July 24, 2014

Queer Issue: Gay Nazis and Transgender Serial Killers: How Filmmakers Queer up Historical Villainy

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, is a film that depicts 4 Italian fascists torturing, and ultimately murdering a group of innocent youth. In spite of it being hailed as the most controversial film of all time, I find it little more than a mere curiosity. Defenders of Salo claim that it is an edgy and radical indictment of Italian Fascism. Others just call it torture porn. I myself fall into the latter category although I would also addd that it is unfortunately as queerphobic a film as they come.

I have not in fact watched Salo all the way through, I fast forwarded through the Circle of Shit sequence. But the rest of the film is only just about as unwatchable. I tried watching it a second time at one point, only to make it far enough through to feel confident that my earlier reading of the film was not entirely incorrect. Honestly, the Pasolini appears to have included no greater message in Salo other than people can be horribly cruel to each other. Or maybe it was supposed to be that Fascism creates an particularly virulent setting for people to become especially horribly cruel. In either case my response is, "excuse me while I call in Captain Obvious for a rescue mission".

Salo is particularly problematic with regards to the depictions of the Italian Fascists engaging in same sex activity, sodomy, and rape. Rape is rape, wether the victim is male or female but Pasolini depicts the Italian Fascists raping of the male characters as representing particularly heinous behavior. From the way these scenes are filmed, it is clear that Pasolini intends for we, the audience to be just that much more shocked by the male on male activity, over the other scenes of torture, rape, and general depravity. For this reason, I cannot agree with the claim that Salo represents a "radical" vision, but instead I must stress the point the point that it presents a completely conventional viewpoint with regards to sexual politics.

Just as Salo presents it's sexually liberated libertines as unmistikably queer, so too does The Damned present the NAZI SA Sturmabteilung as engaging in a gay orgy, with the officers pairing off before being disposed of on the Night of Long Knives. This is on top of The Damned's most ardent NAZI supporter, Martin, being shown engaging in a variety of queer behaviors, including his iconic drag impersonation of Marlene Dietrich.

Then there is Germany, Year Zero, which includes a NAZI trying to seduce his young charge into joining the NAZI and Homosexual lifestyles. Germany, Year Zero by the way, is apparently prestigious enough to be given a Criterion Release.

Of course, mainstream films (if Salo and The Damned can be considered mainstream) are not the only ones to link same sex desire to Nazism, pretty much every Nazi sexploitation flick (a genre which includes titles such as Love Camp Number 9 and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, includes at least one lesbian officer amongst the NAZI's ranks.

Of course, both the NAZI's and Italian fascists persecuted those they caught engaging in same sex activities. After the Night of Long Knives and the assignation of Ernst Röhm (the openly gay commandant of the SA), the NAZI's stepped up their persecution. In the end, around 15,000 men and women would be imprisoned in camps such as Buchenwald. There they would be the victims of medical experiments, including efforts to create ex-gay therapies.

By using homophobia to condemn fascism, filmmakers commit the ironic sin of promoting a message easily found at any neo-Nazi rally.

Which brings us to the way transgender characters are presented, particularly the image of the transgender serial killer. This is an image that continues to persist up to the present day. The serial killer Ed Gein has served as inspiration for films such as Silence of the Lambs and Psycho. More recently, The X-Files: I Want to Believe paid homage to Silence of the Lambs by borrowing (or ripping off, depending on ones perspective) the plot of Silence of the Lambs, although it should be noted that the villain of I Want to Believe bore little resemblance to Gein.

But once again we have the issue of history and cinema being at odds with one another, for there is almost no evidence that Ed Gein was transgender or engaged in gender non-conforming behaviors. Instead the story of him trying to wear female body parts appears to have been created entirely out of media sensationalism.

Contrast the above examples to the frequency of stories of LGBTQ historical figures who managed to achieve greatness but who inevitably wound up being straightened out when it came time to tell their stories on film. Enigma wrote out Alan Turing from the story of the development of the Enigma machine altogether, the device which helped crack German codes used during World War II and (potentially) saved thousands of lives. Apparently, on the silver screen queers can only be Nazis, we cannot fight them.

More recently, Dallas Buyers Club took a bisexual hero in the fight against AIDS, Ron Woodroof, and presented him as straight.

