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DIRECTORS

FILMS? . Pedro Almod贸var . Terence Davies . Todd Haynes . Gus Van Sant . John Waters

Emanuel Levy


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Introduction

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he intriguing notions of a distinctly gay gaze and a uniquely gay sensibility, and their reflection in the work of openly gay directors, have not been thoroughly explored in the fields of cinema and culture studies. Gay Directors, Gay Films? deals with one central issue: the effects of sexual orientation on the career, film output, and sensibility of five homosexual directors. They are, in alphabetical order, Pedro Almod贸var, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, and John Waters. I aim to show that these directors have perceived and expressed their sexual (and other) identities as outsiders in highly complex and varied ways. While sexual orientation and being an outsider are essential in understanding the oeuvre of the five directors, they may be more crucial in the beginning (first decade) of their careers. Moreover, the impact of these attributes may differ from one director to another and from one phase to another within the career of the same director. My book examines five talented and relatively well-known directors by placing their films and their careers in the sociopolitical, ideological, and economic settings in which they have lived and worked. All five directors were born after World War II and thus belong (more or less) to the same age cohort. At 69, Davies is the oldest, and Haynes, 53, is the youngest. In between, there are Van Sant, 62; Almod贸var, 65;


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and Waters, 68. They are directors who began their screen careers at more or less the same time, in the 1970s and 1980s. In comparing the work of this quintet, three of whom are American (Waters, Van Sant, and Haynes) and two of whom are European (Spaniard Almodóvar and Briton Davies), I explore the impact of sexual orientation and status as outsider on the kinds of films that they have made. Is there a distinctly gay mode of looking at the world? Do gay directors make specifically gay-themed films that are targeted at mostly gay audiences? Do we define a film as gay by its explicit contents (text) and/or by its implicit meanings (subtext)? Is there congruence or tension between the film’s narrative and themes and its visual style and tone? These are some of the intriguing theoretical and pragmatic questions that have guided me. The book’s comparative framework, contrasting the career and oeuvre of five directors in one volume, offers readers a broader context within which they can place an individual director and a particular film. I don’t know of any books that have dealt with the significant questions of how gay directors choose their subject matter, the various influences (filmic, intellectual, literary) on their pictures, the ease with which they move from one feature to the next, the evolution of their filmic sensibility, and the consistency of their visual style. Do their careers follow a linear model of evolution, show evidence of ups and downs (and ups), or are they defined by repetition and refinement of similar narrative strategies and stylistic devices? Centering on five directors whose careers continue to evolve, often in unpredictable ways, Gay Directors, Gay Films? offers an exciting research site for an account spanning four decades, from the early 1970s to the present. The book examines the sensibility of directors who are perceived as outsiders from the perspective of mainstream culture. It explores how these directors have channeled their sexual energies, anxieties, and identities into the creation of idiosyncratic film art through the specific shape and form of their gaze. I aim to show how the directors’ status as outsiders has led to the creation of innovative thematic and aesthetic paradigms. For example, the significance of Almodóvar’s background as a gay man, and as the product of a particular historical generation, on the creation of a joyous, revisionist, and ironic sensibility. Similarly, one


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cannot understand the work of a postmodern director like Haynes without placing it in the context of the New Queer Cinema, of which he was both a founder and a beneficiary. In discussing five important filmmakers, I intend to add a piece of knowledge to the already rich puzzle of the filmmaking process and of cinema as a complex institution. Vito Russo’s seminal book, The Celluloid Closet, prompted a new look at film history.1 His politicized historical survey (which served as the basis for a 1995 documentary of the same title) led to the rediscovery of forgotten films and to a fresher, more critical examination of gay directors, such as George Cukor, James Whale, and Mitchell Leisen, all of whom worked successfully within the studio system. In the past, what was interesting about gay filmmakers was their ability to infuse their texts with a gay sensibility while making genre pictures for mainstream audiences under the control of the studio system, without necessarily disclosing in public their sexual orientation and lifestyle. Hence, James Whale is best known for his horror movies, George Cukor for his poignant social comedies, Vincente Minnelli for his lush musicals and vivid melodramas, Irvin Rapper for his women’s pictures, and Mitchell Leisen for his savvy screwball comedies. In contrast, this book’s gay directors live and work in different sociopolitical conditions: They do not have to conceal their sexual orientation any more. It is therefore relevant to ask to what extent their openness has allowed them greater freedom in choosing material, including explicitly gay texts that go beyond issues of coming out or the representation of gay and lesbian characters. In dealing with the careers of gay directors, I have benefited from developments in psychoanalytic, feminist, gay, and queer theories. Centering on issues of gender and desire, Gay Directors, Gay Films? explores the concepts of sexual identities and sexual practices in the work of these directors. Identity is perceived as a flexible narrative, not just a label, of a subject’s particular location within larger social structures. Artists, like all individuals, possess various (often dual and contradictory) identities that traverse their subjective experiences with the broader outside world. These multiple identities, of which the sexual is just one, offer complex connections among self, culture, and society. The psychoanalytic approach assumes that films


