Post #7 - Looking Through Another Lens: Growing in Empathy

By this point in this project two things are clear to me: 1) I’m rarely going to be able to obtain every film scheduled for each month’s article, because LGBQT cinema is still too niche to be widely distributed, and 2) perhaps because this list was complied in 2014 and not 1994, the films are “about” equality no matter the context. In the first case, I was unable to see either Just A Question of Love or Torch Song Trilogy this month. In the coming months, I am going to be unable to see four more films on the list: Longtime Companion, Get Real, Shelter, and Beautiful Thing. If you have access to those films and would be willing to share with me, I would be grateful.

In addition to watching the films included on this list, I have also been watching a good number of documentaries on gay issues, since this list is almost completely devoid of documentaries. (Bridegroom is the only doc on the list.) I’m struck by how many LGBQT docs are about the AIDS crisis and by how few of the films on this list have touched on that event. Philomena, Philadelphia, Mysterious Skin, and this month’s Parting Glances are the only films that have even mentioned AIDS. Philomena and Mysterious Skin do so subtly. Philomena Lee discovers that her long-lost son died of AIDS and in one of Mysterious Skin’s most tender scenes, Neil encounters a man with AIDS when he is working as a male prostitute in New York City. Philadelphia features AIDS much more prominently, as Andrew’s disease leads to his firing which is at the core of his civil right’s struggle. Philadelphia isn’t about AIDS. It’s about civil rights.

Parting Glances is the first film we’ve watched that could be said to be about AIDS. It was also notably one of the first feature films to include the disease prominently. Its director, Bill Sherwood, died of AIDS three years after the film’s release. Parting Glances is his only film. The film is about a pair of lovers who are about to be separated for two years while one of them goes to Africa for work. (In one of the film’s more subtle intonation of the AIDS crisis, he works for a medical aid organization.) The man staying behind doesn’t want him to leave, because he loves him and because he doesn’t want to face the impending death of their mutual friend (and his other lover) on his own. (That friend is played by Steve Buscemi in his first major film role and he reveals all the on-screen charisma we now know he possesses.)

Parting Glances is remarkable in a couple of ways. First, Sherwood demonstrates remarkable skill as a writer and director. The juxtaposition of the two lovers’ parting and their friend’s deteriorating health is astute. Each plot thread enriches the other and heightens the emotional impact of the two impending separations. That juxtaposition could be handled heavily, but Sherwood does it gently. The film becomes about both instead of being overwhelmed by one or the other. Secondly, by making AIDS simply a part of this story, Parting Glances gives context to the AIDS crisis that other films fail to give. AIDS was/is a huge deal, and it happened/happens within communities of people that are as complex as any other communities, not to aberrant individuals on society’s fringe. This may be the only film on this entire list truly about AIDS, and that’s okay, because we couldn’t ask for a better one.

The other film I watched this month, My Beautiful Launderette, is remarkable in that the main character Omar is gay and is not treated as strange. His orientation is presented matter-of-factly. The film is much more interested in Omar’s social ambition as a young, British, Pakistani man and the societal factors that either help or hinder his economic progress. In that, My Beautiful Laundrette is a typical 80s film, social-ladder climbing being the dominant thematic motif of the decade in both British and American cinema. (The film also features Daniel Day-Lewis in one of his earliest roles. He plays Omar’s lover.)

Treating homosexuality matter-of-factly, as both Parting Glances and My Beautiful Laundrette do, is rare even today. I watched Scott Pilgrim Versus the World recently and homosexuality is presented humorously in that film, not as if homosexuality is something be laughed at but rather that it is out of the ordinary and therefore surprising and funny. Most well-meaning, contemporary, mainstream films fit this paradigm. In addition to the fact that they are both very good films, I have to think that these films’ commonplace presentation of homosexuality is one of the key reasons they are on this list.

Next month, I’ll be looking at The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and The Broken Hearts Club.