What does it mean to be a gay director?
by Brian Bromberger
Gay Directors, Gay Films? by Emanuel Levy; Columbia University Press, $25
Does a film written and directed by a gay person always mean it is a gay film? Are gay directors making gay-themed movies targeted mostly to gay audiences, or are they attempting to reach a wider public that can become aware of gay-themed issues? Are gay movies less a matter of content and more a matter of sensibility or point of view? And if so, how does one define gay sensibility? These are the questions underlying a new book by professor of film and sociology Emanuel Levy, who attempts to develop a framework for interpreting what it means to make a gay film. In Gay Directors, Gay Films?, Levy examines the oeuvre of five openly gay movie directors who have been working for three decades, comparing the "North American" attitudes of Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven ), Gus Van Sant (Milk ) and John Waters (Pink Flamingos ) with the European approaches of Pedro Almodovar (Spain, Talk to Her) and Terence Davies (England, Deep Blue Sea). Having interviewed these pioneers and read up on each of them, Levy outlines each director's biography, chronologically dissects each of their movies and histories as directors, and examines their body of work. None of these five directors invented gay cinema, but all have made it "more explicit, accessible, and acceptable."
By finding a "distinctly gay gaze and sensibility" in these five openly gay directors and revealing what is unique to their personal auteur styles, Levy claims he is breaking new ground in cinema criticism. He observes that all five have generally disregarded ideological and stylistic conventions, identifying themselves as outsiders, refusing to apologize for their "distinctive approaches as far as gay images and sexual politics are concerned." At the onset, Levy makes clear that a director's sexual orientation is not necessarily the primary factor in their creative endeavors, and as he proves here, its influence can vary from one career phase to another and even from one picture to the next. Wanting to reach an educated general audience, Levy largely avoids dull academic cinema-studies jargon but also eschews banal popular film journalism, finding a middle ground between these two extremes.
Levy asks whether there is a distinctly gay way of looking at the world. Is a film gay because of its content or by its implicit meanings or subtext? He notes how classic closeted gay directors in Hollywood's Golden Age, such as George Cukor, James Whale, Vincent Minnelli, and Mitchell Leisen, did not make overtly gay films, but did infuse standard genre films with a gay sensibility. Because these five directors have neither concealed nor self-censored their sexual orientations, they've been able to exert greater freedom in choosing material, going beyond the standard issues of coming out and stereotypical gay characters, by showing radical positions on gender, desire, and sexuality. Levy sets out to prove that gay directors often create alternative ways of seeing the world that can be countercultural, even subversive when it comes to issues of masculinity and femininity. Another issue raised by Levy is whether gay directors tend to elevate style over content, especially by using camp strategies and expecting viewers to catch on to their artifice. While these five directors have a gay sensibility, there is no one model that fits all of them, with only some of them employing camp.
Gay Directors, Gay Films? is one of the finest books ever written on gay filmmaking. One of the hallmarks of good criticism is that when the author re-envisions a work of art you want to see it again but with new eyes. After reading Levy, most readers will have a long list of these directors' films that they will want to see again. All five portraits are insightful, but the Almodovar and Waters chapters are especially outstanding. I suspect Levy will be faulted for including only gay white male directors, but alas there are hardly any people of color or female openly gay narrative film directors with as long a track record as the five depicted here. This hopefully will be rectified in a future second edition of what will likely become a standard textbook in this field.
Levy concludes that each director has made personal films that "have challenged societal taboos, particularly in sex and gender, driven less by a need to be irreverent or a disregard for authority, than by a genuine interest in changing reality, on screen and off, because there should always be on-screen representation of the marginal aspects of society, especially by putting such characters center stage." In this process, each director has created a distinctive way of looking at the world (Weltanschauung ) by breaking down narrative and aesthetic boundaries as well as taboos, perhaps the closest definition of gay sensibility we can construct. All five filmmakers have refused to reduce gay characters to sexuality alone as their principal feature, yet are willing to present realistic, flawed images of gay people we can recognize from our own lives. This is an ongoing process, as three of the profiled directors have upcoming fall releases: Davies (Sunset Song ), Van Sant (Sea of Trees ), and Haynes (Carol ). This makes Levy's book timely and relevant. Levy doesn't resolve any of the issues he poses at the beginning, but he clarifies their importance, and anyone seeking to explore the features and meanings of gay films in the future must read Gay Directors, Gay Films?