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Gay cinema is too boring There's more to art than twinks and swimming

I'm fed up with beautifully lit sex scenes. Credit: Red, White & Royal Blue.

I'm fed up with beautifully lit sex scenes. Credit: Red, White & Royal Blue.


December 6, 2023   6 mins

When I was a teenager, films about gay men came in two varieties: BFI gay films and Canal+ gay films. BFI gay films were worthy classics from the Seventies and Eighties. Jarman. Fassbinder. Pasolini, if you felt up to it. Canal+ gay films were more fun. If BFI gay films stretched artistic boundaries, then Canal+ gay films reliably delivered the same old story. Two twinks — French usually, but occasionally Dutch or German — would bond over their shared love of swimming or judo. It was always summer, and there was always a bicycle ride followed by a beautifully lit sex scene with a hint of Euro-penis. These films had one of two endings. Ending A: a melancholy parting at summer’s end. Ending B: a twink would drown.

Things are different now. Every TV show has a gay character of one kind or another. The days of scouring the Hollyoaks omnibus for the John Paul storyline are long gone. The world is brimming with “LGBTQ+ content”. So it is odd that the range of film and TV about gay men doesn’t feel much broader than it was when I was young. Higher volume does not seem to have led to greater variety. Instead, we find a careful curation of how gay men are presented on screen, even when such presentation flies in the face of reality. An example of this curation occurred last year. Netflix’s Dahmer caused a minor online fracas when it premiered. The issue was not only that yet another 10-part series about yet another brutal serial killer is a tasteless way for a streaming service to win eyeballs. No, the problem was that Netflix had categorised its gory new show as “LGBTQ”.

Dahmer is a long way from Will & Grace, but you can see why some hapless Netflix worker slapped the LGBTQ tag on the show. Jeffrey Dahmer haunted gay clubs and preyed on gay men. His particular sickness was bound up with young male bodies. And it can’t be denied that Dahmer highlights the risks inherent in the anonymous hook-up culture that many gay men will dabble in at some point. Such risks are perhaps even greater in today’s world of lengthening digital shadows, as illustrated by murders of gay men in Sligo and London, where the killers found their victims not in bars, but on Grindr. Dahmer makes for grim viewing, but it is of gay interest — if only as a reminder that evil doesn’t wear a sandwich board.

I don’t have a strong view on whether or not Netflix was right to classify Dahmer as “LGBTQ”. If anything, the fact that the debate happened at all struck me as faintly comic. The effort to police the content of one sub-category on one streaming service feels misplaced — if the image of gay men is so easily tarnished, then there are bigger problems to deal with. Today, Dahmer is categorised under “US TV Programmes”. Jeffrey Dahmer might not have been the right kind of gay man, but you can’t deny that he was American.

So what is the right kind of gay man? What sort of show does qualify for inclusion in the LGBTQ category? One popular offering on Netflix is Heartstopper, a series that focuses on a burgeoning romance between two teenage boys. If John Lewis made a LGBTQ television show, the result would look a lot like Heartstopper. Fluffy jumpers. Snow angels. Awkward smiles. It’s all very sweet. Characters endure some implausibly vanilla bullying, but spend most of their time exchanging emojis and shy little kisses.

I am not the first to observe that Heartstopper is an oddly chaste affair given that the central protagonists are teenage boys, hardly a demographic famed for sexual restraint. But Heartstopper isn’t made for teenage boys. It’s not even for gay teenage boys, although I’m sure that many of them watch and enjoy it. This show unfolds in the rigidly ordered territory of the tweenage girl, a dreamscape in which young men are desirable precisely because they are unattainable, meaning that there is no risk of being desired in return. Nothing wrong with that, but it does mean you have to look elsewhere for contemporary TV or film that is interested in gay men for their own sake.

This is surprisingly difficult at the moment. Young Royals is a Netflix drama based on one of Hollywood’s ropier elevator pitches: what if the heir to the Swedish throne was gay? Over on Amazon we find Red, White & Royal Blue, a film which asks the question: what if the heir to the British throne was gay? These are fun, silly productions, and are beloved by thousands. But again, they use male homosexuality to advance plot. They feature gay men, but they are not about them.

