GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
The What, Where,
& When of Gay Buffalo
Who am I and why should you listen to what I have to say about gay cinema? Well, nobody is twisting your arm but, for starters, I could cite the film classes I took at art school - coupled with a lifetime of studying queer film history - but it boils down to this: I love cinema and I love writing about it.
Life is short enough without me boring you to death, and so the specifics about my approach to reviewing these films - without my life story and its historical context - can be found further down underneath the headlines: How I Lost It At The Movies and Reviewing Gay Films.
If you'd like to read the REALLY short version, click here.
My name is Michael D. Klemm. Since 1998, I have written the video column for Buffalo, New York's free monthly gay newspaper, Outcome, published by my friend, Tim Moran. In April of 2008, I also started writing for abOUT, a free monthly gay magazine, published by Duane Booth, that is based in Toronto. I'm a graphic artist and writer who was once editor/art director of a now-defunct free weekly entertainment paper called Metro Weekend. I've occupied space on this Earth since 1958. I've been out and proud since 1988 when I turned 30 and met my life-partner of 21 years, Andy. (I was a late bloomer but now anyone who objects to me being queer can bite me.)
I said that I adore films. I also love gay films. I find it quite gratifying that there are so many of them now - things were much different in my youth. A lot has changed in the last decade. In 1998, when I first started writing this column, I sometimes had to search for films to write about. I usually tried to stick to those films that could be rented here in Buffalo - this was when the major rental chain didn't carry most gay films, and before Netflix.com appeared and I discovered that I could find almost anything on their website. Now, more than 10 years after I started reviewing, I don't have enough space in a monthly publication to write about them all. I had to be selective and the obscure indies usually got more attention than the mainstream releases. Now that I have launched my site, I am reviewing more titles on the web than just the ones that appear in print. I have also been revisiting older films that I was never able to review in print for one reason or another.
Because, like I said, I love cinema. As opposed to movies (Ingmar Bergman's Persona is cinema, Revenge of the Nerds is a movie). I fell in love with film as an artform when I took a few film courses in college. You haven't lived until you have taken Dr. Geraldine Bard's Hitchcock class at Buffalo State College. I'm over 50 and my younger readers might not realize that when I took her film classes, in the late 70s, there was no such thing as home video. You couldn't rent the film and freeze frame it; you could only watch films in a movie theater or on television. So, imagine the excitement of seeing Psycho's shower scene as she paused the projector shot by shot so that we could analyze the director's craft. All of this appealed to me as an art student too; I learned things in those film classes about the language of cinema that would stay with me forever. Sit me down now in front of our 60 inch television with a restored print on DVD of Vertigo or Citizen Kane and I am in heaven.
But I also love Queer Cinema. I became intimate with its history while reading Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet (1981, revised 1986) - a book that I still consider to be the definitive study of our cinematic past. I wish that Russo had lived to see how queer film exploded in the 90s. As noted earlier, most of the reviews on this site are the collected columns that I have written for Outcome over the years here in Buffalo - which is, by the way, a town with a very large and visible gay community.
My first exposure, like Russo's, to gays and lesbians onscreen was overwhelmingly negative. All gay men on the silver screen, or on TV, were screaming queens. And lesbians were usually biker dykes. This was the prevailing stereotype of the day - gay men were feminine and lesbians could kick your butt. I have known many people over the years that do fit those molds - and there is nothing wrong with that - but clueless filmmakers in the 70s intended these portrayals to be negative and wanted audiences to laugh at the "freaks." As a teen, I watched a killer in a dress kicking James Caan around in a film called Freebie and the Bean, which ended with Caan repeatedly shooting the queer (the audience I watched this with actually cheered!) Gay men and women were usually depicted as degenerates (Deliverance, anyone?) and they often committed suicide in the last reel. In 1978, I had just come out to myself at the age of 20 and, unlike today, there were no positive images that this confused young closeted gay man could look at on the screen.
A glimmer of hope in 1982... a film called Making Love with two masculine men playing gay in a big Hollywood release. I remembered Michael Ontkean - and Kate Jackson - from a TV show when I was 15 called The Rookies and I'd seen a shirtless hairy chested Harry Hamlin in Clash of the Titans the year before. Expectations were high. At last I was going to see two masculine men kiss romantically onscreen and I watched this seminal moment in queer cinema history with an audience that laughed hysterically as Ontkean and Hamlin locked lips. This was traumatizing to say the least.
