affinity that dare not speak its name.

To which anyone - gay or not - could easily respond, but don't gays deserve to speak their name? Of course they do. Still, I think it is one of the great secret messages of a medium that seems nakedly visible but which regularly speaks in terms of a dream and its interpretation, that men have been taught in the history of film to look at men, and think of them as love objects. We take it for granted that we go to the movies to fall in love with the opposite sex, and certainly that happens. In watching Rebel Without a Cause, say, a teenage audience could work up a reasonable desire for Natalie Wood. But the icon in the film, the most beautiful, tender, magical figure was Dean. Here is just one example of something that movie permitted and encouraged as no other medium had done: it is a fantasy machine that helps us fall in love with both sexes - at the same time.

Consider the influence of that opportunity in close to 100 years. One clear consequence is that male looks and style have become as urgent and as much invested in as female appearance. And yet once the stupid cliché was that only women cared about the way we looked. One of the great lessons in the career of Cary Grant is that the audience as a whole liked his manner. He wasn't tough, like John Wayne. He made it clear that a man could be attractive in other ways: and some of those were wit, a way of speaking, a gentleness, his suits, the way he combed his hair and a certain teasing uncertainty about which way he swung. So, looking ahead, I cherish the day when gay and lesbian film festivals can be brought back within the mainstream and audiences can behold a great image and wonder that very thing. This way or that? Or like a pendulum, both ways? The right to be queer has been hard won, and many still suffer in the attempt. But it is a height of human experience to recognise beautiful friendships of one kind or another, or one kind and another.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival: National Film Theatre, London SE1 and other venues (020 7928 3232/ www.llgff.org), to Wednesday

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