Naturally, there have been more serious attempts to capture gay male experiences in recent years. Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name have both entered the glitter canon; the former celebrated for its story of memory and survival, the latter for its tinted, self-absorbed charm. They are beautiful films, but neither made me laugh, and a gay film without humour isn’t very gay at all. To my mind, one of the better recent gay films is The Happy Prince, in which an extravagantly fat-suited Rupert Everett portrays Oscar Wilde’s last days in Parisian exile. Everett’s Wilde rolls down the boulevards, guzzles champagne, falls off tables and leaks brown bile. The film succeeds because it is bleak and because it is funny.

Bleak and funny. These are the qualities that I want from a film about gay men. Humour is especially important. If there’s one common thread to the films and TV in the Netflix LGBTQ category, it is an absence of laughter. Until recently, I had come to believe that this humourlessness was total. Gay men on screen would be forever trapped on a continuum with Call Me By Your Name at one end and Heartstopper at the other, doomed to be either a melancholy, piano-playing twink or an improbably earnest YA character. So when Sebastián Silva’s Rotting in the Sun premiered last summer, I was delighted. The film is a crime thriller and a wince-inducing critique of contemporary gay culture. Above all, it is extremely funny. Here was the cackling in the dark I had been craving.

The film stars Silva and Jordan Firstman, both playing exaggerated versions of themselves. Sebastián is a gay man of the Von Aschenbach school. An artist — a filmmaker, in this case — who thinks about death a lot. He lazes around his Mexico City apartment and researches suicide methods while his maid does the dishes. Every so often he opens the fridge. There isn’t any food in there, just two bottles of amyl nitrate. Sebastián takes a deep huff and goes back to bed. Later, he’ll enjoy some plump lines of ketamine for dessert.

SebastiĂĄn goes to a gay beach for a change of scene. Naked men grunt and gargle in the dunes. SebastiĂĄn sits on the sand reading E. M. Cioran (this film is, first and foremost, a comedy). Tadzio never makes an appearance. Instead he meets Jordan, an American tourist and professional Instagram influencer. Things go downhill from there. It is difficult to describe what makes Jordan so irritating. There is an immediate presumption of total intimacy with SebastiĂĄn that is alarming, almost psychotic. There is the ceaseless chatter, countless words advancing like the Golden Horde across the steppe. There is the lack of content, let alone meaning, to anything that he says. Even his smile is annoying.

Silva does annoying very well. Rotting in the Sun is as much about irritation as anything else. The film opens on a public square in which rival buskers create a nightmarish mashup of “Jingle Bells” and “Zombie” by The Cranberries. A random woman accuses Sebastián of abusing his coprophage dog. His apartment complex is a chaotic building site. Work is a series of voice notes and juddering Zoom calls. Even his gay beach holiday is a source of vexation. Press about the film focused on the large number of male genitals on display, but there is nothing titillating about any of them. They are obtrusive and ridiculous. Far from evidence of liberation, all of those cocks feel like an imposition to Sebastián. It all begs the question of what he is doing there in the first place. This is a hell of his own devising.

Jordan is a social barnacle, and Sebastián is his chosen rock. “I love you,” he says, five minutes into their acquaintance. He wants Sebastián to work on a film with him — a film about him. When Sebastián finally lashes out, Jordan responds: “You can’t hurt me, because I’m happy.” He is almost convincing. Rotting in the Sun is a bleak, hilarious satire. Like all true satire, the film is resolutely focused on the world as it actually is. There are no snow angels, no golden Italian summers. Part of the film’s strength comes from its focus on men in their thirties. Illusions have departed. For Sebastián, this means a retreat into comfortable angst. Jordan is the true realist. Instagram for money, drugs and sex for fun.

As Silva has been at pains to point out in interviews, this is not a portrayal of all gay men. Still, these are types — stunted wallower, fragile clown — that are instantly recognisable to many of us. To see them lampooned is a pleasure. But this is more than a piss-take. Both characters are vindicated by the end of the film. A Cioran-esque twist confirms Sebastián’s bleak worldview, while Jordan’s forcefulness becomes an endearing strength. These men are ridiculous, but that doesn’t make them wrong. Not entirely, anyway.

I enjoyed Rotting in the Sun for its comedy and its honesty. The two go together, I think. If the kind of gay men we see on screen are for the most part bland and humourless, it is because most filmmakers aren’t especially interested in gay lives as they are actually lived. Of course, there will always be a place for shows like Heartstopper and Young Royals. Cosy Teen Nonsense has been a recognisable genre since the days of Dawson’s Creek, and there is no reason why there shouldn’t be the occasional gay iteration.