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reflect and play on the socially established interpretation of sexual difference that controls visual images and ways of looking. Laura Mulvey’s work and Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis have demonstrated the ways in which the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious of patriarchal society have structured the contents and forms of dominant cinema.2 The presumably “established” categories of sex, gender, and sexuality are brought to a “crisis point” by exposing their limitations as analytic terms. In doing so, I draw on recent developments in theories that take an interdisciplinary approach to sexuality by disrupting conventional assumptions. Queer studies have invited impassioned, sometimes angry, resistance to “normalization.” They have rejected simplistic, mainstream heterosexual codes by submitting their social and sexual conventions to a more rigorous analysis, aiming to expose incoherence, ambiguity, and instability. Sexuality is analyzed as a fluid, mobile, and permeable concept that embraces a wide range of positions within institutional formations.3 For decades, sexual pleasure and erotic desire have been largely conceived as “universal forces of nature,” basic instincts that transcend history, but gay and queer studies have problematized these concepts by seeing them as the products of language, history, politics, and culture. Gay Directors, Gay Films? aims to clarify the role of race, gender, politics, and nationality in determining the various configurations, both normative and deviant. Moreover, in distinguishing between sexual identities and sexual practices, queer studies have encouraged a more detailed study of desire, pleasure, and self-knowledge. Gay Directors, Gay Films? adds an interesting but so far missing panel to the historiography of cinema by highlighting the contribution of five gay directors. The book deconstructs the narratives of these directors in terms of themes, both overt and covert, raising such questions as to what extent their films have shown radical positions on gender, desire, and sexuality? Thus, in addition to context, the concepts of text and subtext (denotation and connotation in film studies) are crucial to the book, because the meanings imbued in gay-themed films, or in straight-themed films made by gay directors, may be manifest to some viewers but latent to others.


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My book draws on the traditions of other minority movements, such as the feminist and the black movements, which necessarily have been concerned with issues of gender, desire, identity, and sexuality. These movements have established meaningful links between the personal and the political, between the private and the public. Moving beyond conventional readings, Gay Directors, Gay Films? examines specific elements, such as romantic yearning, erotic desire, sexual identity, and sexual performance. It asks, To what extent have gay directors expressed their worldview through different kinds of narratives, characters, and visual styles? Do gay directors create alternate/alternative ways of seeing the world, and are these subcultural or countercultural? Are these visions radical and subversive (antiestablishment) in dealing with issues of masculinity and femininity? Some films may be totally subversive, whereas others may contain subversive moments within narratives that are otherwise more conventional. The book explores how subversive images—such as graphic sex scenes in Almodóvar’s work—are treated, contained (or not), and articulated (or not) within the totality of the work. Gay Directors, Gay Films? explores other pertinent or prevalent issues— namely, whether gay directors tend to elevate style over content, or whether they tend to succumb to camp strategies and/or expect viewers to perceive artifice as an integral attribute of their work. Film theory scholar Edward Branigan has noted that point of view (POV) involves a “condition of consciousness.”4 The screen represents various states of mind that guide viewers’ responses through mise-en-scènes, organization of space, and orchestration of visual and aural elements. Subjective point of view and articulation of space are treated thoroughly in my book. How do gay filmmakers construct narrative worlds that allow specific ways of entry—involvement and engagement—into their narratives? How and why do they encourage viewers to relate to—empathize or sympathize with—their characters? The work of the five filmmakers is examined in relation to the ideology, politics, and culture of their respective societies. All five directors have shown some disregard of thematic, ideological, and stylistic conventions. They have refused, in one way or another, to apologize for their distinctive approaches as far as gay images and sexual politics are concerned.


