Film: The Rise of Gay Naturalism
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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