Flash forward four years to 1986. I'm 28 and living in my first apartment and I have cable TV and a VCR. And Cinemax showed a recent film called Parting Glances. This film rocked my world. Parting Glances was like a Woody Allen film but filled with gay people. Right in the first scene the two lovers, Michael and Robert, kissed and make love, and I had never seen male affection this open and natural in a movie before. These guys were just gay and their coming out issues (if any) weren't even part of the story. It was sexy and it was funny. And heartbreaking too. AIDS was part of the story; it was the first film I had ever seen that even mentioned AIDS and this was during the worst of it in the 80s - a time that had lengthened my stay in the closet considerably. This film made no concessions for straights in the audience and it was a revelation to this closeted gay man pushing 30 in the 80s. It is still my favorite queer film.
Around this time, I also saw Kiss of the Spider Woman. All right, William Hurt could have butched it up a bit in spots, but when he and Raoul Julia kissed it was like the earth moved. Vito Russo was right when he wrote that we were starving for images of ourselves onscreen.
A few independents began to venture into gay waters after I met my life partner, Andy, in 1988. I have fond memories of seeing Torch Song Trilogy and Longtime Companion with him in the movie theater. Then there was the 90s version of Making Love - Philadelphia. It tried, and it educated straight people - but it didn't go far enough. Which was sad because, at the same time, New Queer Cinema was starting to explode. There was Todd Haynes' Poison, Gregg Araki's The Living End and Tom Kalin's Swoon. The Living End was like a bolt of lightning - for once the queers weren't victims and they were angry too. ACT-UP was in full swing and queer cinema reflected this.
The 90s was also a time when many queer films were no longer just about being queer. Rose Troche's Go Fish is a good example of a breakthrough film that is just about a group of women who happen to be lesbians. Ellen came out and queer characters began to appear as sassy sidekicks in many mainstream movies.There was a lot of experimentation, and then things got a little less edgy later in the decade, and more mainstream, but it was thrilling because there were so many queer films out there now. The Anjelika movie theater from NYC came to downtown Buffalo for a year and queer faire was almost always on the marquee. I couldn't have imagined this when I was in my 20s and listened to comics on TV make jokes about AIDS.
Ellen and Will and Grace brought positive gay figures into straight people's living rooms. Queer as Folk and The L Word pushed the envelope on Showtime. And Brokeback Mountain became the artistic success and the crossover hit we had been spent decades waiting for.
[A longer version of my personal history with queer cinema as I grew up and came out - with more examples - appears in the purple box at the end of this introductory essay. Yes, this was even more long-winded before I cut it down.For those who aren't bored yet, the longer version of the last 6 paragraphs can be found at the bottom of this page.]
I Lost It At The Movies
Have I seen every gay film ever made? No, there are only so many hours in a day, but I try to see as many as I can. Still, I've closely watched the development of queer cinema for over three decades and I think I can write about this subject with some authority. I try to bring a little history into my reviews. I put older films into the context of their times. The outrageous and explicit Taxi Zum Klo (1981), for example, was unbelievably daring for its day. My reactions to certain themes in the films often reflect the time the review was written. By the late 90s I was so sick of coming out films that I sometimes latched onto any gay film that did something new and completely different. I might be more critical of some of the films that I praised years ago if I saw them for the first time today and - if I felt, upon re-reading them now that a revision was in order - any new thoughts are added in a different typeface. I am not the same person that I was a decade ago and things have changed so much that, though I grew up starved for queer images, I've also lived to see a time when I could actually get blase about it.
Aside from any clearly labeled new thoughts, I've left the reviews as I have originally written them. Except for a few instances where I have fixed a factual error or a really awkward sentence. The original run date is at the start of each review so that it is clear when it was written. Please note that, when you click on a particular title, some of the webpages contain more than one film and you may have to scroll down. As I put these review pages together, it was like a trip down memory lane. I would remember how this film was a landmark at the time, how this one was vilified in the gay press... I also remembered how I usually had to go to this one video store that specialized in the offbeat in order to rent many of the titles I wrote about. I remembered how the major chain wouldn't carry most of these titles and how I later found them on something new called netflix.com. There were times when I ended a review by lamenting how you could find the film in only one video store in Buffalo. And I ranted a bit at times. My other target was the film ratings board and its double standards when it came to rating gay films. A same sex kiss between men was enough to warrant an R rating until the late 90s. This, luckily, has improved somewhat. I go into detail about this a bit more in a sidebar that accompanies many of my earlier reviews.
