Lambda Literary Goes to the Movies: Authors’ Favorite Films
Literature has served as a touchstone for queer people through the ages—from the 19th and 20th century works of authors like Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein to the present day stories of Dorothy Allison and Michael Cunningham—but the written word is not the only art form that has impacted the LGBT community. Over the past several decades, film has introduced us to a variety of queer characters with stories just as powerful as those written in a book. Great stories, no matter what form they take, have the capability to lift us from dangerous places, to show us that we are never alone, to remind us that there are other people in the world who share our experiences, whether they are painful and frightening or uplifting and inspirational. But stories, at their best, also remind us that there are people in the world who are different than ourselves, people with different beliefs, backgrounds, genders, sexualities, ambitions, desires, and even fears.
This week the Lambda Literary Review honors the impact great storytellers of all kinds have had on our lives by switching things up a bit. What was formerly known as the Lambda Literary Review will be converted into something a little more like the Lambda Cinema Review. These past few months we asked some of today’s most prominent LGBT authors to share with us their very favorite films, and for some of today’s most impactful queer filmmakers to tell us the LGBT books they love the most. For the next seven days we will be sharing their answers with you, along with a few other surprises.
To start off Lambda Literary goes to the Movies week, here’s what the authors had to say about their favorite films:
Authors: What are your three favorite films?
Michael Albo is an American writer, comedian, actor and humorist. He has written two novels, one novella, and his fiction and essays have appeared in several anthologies including Please! More Humor Writing from The New Yorker and Queer 13: Lesbian and Gay Writers Recall Seventh Grade.
My first answer to that question is always, always: Pedro Almodovar’s La Ley Del Deseo (Law of Desire, 1987). I first watched it in the library of my college, on a big computer screen, when I was 19, in 1988, looking behind my back to see if anyone else was watching this lusty, very gay, very urban story. It is messy and passionate and probably Almodovar’s least self-castigating film in terms of gayness (his later films seem to be so mean towards their gay characters, have you noticed?)….Sometimes I think about why exactly I attached so much to this movie, and if I would have had a more stable life if I had obsessed over a more mainstream fare. But for whatever weird reason, Law of Desire depicted the kind of life I wanted to have in the future, even though it involved murder and Antonio Banderas as a stalker. The characters’ lives were complicated, the weather was hot, they wore soft cotton blazers…not that I wanted all that drama, but maybe, at 19, I understood that drama was what I was going to experience anyway, so I may as well start liking it. The sorrowful and sexy Eusebio Poncela (his eyes are the color of a swimming pool in summer) plays Pablo, a gay film director who has just released his latest film. In a party after the premiere he meets Antonio (Antonio Banderas). They fuck (a hot scene)…but Pablo is still in love with Juan, his totally beautiful and wispy boyfriend (played by the gorgeous Manuel Molinas, who should have won an Oscar for his portrayal of that kind of “I love you but I am going to be really unattainable” pretty boy). Meanwhile Pablo’s sister Tina, (the always fantastic Carmen Maura) is a transexual coming to terms with her relationship to their father. The story of an out gay writer with a trans sister and a passionate and confusing life electrified me back then, and still does. It always reminds me that the way to live life is to just let it constantly electrocute you…to live deeply and fully, and that, maybe, there is no point to ever think you can ever “settle down.”
Stephen Beachy is the author of two books and two novellas. His fiction has been published in BOMB, Chicago Review, Blithe House Quarterly, SHADE, and various other anthologies. He has written literary criticism for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and published a nonfiction article for New York Magazine in 2005.
