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The Bear Necessities An Interview with Alonso Duralde, Part One

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The Bear Necessities: An Interview with Alonso Duralde, Part One

Alonso Duralde is the arts and entertainment editor of The Advocate, a longtime friend, and one my favorite people to argue with. His first book, 101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men, is not a straightforward grab-bag of expected high points, but something more complicated and fun: an elliptical history book, recounting 50-odd years of queer and queerish cinema in the form of movie titles and fan’s notes. Affectionate sketches of everything from The Apple and Bear Cub to Xanadu and Zero Patience nestle comfortably alongside personal anecdotes, appreciations and must-memorize snippets of dialogue. On top of that, Alonso is just flat-out fun to read. His bulldog eloquence inspires me. I invited Alonso to discuss his book at The House Next Door. Excerpts will be posted in two parts this weekend. Part one is below.

You take care in your introduction to point out the diversity of gay life, yet here you are, having written a book called 101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men. Reconcile that for me.

While gay men come in all shapes and sizes and personalities and mentalities, there are a few basic things I think we all have in common. I address that in the introduction—mainly that, starting from the shared experience of being men who love men and growing up knowing that we had to keep our true selves secret, there is enough of a common bond to make this list relevant to the gay male viewer, whether he’s a Navy SEAL or a chorus boy.

Also in the introduction, you list assumptions that emboldened you to write this book. Two of them really struck me. One is, “Gay men see through the lie that is 99% of all art.” You go on to say that the typical entertainment industry line of propaganda—get married, have kids, get a house in the suburbs—“sets off a lot of homo bullshit detectors.” You also say, “Gay men know what it’s like to be left outside of the big tent.” Given these truths, which are surely self-evident, where does your overwhelming love of movies come from? For that matter, how do you account for the widespread love for, and interest in, cinema among people who are rarely represented onscreen?

I think most of us who really love movies discover that love at a very early age, before we’re sophisticated enough to analyze the text that much and certainly before we’re ready to analyze ourselves that clearly. Whatever is happening in our lives, we get something out of the movie experience that makes it worthwhile for us. And then later, when we grow up, and we can consciously delineate what does and doesn’t work about the cinema for us, well…we often become critics.

But the sense of fantasy and escape speaks to some people, and I think others are able to rewrite movies in their heads to make them directly appealing. A gay kid can watch a hetero romance and imagine himself in the woman’s place, or at least responding to the feelings being expressed. It’s a kind of simultaneous translation we all do when we see movies. For two hours, you get to be Audrey Hepburn or Samuel Jackson or whoever, and experience different facets of life through those actors. I’d even argue that those of us who aren’t in positions of societal power might need the movies even more.

I love the handy graphic icons you explain in the front of the book. You have an icon for “Art Directed as All Get-Out” and “Beautiful Disaster” and “Divas on the Rampage.” But I’d like a bit more explanation of “Closet Be Damned.”

The coming-out movie is something of a staple of queer cinema, and while coming-out stories can be interesting, I think there’s a general acknowledgment among filmmakers and audiences alike that they’re kind of played out at the moment. Anyway, “Closet Be Damned” designates a film in which, at some point, someone in the movie leaves the hiding behind and comes out of the closet.

Not always in the obvious sense, though, right? I mean, would you consider X-Men 2 a “Closet Be Damned” movie?

Metaphorically, absolutely, and if I get to write a sequel, I certainly plan to include that one. I gave Carrie the “Closet Be Damned” icon since I think it’s a metaphorical coming-out story.

She even has a fundamentalist freakshow mom who thinks she’s the devil’s spawn.

Bingo. Plus awful high school classmates making her life hell. As I point out in the book, she even makes that stealthy trip through the card catalog that many gay men do, only instead of looking up “homosexuality,” she looks up “telekinesis.”

Another icon question: name three actress who would be on your list of “Women Sexy Enough to Give Fags a Tingle.” And please hint at why you feel they earned that honor.

Hmmm…I’d go with Audrey Hepburn, Catherine Deneuve and Greta Garbo. But I’m sure any gay man could name his own three. And I think some people are so sexy that they defy orientation. Look at Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt—I daresay that there’s not a man or woman, gay or straight, on this planet who would turn down the opportunity to bang either of them. They’re like a perfect storm of sex.

There is an omnisexual, all-bets-are-off quality to them, as if they are surrounded by an energy field that says, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

They send the needle on the Kinsey meter spinning around and around. Gina Gershon’s another one. You can be as gay as the day is long, but if she licked her lips and came hither, you’d have to at least think about it.

Speaking of Gina Gershon: You have two Paul Verhoeven/Joe Eszterhas collaborations on your list of must-sees, Basic Instinct and Showgirls. On a camp level—knowing or otherwise—I understand why they had to make the list. But they’re problematic in that they’re part of that ’80s-early ’90s Hollywood trend of making genre pictures that reflected the worldview of sexist, macho, coked-up Hollywood producers. Everybody in the Verhoeven/Eszterhas world is a raving brute, even the ladies. And yet, I wonder: does this type of film fall under the heading of, “So straight it’s gay?” Did these two collaborations, which were surely never intended to appeal to gay audiences, inadvertently end up as heterosexual minstrel shows?

