Where’s the love? Where’s the love?
A lot of ink has been expended over the last few years on the sorry state of contemporary American film. From Peter Biskind’s book on the industry, Down and Dirty Pictures, to Frank Rich’s commentaries in the Sunday Times, people have complained that even so-called “indie” movies have become predictable and formulaic. One result is that minorities, including sexual minorities, tend to be ill-served and represented falsely. One-dimensional caricatures are still with us, more emphatically than ever, and we never seem to get much else these days.
But it strikes me that there’s something else seriously amiss with American queer film as it has existed for the last two decades, a glaring lack that isn’t easily put down to the baleful influence of the studios, because it’s a problem even with work made by queer filmmakers for queer audiences. I refer, of course, to the L word (and I don’t mean Showtime’s series).
LOVE. You know–you’ve certainly heard of it. If you’re a serious film buff, or even if you’ve ever just turned on a classic movie channel, you’ve been told again and again what a swell thing it is. Check any film reference book, from Leonard Maltin to Leslie Halliwell to Video Hound, and you’ll find page after page of movies whose titles begin with love, and hundreds more with love somewhere in the title. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. Love Is a Ball. Hooray for Love! So This Is Love. Love Crazy. Love Happy. Love Is Better Than Ever. Let’s Make Love. The Art of Love. A New Kind Of Love. The Love Parade. Love Me Tonight. Charlie Chaplin even scored one of his movies with a song whose entire lyric consisted of “love, love, love, love, love, love” repeated ad nauseam. Oh, yeah, love is everywhere in American popular entertainment.
Unless, that is, you happen to be looking for a nice, simple, upbeat queer love story. Then you’re pretty much out of luck. Of American LGBT films released in the last couple decades, I can think of only three with love in their titles. There’s Love! Valour! Compassion!, in which the title emotions are cited ironically, and Love and Death on Long Island, ditto. The single American film I can think of, just offhand, to tell an unabashed queer love story was the happily titled Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love. (A search of the Internet Movie Database turned up more than 500 American films with love in their titles from 1990-present. 10%, my foot.)
This isn’t just an issue about film trivia. As we all know, we’re currently engaged in a considerable social/political struggle to convince America that our relationships are valid, serious and deserve full, equal legal recognition. You’d think at least some of our artists would want to portray queer love as valid and worth exploring seriously, or even playfully, wouldn’t you? But it doesn’t seem to be happening. In the rare instance when one of our filmmakers turns out a romantic story, he feels constrained to pretend it’s something else, usually sexual. Trick, a cute little romantic comedy with a blatantly sexual title, is a case in point.
It’s not easy to account for this. Is it a commercial concern, i.e., are we as a community so jaded we won’t support films that depict our relationships in a sweet way? Or have we–all or most of us, including our filmmakers–bought into the stereotypes, if only subconsciously, to the point where we can’t talk seriously about how rich and fulfilling our love can be, and don’t find it quite worthwhile when someone else does? If we as a community, including all our talented artists, don’t think our relationships merit serious examination, how can we expect people in the mainstream to?
It isn’t just a matter of love-y titles, of course; the thing itself is almost completely absent in our films. And to some extent it really is the fault of the studios and distributors. Queers with rich emotional lives aren’t part of the “brand” they want to sell. Still, the problem even exists with films made exclusively for the LGBT festival circuit, i.e., films not designed to be commercial successes. It’s dismaying how few genuine love stories we’ve seen in American queer film since the 90s (which were once touted as “the gay decade”–remember?). Our collective avoidance of love in our art–depicting it, watching it, even swooning over it now and then–can’t be a sign of anything positive.
Now, I certainly don’t mean to suggest that love is everything, or that our artists should feel compelled to portray it. But you’d think they’d want to, wouldn’t you? At least some of them? Some of the time? After all, even Billy Wilder, who made the most cheerfully cynical, acerbic movies ever, also filmed the delicious Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon.
“Love,” Cervantes wrote, “is a force too powerful to be overcome by anything but flight.” Dorothy Parker, even more skeptically (as usual), wrote, “Scratch a lover, find a foe.” Despite the best efforts of poets and romantic filmmakers, love has earned more caustic scorn than any other human emotion. And it probably deserves at least some of it.
But, boy, wouldn’t it be nice to see ours up there on the screen now and then?