AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
THE 3rd GAY & LESBIAN FILM FESTIVAL - LONDON
THE GAY GAZE – FOR QUEENS & COUNTRY
by Harlan Kennedy
On two major fronts – political and personal morality – Thatcherism is laying down repressive new laws and booby-trapping old avenues of free expression. Nowhere in Britain today is the evidence of her offensive more striking, or to some more offensive, than on cinema and the media. Within a single week in late October, the lady and her ministers blew holes in two historic freedoms. Not content with announcing the abolition of the criminal suspect's 300-year-old right of silence without self-incrimination – such silence can now be cited in court and used as evidence – the Tories decreed that television could no longer show interviews with the Irish Republican Army or any film of IRA spokesmen actually speaking. This, said Mrs. T, was done to starve the enemy of the 'oxygen of publicity'.
As Thatcher metaphor, oxygen starvation is a beauty. It goes right back to the wartime spirit. On with the gas masks, chaps, and let's asphyxiate the enemy.
But a moment's pause for thought raises the worrying question: Whose hand is on the oxygen cylinder tap? When it comes to pronouncing on what TV programs can or cannot show, final right of veto or approval has always belonged, at least in peacetime, to the TV authority concerned. Not any more. Nurse Thatcher has the oxygen cylinder, Nurse Thatcher monitors the patient's chart, and Nurse Thatcher even operates the screens.
But no less frightening than Thatcher's marauding advances on political-sector truths and freedoms is her march on the private sector. In the world of late-Eighties Toryism, personal morality is no longer personal morality. In the Thatcherite view, what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own homes is probably extremely objectionable and should be stopped.
Number 1: Let's get all that sex and violence off the screen; it encourages nasty behavior. (Britain has less sex or violence on its screens than almost any other Western European country, but never mind that.) Number 2: If people must have a minority sexual persuasion, they'd better not go about pretending it's a pleasant or viable way of life. In a word – or at least in a clause (the infamous Clause 28 of the Local Government Bill) – they'd better not promote it.
Both these issues – freedom of our screens, freedom of self-expression about sexuality – converged in the Third Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
The festival represents an instance of how one form of benevolent, missionary centralism – the acceptable face of what David Hockney recently called Britain's 'nanny state' – has the gung ho to fight Tory-style centralism, based on paranoia and autocracy.
Thanks to the British Film Institute's network of 33 affiliated regional film theaters, the gay-lesbian junket starts at London's National Film Theatre and then whirls out to major cities throughout the U.K. Far-flung burgs like Manchester, Glasgow, and Bristol get to lap up stuff like 2 in 20, the sapphic soap from Boston; New Zealand's mold-breaking AIDS drama A Death in the Family; the cheery posing-pouch compilation Muscles from Outer Space; Eisenstein and Donian Gray male bonding in Canada's time-trip fantasy Urinal; Mauritz Stiller's just-unearthed The Wings (1916), boasting the tag 'first ever gay film'; plus roof-raising readouts on gay and anti-gay attitudes today like Rights and Reactions (the fight for New York's gay-rights bill) or Pedagogue. The latter is a ten-minute gem: a slyly funny Clause 28 spoof, whose teacher protagonist, protesting non-gayness, elaborately explains to the camera his briefcaseful of chains, poppers, jockstraps, and Adonis mags.
Mark Finch, BFI program adviser and season organizer, is happy to have this Gay Fest viewed as a riposte to Thatcherite oppression. The movies could be prosecuted under Clause 28 as designed to promote homosexuality, couldn't they?
"Well, the case would actually be brought against the local authority in the city concerned, not us, for having licensed the showing of the films. But, in fact, no action has yet been brought in Britain under Clause 28. That's why the thing is such nonsense, because even if you do bring a case, how do you argue it? 'Promotion' is in the eye of the beholder.
