Hollywood is pretty evenly divided over the question of whether Tom Hanks's portrayal of a gay attorney with AIDS in the upcoming film Philadelphia will mark the dawn of a new era of tolerance in mainstream cinema or the end of Hanks's bankability. Will his on-screen kiss with Antonio Banderas in the Jonathan Demme-directed film broaden awareness -- or doom the picture commercially? Meanwhile, "alternative, independent gay cinema "(I hate those modifiers, too, but what do you call it? Hardcore gay cinema? Straight gay cinema? Really very gay cinema?) continues to pick up steam without regard to how it will play in Peoria. The Queer Flickering Light festival sponsored by the Alliance for Media Arts at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach over Thanksgiving weekend was an attempt to bring it to Miami.
Among the self-described cognoscenti, the word is that gay cinema is the new frontier, the cutting edge from whence shall emerge a talented new wave of filmmakers. The critical acclaim showered upon Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho) and Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears), and the astounding commercial success of The Crying Game and, to a lesser extent, Orlando would seem to indicate that the time is ripe for the big crossover.
To be fair, Philadelphia is not the first Hollywood product to broach the subject of homosexuality. Hell, William Hurt planted a big wet one on Raul Julia's lips in Kiss of the Spider Woman and got an Academy Award for it. Robert Towne gave a matter-of-fact treatment to a lesbian relationship in Personal Best, John Sayles did likewise in Lianna, and Desert Hearts told the story of a divorcing college professor forced to confront her own confused sexuality in the repressive Fifties. More characteristic of the Hollywood treatment, however, was this year's sorry triangle film, three of hearts, in which a woman leaves a lesbian relationship for a straight romance (with a male escort, no less). But Philadelphia is a first: a big-budget theatrical release featuring a gay protagonist infected with the dread virus. In an attempt to hedge their bets, TriStar cast Denzel Washington as Hanks's homophobic, heterosexual lawyer.
Hedging bets is the least of concerns for the gay filmgoing community, which is sick of Hollywood's usual negative portrayals of homosexuals. Compare the number of sympathetic roles with the preponderance of murderous psychopath characterizations like Will Patton's love-crazed aide in No Way Out, or the cross-dressing serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs. In fact, there has been a good deal of speculation that Jonathan Demme's decision to direct Philadelphia on the heels of his Lambs success was at least partially to mollify the gay activists his last movie so offended.
The Queer Flickering Light festival served as a counterpoint to Hollywood's stereotypes. The gathering celebrated, to quote the promotional literature, "film and video made by and for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals...diverse voices and viewpoints on the things that matter to us most: love and sex, pride and politics, art and literature, freedom and fun -- and not a word from Hollywood or the mainstream American media."
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Sometimes the titles told the whole story, as in Thank God I'm a Lesbian and Queer Around the World. Other times it didn't take a genius to figure out the basics, as in Wittgenstein (Derek Jarman's highly stylized biography of gay philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein) and Sex Is..., wherein a broad cross-section of gay men attempt to complete the ellipsis. The latter film is particularly representative of the festival's defiant spirit; it opens with a dedication to Jesse Helms and titles heralding the fact that the feature-length documentary was made in part with funds obtained from the National Endowment for the Arts, then cuts to a series of graphic homoerotic scenes (we're talking hard penises and ejaculation, folks), some of them apparently lifted directly out of gay porn films. Take that, Jesse.
But if, as my esteemed colleague Bill Cosford of the Miami Herald puts it, "gay film is the American avant-garde, and has been for a couple of years now," this year's Queer Flickering Light festival was not the best place for unenlightened straight viewers to lose their cherry. There was a far greater emphasis on exploring issues of interest to gays, rather than on top-flight storytelling. The majority of films presented were documentary rather than narrative A lots of talking heads and reminiscences of first homosexual encounters, the difficulty of coming out, and so on. Marlon Riggs's No Regrets, a series of interviews with HIV-positive black men, and Ellen Spiro's Greetings from Out Here, a sort of gay Travels With Charlie wherein intrepid documentarian Spiro crisscrosses the deep South in a decrepit van, are exceptions. The former's poignancy and the latter's sharp eye and humanist spirit are decidedly universal in their appeal.
While Queer Flickering Light is an annual festival, the Alliance has made it a point to highlight the best of gay cinema at its theater on Lincoln Road for several years. Many of the Alliance's offerings (such as the current For a Lost Soldier, the story of a Dutch boy's homosexual relationship with a Canadian soldier during World War II) are gay-oriented but also appeal to straight audiences with a yen for a good yarn, regardless of sexual preference.
Still, the focus of Queer Flickering Light is one that deserves mention. While Hollywood grapples with the issues of homosexuality and AIDS in its own bass-ackwards fashion, it is important to note that a large body of work on the subjects -- bold and unapologetic -- already exists and awaits those who do not need the safety of a heterosexual male lead like Tom Hanks or the seal of approval of major studio distribution to seek it out.