Gay Celluloid Markings
By Donald L. Boisvert
Movies can mark, in a powerfully visual way, the major transitions or passages in one’s life. Like an old song, seeing them again, or simply conjuring up their names, makes us think of “where we were” at that particular moment in our lives. We do see ourselves reflected in movies, and their stories or characters, real or imagined, often linger in our adult memories and lives. Movies are like a mirror reflecting ourselves, a painting rich with melded colors, a love letter sealed with the kiss of our youth. They compel and define us, sometimes daring us, more often simply opening up our lives to a different way of seeing and feeling. Movies can be prophetic; they condition our lives. This has been the case for me, and a number of specific films have marked my Gay life.
My earliest such memory is Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. I must have been seven or eight years old. I recall sitting in the very back of the theatre and watching the whole thing, wide-eyed, twice in a row. I don’t recall precisely what it was that so awed me. It could have been the rich color of the production, or the very diabolical looking larger-than-life bad queen, or perhaps it was the sheer romance of the whole thing, or even my own inchoate fantasy of wanting to be awoken from a long sleep by a brave and handsome prince. I suspect it may have had a great deal to do with my best friend Edward sitting next to me in the dark. Perhaps his body was leaning ever so lightly on mine. I really don’t recall. I do remember that there was a considerably older usher who smiled at me attractively. Perhaps he was the one who leaned his princely body into mine. Perhaps, like the sleeping princess, I wanted him to carry me away to live with him happily ever after in the enchanted forest. We would have the seven dwarfs as our neighbors, and Pinocchio and Peter Pan would come for dinner parties, and we would all make believe we were asleep so we could be kissed awake by elegant passing princes.
A few years later, I found myself in a different country. Our local church would organize Saturday afternoon film screenings for the kids in the parish. Because I was an altar boy, I would often be asked to serve as prefect to help keep a room full of hormone-crazed boys in some semblance of order. They showed a series of chintzy French films depicting the travels and adventures of Sinbad the Sailor. Sinbad was an often semi-clad, slightly Middle Eastern swarthy-looking muscular character, who spent most of his time swinging from ropes and fighting off nasty pirates. I was in love. He no doubt appealed to my need for adventure, though his brawny body was definitely an added bonus. The church auditorium itself was a turn-on: all those preening and rambunctious boys oozing a slight aroma of spent bodily fluids. I imagined all of us as traveling with Sinbad on his white-sailed ship: fighting and cavorting, laughing and loving, happy as only carefree and dirty boys together can be. But I would be in charge: forcing these wild teenage sailors to obey my commands and fulfill my every wish. They would no doubt rebel, but that was the secret thrill of it. We all knew resistance could only sharpen desire.
Fast forward several years when, as a young adult and a seminarian, at the tail end of that gloriously mad decade of the 1960s, I saw Midnight Cowboy, no doubt one of the truly great films of all times. So much has stuck with me: the clumsy charm and cocky daring of Jon Voight’s cowboy persona, the brilliant montage of Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso, the exotic and slightly repelling underbelly of New York City depicted as a modern-day version of Dante’s Inferno, the unspoken, yet brave love between the two male characters. As with many others, I saw in this film a contemporary parable. Yet the film opened up other vistas, most having to do with the forces then pulling at me. Here I witnessed sex as a hunger and desperate need, and as a source of power and money. On the screen was reaffirmed my conviction that affection between men was a good and noble thing. In my church-induced religious idealism, I saw Ratso as a Christ figure, dying to save his friend from physical and spiritual perdition. Only months after first seeing the movie, I actually found myself living in New York for an entire summer. It was here that I experienced the first real doubts about my vocation. It was as though the Cowboy had cast a spell over me, gently forcing my head onto his lap, giving me what I had always craved. I had yet to realize that I would have to pay him for the privilege.
That very same New York summer, I was hit full-faced by the glorious and stylish bitchiness of The Boys in the Band. Some may argue that the film is homophobic, laced through as it is with Gay self-loathing. There is a measure of truth to this assertion. But for an 18-year-old who had never really been away from the closed world of the seminary, and who knew, deep-down, that he was what he was, this unusual movie came as a liberating force, compelling me to look at, and secretly long for, the campy fun and good times that the boys on the screen were obviously having. Boys gave me my first vicarious taste of Gay life. It seemed to be a life full of witty and sparkling repartee, of handsome men in tight shirts and even tighter pants, and of intimate dinner parties where alcohol flowed desperately freely — not really all that far off from what Gay lives in the 70s turned out to be like, at least for some of us. The film also told me that I was part of a privileged group with its own codes and habits, that there were men out there who truly enjoyed being with each other, and that, though difficult, we could still arrive at some way of living with ourselves and with each other. All in all, this was not such a bad life lesson to be taught, to say nothing of the memorable one-liners that I have overused at many a glittering dinner party.
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Donald L. Boisvert has published several books and articles on Gay spirituality. He is a frequent contributor to White Crane and lives in Montréal, where he teaches religion and sexuality studies.