An unforgettable film that has only recently become available through Criterion is Kuroneko, a 1968 ghost story by the great Japanese director Kaneto Shindo, best known in America for Onibaba. It’s absolutely gorgeous black and white, beautiful and horrific. It’s political, tragic and morally complex. See it on the big screen, if you ever get the chance. One of my all-time favorites is The Brood. In 1979, before his blockbusters and Viggo Mortensen, David Cronenberg was at the height of his powers. The performances are brilliant, the mood is creepy, and the murderous brood of gremlins — manifestations of one woman’s rage through a process of a new therapy that produces biological changes — is terrifying. A genius and prescient examination of a whole range of issues — narcissistic parenting, amoral therapists and their delusional patients, the mind/body continuum, abuse and fantasy — that seem crucial to understanding the 80s in all their lurid glory. Finally, Rock Hudson gives the performance of his career and a gay subtext to John Frankenheimer’s incredible Seconds (1966) about an unhappy married man who is offered a second try at life by a sinister organization called The Company. With plastic surgery, he gets a whole new identity. Unfortunately, the choice between the conformist corporate life he is fleeing and a new, more Dionysian life in Malibu isn’t actually much of a choice, and The Company‘s business plan reveals itself as being as mercenary and nihilistic as one would expect. Chilling and brilliant.
Bryan Borland is a multi-time Pushcart-nominated poet from Alexander, Arkansas, and the owner of Sibling Rivalry Press. He is the editor of Assaracus: A Journal of Gay Poetry, and has written two collections of poetry.
There’s a wonderful movie tied to the most important summer of my youth, that being the summer of 1993, the first summer that the inner workings of my heart began to make themselves known. It’s called That Night (1992), starring Juliette Lewis (based on a novel by Alice McDermott). A young girl falls into hero-worship with an older teenage girl, the cool kid on her street (the bad girl, played flawlessly by Lewis). I had a cool kid living down the street from me who was also a bad boy. I felt it was my story, and from that summer through the next, I spent many hot afternoons rewinding it on my VCR, eventually watching it with the bad boy sitting right next to me. I think we may have even held hands—or at least touched shoulders.
Michael Bronski is senior lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies and in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. He has written extensively on film, books, theater, and LGBT issues for four decades, in both mainstream and queer publications. He is the author of three books.
The movies—two old and two more recent—I would watch in a cool dark room are:
The Uninvited—a now little known 1944 Hollywood hit directed by Lewis Allen that is a lesbian ghost story, and at its heart about the fear of queerness.
Bell, Book, and Candle—a 1958 romantic comedy with Kim Novak, James Stewart, and Jack Lemon about witches who live in Greenwich Village. Adopted from a play by the gay writer John van Druten, its gay subtext is so obvious it actually seems to be the text at times.
Parting Glances—Bill Sherwood’s great, funny, insightful 1986 look at the romantic entanglements of three generations of gay men in NY grappling with love, sex, and AIDS. It is so smart and so on-target it feels fresher now then it did over 25 years ago.
Cat People—a great Val Lewton thriller from 1942, which has, given the time, striking feminist (and even lesbian) politics and is really scary as well.
Writer/music fan living in Brooklyn. Author of the novel The Vast Fields of Ordinary. He loves books, good food, tequila, and the beach.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is by far my favorite film. What does it for me is the fact that Hitchcock manages to make a mystery based on romance and desire, not murder, larceny, or psychotic birds. Jimmy Stewart is pitch perfect as a man obsessed, and Kim Novak’s desperation in the film’s climax is as nightmarish as anything from the goriest horror film. I’ve always experienced Vertigo as a slippery, impressionistic thing. The moment it ends, I find I can barely remember what I just saw. Instead, all I can do is focus on the feeling of unease I’m left with. And of course, this usually leads to me immediately watching it again.
Staceyann Chin is a Jamaican-Born, Brooklyn-Living, Woman-Loving, Writer/Poet, LGBT Political Activist and Performance Artist. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Pittsburgh Daily, and has been featured on 60 Minutes.
The Hours (2002)
Tipping the Velvet (2002)
Set it off (1996)
Ivan E. Coyote
Born and raised in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Ivan Coyote is an award-winning author of eight books, three CDs, and four short films, and is an acclaimed spoken word performer.
My favourite movies are:
Harold and Maude (1971)
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Freaks (the original from the 30s by Tod Browning)
Farzana Doctor is a Toronto-based, Lambda Award-winning author of two books, and a social worker in private practice.