When it comes depictions of transgender and transsexual historical figures, it gets worse, as their stories typically never making it to Hollywood in the first place. Their is a distinct paucity of transgender historical figures in motion pictures. Mike Newall's Stonewall never mentioned Sylvia Rivera, nor had any character that could act as a stand in, and it looks as if Roland Emmerich's upcoming Stonewall flick will follow a similar path.

Remember this, when people argue that films don't have to present an individuals sexual orientation, it's not so simple as presenting a character as straight or queer when the patterns of who gets straightened out and who does not, is not random. When Hollywood only presents queers as killers or NAZI's, while ignoring the stories where we are the heroes, it does nothing but reinforce the message that we are dangerous, creepy, and immoral. But the LGBTQ community is not composed (at least entirely) of killers and Nazi's, in spite of what some apparently want the public to believe. There are heroes amongst our ranks and it is important that their stories get told as well. But it is also important to remember that the villainy attributed to us, is all too frequently exaggerated.

July 19, 2014

Queer Issue: The Unfortunate Straightening Out of Hollywood Redux

It is easy to get caught up in analysis of LGBTQ related films that focus on movies in isolation without consideration of larger patterns. But those larger patterns can be more revealing than any in depth analysis of a single film can accomplish. When it comes to the presentation of characters based on LGBTQ historical figures, there are plenty of examples of films that have had no problems presenting their characters sexual orientation and gender identities with a reasonable degree of accuracy. There are also plenty of films that have even exaggerated the queerness of their characters, while on the opposite end of this issue are those that have downplayed or straightened out the sexualities and gender identities of LGBTQ historical figures.

The question then becomes, in what situations are LGBTQ historical figures most likely to retain their sexualities and gender identities or have them exaggerated and when are they going to be straightened out?

To analyze this issue, I divided up films based on LGBTQ historical figures into the following categories: Killers, Criminals and Other Villains, Neutral, LGBTQ Activists and Pioneers, Artists, and Generally Heroic. I also included films that presented certain historical figures as queer, even if the gender identity or sexuality of the historical figure has not been well established or is otherwise known. In order to include as wide a range of films as possible in this analysis, I have included films that are heavily fictionalized or merely used certain historical figures for inspiration. Films in this category are marked with a ✦. Films made during the Hays Code, which banned depictions of same sex sexuality, are marked with an asterisk.

Here are how the results broke down:

Accurate or Exaggerated:
Kill Your Darlings
I Shot Andy Warhol
Heavenly Creatures
The Krays
Bloody Mama
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Silence of the Lambs✦
Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde✦
The Damned✦
Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS✦
Texas Chainsaw Massacre✦

Straightened Out:
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith✦

Criminals and Other Villains
Accurate or Exaggerated:
I Love You Phillip Morris
Dog Day Afternoon
Boys Don’t Cry

South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut✦
Angels in America✦

Straightened Out
Mommie Dearest

Accurate or Exaggerated:
Queen Christina

Straightened Out

LGBTQ Activists and Pioneers
Accurate or Exaggerated:
The Christine Jorgensen Story

Straightened Out:

Accurate or Exaggerated:
Gods and Monsters
Ed Wood
Love is the Devil
Next Stop, Greenwich Village
The Hours

Straightened Out
The Libertine
Saving Mr. Banks

Shadow of the Vampire✦
Night and Day*
The Agony and the Ecstasy*

Generally Heroic
Accurate or Exaggerated:
J. Edgar

Straightened Out:
Dallas Buyers Club
A Beautiful Mind

Lawrence of Arabia*

Percentages (Excluding fictionalized cases and films made during the Hays Code):

Killers: 100% Accurate
Criminals and Other Villains: 75% Accurate
Neutral: 100% Accurate
LGBTQ Activists and Pioneers: 100% Accurate
Artists: 60% Accurate
Generally Heroic: 33% Accurate

If a queer individual wants their sexuality or gender identity to be presented accurately by Hollywood, kill someone, become an LGBTQ activist or do nothing noteworthy. You also stand a pretty good chance of your sexuality and gender identity being presented accurately if you choose a non-homicidal life of crime. However, if you want to become an artist or do something influential outside the LGBTQ community, you better be prepared to play Hollywoods' heterosexualization lottery.