Monday, July 31, 2006

Paglia on Gay Culture


Well, here's a very entertaining interview with Camille Paglia in which the high priestess of high and low culture dishes on art and gay culture. (The picture is unrelated, but was the most entertaining to come up on a Yahoo! image search)

Some highlights:

On turning 60: Because of their ubiquitous cruising principle, aging is generally a more critical issue for gay men than it is for lesbians. Old dykes retain status as tough customers, while aging gay men need money, fame, power or all three to keep their clout vis-à-vis the beautiful boys who so casually and cruelly rule the roost.

(She's right here. I wonder if testosterone gives men this obsession with deflowering the young. Certainly straight male sex objects seem to have gone from knowing women of the world who can teach them something, such as Jane Russel, to dithering idiots who can be easily manipulated, as in every pop music tart of the current era. In gay culture, beautiful boys have ruled for some time now. Actually, since the beardless youths of ancient Greece. But, the emphasis on youth and glitz is hardly known in lesbian culture.)

On Madonna's recent shows: I just saw the first of Madonna's two concerts in Philadelphia, and I wasn't thrilled with it. I simply wanted to see her --not be assaulted by an avalanche of pretentious, irrelevant images dizzily winking on giant screens. Alison enjoyed it--she's much more of a True Blue Madonna fan, while I can't turn off my beady critic's eye. The lugubrious montage of doleful African orphans framing a glammed up Madonna as she reclined on her sparkly disco crucifix was too much by twenty miles.

(Yeah, I'm torn between wanting to see Madonna in concert and being repulsed at the idea of her recreating Olivia Newton John's performance in Xanadu!)

On the public divorce between gay men and camp: Today, camp is no longer fashionable--in public, that is. Camping may be going on at fever pitch at gay bars and parties, but except for a few comedic TV shows, the official house style for gay men is now driven by politics: gravitas is in--an odd accessory indeed in the metrosexual toilet kit.

On Brokeback Mountain: I don't think Brokeback Mountain is a great film. It's far too long, soggy, and monotonous, and its bleak portrait of small-town and working-class life is (in my indignant view) condescending and offensively elitist. Without the picture-postcard mountain photography and wonderfully evocative score (which won an Oscar), this would be a small movie on the early '90s indy level.

(Here I disagree. The movie reminded me often of lesser Ingmar Bergman with it's careful attention to the intimate details of simple and difficult life. The dialogue wasn't always great, but I think that the attention to detail and the performances lifted it above being an obvious South Park gag.)

I found the sudden removal of Gyllenhaal's character from the script via a brutal gay-bashing simplistic and egregious--although no more so than the earlier bizarre mutilation-murder of an old gay man in a gully, which Ledger's character was improbably forced to narrate.
The intrusion of a political agenda so baldly at those points struck me as factitious and reductive, betraying too-heavy manipulation by the screenwriters. (The director, in contrast, tried to soften that material by treating it as mere cinematic flashes.) Why hammer the audience?--unless you have no confidence in your central theme.

(I agree with her here. In my experience of small towns, the old gay couple wouldn't have been killed- everyone in the town would just completely deny that they were actually gay. I've lived in towns with numerous 'confirmed bachelors' who nobody ever put two and two together about. I'm guessing that Will & Grace and pop culture are changing that, but not in the 50s.)

Why gay men love movies while lesbians could care less: My theory is that gay men, unlike lesbians, have an innate, hyper-acute visual sense. It's related to what I have speculated to be the genesis of much (but not all) male homosexuality: an artistic gene that ends up isolating sensitive young boys and interfering at a crucial moment with the harsh dynamics of schoolyard male bonding.

(I don't know... I recognize that most gay men I've known were hyper-aware visually. But, I tend to be pretty aesthetically acute myself. And the Europeans are all aesthetes! In fact, I have no idea how French gays distinguish themselves when everyone else is chic and catty.)

On the 70s film Cruising (which gay rights groups boycotted):
I loved Cruising--while everyone else was furiously condemning it. It had an underground decadence that wasn't that different from The Story of O or other European high porn of the 1960s. I bought the Cruising soundtrack, which was really radical for its time, and played it for years.

(I've never gotten why Cruising was so villified. Certainly it detailed a part of the culture that exists, and continues to exist, and which is probably a lot more interesting than watching an old white-bread gay couple opening their mail, or whatever else is politically correct to film these days! And she's right about the soundtrack- it's great, especially the stuff by The Cripples and The Germs.)

On the death of gay aesthetics (Bruce La Bruce has argued that AIDS killed off gay aesthetics): As a disciple of Oscar Wilde (whose epigrams I began studying in adolescence), I definitely feel alienated from the ideology-driven standards of many gay festivals. And I completely agree with Bruce La Bruce's analysis of the death of gay aesthetics.
One problem is that film-making in general declined in quality from its high points in studio-era Hollywood and European art film of the 1950s and '60s. The precipitous drop-off can even be seen in the careers of genius directors like Bergman, Fellini, and Antonioni. The great age of movies may be over, replaced by other genres, such as digital animation and Web communications.

(I'd agree here. Gay films have gotten dreadful and ham-fisted for the most part. But, so have most films. The cinema is becoming an echo chamber of empty noise.)

If we are ever to see a revival of artistry, young film-makers must study and absorb the great movie past. To build on the small, weak, one-dimensional films of the 1980s and '90s is a dead end. The same thing with writing: if young people simply draw on the shallow, cynical, jargon-clotted postmodernism of the 1980s and '90s, they'll produce nothing that will last.

(Some of them do study old films. But the problem is that they're so limited themselves that nothing sinks in. Like Tarantino idolizing Godard, but only noticing the visual style, and lacking any interest in the politics or the existential themes in the films. The pictures haven't gotten small- the directors have!)

This is why I exalt Tennessee Williams as a supreme role model: he was openly gay (daring at the time) but never ghettoized himself. He lived in the real world and thought and felt in passionate, universal terms--which is why he created titanic characters who have had worldwide impact and who are still stunningly alive.

2 comments:

The Pagan Temple said...

Gay films and themes are the equivalent of the blaxploitation flicks of the seventies, to at least some extent.

Rufus said...

Right, and it's weird because they were actually a lot better, had more complete stories back when they couldn't be upfront about it. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is, of course, a masterpiece. But even a lesser gay drama, like The Boys in the Band, was better than the generic 'gay movies' that clog up the video store shelves these days.