Here are my top 3 films:
Monsieur Lazhar (2011) by Philippe Farlardeau. This film just came out this past year. It’s a touching story about an Algerian immigrant’s challenges claiming a new life in Montreal and wrestling with losses from his past.
What I Love About Being Queer (2012) by Vivek Shraya. The official launch of this film is next week in Toronto, but I got a sneak peak. Its title suggests it all.
Fire (1996) by Deepa Mehta. This was the very first film I’d ever seen that depicted queer Indian women. It was lovely to see characters to whom I could relate.
Emma Donoghue is an award-winning and best-selling author of seven novels, five short story collections and three literary history books, as well as two anthologies of literature ranging from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Steven G. Fullwood is the founder of Vintage Entity Press (VEP) and the author of the book Funny and co-editor of the collections Think Again and To Be Left with the Body. Fullwood’s writings have appeared in various publications including Library Journal, Black Issues Book Review, XXL and Vibe.
Love Is the Devil (1998)
I repeatedly return to the following films because they excite, haunt and delight me. I’m obsessed with The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodovar’s 18th feature film, a lyrical masterwork that concerns itself with taking apart the body’s largest organ, the skin. Lar Von Trier’s often lambasted Melancholia is hardly what it seems. One critic referred to it as the Danish director’s meditation on the apocalypse, but that’s a lazy read. Melancholia is a cosmically comical, deftly rendered drama about pairs: sisters and planets and the cataclysmic events surrounding both. But it is John Maybury’s Love is the Devil, a dark look at painter British Francis Bacon, a portrait that whines, crackles and pops—which for me sums up this trio of film’s enduring appeal. Bacon’s genius—a reimagining of the body in motion—exposes muscle, meaning and madness. Love is the Devil captures the painter’s preoccupations sans exploitation. Each film is a sensual exploration into/of the body, of the skin you and I endeavor to live or die in. All are lush, exceptionally well shot and scored films that demand a viewer’s full attention. For the impatient they plod along; for the patient they slip in softly, seduce and sting.
Alan Hollinghurst is the award winning author of the three novels, including The Spell and The Line of Beauty, which won the Man Booker Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Peter Brook’s King Lear (1971)—a brutally bleak film with no music at all, shot in Denmark in the winter, the perfect antidote to heatwave hedonism.
Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938)—the Battle on the Ice with Prokofiev’s extremely chilly music.
I should say these are not my favourite movies by a long way but they are both distinctly ”cool.”
Wayne Koestenbaum is an award-winning American poet and cultural critic. He has written six books of poetry, six books of cultural criticism, and three novels.
High and Low (1963), by Akira Kurosawa, starring Toshiro Mifune.
Tom Léger is an essayist, dramatic writer and publisher/co-founder of Topside Press. He lives in New York City. He is the co-editor of The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard.
United In Anger (2012). Jim Hubbard’s documentary about ACT-UP is basically a how-to manual for starting a political movement that is targeted and serious. ACT-UP is one of the greatest legacies we have as young queer people and United in Anger gives us access to that in an immediate and useful way.
One of the funny things about United in Anger is the credits, which are so long, and must have thousands of names of people and organizations, and honestly they are so long it gets kind of ridiculous. But the crazy thing is that you sit there and see all those go by and realize that this film is really the product of 30 years of community-building, and Jim is at the helm of this vast, vast effort that is so much bigger than just one man or one team. And maybe that is the most useful lesson right there.
The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls In Love (1995). Director Maria Maggenti’s story about two teenage dykes falling in love in high school became a primary text for me in high school. One of the reasons it really stands as one of the best films about young lesbians ever made is that it was so honest and it didn’t try to create an image of lesbians that would be palatable for straight people. Two Girls In Love made me understand that I was a real person in a way that few films even attempted to at the time, or since. When Maria Maggenti got into NYU film school she stood up at an ACT-UP meeting and said something like, “I’m going to make movies about lesbians,” and asked for donations, and she got them. This movie is the result of a sort of prehistoric kickstarter, and it’s so good.