"The whole thing began as a scare about gay books being circulated in schools and the fear of our children all being corrupted. But, of course, there were no 'books' plural. There was just one – Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, a sort of informational fable for kids, aimed at liberalizing attitudes to gays. It was in a London suburban library for a few weeks, and as far as I know was lent once before it was withdrawn."
But if cases under Clause 28 haven't yet been brought, it's not for lack of encouragement from the government. Why are homosexuals having such a bad time, and bad press, under Thatcher?
"I don't know It's partly because of the AIDS scare. And it's also because this government is so obsessed with reactionary values and with 'the family.' But the depth of feeling about the whole thing is baffling. Is heterosexuality so fragile, is the family so difficult to keep together that you're having constantly to squash these things like flies?" Finch wonders.
In Britain today, there's a sense of calculated risk attached to Finch's festival – or to any display of gay free expression – and it's pointed up by the presence of another gay-fest organizer, San Francisco's Michael Lumpkín. They order these matters differently, he says, in America.
"Gay festivals are increasing in the U.S. There are dozens across America: Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, Boston, and new ones most recently in Washington, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon. AIDS has increased awareness of the gay community in a positive way," he explains.
Even America draws the line at huddled masses of gay celluloid. Witness Lumpkin's reluctance to trust U.S. Customs when importing gay movies for his festival from abroad. "Á lot of them we bring in through diplomatic channels," he says.
If Mark Finch has an easier time importing movies for his fest, it's because he works for a government-sponsored institution – the BFI is tax-funded – and because his festival contains zero in the way of overt eroticism. "I want to get away from the idea of lesbian-gay film festivals as places where tack, dull documentaries are shown and show that gay movies can be caught up in the feel, flavor, and pleasure of Hollywood, in ways a politically oriented film festival might not be."
For Finch, this is a way of encouraging homosexuals to rebound from the negative image society is trying to paste on them – as either pariahs or martyrs – and show that 'gay' is a word that still has some meaning in the gay community.
Another technique for fighting off society's tendency to stigmatize is to hurl their stereotypes back at them. Finch's festival proudly wears the title 'A Queer Feeling When I Look At You' (from Sylvia Scarlett via Andrea Weiss), flaunting straight society's ace pejorative, the 'Q word'. And Lumpkín recalls that the hit of last year's San Francisco Gay Film Festival was a glitzy Australian soap called The Everlasting Secret Family.
"It's like Dynasty for gays. It's overblown and gaudy and a bit ridiculous. It's about this network of gay senators and politicians who recruit young boys. Which is, of course, exactly what people say we do. I had a lot of friends saying I really shouldn't show this, but I don't think there's any better way to defuse stereotypes than to have a big audience – 1,500 people in the Castro Theatre – happily laughing at them."
The main arrested party in Britain today is Britain herself. If the Third Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, a brave bunch of cinephiles, are trying to pull their country out of Mrs. T's 'Victorian values' womb and into the late 20th century, the new head of the British Film Institute, Wilf Stevenson, sees Clause 28 as a symptom of the times.
"We've campaigned long and hard against Clause 28. First of all not to have it enacted, then to help people who might be caught by it. We think it's a very wrong piece of legislation.
"One member of the BFI resigned, out of a membership of 43,000," says Stevenson. "It's been one of the most popular seasons we've put on. Virtually everything is sold out. A season like this is exactly what a cultural institution should be doing – testing whether some of the arguments in this debate can be brought out: How do you intentionally 'promote' homosexuality? The festival has tried – fairly 'camply' – to ask what would happen if you were trying to sell homosexuality to people?"
More power to the BFI's gaze. New ways of looking – and listening and arguing – have always been the weapon of progress and the measuring stick of liberty. Only in a society where the Wise Monkey rules are the issues of good and evil banned from sight, sound, or speech. Only a state determined to gather power to itself and syphon it from its citizens skywrites the commandments of censorship: Thou Shaft Not See, Thou Shaft Not Hear, Thou Shaft Not Speak.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JAN-FEB 1989 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.