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Published: 23 july 2013 13:17

Film critic José Arroyo: Gay culture is what teaches us to be gay rather than homosexual

José Arroyo
Asmeninio archyvo nuotr. / José Arroyo

People discover their homosexuality once they experience the first desire at puberty, but they only learn how to be gay when they start a conversation with others like them, when they accept their desire and learn to talk about society, sex, politics. This conversation among homosexual men and women is what constructs the 'gay culture', says José Arroyo, film critic and lecturer at the University of Warwick (UK).

Arroyo, who is one of the guests at this year's LGBT film festival “Kitoks kinas”, is coming to Vilnius to join Baltic Pride 2013 and will give a talk on one of the most prominent figures of the 'gay culture, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, and his films that have come to symbolize the democracy of Spain.

15min talks to Arroyo about representations of homosexuality in cinema, about the politics and aesthetics of the gay culture, and the role for film critics in helping sort out great works amidst today's abundance of new material.

– If you look at film as historic documentation of its time, it might seem that gays and lesbians did not exist until only recently.

– Gays in film have existed as long as there has been film. Along with Muybridge's films of nudes in the 1890s you have to ask about who was watching them and how and why. From Thomas Waugh's “Hard to Imagine” book, we know that there was homosexual pornography being filmed to be screened for brothels in Paris since the the pre-World War I period.

If the question is what was acceptable in relation to commercial cinema, we still have a broad range. If we look away from the heavily censored American cinema of the period, we have “Different from the Others” from the 1919, and then the lesbian episodes in Pabst's “Pandora's Box”, and the indications in Marcel Carnés “Hôtel du Nord”, and Leontine Sagan's “Mädchen in Uniform” (1931).

If you look at Sofia Coppola's “The Bling Ring”, you see a lovely depiction of a young boy who already knows he's homosexual – he's having affairs with older men – but who does not yet know how to be gay.

Everything was forbidden in those years, yet gays and lesbians always existed in cinema. Even when they wanted to erase us, we reappeared from the forbidden zone, in the guise of camp straight people – as in all the wonderful Edward Everett Horton characters in Lubitsch and the Astaire and Rogers films – or as luxurious imagery in the Busby Berkeley films, etc.

– Can we speak of a 'gay culture'?

– There is indeed a 'gay culture'. It's what teaches us to be gay rather than homosexual. If you look at Sofia Coppola's “The Bling Ring”, you see a lovely depiction of a young boy who already knows he's homosexual – he's having affairs with older men – but who does not yet know how to be gay.

Gay culture is the construct of homosexual men and women, it's how we learn to talk to each other about society, sex, and politics. None of us is brought up gay, we learn we are homosexual, in my opinion, at puberty because of desire, and we learn how to be gay once we accept our desire and try to learn how to meet and talk to other people like us. Gay culture is the result of a conversation amongst homosexual people, and that conversation has often resulted in community and, because of oppression, in politics.

– Do film and art in general need to be political?

– Gay cinema need not be political. It only has been because homosexuality was forbidden and thus any overt representation of gays was political. Gays are never brought up gay and we can be from any class, social formation, etc. Thus in a society where to be gay was to be accepted, you would find gays of every stripe and none would necessarily be political. See the situation in Britain now where so many right wing people are gay – and so are many left-wing people.

Politics is much more the a reflection of one's socio-economic situation than anything else, unless gay people are oppressed – then anything gay or to do with gays is de facto political. But that is more a reflection on the society at large than on gay culture in particular. Gay culture needs to be political until it is no longer perceived to be so.

– And how, for example, did Pedro Almodovar's films relate to political and social developments in post-Franco Spain?

Politics is much more the a reflection of one's socio-economic situation than anything else, unless gay people are oppressed – then anything gay or to do with gays is de facto political.

– Almodovar was the bravest and most radical filmmaker I can think of. He made radical gay films in which people merely were camp, superficial, enjoyed their drugs, their music, and their sex.

His first films are very rough, punk, anyone could have made them in terms of technique. They're not formally sophisticated. But he made them when even in the most advanced capitalist cultures they were afraid to.

These characters in his films do not doubt, they do not feel guilt, they accept themselves, they know there is a price to pay for love, but until they're forced to suffer, they will live and enjoy. And Almodovar made these films in a political situation which was unstable. Colonel Tejero attempted a coup in 1981, more or less at the same time as “Labyrinth of Passion” was being made. Spain could easily have gone back to a dictatorship at that time.

It took guts to make these films. Because they were so free, and because they put homosexuality at the fore, they in turn became a sample of Spain's new democracy and freedoms. Homosexuality, which at one point was thought to be the most disgusting and forbidden way of being under Franco, became a symbol of how Spain was now different, how it had changed. The acceptance of homosexuality in Spain became a kind of proof that it was now truly a democracy.

– And what aspects of contemporary gay and lesbian representations in popular culture do you find most interesting?

– I find that gay and lesbian films are more interesting than ever. Digital filmmaking is making filmmaking more widely acceptable. Barriers to entry into the industry and the art forum are falling down quicker than you can say 'death of cellulloid'.

Almodovar was the bravest and most radical filmmaker I can think of. He made radical gay films in which people merely were camp, superficial, enjoyed their drugs, their music, and their sex.

People will now be able to make films of personal expression much more easily and this will perforce include many gay films. I'm very excited at the prospect. You don't need millions now to make a 'gay' or a 'lesbian' film. All you need is a Canon DSLR camera.

– And what role do critics have to play in all this?

– Because of this, I think film festivals and film criticism are becoming increasingly important. In a world where representation is no longer scarce, where we're inundated with materials, how does one introduce audiences to great works?

What's necessary to get audiences to see particular works? This is the job of film festivals and of critics. The former to dare to see what's new, different and what will enhance and enrich their lives; the latter to not sell out to commercial interests or mere sentimentality and fight for an art that's important and meaningful.

Critics can only be as great as the art. But films are greater than ever, and film criticism is not even close to coming up to its standard.

***

José Arroyo is a lecturer at the University of Warwick (UK). His academic interests include representations of nationality and sexuality, Spanish cinema, and contemporary Hollywood. He is currently writing on Antonio Banderas and Javier Bardem, is a regular reviewer for BFI’s Sight and Sound magazine.

Arroyo is giving a talk on “Almodóvar’s cinema in the Spanish transition to democracy”, followed by a free screening of “Labyrinth of Passion”, on Sunday, 28 July, 4:15 PM in cinema centre “Skalvija” (2/15 Goštauto Street, LT-01104 Vilnius).

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