Reviewing Gay Films
A reviewer is supposed to be impartial. Of course, we all know that any critic will bring his or her own biases into a review. This becomes even more pronounced when gay reviewers write about gay films. For a long time, we usually based our reviews on whether or not a film depicted gay people in a positive light. This remains a valid consideration but it is no longer the only one. It might seem, at times, in a few of my older reviews that I am apologizing for films that featured gay characters who were "bad" (such as Leopold and Loeb in Swoon, or Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell in Prick Up Your Ears) but this was because many in our community still clamored for only positive gay portrayals in the movies and had lost the perspective that we are flawed creatures and not everyone on this planet is an angel. Since we seem to have moved past the dark ages of cinema when all queers were degenerates, it is possible now to judge a gay film on its merits as cinema. Not all gay films are politicized anymore, so it is also possible now to be able to just watch a film like Adam and Steve for what it is - a light romantic comedy. But the current permissiveness is no excuse for films that aim for the lowest common denominator - a raunchy gay teen comedy is just as dumb as a raunchy straight teen comedy.
[Revision 2008: When I first launched Cinemaqueer.com in mid-2007, all of the reviews had appeared first in the local newspaper, Outcome. Because my forum was limited to a monthly publication, I was more selective than I am now regarding the films that I chose to review. Mediocre films were often passed over in favor of the better titles due to my limited space in print. I receive many screeners and, with space no longer a consideration, I've begun to review more titles online.
This decision has forced me to re-evaluate the way that I look at many of these films. A bad film is still a bad film but a low budget, in itself, doesn't necessarily equal junk. Most queer filmmakers working today do not have the resources, or the backing, of a major Hollywood studio. It is up to these artists to make the best of their limited resources when attempting to achieve their visions and it is grossly unfair to judge a low-budget labor of love by the same standards as a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza. Anyone who has watched films all their lives knows that a big budget does not always insure quality. Look at Cleopatra - if 1/10 of the money spent on the sets and Elizabeth Taylor's wardrobe had been spent on a good screenwriter instead...
Of course a low budget is no excuse for lazy filmmaking but I can forgive that low budget if the script and the acting are still competent. I have seen many independent films that are minor miracles considering the resources that were available (there are limits to this of course - one of the films that I totally trashed on this site shows an outdoor wedding ceremony in Vermont where the two men are surrounded by palm trees!) and so I can't, in good conscience, judge a movie shot on video and edited on Final Cut Pro by the same standards as the latest Indiana Jones film. This is not to say that I'm going to compromise my standards for judging what is good, and what is bad, cinema but I will be honest here and admit that I will cut some of these indie films a bit of slack if the content is worthwhile; I can't dismiss the film just because it doesn't look like it was photographed by Sven Nyquist or Vittorio Storaro. Any long time filmgoer knows that a lot of schlock comes out of Hollywood but, for some inexplicable reason, they are favored with advertising budgets and media saturation that is not deserved by any stretch of the imagination. There are many independent queer artists out there with voices that deserve to be heard and, if I can help them out with a little exposure on this website and increase their audience, I will gladly do so. However, if the film is bad, I will say that it is bad.]
One thing that I can promise to bring to my writing is a reverence for our cinematic past. There is a disturbing trend in a lot of modern criticism that tends to treat anything that was made more than five years ago as being ancient. An online DVD review that I once read actually called the groundbreaking special effects of the original 1933 King Kong "embarrassing dated." (I want to smack these so-called critics upside the head.) You won't find that attitude here. Some older films deserve a certain amount of respect accorded to them simply because they were the trailblazers. Okay, maybe we don't sit around and whine as much as the guys in The Boys in the Band do anymore, but let us not forget that that film was so controversial in 1970 that many newspapers refused to run the advertising for it. A film was often innovative at the time of its release for reasons that are considered old hat today. This is why silent films still turn up on critics' ten best lists and why people still read Herman Melville.