While I think we can look at movies from the early ’90s and analyze them through our own modern filters as easily as we can do it for movies from the ’50s, let’s look at them separately.

I think Basic Instinct is important because of its timing in the culture. In 1991 and 1992, you have the New Queer Cinema movement launching with filmmakers like Todd Haynes and Jennie Livingston and Gregg Araki. And while gay and lesbian cinema is gathering a real sense of momentum, you have Hollywood responding with a movie about a vampy bisexual icepick murderess. But then interestingly, after all the protests the film received, Sharon Stone’s Catherine Trammell character actually became something of an icon among queer women, because she’s sexy, she’s smart, and she’s got everyone in the movie wrapped around her finger. No matter what a filmmaker’s intent, it’s ultimately the audience that gives a work its own meaning and resonance.

As for Showgirls, while the lesbianism is clearly tossed in strictly for hetero titillation, it’s the kind of movie that camp-loving gay men adore: over-the-top and eminently quotable. In fact, I often say that if it weren’t for the horrific rape towards the end of the movie—the one moment where Showgirls feels like an old-school Verhoeven film—it would have become the new Valley of the Dolls. But for me—and I argue this point with my husband all the time—it’s an unwelcome dose of realism in a film that’s been all cartoon up to that point.

There is certainly something to be said for the notion that queers love the film because it’s full of bonkers heteros. And while I find Showgirls to be generally risible, I can’t entirely discount the arguments of those who claim it’s a true work of art. I will enjoy watching the debate continue to unfold as the years pass.

Not to imply depths that aren’t there, but since we’re talking about projection, it is pretty interesting that Catherine Trammell ends the movie entangled in a weird facsimile of what you call “the lie that is 99% of all art.” She’s sharing a house with Nick and banging him like a good little wife and presumably counting down the days until she squeezes out 2.5 kids. But the audience never believes it, and the movie doesn’t seem to believe it either. And then the director pretty much tells you that she’s hanging onto that icepick, just in case.

Exactly. I think they went through several endings, because activists had gotten hold of a script and were trying to spoil the movie for people. But I think Verhoeven definitely leaves it hanging in the air that she’s got that icepick handy, and that Michael Douglas had just better watch his saggy ass, or else.

You write of Miguel Abaladejo’s Bear Cub with such tenderness and sincerity. Tell me why it meant so much to you.

Well, since my parents were both born in Spain, I have a definite soft spot in my heart for Spanish cinema. And as a chubby gay guy with a beard, I was definitely pleased to see a movie about fags who eat carbs and don’t live in the gym. It’s not a perfect movie, by any means, but I think the film’s principal relationship—between a bearish dentist and his nephew—is very delicately and delightfully written and acted. Certainly for gay men who identify as bears, or even those of us who just look that way, it’s a thrill to see a movie that isn’t about your typical buff, chest-waxed homo.

Due to a fluke of timing, this book just happened to come out as a wave of diverse gay-themed films crested and broke. Obviously Brokeback Mountain is the big one, but there are others: Breakfast on Pluto, Mysterious Skin, Transamerica, Capote, and on and on. Of these movies, which one do you most wish you had been able to include, and why?

If I had to pick just one, I’d certainly go with Brokeback Mountain, which has clearly had the most impact on the public at large of any gay film in American cinema history—and we’re still in the first two months of release. But while I listed Mysterious Skin as part of the “Auteur Alert” for Gregg Araki in the chapter on The Living End, I certainly would have talked more about it in the book had I had the opportunity, because I think the film is both a work of extraordinary power and also a real leap for Araki as a filmmaker.

I seem to keep having the same argument over and over with regard to Brokeback: The main gripe against it is that it’s not daring enough to merit such attention, that it’s too emotionally constricted and aesthetically conservative—too Hollywood—and that its success is more a political than artistic triumph. I counter that the movie’s foursquare classicism is what makes it so genuinely subversive, much more so than movies that are frankly a lot more creatively adventurous. At the same time, though it’s an uncompromised, personal film compared with some of the socially significant predecessors it’s been compared to—Gentleman’s Agreement, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, Philadelphia—and it will hold up better than those movies because its political agenda is not central but marginal, if in fact it truly even has one. On this spectrum of opinion, where do you stand and why?

I agree with you—it’s the accessibility and traditional narrative that makes Brokeback so very effective for audiences. There has been an active queer independent cinema movement in this country for 15 years or so, but Brokeback is the kind of movie that doesn’t have the chill of the art house about it. Regular folks are seeing it and being moved by it, and that’s where its power lies. And while the film certainly doesn’t wear an agenda on its sleeve, I’d go so far as to say that Brokeback Mountain has the potential to be the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of gay marriage; Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel allowed readers to empathize with the horrors of slavery, and “Brokeback” will probably be, for many viewers, their first glimpse at the notion that there is a real, human cost to homophobia. But the powerful love story at its center, and the lack of speechifyin’, should give it a better shelf life than the films you mentioned.

If you want to ask Alonso a question, argue with him or make a recommendation, post a comment below, or send him an email at 101GayMovies@AdvocateBooks.Com.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.