But there needs to be room for honesty, too. At times I wonder if we have exchanged the predictability of Canal+ gay films for the predictability of a safe teen romance, eternally retold. I want more than that. I want annoying gay men in my gay films, and I want to be invited to laugh at them. And if there’s a bicycle ride followed by a beautifully lit sex scene in there too, well, I won’t complain.


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Derek Bryce
Derek Bryce
7 months ago

Right, this is going to be a bit of a disconnected tripartite rant, but sod it. I came out in the early 90s and have always found ‘gay cinema’ tiresome for the simple reason that it never focuses on the fact that two people are having a relationship (and they’re ALWAYS about relationships) but that these are gay relationships. Trust me, I ‘know us’ and gay men are no more or less interesting than anyone else. Why is ‘gay cinema’ of this ‘look at us! Two blokes can shag and even fall in love! Shocked ya, didn’t we breeders???’ even necessary any more? I suspect most straight people shrug wearily after decades of this solipsistic bilge and say so what. Who can blame them? Many gays react the same way.

I’m going to Mexico over Christmas but will not be staying in a gay resort or knowingly visiting a gay beach. I looked at one ‘gay men only’ hotel in Puerto Vallarta and the sight of all those tub tarts marinating in a pool that doubtless contains more Calvin Klein Obsession and poppers than it does H2O was a little too gay even for me. I’ll be staying at a hotel largely patronised, according to Tripadvisor, by middle aged to elderly heterosexual Canadians, who’ll be reliably polite and lacking in drama if nothing else. I used to sell ‘gay travel’ in its first boom in the 90s and know of what I speak 
 shudder.

Side note: the author almost lost me with his repeated use of LGBTQ+ as a descriptor. I only just, grudgingly, accepted that bisexuality might be a real thing and not just a halfway house to the real L or G thing. Everything after the letter B in that infernal confabulation signifies nothing but the cosplaying and imagineering of the deluded and the clinically deranged and actually includes a term of abuse for gay people. Please stop it.

Last edited 7 months ago by Derek Bryce
Dumetrius
Dumetrius
7 months ago
Reply to  Derek Bryce

There’s quite enough homosexuality in film-films to where you don’t even need gay-film as a category.

It’s not like the acting profession doesn’t attract a homosexual or two.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
7 months ago
Reply to  Derek Bryce

Completely off-topic, but your post reminded me of a holiday to Playa del Ingles in Gran Canaria my wife and I had in the late 90s.
I guess the name should have been a tip off, but all the beach bars and restaurants were like a dreadful caricature of what the English like abroad; all fish ‘n’ chips, mushy peas and bingo.
So we ended up hanging out in the gay bit (Yumbo shopping centre IIRC), and it was a riot. I’ve never seen anything like it; proper gay guys with handle bar moustaches, leather caps, riding Harleys. Nobody seemed to mind that we were straight, and the music was way better too. Although I’m glad I took the barman’s advice to only use the toilets in the shopping centre and not the bars 😉

ralph bell
ralph bell
7 months ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

Exactly and if being don’t like what’s offered don’t indulge.
I love the fact that the gay scene, despite the fact it is generally unfriendly and comical, and gay films exist, some of which are amazing.

Derek Bryce
Derek Bryce
7 months ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

I went on holiday with a gay friend to Playa del Ingles around 25 years ago. It was a hoot. He got off with someone early in the trip and was busy bumping uglies elsewhere so I was adopted by two Mancunian lesbians in the apartment next door and went to the drag shows at the Yumbo together. Me and my pal did go to the gay beach there which was oddly situated next to a straight nude beach much favoured by older, naked Germans playing volleyball, which dampened the erotic appeal. As a general I’ve never quite got the appeal of shagging in the dunes – sand and lube are a hazardous combination.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
7 months ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

I was there last twenty years ago and it was exactly as you described.

Jon Morrow
Jon Morrow
7 months ago
Reply to  Derek Bryce

Tub tarts!

John Campbell
John Campbell
7 months ago
Reply to  Derek Bryce

That last paragraph on LGBTQ+ was spot on and priceless! However, I wonder why the article’s author left out the A and 2-spirited?

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
7 months ago

It is difficult to describe what makes Jordan so irritating.
It’s not that difficult; you’ve already done it yourself: “professional Instagram influencer”.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
7 months ago

Influencers all have ‘that voice’.

One order of Drowned Twink, please.

Last edited 7 months ago by Dumetrius
JP Martin
JP Martin
7 months ago

Reading this made me feel very grateful for my extremely conventional life.