Parting Glances (1986). This is one of my favorite AIDS movies because Act 3 isn’t just about dying, it’s funny and sad and real. It’s the first and only film by director Bill Sherwood, who died of AIDS in 1990. Also, it’s one of Steve Buscemi’s first films and his character is hysterical, everything I ever want in a movie, and like nothing he has done since. For that reason alone it’s worth seeing because it represented a time when art was really being made by the people in New York about their own lives and still breaking into the mainstream, in contrast with a deep bifurcation today where there is a clear separation between the art makers and the business of art.
Catherine Lundoff is the award-winning author of three short story collections, and the editor of two lesbian fantasy anthologies. Her stories have appeared in over 70 publications.
I’ve got a number of favorite films but I thought I’d focus on some of my favorites which are writing/writer-related.
Impromptu (1991). Terrific and wildly entertaining film about the romance between writer George Sand (Judy Davis) and composer Frederic Chopin (Hugh Grant), despite their differences and their social circle which includes de Musset, Liszt, Delacroix and some hapless aristocrats. The cast includes performances by Bernadette Peters, Julian Sands, Mandy Patinkin and Emma Thompson. Judy rocks a top hat, pants and tails throughout (as Sand did much of her adult life) and there are some splendid gender play scenes. She also actually writes and meets with her publisher during the movie, which is somewhat unusual in films about writers.
Cold Comfort Farm (1995). Young Flora Post (Kate Beckinsale) moves to the English countryside in the 1920s to live with her wildly dysfunctional relatives while she gathers material for her novel. Includes performances by Sir Ian McKellen, Joanna Lumley, Rufus Sewell and Stephen Fry. Flora writes purple prose and references Jane Austen while attempting to “tidy up” her newfound relatives. Absolutely hilarious satire of literature that paints an idyllic picture of English rural life. One of the funniest films I’ve ever seen and it holds up well to rewatching.
Pariah (2011). Really good indie film about a young African-American butch wrestling with identity, family homophobia and other issues, while aspiring to a writing career. The performances are all good but the lead actress, Adepero Oduya, is amazing. Can’t recommend this one enough.
Ayana Mathis is the recipient of the 2011-12 Michener Copernicus Fellowship and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop’s Teaching Writing Fellowship. Her debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, was released with Knopf in fall, 2012 and was selected for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.
(Not necessarily in this order—it was hard enough to choose just three, I don’t think I can rank them!)
Ayanna Muhammad aka Red Summer, is an activist, educator, entrepreneur, writer, poet and performance artist. She is the founder of Two Fingers Press Publishing Company and the executive director of Verbal Remedies.
Watermelon Woman (1996)
Dirty Laundry (2006)
Finding Me (2009)
The Color Purple (1985)
U People (2009)
Edmund White is an American novelist, as well as a writer of memoirs and an essayist on literary and social topics. Much of his writing is on the theme of same-sex love. His best-known books are The Joy of Gay Sex (1977) (written with Charles Silverstein) and his trio of autobiographic novels, A Boy’s Own Story (1982), The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) and The Farewell Symphony (1997).
The Outsider (1961), starring Tony Curtis.
Emanuel Xavier is an award-winning American poet, spoken word artist, author, editor, literary events curator, and actor born and raised in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn. He has written three collections of poetry, one novel and edited two anthologies of queer and Latino poetry. He has been featured on television on Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry on HBO.
Paris Is Burning (1995) is the one documentary I have watched numerous times and could easily sit through over and over again. Of course, I knew just about everyone featured in the film and it’s probably more of a bittersweet, sentimental home video for me personally. I suppose it really shaped my formative years. I remember being inspired when it first came out as it truly captured the life I had experienced. It made some of my friends famous and I was really excited for them. It spoke to me on so many levels. I know it has evoked so many conflicting emotions throughout the years but its influence on our culture throughout the years and so many quote-worthy lines are undeniable.