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6 October 2011, 4:00 pm 6 Comments

Film: The Rise of Gay Naturalism

This post was submitted by Chris R.

Weekend, Andrew Haigh, 2011

The creation of gay culture, for as long as something called “gay culture” has existed, has had as its primary driving force the desire for a queer utopia. Constrained by politics, ostracization, and misunderstanding in society, queers turned to art as the one realm in which some utopic vision of their lives could be attained.

Thus everything from Sappho, performing poetic transformations of the island of Lesbos into a playground of female homosexual desire, to Jean Genet‘s Our Lady of the Flowers, with a canonized drag queen whose lovers perfuse the streets of Paris with adoration, to gay bathhouses, constructed social spaces where homosexual desire was not only permissible but suffuse. Thus also the gay predilection for Camp, a sensibility of exaggerated emotion and loud desire, a utopia where the only consequences are aesthetic ones. These utopic visions not only offered an escape from the realities of gay life, but thoroughly rejected any vision that impinged upon their gayness.

But one wonders if Oscar Wilde would have changed his mantra from “art for art’s sake” if any other sake for his art had been allowed. The recent film Weekend inhabits another, decidedly recent camp of gay culture: gay naturalism. In the film, it is not non-gayness that is rejected, but instead any illusion that such a rejection is possible. The characters capture something very real, almost painfully so, about modern gay life. After all of our progress in realizing some vision of gay utopia–after Harvey Milk , the AIDS crisis, gay marriage, the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, to name just some milestones–there remain some very basic problems that each gay person must sort out for him or herself.

For one, coming out, and the eternal recurrence of it. We see this dealt with here without the sheen of “fabulousness,” most touchingly in the interaction between Russell and his straight best friend as Russell breaches the awkwardness in talking about his gay lover with him. Another problem very basic to gay lives is finding and creating meaningful sexual/romantic relationships when the percentage of those compatible in the world is so small, and will probably always remain so. So, in the movie, we see Russell and Glen meet at a seedy gay club that neither really want to be at yet both want to be with the people it contains. Also, of course, the problem of gay sex–not any more a problem than straight sex–at times difficult to navigate, uncomfortable, indomitable (no pun…well, some pun intended). The director of Weekend, Andrew Haigh, depicts this with a frank, unflinching eye, so much as to raise serious wonders whether it’s simulated or not (it’s simulated).

Certainly, the conditions of modern gay life allow for a film as nuanced and internal as Weekend to exist. After all, it was not in a time of great social turmoil that naturalism first emerged in the literature of the late 19th century, but precisely because society at large had reached a stage of ease and comfort in its modernity. Writers, unoppressed by their own social standings, turned to tell the stories of those who were to remind the readerly public that problems like these still existed. Likewise, the outward social standing of gays in mainstream culture has now reached a point of some resolution, so instead of turning to others who are more oppressed, gay voices can turn inward to tell the parts of themselves that are still oppressed. This film is a reminder, to gay and straight audiences, that there are still problems to be resolved in gay lives.

Yet it offers no resolution. Without giving away too much, suffice to say there’s no marriage plot, and no magical salve to remedy the deep-set issues of internalized homophobia in each of the characters. There is, however, art. Glen wants to create an art piece from interviews with his hook-ups and lovers, and Russell keeps a diary recording each one of his sexual encounters (Glen’s like a sort of Sam Steward “Stud File” and Russell’s like John Maynard Keynes’s sex diaries). This art is presented as creation without resolution, which could be said to be a theme for the whole film. We never see Glen present his art piece, and Russell’s diary is kept very private, only shared with embarrassment when he reads it to Glen. Such are the principles of naturalism: artifices that reject artificiality, depictions of reality that don’t believe in the reality of utopias, even a sort of pessimism that accepts resolution as never fully attainable.

I’m very fond of my gay utopias, my own and those I admire in gay cultural history. I left Weekend frustrated that it offered no such vision. I went to the mountaintop, and when I looked down, it looked like the side of the mountain I’d just climbed. If art offers no resolution for these utopic visions, where can I turn? Perhaps that’s the point. Instead of sating my desire for a better world to live in as a gay man, it agitated it. I left desperately wanting the relationship of the characters to work out, wanting each to feel out and proud and comfortable with his sexuality, wanting the community that they were in to be accepting and nurturing and fulfilling. I wanted all of these things in the movie, of course, because I want them in my own life. If the movie had resolved these issues, I would’ve never made the turn inward, but since it didn’t, I was forced to look at the conditions of my own life and direct my utopic desire there.