Andrew D
Andrew D
7 months ago

How strange and sad to live in a world without women.
Although the best gay directors, like Almodovar, have wonderful female characters, and it’s always a joy to see Penelope Cruz.
It’s not only gay characters who are presented one-dimensionally in film. When was the last time you saw a black character who wasn’t heroic, noble and virtuous?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew D

A slightly odd comment. Many gay men have close female friends, and many straight ones do not.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
7 months ago

Overlong, but interesting article.

I’ve back-watched a load of LGBTQWERTY content over the last couple of years and I can concur that the increase in quantity has been accompanied by a decrease in quality.

Stereotyped plots, eye-candy shots and the same clichés turn up over and over again. Oh no, not another shower scene or moment when the protagonist drops into a pool of water to a meaningful soundtrack.

I watch these on DVD and they often have shorts by the same director. These are invariably unimpressive too. So I’ve come to the conclusion that lots of alphabet types are studying Film at college and that due to box-ticking, they’re finding it easier to access dosh for even the most ill-conceived and sketchy projects.

Mind you, 99% of Hollywood output has been consigned to the dustbin of history so why should we expect minorities to punch above their weight ?

Paul Devlin
Paul Devlin
7 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

I’m convinced ‘gay cinema’ is mainly watched by hetero middle class liberal women and they get mightily turned on by it

Simric Yarrow
Simric Yarrow
7 months ago

Enjoyed this window into a bunch of things, and the idea that Heartstopper is another iteration of an age-old tween girl thing rings very true (as a father of recent teen daughters). Of course, things have got a lot more twisted: tween girls these days are often moved by TikTok and tween media well beyond liking boys for being unattainable, to thinking they might be secretly one themselves. This old world of genuinely gay male movies, and the one he describes in the dark comedies he discusses, seems very distant from current ‘woke’ mainstream media tropes and all the better and more honest for it. I’m not sure I’m going to play either of them in a hurry (though I am going to be on a Mexican beach soon so I’ll watch out for influencers!)

James Kirk
James Kirk
7 months ago

I have little interest in conventional screen ‘affection’. If I was there are incognito sites to visit online. It all seems more of this virtue signalling sucking up to minorities. The vast majority of UK is still white hetero with little interest in minority angst. Just more of the prevalent narcissism we have thrust at us as if it were normal. Most of the gay people I know are sick of it as are many of colour.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
7 months ago
Reply to  James Kirk

There is loads of content for white heteros. The “prevalent narcissism” which is “thrust” at you (interesting choice of word) just comes from the media and online debate – and generating this buzz is primarily why media creators are making these kind of minority angst films. By talking about it and reacting to it in this way you are playing (or thrusting) into their hands. Youngsters and bienpensant liberals like me get a frisson and sense of validation every time some conservative moans in the way you have. Some are even willing to pay for it.
Just accept that it is not for you and ignore it. There will be another John Wick film or whatever soon enough.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  James Kirk

Good job that you are here to speak on behalf of “the gay people” and people of colour!
I’m sure those groups are incredibly grateful to you for communicating the world just how much they are bored of seeing people like them represented in the media and wish that we could get back to the good old days when gay people and people of colour were either ignored or treated as figures of comedy..

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
7 months ago

Amyl nitr-I-te.

Get it right.

Amyl nitr-A-te is a reagent or fuel additive with explosive properties, I believe.

Last edited 7 months ago by Dumetrius
Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
7 months ago

Of all the films listed I have only watched “call me by your name”, which I thought was pretentious in the extreme.

david lee ballard
david lee ballard
7 months ago

“Gay” cinema, at least when it proceeds from the place of “gay” identity, has always been mostly garbage. Possibly the best dramatic movie to approach love between men – “Brokeback Mountain” – was directed by a “straight” director and adapted from a short story written by a “straight” woman. It works because the characters are complex humans rather than identity puppets.

Alan Moran
Alan Moran
7 months ago

v

Last edited 7 months ago by Alan Moran
Simon Neale
Simon Neale
7 months ago

a beautifully lit sex scene with a hint of Euro-p***s.

Another reason to leave the EU. Had such things been publicised before 2016, the majority would have been even more tumescent.

Margaret Ford
Margaret Ford
7 months ago

Is this why ‘Le Otto Montagne’ is such a refreshing film? People I know have assumed it must be about 2 men who fall in love but no! It’s a film about a profound friendship between 2 men and all the more interesting that it doesn’t fit the stereotypes or push agendas