HONG KONG REVIEW OF BOOKS 香港書評

Cinema as Queer World-Making

Brandon Kemp shines a light on overlooked queer cinemas and the political potential of cinematic eroticism. 

Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover, Queer Cinema in the World (Duke University Press, 2016), 408 pp.

In the introduction to Queer Cinema in the World, Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover pose a deceptively simple question: “Why do queers still go to the movies?” Some, like the protagonist of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), haunt the old cinemas of their youth out of a curious combination of nostalgia and cruising. But as Galt and Schoonover, quoting film scholar Ramon Labato, acknowledge, “formal theatrical exhibition is no longer the epicenter of cinema culture” (16-17). (Tsai’s characters too seem to recognize that the cinema has become a ghostly shell of its former self.) Queers today increasingly view films online or in less conventional cinematic spaces. It is tempting to add “like everyone else,” only I suspect, if anything, this is even more true for queers given how often we find ourselves surrounded in public life and art by a conspicuous absence—our own.

Tropical Malady (2006) by Apichatpong Weerasethakul blurs the line between the human and the nonhuman

And yet, what then to make of the subversive queer appropriations of classic “straight” films? Is “queer cinema” no more than film that claims to represent gender and sexual dissidents? Galt and Schoonover are careful not to limit the scope of their project at the risk of excluding so many of the works made by and circulating within queer communities. Their account includes films by openly queer directors, works centered on gay and trans characters, whether popular or marginal, and more transgressive, experimental explorations of the body, desire, and reality. Part of this is an attentiveness to national and cultural differences when it comes to what is permissible to show (they go so far as to speak of “practices of not showing” [12]), and a desire to avoid defining queer cinema in terms of explicit character identifications or the visibility of sexual acts that might unduly burden films made outside of European and American art-house circles.

Sometimes, after all, queer films come in unconventional packages. As evidence of this, the authors offer an extended exploration of Nollywood films like Men in Love (2010) and Mr Ibu and Keziah (2010), popular anti-gay movies that nonetheless allow for some limited representation of same-sex desires. Indeed, the authors assert, widespread fascination with these gay-centered narratives on the part of presumably homophobic audiences in and beyond Nigeria is part of their queer character. More crucially, though, the advent of online streaming, fan-made and user-edited videos, and the new kinds of agency these innovations encourage have allowed audiences to extricate scenes of queer intimacy from the films’ own constraining Christian moralism and amnesiac anti-colonial nationalism. In the age of YouTube, even these conservative, cautionary tales have become sources of titillation and romantic projection for some internet users, thoroughly delinked from their original homophobic raison d’être through creative juxtapositions and changes in the overlaid musical scores.

This willingness to attend to the surprising ways and spaces where queer cinema can appear is part of what makes the book so dizzyingly comprehensive and enjoyable. While remaining close to the structures and stories of the films they examine, Galt and Schoonover rarely end their discussion there. Works like Tsai’s I Don’t Sleep Alone (2006) and Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (2006), which confound all the viewers’ usual expectations about the flow of time, the nature of desire, the line between the human and the nonhuman, and even the border between life and death, encourage the authors to go beyond what is on the screen to also examine the emotional and bodily dimensions of queer world cinema.

This constantly shifting focal scale leads them to look at unconventional festival spaces like Mix New York that serve not only as sites of close encounters between spectators but also as physical extensions of filmic worlds; the formation of cross-cultural and diasporic queer identities and connections in works like The Edge of Heaven (2007) and Nina’s Heavenly Delights (2006); the relationship between cinematic slow time, the refusal of capitalist norms of efficiency and productivity, and queer cruising; and the potential of what they term the “queer pastoral,” exemplified by Swedish filmmaker Ester Martin Bergsmark’s She Male Snails (2012), to help us rethink our relationship to nature in less anthropocentric terms. As the authors ask during a characteristically compelling look at the creative strategies adopted by different film festivals to avoid directly representing the figure of the queer, and thus limiting its scope (or else earning the ire of the censors), on promotional posters featuring animals, cupcakes, and more: “Does everyone want to be human in the same way? Does everyone want to be human” (116)? An expansive set of concerns, to say the least.

