There is a flaw at the heart of this list of films and at the heart of my endeavor, and that flaw is this: both assume homogeneity of experience among gay persons in their experiences of these films and in their experiences of the situations these films depict. Some LGBTQ people I’ve talked to about these films don’t like some of them at all, and they respond to others of them in very different ways. I can empathize with the characters in these films as much as I want. Doing so will broaden my perspective, but it won’t deepen my relationships with my gay friends. Only getting to know them and their stories better will do that.
Every film on this list, like every person in the world, is an individual with individual histories involving different individuals set in different contexts. This fact is abundantly clear in the four films I watched this past month – Mysterious Skin, The Birdcage, Hedwig and the Angry Itch, and Sordid Lives. Socio-cultural context is the aspect of these films I’d most like to focus on this month, as it plays an important part in each of these four films, a more important part than it has played in the films of the past months.
We’ll begin with The Birdcage because it is the most different from the other films I watched this month. It is a polished, Hollywood production directed by Mike Nichols and starring Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Diane West, Calista Flockhart, Christine Baranski, Dan Futterman, and Nathan Lane in his breakout live-action screen role about a gay couple who runs a popular Miami burlesque club and whose son is soon to be married to the daughter of a prominent, Republican congressman. The film is a broad farce, but it is also deeply touching, particularly the scene where Williams and Lane’s characters formalize their relationship on a beachside bench in the only kind of marriage ceremony available to them at the time.
Cultural context matters in this story because The Birdcage shows that no culture is protected from intrusion by other cultures. The Birdcage club is a gay oasis of exuberant celebration and freedom. The Keeley family’s imminent arrival into that environment precipitates a radical reorganization of the Goldman family’s life. They redecorate. They assume different identities. They even try to learn to walk and talk differently. A culture isn’t a thing bound only to place. It is a product of the relationships of the people in that place. In a humorous turn of events, the Keeley family is only able to leave that place by integrating into its culture. The Birdcage is a movie about two very different families integrating via marriage, and so it is a movie about the integration of two familial cultures.
Culture as a system of relationships is at the core of our next film as well, a film that sits at the other end of the comic/tragic spectrum, Mysterious Skin. This 1995 drama is about two young men in a small Kansas town who were sexually molested as young boys and the psychological emotional toll this takes on their lives. One, Neil, becomes a sexually temerarious male prostitute. The other, Brian, blocks the event from his memory and substitutes an alien abduction narrative in its place. The film is simply devastating.
The story’s Kansas setting is essential to the story, because the small town, Kansan culture demands that all expressions of sexuality be kept quiet, anything seen as out-of-the-ordinary is mocked, and sexual abuse is swept away. Neil eventually escapes the town for the city, but there he find he is unprepared for his new context, and he soon finds his very life in danger. Brian stays at home, but his parents who know the truth of what happened to him as a boy never reveal that truth to him. Their culture doesn’t allow them to talk about sexuality openly, so they allow him to maintain his alien abduction fantasy even though it is ruining his life. Mysterious Skin is tragic on many levels, but the failings of this Kansan community are at the fore.
In Sordid Lives, a satirical comedy about a community in Texas at each others’ throats because of their many sexual indiscretions. The men are philandering misogynists, the women are vain, bitter, shrews, and everyone is insufferably self-righteous. Of course, this means they externalize their self-hatred by marginalizing those members of their community they see as sexually aberrant - the two gay members of their community. One they institutionalize. The other has to escape to L.A. to avoid their condemnation. The film is a hyperbolic comedy, but the fact that anyone ever experienced something that could be exaggerated to become this is frightening. I’m from Texas, and I never experienced anything like this. I’m not gay though, so perhaps this is somewhat true to some people’s experience in my home state.
Cultural context bears its weight on the protagonist of John Cameron Mitchell’s brilliant Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a transexual punk rocker named Hedwig, in a very different way. Mysterious Skin and Sordid Lives’ cultural contexts are oppressive throughout. Hedwig’s begins that way—she is born biologically male, named “Hansel,” and lives until she is a teenager in Communist occupied East Berlin—but then she finds a way out and into the bastion of Individual liberty that is the United States of America. Having gained her freedom via a botched sex-change operation, the newly christened Hedwig lets her true nature loose on her audiences.
She is free in the U.S. to say and do what she wants, but so is everyone else. Hedwig is taken advantage of by the man she loves, she is relegated to playing to confused and antagonistic audiences in a chain of seafood restaurants, and she doesn’t find peace until she frees herself finally from the demands of any perspective but her own. She eventually understands even her gaudy hostility to be a reaction to, and therefore another constraint of, her context. She is free when she sheds everything except who she is at her most basic level and walks out into the world secure in herself and unhindered by anything at all.