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Throughout the book, beginning with its title, I am using the broader term of gay rather than queer for both thematic and historical reasons. The New Queer Cinema is a label created and applied to films of the early 1990s. With the exception of Haynes (who is both a founder and a product of this broadly defined and loose movement), the other directors began their careers before queer cinema (or queer studies, for that matter) was established, both within and beyond the academic world. Gay Directors, Gay Films? is written in a popular style as a general interest book. In an effort to reach a broader audience that goes beyond the academic milieu, the jargon of cinema studies is reduced to a minimum. Most of my friends are avid moviegoers, and even the scholars among them often complain that there is no middle ground. There seems to be either popular film journalism or rigorous scholarly work written in a manner that only film studies experts can understand. Thus, I perceive the ideal readers of my book as openminded individuals who love nonconventional and nontraditional films (largely independent and art-house films—but not limited to those spheres) and who want to know more about the process of their making in terms of narrative, ideological, stylistic, and visual aspects. Each chapter in the book is devoted to a single director. The chapter begins with a general description of the director’s distinguishable personality, followed by an examination of his early life and interest in film. The career of each director is divided into phases. To demonstrate how the directors choose subject matter and move from one project to another, the films of each director are discussed chronologically. This approach enables readers to decide for themselves issues of evolution, progress, and diversity in the case of each director. My interpretation aims to illuminate each particular film vis-à-vis other works by the same director and vis-à-vis similar works by other directors—what is known in film studies as intertextuality. The book’s essential information derives from close readings of seventy films and detailed analyses of the directors’ careers from their beginnings up to the present. I had watched most of the films upon their initial theatrical release and then revisited them for the book, examining in the process the extent to which I have changed my reactions to them. As a senior critic for Variety and then as chief critic for


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Screen International, I have reviewed about two dozen of these films at their world premieres, often at the Cannes, Sundance, and Toronto Film Festivals. A large portion of the data is based on my interviews with the five directors over the past three decades, either at festivals or when they promoted the release of their pictures in the United States. The merits of some of the films have been acknowledged by awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics. I am particularly gratified that Almodóvar’s All About My Mother won Best Picture from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association while I was the president of that group (1997–2000). The film then went on to win both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The book examines all the feature films made by the five directors, regardless of their relative commercial appeal and artistic merit. Most of the films have been shown theatrically by the specialty units of the Hollywood studios (Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features). Thus, their exhibition went beyond film festivals and niche markets. The book attempts to explain the differential appeal of these films, including the box-office failure of interesting movies—such as Van Sant’s Elephant—that deserved greater public recognition. A major goal of Gay Directors, Gay Films? is to enliven the discussion of what constitutes a specifically gay film and how we define gay sensibility. However, I am by no means suggesting that the directors’ sexual orientation is the only (or primary) factor in their creative endeavors. The impact of sexual orientation on a director’s career and output may be relative, differing from one career phase to another and from one picture to the next. Nor am I suggesting that films made by gay directors are necessarily defined by a unified or monolithic orientation. There is no one way to look at, discuss, analyze, appreciate, and enjoy films. My reading of films in this book may not be conventional but it is a legitimate one, standing alongside other kinds of readings based on different perspectives.5 I easily could have dissected the films and interpreted the directors who have made them from another theoretical perspective. But I hope that the discussions in my book will induce readers to catch some good films they have missed or to see familiar films again in a different light.

"Gay Directors, Gay Films," by Emmanuel Levy  

Read the introduction to "Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodovar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters," by Emmanuel L...

"Gay Directors, Gay Films," by Emmanuel Levy  

Read the introduction to "Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodovar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters," by Emmanuel L...