Naturalism and romanticism–the latter of which, ultimately, is where anything in the utopic camp of gay culture lies–each do not necessarily exclude the other. “Natural” aspects of culture are, at times, romantic. The weekend the couple spends together in the film is undeniably so. Likewise, “romantic” aspects of culture can be naturalistic. Take, for instance, the idea of gay marriage, which for so long existed only as an idea, now becoming increasingly a part of law. That gay culture can allow naturalism at this cultural moment means that something romantic in gay lives has been achieved, which is amazing. Hopefully, from here, we will see more emerge from gay naturalism to continue bridging the gap between utopia and reality.

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  • Doctor Whom said:

    I’m not sure that I agree with the opening premise of this article. While some aspects of gay culture have involved “the desire for a queer utopia,” other depictions of our lives in gay male literature range from dystopian (City of Night) to counter-utopian (Dancer from the Dance) to realistic (the Tales of the City series, which is decidedly not recent).

  • Chris R. (author) said:

    Well, I think the “canon” of gay literature, if something like it exists, is primarily utopia-driven. Certainly more so than in the literatures of other social minorities, because we’re marginalized precisely because of our desire. Dystopic/counter-utopic literature still emerges from some sort of utopic desire, in that it seeks to show either how far away we are from utopia or how we need to change our vision of utopia. As for realism, and the example of Maupin, it’s still a realism that reflects some sort of construction of gay utopic vision, in his case San Francisco. I mean, The Naked Civil Servant is realist too, but that doesn’t exclude it from being utopic, in that everything Quentin Crisp did was to fulfill a certain fantastical vision of his life.

    This definitely isn’t the first piece of gay naturalism (Proust’s Sodom and Gomorrah is probably the best other example I can think of, and it’s not at all recent), but I’m hoping it can spawn a flourishing of the genre. I love the New Queer Cinema of the 90s, but it doesn’t say a lot about how to live my life.

    Anyhow, I’m excited we can have discussions like these!

  • James said:

    I wanna see this movie so badly and this piece makes me want to even more! Enjoyed it.

  • Ben said:

    I saw this movie recently and thought it was outstanding–it’s obviously “gay” cinema, but it is also just a well-done love story that people of all orientations can, and should, appreciate. You don’t have to be a pedophile to be moved by “Lolita,” or be heterosexual to appreciate a straight Hollywood romance movie. I enjoyed it first as a film, and second as an artifact of gay culture.

    I want to respond to your point about gay utopias, and the reason why you were frustrated by the ending. As far as gay men go, I am as lucky as you can get: I was never bullied, marginalized, or made fun of; I come from a very liberal family to whom I had no concerns coming out to, despite living in a small city in the South. I am also 23, and of the generation that is ostensibly taking advantage of the benefits given to me by earlier generations that confronted head-on institutionalized intolerance, the AIDS epidemic, etc. Nonetheless, I’d like to think I can appreciate gay culture as much as anyone else, and I certainly understand and appreciate the notion of gay utopias that you bring up. One of the reasons I was so moved by “Weekend,” however, is exactly because of the naturalism that you talk about, and the fact that the characters don’t exist in a utopia. Because of my experience as a homosexual, perhaps I don’t feel the same urge as others to inhabit or imagine any type of utopia; I feel very secure as a minority because I haven’t faced any serious injustices of my own. One of the reasons that I loved “Weekend” was its apparent lack of camp. This made the problems that the characters faced more grounded in reality, especially a reality that I am familiar with in my everyday life. This lack of camp (or different manifestation of it, perhaps) is significant because, of course, gay utopias can only exist in fiction (for the most part): the fact is that we live in a straight world that itself is far from a utopia. It’s important that utopias can exist in art, but it’s also important for art to mirror the reality, the naturalism.

    I sort of dashed this out and I hope it doesn’t come off as contrarian. But this is one of the better reviews/responses I have seen to “Weekend”!

  • tom said:

    Interesting article. Sounds like a film worth watching.

    Basically being gay has loads of advantages, but the fact that you basically have to live in a city if you want to have a chance of meeting decent guys is kinda annoying. And that’s something that, unlike homophobia, aint about to change. Still, we’ve got Grindr now.

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