The following article discusses queer cinema and the context of gay pornography so, surprisingly, mentions dicks here and there. Just a heads up, Mum.
Last week I went to the Cineworld Glasgow to see I Want Your Love, a 2012 queer film following in the ‘porn with a story’ dynamic of films such as Shortbus. The decision of the cinema to screen such a film was rather surprising to me, given how pornography at large and gays enjoying themselves aren’t two of the most conventional themes in mainstream cinema, but luckily my brief optimism in the arts was crushed when I got to the ticket desk.
‘Hi could I have a ticket for I Want Your Love at 9:00 please?’ I figure this is a perfectly normal request at, of all places, a cinema.
The female cashier’s face drops into a grim expression at the mere mention of the movie. She slowly leans forward towards me, practically mounting the desk, and asks in a low voice that suggests I’ve asked her for a family ticket to Baby Murder 4 in 3D!, ‘Well do you know what the film’s about?’
I give her a vaguely quizzical expression, wondering if old people are coming in thinking it’s a dramatisation of a slightly successful disco song from the 70s. In the end I reply with, ‘Umm… yes?’, unsure if there’s some codeword or special handshake to prove that I can guess they’ll be willies on screen. I also wonder if I should point out that I’m gay, figuring it may help, but then realise that I’m wearing a bowler hat, leather jacket and shiny boots with gold buckles in July and would very much be stating the obvious.
‘Oh okay, I just found it so uncomfortable to watch all the sex!’ she babbles in reply, failing to sense that I really just want to (oh I dunno) go watch the movie. ‘Do you think you’ll be able to deal with the embarrassment?’ she asks, the line of questioning now quickly veering from compassionate to annoying.
‘Well I’ve dealt with the embarrassment of my own sex life so I think I’ll be able to handle it somehow,’ I shoot back as I take the ticket from her, wondering exactly why I pay Cineworld fifteen quid a month to endure a casual interrogation over my viewing choices.
Despite the cashier’s dire warnings, I Want Your Love proved to be a enjoyably engaging realisation of queer cultural identity and sexual desire. The film’s narrative charts the sexual, emotional and psychological fallout of a group of San Francisco friends triggered by the imminent departure of one of their own as the film’s ensemble cast (comprised of real-life queer performance artists that represent the racial and physical diversity of gay communities) effectively explore personal manifestations of loss, regret and desire.
While the film does include pornographic elements it’s nothing you’d flinch at it within the scope of the kind of uber-vanilla porn you’re likely watch at home alone, choosing to directly challenge its audience through the inclusion of sexual content normally beyond the scope of public cinema (as opposed to kinky stuff with chains and rubber suits). This decontextualisation of erotic imagery actively encourages the audience to reconsider the cultural considerations of queer sexuality and the physical act of gay sex; presenting the intensely-formulaic nature of pornography in an abstract narrative space that eagerly rebels against such genre-defined rules.
Although featuring in mainstream cinemas, I Want Your Love‘s intense sexual dynamic suggests it is unlikely to strike a similarly universal chord as another recent queer film, 2011’s Weekend. While both films attempt to bring queer cinematic perspectives to a wider audience, there are clear differences in each film’s respective portrayal of queer identity. Within Weekend, an exploration of a fleeting relationship between two men that resurrects former emotional difficulties, the principal characters are white, downtrodden and held back by their social class, their romantic desires are never fulfilled and, naturally, there’s no sex.
(There’s a flaccid penis on screen for about a second, if that. Personally, the most controversial aspect of Weekend for me was the two pensioners sucking each other in the back row. For twenty minutes. Loudly.)
Weekend offers an accessible, reductive depiction of queer identity that refuses to challenge its audience in any meaningful way beyond the archetypal stereotypes of gay support characters in popular media. As Caitlin Moran argues, popular media is plagued with female and gay characters ‘saying what straight men imagine we would say and doing what straight men imagine we would do’ and although Weekend was conceived by a queer writer, the sense of obligation to agree with cultural expectations of queer identity is often detrimental to the sincerity of even queer projects. (As evidence of this, the film’s emotional climax centres around the revelation that both men have previously slept with the same person. Oh, the gays.)
Weekend feels so eager to be relatable to wider audience that it seems to prioritise heteronormative expectations of queer identity over anarchic, plausible realities. In contrast to the oppositional characteristics of queer cinema (as David Halperin argues, ‘Queer is by definition at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant’) the film instead holds compelling similarities to the mainstream box office success, Brokeback Mountain. Within the narratives of both movies, homosexuality is represented as an identity only acceptable within niche cultural spaces, the practices of which are subject to cultural scrutiny and inevitable collapse. The overarching messages of both films serve to represent the consequences of desiring a seemingly conventional or meaningful life outwith heteronormative dimensions. The issue was most succinctly described by Boy George this week in his views on Behind the Candelabra when he argued, ‘There are happy gay relationships. Just not in movies’.
Which brings the discussion back to I Want Your Love and the troubled cashier. While the porn-with-a-story escapade may struggle with similar issues to Weekend in many regards (apparently no gays are old, disabled, ugly, have heard of Grindr, want a conventional relationship or struggle to perform sexually) the single aspect upon which I Want Your Love hits the nail square on the head is its queer opposition to the normative and the automatic shock reaction to visceral, uncensored male sexuality that it provokes. There are penises. And the penises are hard. And they cum. (The penises are all, conveniently, massive as well. It’s as if San Francisco was built on top of a Giant Penis Magnet (GPM) which, tbh, would explain a lot.) The emotional static charge of a conventional narrative colliding with the aggressively sexualised imagery of gay porn can be seen as challenging, as ’embarrassing’ if you’re of a nervous disposition, but surely that’s the point of queer cinema? To challenge perspectives and present alternatives, to show how the other side sees things because we’re so used to simply one side of the story?
While I Want Your Love won’t enjoy the same mainstream critical admiration as Weekend or Brokeback Mountain, the title will undoubtedly enjoy a cult appreciation akin to the likes of Shortbus and other revelatory queer texts that actively push the cultural envelope in the name of queer opposition. If only for the sex. Inspite of the sex. (Seriously, the sex was quite good.)