When it comes to my own personal tastes, I have often been told I should turn in my "pink card." I would rather listen to Bruce Springsteen than to Stephen Sondheim and my tolerance for mindless camp has its limits. I love live theatre but I also love rock concerts. My most treasured book of all time is James Joyce's Ulysses. I prefer offbeat films to the mainstream - my favorite films include Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Psycho, Carol Reed's The Third Man, Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and The Godfather part 2, Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and The Conformist, Phillipe deBroca's King of Hearts, Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Milos Forman's Amadeus. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is my favorite screen comedy of all time.
My favorite gay films include Bill Sherwood's Parting Glances, John Greyson's Lilies, Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, Jon Shear's Urbania, Gregg Araki's The Living End. Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters, Hector Babenco's Kiss Of The Spider Woman, Nigel Finch's The Lost Language of Cranes, David Moreton's Edge of Seventeen, P.J. Castellaneta's Relax...It's Just Sex, Martin Donovan's Apartment Zero, Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho and Milk, Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education and Law Of Desire, Rodney Evans' Brother to Brother, Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, Javier Fuentes-Leon's Undertow and John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I also loved, for the most part, all five seasons of Queer as Folk.
Oh, and I don't believe in star ratings. According to a book of capsule video reviews that I once bought, Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and Porky's are both three star movies.
Gay Life In Buffalo
Buffalo is often mocked because of a few major snowstorms over the years but it is really a cool place to live. There are parks designed by Olmstead, architecture like Kleinhan's Music Hall, Sullivan's Guaranty Building, and the Darwin Martin house by Frank Lloyd Wright. We have great food here - and not just chicken wings. Sports fever is high in this town, but Buffalo is also home to the arts. The Albright Knox Art Gallery enjoys world renown. We have almost twenty professional theatre companies. Buffalo is also home to the biggest collection of James Joyce manuscripts in the world, and The Irish Classical Theatre hosts "Bloomsday" (a celebration of Joyce's Ulysses) on June 16th every year. Ani Difranco's Righteous Babe Records is still here locally in Buffalo, located in an abandoned church that she spent a fortune to restore. We also have quite the vibrant gay community. At this writing, there are 9 gay bars, a Gay Men's Chorus, numerous gay groups, and a gay pride parade and rally every year.
We also have two theatres that specialize in gay themed plays, and a third that does at least one each season. They are mentioned, from time to time, because most of these reviews were originally written for a local audience that is well aware of these groups. Buffalo United Artists (also known as BUA for short) is mentioned several times in my reviews. They prefer not to be pigeonholed as strictly a gay theatre, preferring to be known as "Buffalo's Off-Broadway," but over the years, they have brought many challenging queer plays to town, including The Laramie Project, The Boys in the Band, Torch Song Trilogy and the plays of Brad Fraser and Paul Rudnick. They were the first theatre company to stage Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! after it closed on Broadway. [Update: Oct. 2007: BUA did it again; they were just recently the first theatre company to do McNally's newest play, Some Men, after it closed on Broadway.]
HAG Theatre, our own lesbian theatre company has been on hiatus for a couple of years and resting on their laurels, which include a much revived solo show about Gertrude Stein and an original play called The Vagina Dialogues. And The New Phoenix Theatre On The Park has staged works as varied as The Sum Of Us, Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloan and an original play about Rock Hudson. [Update: Oct. 2007: The Phoenix just had a triumph with Thrill Me, a two-actor, and one piano, musical about Leopold and Loeb, which starred its author, Stephen Dolginoff.] Buffalo also has its own version of the Tonys - The Arties - hosted each year by Artvoice Magazine.
We also have a free
monthly newspaper named Outcome,
and I am proud to have contributed these reviews and hope that my writings
introduced my readers to some very fine queer films. I want to thank Outcome's
publisher, Tim Moran, for giving me a voice all these years, and I also
want to thank Duane Booth, the publisher of
abOUT, a Toronto based, free monthy gay magazine (that also
covers, and is distributed in, the Buffao area) for giving me a voice
in his publication now as well. And, of course I want to thank Andy, my
partner of 25 years (25 years, do you hear that Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps?)
- that's us below - for all of his love and support.