Friday, March 13, 2020
Douglas Messerli | "Queer Film: A New Perspective of LGBTQ Cinema--A Prelude"
Queer Film: A New Perspective of LGBTQ Cinema
by Douglas Messerli
In late 2019 I realized that over the years I had written about a wide variety, from many different countries, about LGBTQ films, and I perceived that although several such volumes had been collected in the past, that perhaps, given my “reading into” what otherwise might have seemed straight films, might be an interesting project. I have been actively gay since my early 20s and lived for several years as a nightly participant in the gay communities of Madison, Wisconsin and New York City before I met my now-husband Howard N. Fox.
Howard and I, however, lived in a kind of special bubble as first university students, and later a professor and art curator, in which we were so accepted by our peers that we basically stopped going to gay bars or even associating ourselves with our fellow gay community members.
Of course, there were exceptions, but our deep commitment to a basically monogamous relationship meant that we not only saved ourselves from the terrible scourge of AIDS, but we were somewhat isolated from the sufferings of the rest of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and gender unidentified friends. Over the years, Howard and I have given money to support the wonderfully active Los Angeles LGBTQ community, and, as I have written elsewhere, our very openness about our sexuality and our refusal to submit to homophobic concepts, did help change many individuals’ perception, I believe, of what it meant to be gay.
I think that the Washington Post article about our leaving that city for Los Angeles, which identified me as Howard’s "companion," might have been one of the first of that paper’s open recognition of a gay relationship.
And, when upon our first major evening at an event to celebrate Howard’s arrival as the new curator of Contemporary Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Howard announced me as his mate, the heterosexual crowd was forced to recognize us in a manner many of them had never before encountered. Our first outing at LACMA’s rather Brahmin director, Earl “Rusty” Powell’s, dinner parties seated me, as is standard in such gatherings, next to the director, while Howard was seated next to Rusty’s wife, the typical husband/wife / male/female placement.
Over that first year, moreover, we were invited out almost every night to all the wealthy Beverly Hills and Westside homes as a couple. And in that process I believe we lost our connections to the gay world. Yes, there were friends, present and past, who were gay, but they almost faded into the distance as we were so utterly accepted and apparently appreciated in the heterosexual communities into which we had now entered.
While there was something warming and transformative about this new communal relationship, I also felt, deep down, we were losing something as well. Howard and I had very few friends who died of AIDS, while all around us LGBTQ people were dying of the disease. I believe we only once visited a gay bar in the then vibrant West Hollywood community, and this with a wealthy gay patron; at another time we visited a gay restaurant with another art patron, Bob Halff. But we had hardly any involvement with the larger Los Angeles gay community. I am certain my straight editor Pablo Capra knows more about the history of regional LA gay bars than Howard and I do.
But perhaps while we effected a significant change in the heterosexual perception of gays of which we were both proud, I also missed the literal connections with the LGBTQ community, which I think I secretly sought out in attending and reviewing so many works of queer theater, literature, and film.
Complete assimilation has its drawbacks. Although I may have hated the somewhat nasty, often self-hating gatherings of gay men in the late 1960s, there is something I still miss about them: the clever language and quick-thinking it demanded, the separation it enforced from the general society, and just the camaraderie it offered with always, just behind the screen, the opportunity to enjoy sexual pleasures, it proffered.
So when I realized that I might put together a rather large volume of queer film, I felt it not just as a contribution but as a duty to the community I felt we had lost. More importantly, I realized suddenly that I needed to publish this volume, as much for myself perhaps rather than any palliative commitment to the LGBTQ community which I’d inexplicably lost.
It’s fascinating that this volume was being created at the very same moment in which I was composing a My Year volume centered around Trump’s horrifying vision of “Them and Us.” I realized that, in this situation, I was both an insider and outsider simultaneously, a critic looking outside but living within. I could be somewhat objective while still attending to the intricacies of what it meant and had meant to be seen by the general society as an outsider.
I am sure, despite our easy acceptance into the endless societal events we attended, there were, behind our backs, numerous aspersions and homebound dismissals, and I also recognized that those loving Howard’s curatorial ventures sometimes treated me as if I was his “hair-dresser” husband, not as a formidable thinker I truly was. Only at the tough age of 72 have some of these now elderly folks perceived me for who I then was. Many of them, unfortunately, never read. Yet the longevity of our commitment to one another, now 50 years, speaks to them more strongly.I needed to put these queer film essays together to help express my own identity.