Refreshingly, the duo is also highly attuned to recent critiques of neo-imperialism and homonationalism on the part of scholars like Joseph Massad, Dennis Altman, and Jasbir Puar but refuse the lazy sort of thinking that sees queer world cinema as fundamentally compromised because of its occasional “Western” funding or connections (a charge that tends to fall disproportionately on queer audiences and auteurs). As they put it, “Although we draw extensively on antineoliberal and antihomonationalist critiques, we also see alternative modes of worlding at times even in the most apparently straightforward liberal circulations of queer film culture and are unwilling to use this critical polemic to foreclose on other ways of being queer in the world” (48).

This commitment to searching out queer world cinema’s as yet unthought possibilities of pleasure and intimacy shines through. Their take on the careful balancing act of international norms and radical edge on the part of Botswana film festival organizers is helpfully nuanced and illuminating. In the case of popular Thai ladyboy or kathoey films, they note how rather than seeing a contraction of phet (Thailand’s “eroticized genders” traditionally comprising man, woman, and kathoey) thanks to the alleged universalization of an elite gay lifestyle and identity, they have actually expanded in recent years to include a host of new terms like tom (butch lesbian, from tomboy), dee (femme lesbian, from lady), seua bai (bisexual, but literally “bi-tiger,” an image playfully riffed on by Apichatpong in Tropical Malady), gay king, and gay queen, to name just a few.

Unsurprisingly, queer filmmakers and fans often produce cinematic worlds that align neither with official national discourse nor the neocolonial, normative agendas promoted by some gay NGOs. I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (as I’ve argued elsewhere) manages to criticize government treatment of undocumented migrants and global trade regimes even as it uses the vulnerability of its lead characters to envision relationships of care and desire not limited by the usual forms of the family, romantic couple, or nation-state. And works like Maryam Keshavarz’s 2011 film Circumstance, in which characters Joey, Hossein, and Atafeh debate the political import of Gus Van Sant’s biopic Milk (2008) in a backroom Tehranian shop, nicely illustrate the authors’ contention that transnational queer communities are not mindlessly parroting received wisdom from Europe and America when it comes to identity, politics, and human rights but rather actively questioning and negotiating these across stunningly diverse contexts.

So, to return to the original question, why do queers still go to the movies? Without denying the obvious appeal of combining sex and streaming and its film festival analogues, it feels safe to say there is more to it than just that or even just the support and solidarity such venues offer. (After all, there are bars, clubs, and political groups for that as well.) Early on, Galt and Schoonover reference Hongwei Bao’s work on Beijing-based film festival organizers, who, thanks to a string of last-minute government cancellations on flimsy pretexts, have resorted to using “guerilla” screening tactics. Contingency plans have involved sharing laptops and USBs on subway cars. The sheer tenacity of the organizers and their courageous willingness to confront authorities to view and share these films speaks to their deep resonances for so many queer cineastes.

Maybe the answer lies at least in part in Galt and Schoonover’s suggestion early on that cinema itself is queer. For film theorists like Laura Marks, Jennifer Barker, and Vivian Sobchack, who lurk in the background of much of the book, cinema is a sensorium. It engages not only the eyes but the skin, musculature, and viscera. In viewing films, we feel the boundary between ourselves and the action slipping away, sometimes even disappearing entirely. Put another way, cinema is an erotic experience. It orients us toward the world in certain ways (though we can and often do resist this), or even disorients and disabuses us of familiar ways of seeing and feeling, expanding our sensuous experience of ourselves, our surroundings, and the fragile border between the two.

Queer world cinema reminds viewers that the cultural, political, religious, and familial norms that once governed our bodies and lives are at best contingent and contextual. They do not exhaust the range of our possible encounters and joys. “Queer theories and practices,” write the authors, echoing Deleuze echoing Spinoza, “attempt not to prejudge the question of what a body can do” (69). This includes, of course, the question of who we can be—and who we can be with. To affirm queer world cinema is to affirm also the possibility of experiencing our attractions and attachments in new ways and to commit to building together worlds vaster, stranger, and more caring than those we have inherited. If nothing else, Queer Cinema in the World contains a splendid selection of films to add to your watch list.

Brandon Kemp is a writer focusing on aesthetics, culture, and the corporeal. His writing has been featured in the journal of Slavonic and Eastern-European cultures Slovo and the website of the Shanghai-based queer film collective CINEMQ. He tweets @BrandonMKemp.

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