The Out Take: Pride Month and the Need for a Queer Film Canon

Laurence Anyways

The Out Take is a biweekly column about LGBT cinema. It runs on alternating Thursdays. 

Happy Pride Month! As I write this in San Francisco, the city is beginning to get ready for their big event on the last Sunday of the month. New York will join them that same weekend, with the usual three-day bash. Chicago kicks off its festival tomorrow, Los Angeles and Philadelphia have already paraded, and the list goes on. An increasingly unfathomable number of cities hold LGBT pride events, all over the world. The world’s largest is in Sao Paolo, while the smallest is (according to Wikipedia) in little Sligo, Ireland. It’s come a long way since 1970, from risky revolutionary march to international phenomenon.

And, of course, it’s a good time to make lists of movies. Out.com put together 10 Pride Pregame ideas on Netflix instant, Flavorwire has their list of “50 Essential LGBT Films,” and iTunes is directing uses to a gay pride rental channel. Pride Month is a good opportunity to recommend in bulk. As the queer community enters the spotlight in a jubilant, colorful and positive way, our movies have the chance to follow suit. LGBT films often have trouble finding an audience, even the best of them, so this is a moment to cherish.

It’s also an opportunity to get incredibly nerdy about lists and categorization. If you look at these two lists and compare them to last year’s Huffington Post list, for example, there is very little crossover. The overall trend similarity is striking, but they almost never cite the same individual films. I would hazard a guess that no matter how many different critics and LGBT movie fans you put together, you would get similar results. There is, simply put, no such thing as a Queer Cinema Canon. There is no definitive list of films, and even a smallish group of universally loved works would be almost impossible to put together. This is, for the sake of Pride Month list making, a bit of a double-edged sword.

The one problem is that even though these lists are full of different films, two trends often emerge. There are always an awful lot of films about white gay men, and there tends to be an overabundance of straight, white, male Hollywood directors. The Out.com list is full of the former, while the Flavorwire list is brimming with the latter. “Brokeback Mountain” is great, and the repression of “The Children’s Hour” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” should be reappraised, but it’s 2013. We’ve come too far to keep raving about the cultural importance of Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia” over exciting new films about lesbian or transgender characters.

brokeback mountain

See, this is the 44th year of Gay Pride. 1970 was the first, when events were held for the first time in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In those four and a half decades, LGBT culture and cinema has gone through change after change. “Paris Is Burning” is now over 20 years old. Back in 1970, it would be hard to imagine LGBT films popping up all over the world. Now I can go to the opening night of Frameline, the oldest LGBT film festival in the world, and catch a new gay noir from South Korea. It’s a good time to love queer movies.

What does Pride represent? In some cities, in a superficial way, it’s represents the ability of a lot of upwardly mobile men to celebrate themselves and their sex lives. Yet it’s so much more than that, in America’s major metropolises and around the world. Pride is a celebration of an open community, a shared love of love that stretches well beyond the boundaries of nations. We’ve passed the point at which we can think of LGBT culture as something containable. On the one hand the American gay community has begun to assimilate into the straight society around it. However, connections need to be made with others around the world. It may be crucial for the struggling queer people of Uganda and Cameroon, Russia and Serbia. Pride is what connects.

In a way, then, the lack of a canonical collection of international LGBT films that we talk about incessantly is a bit of a weakness. It can make us err in the direction of ignorance, forgetting about those not represented in our simpler films or even fellow members of our own acronym. Even when the battle over marriage is over, we’ll need to continue fighting for equality under the law for transgender people. Recognizing and embracing transgender narratives is crucial in that respect. Films like “Orlando” and “The Mouth of the Wolf” should be seen, discussed and remembered.

Of course, at the end of the day the lack of a canon is a strength. The LGBT films that rise to the top are those that we hold dear personally, not necessarily those with the most gravitas. For the queer spectator, the love of film comes alongside the act of self-discovery. We love those films that made an impression on us as we discovered who we are, that we know back-to-front from fevered re-watching in the excitement of identification. For one friend of mine that’s what sends “Maurice” to the top. For another it’s “High Art,” for yet another it’s “Trick.” For me, the formative films were “Bad Education,” “My Beautiful Laundrette,” and “Party Monster.”

So, let’s make a canon. It’s open and mutable, so anything counts. No judgment on whether it has the gilded glamor of a “Sight and Sound” list topper or even the requisite self-seriousness. This is a canon with camp, remember. Make your own Pride must-watch list, and then dive into some LGBT movies that have nothing at all to do with your own experience. Start with Oliver Hermanus’s “Beauty,” Aurora Guerrero’s “Mosquita Y Mari,” and Xavier Dolan’s upcoming “Laurence Anyways” and get back to me.