So there is a special place in hell for gay film critics, after all.
I know this is true, because I was there two weeks ago, when I had to attend an advance screening of I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, the latest Adam Sandler yukfest.
Make no mistake: I loved Sandler back in his Saturday Night Live days. He was cute, and damn funny —but like virtually all of the SNL alumni, something rancid happened on the way to the big screen, and all of Sandler’s vehicles (with the exception of Punch Drunk Love) are pretty dreadful.
Yet in a way, it made sense for me to be seeing this film. My book, The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers, had just hit the bookstore shelves. Its 32 chapters contain the anecdotes and reflections of some of today’s best-known out queer filmmakers —names like Almodovar, Waters, Rozema and Van Sant —people who’ve helped redefine how we’re seen on the big screen (and small screen, for that matter).
Thus it was fitting: I had just written the book on queer filmmakers, and now I was seeing a film about queers made by straight people.
And boy, do I mean straight. Chuck and Larry is essentially one great big frat joke, stretched out to feature length.
The high concept here is two New York firefighters (what could be more butch?) need to get benefits, and fast. Their plan to get them seems simple enough: just pose as a gay couple.
But what they didn’t bank on was the nosy inspector who shows up to scrutinize their domestic partnership to make sure it’s the real thing. (Notably, the inspector is played by Steve Buscemi, whose first great role was as a gay man struggling with AIDS in 1986’s Parting Glances.)
As a film, Chuck and Larry is basically insufferable. Every obvious homo gag is trotted out, so much so that I was shocked to see Alexander Payne credited as a co-screenwriter, seeing as he’s been a moving force behind some of the best comedies of the last decade, including Sideways, About Schmidt and Election.
But some have suggested that there are reasons to laud Chuck and Larry. Writing in the Village Voice, Nathan Lee argued that the film is, in its own way, more radical than Brokeback Mountain, because an Adam Sandler film will reach an audience that would never venture to see an arthouse film about two gay cowboys made by Ang Lee.
In essence, Lee was taking the philosophical line espoused by George Bernard Shaw when he argued that difficult messages about harsh topics could be delivered to audiences via fun entertainment.
Lure people into taking a “sugar-coated pill,” as he put it, and they could learn a lesson while enjoying a night out. Shaw championed ideas like feminism and pacifism in his hugely popular plays with this method.
Thus Chuck and Larry can be thought of as a gigantic Trojan’s horse, in which any and all manner of gay themes are crammed into its rough package.
Don’t think I’m suggesting this is a good movie for an instant, but as a public service announcement, some of it actually works. In particular, Sandler and his buddy (played by Kevin James) are forced to endure the indignity of getting harassed by far-right religious nutcases. And Sandler even has a touching moment in Chuck and Larry when he addresses the crowd during a climactic trial scene and pleads for people not to call others faggots. “That’s like someone calling me a kike,” he says.
But for any progress we may be looking for, Chuck and Larry best serves as a reminder of how far we still have to go. This set-up recalls a remarkably different film, Alan Parker’s 1988 period piece about the African-American civil rights movement, Mississippi Burning. That film reached a large audience, but also ignited a controversy: how could the story of how blacks sacrificed, fought for and ultimately won their rights be told through the eyes of two white protagonists?
When Parker was posed this question by Time magazine for a cover story about the film, his response was stunning. “The two heroes in the story had to be white,” he deducted. “At this point in time, it could not have been told in any other way.”
Parker was essentially suggesting that large, white, mainstream American audiences were simply not ready to accept identifying with a black central character in a movie.
And almost 20 years later, that’s where we appear to be with gay characters. For a film of its budget and scope, Brokeback Mountain did quite well at the box office, but in order to become a blockbuster of Chuck and Larry proportions, you can’t have queer characters.
The only way for a film with this target demographic to be made about gay issues is to have decidedly straight men pretending to be gay in it.
The experience of watching Chuck and Larry just reinforced how important the work of queer filmmakers is. In his landmark 1981 book The Celluloid Closet, late gay film critic Vito Russo denounced those gays in Hollywood who worked in collusion with the studios to maintain all those horrid stereotypes and misperceptions of gays. Since then, many queers have simply picked up cameras and made their own films and videos, bypassing the studios via more independent institutions like Sundance and Miramax. The result has been a seismic shift in the way we’ve been represented, how we’re perceived by the mainstream, and —perhaps most importantly —how we see ourselves.
Chuck and Larry just made me all the more happy that The View from Here could bring together this magnificent group of artists, people who’ve worked to push the boundaries of representation and make the screen, and the world it represents, a bigger, better and more dimensional place.
The view from here
“I don’t feel the responsibility to demonstrate anything or defend anything, I am just trying to be myself. Even through there are very important elements of my character —being gay or being Spanish, or being born in a democracy —these circumstances come together in my work unconsciously.”
—Pedro Almodovar (Bad Education, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown).
“Back in the ’40s, asking for a light was an old pick-up line in subterranean gay culture. Gays still smoke more than any other minority group. That’s why I don’t go to gay bars. Full of smoke.”
—Kenneth Anger, on the smoking in his 1947 homoerotic film Fireworks.
“I hate labels as much as anyone. Does anybody really like to be called African American or Jewish or WASP or differently-abled or any other stereotyping descriptor? In my view, labels are meant to categorize and separate everybody and everything into convenient little pigeonholes. I don’t get the point of it.”
—Gregg Araki (Nowhere, Mysterious Skin).
“You know what I dread? Greasy guys saying, ‘So tell me about your first experience with a woman!’ That’s what you leave yourself open to. I’m not a good enough dancer to evade questions. So if I didn’t actually put my sexuality on the table in an interview then I didn’t have to deal with it. I will now because I’m old and strong enough, but at the time that is what I was worried about —people feeling like they had the right to discuss something so delicate and so important to me.”
—Patricia Rozema (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, White Room) on her reluctance to talk about being a lesbian with journalists.
“To make a film and then have an audience in New Jersey tell me what to do with my baby, I couldn’t handle it. Miramax had a little focus group in which some idiot in acid-washed jeans stood up and said, ‘I didn’t like him when he did that.’ I felt like saying, ‘No one has ever lied to you in your life? Someone lied to you when they said you looked good today. People lie.’ I didn’t have the balls to say that.”
—Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex, Bounce) on audience testing of his films.
“Gay is not enough. All gay films aren’t necessarily good. I don’t define myself by my sexuality… I’ve always said that I was gay, though no one ever asked.”
—John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray).
— Matthew Hays