The very last Blockbuster closed this week. Fittingly, the final movie it loaned out was "This is the End." (I guess "Space Jam" wouldn't have conveyed the same kind of poetics.) And though I haven't rented a movie in years, I have to admit: I felt a little pang.
When I was in high school, one of my friends' and my favorite things to do was hit up the local Blockbuster (and/or the far inferior Hollywood Video) and comb the LGBT section for movies we could sneak down to watch in my parents' basement. Given that this was suburban California in the early 2000s, there wasn't a huge selection, but it still felt special all the same, like we were watching the secrets some of us carried around peeled back onscreen for everyone to peer at.
Those of us who would eventually come out as queer were nowhere close to actually saying it aloud yet -- if I'm remembering right, I think this was right around the time when we'd started the "tentatively run your hand up your sleeping-bag-neighbor's back and listen for her breathing to change in the dark" game, which was as homoerotic as things got for a while -- but I think we regarded these basement sessions as a kind of test. If our friends didn't horror-barf in response to, say, Hugh Grant tenderly tickling some blonde dude in a grassy knoll, maybe they wouldn't be repulsed by us, either.
That's what I mostly remember about watching those movies -- all of us sprawled on the couch together, drinking as much Diet Coke as we could stomach and sneaking glances at each other to try to gauge everyone else's reactions. Occasionally, one of us would say something like "That's hot" in a fit of daring, but mostly we just stayed quiet, watching the grainy flickering of a world that seemed simultaneously too familiar and way, way too far away.
Well, I lied. There's one other thing I remember about those movies -- the fact that they were terrible.
OK, not all of them. The aforementioned Hugh Grant / blonde dude / guy-who-would-someday-play-Lestrade-in-Sherlock movie was beautifully shot, though it was so boring we all drifted into a half-awake stupor that could only be broken by the sight of Rupert Graves's surprise!penis. It also made use of a hilarious eighties-style zoom, which we all enjoyed almost as much as said peen.
And, of course, we also watched a hell of a lot of "Velvet Goldmine," though we had to order that one off the Internet, as no self-respecting Folsom Blockbuster was going to carry such glitter-sticky filth.
But for the most part, they were just awful. There was "Get Real," which gained points for being British but almost immediately lost them for the copious use of the word "lover" to describe the soccer star the protagonist was secretly shagging; "D.E.B.S.,"which has undeniable value to me as a grown adult for Jordana Brewster-related reasons but was mostly just made me feel nonspecifically offended as a teen; and "Reinas," a hijinks-laden romp that was mostly about mothers-in-law causing shenanigans before nearly sabotaging some sort of six-way wedding.
Personally, my favorite was "Sommersturm," mostly because it includes a scene where two nubile young men embrace on a dock and because the inexplicably all-queer rowing team is named "Queerschlag," a moniker my friends and I would scream in the hallways for the rest of the year.
Most of them starred white cis dudes, most of them were either tragic for no apparent reason or irritatingly farcical, and most of them were very, very bad. But we watched them anyway, because they were all we had and they were better than nothing. They proved to us, however clumsily, that what we were feeling wasn't limited to our own heads.
I thought of all this recently when I went to the opening night at the Reeling Film Festival, the second-oldest gay film festival in the world, last week at the Music Box Theater in Chicago. Because of my scheduling issues, I was only able to see one of the films, but I had high hopes for the opener, "G.B.F.," not least because it was directed by "Jawbreaker"'sDarren Stein and featured Megan Mullally, Evanna Lynch and Natasha Lyonne. Before the screening, Programming Director Richard Knight, Jr., gushed over the movie, calling it "hilarious," and a delight, and all those other nice things programming directors call movies when the writers and cast are in the audience.
And in the end, it was … OK.
Well, no. It was pretty bad, actually. The acting was awkward, the main characters cried all the time, it was peppered with throwaway racist and biphobic jokes and there was a whole convoluted plot line about a dude pretending to be gay so the Mormon would-be prom queen would give him a blowie. It was not something I would spend another $15 on, to say the least.
"Ugh," I found myself thinking as I walked out of the theater. "Just this once, I wanted to actually watch a quality LGBT romantic comedy. Why are they all so bad?"
I thought back to my Blockbuster days, when in between "Sommersturm"and "Reinas," we would once in a while venture into the more traditional "Better Off Dead" and "The Breakfast Club"-style fare (because we were Cool Teens). I wanted Gay Anything, and all I'd gotten was another film that presented the fact of its LGBT characters' existence as a viable alternative to compelling plot. Again.
As I meandered home, though, I found myself reflecting more on G.B.F. Sure, it had been bad -- no doubt about that. But I'd also laughed aloud several times while watching it. It had included a makeover montage, two dance-off scenes and an ill-advised curbside hookup with an ostensibly platonic best friend, all essential staples of any Cool Teen movie. In terms of quality -- real, objective quality -- I'd put it somewhere on a scale between "Teen Wolf" and "Easy A," both of which I genuinely enjoy.
Yet I was still being all curmudgeonly about it. I'm willing to give crappy teen comedies a pass for pure saccharine entertainment purposes, but when it comes to similarly bad movies with gay characters, I'm increasingly inclined to write off LGBT comedies as being, well, not worth my $15. And that kind of sucks on my part.
Part of that, I know, is saturation. When there are hundreds of straight comedies on the market and only a handful of LGBT ones, of course the LGBT duds are going to seem worse by comparison. In the past two decades, I can only name maybe a dozen straight teen or romantic comedies that I really liked. If I applied that same ratio to the production numbers of queer films, I'd probably only enjoy five minutes of one movie and then spend the rest of my life grumbling about Kids Today and Their Gay Cinema like a side-shaved version of Statler and/or Waldorf.
But another part of that surliness is a result of the heightened expectations that come with queer representation in film. Like I said, there's just not much of it. So when I do encounter an LGBT character on screen -- or, even better, an LGBT character in a movie full of LGBT characters -- I find myself wanting that character to be unrealistically perfect, every time.
Because movies (and television shows, for that matter) that reflect my queerness, especially the queerness I experienced as a teenager, are so freaking rare in mainstream media, I tend to put them on a pedestal. I'll sit down to watch "Husbands" or "Please Like Me," and all of a sudden, it's like I'm back in my basement in 2002, staring quietly at a screen and waiting to recognize a flash from my own life. Of course I'm left disappointed -- with standards that high, how couldn't I be?
By succumbing to these impulses, though, I consistently commit the same sin that so annoys me in lots of these films -- I'm reducing the entire product to the fact of its queer characters and judging it accordingly. And that's no way to approach LGBT representation, whether it's from a producer or consumer perspective.
It's OK that some queer characters are petty, or shallow, or annoying, or that the films they're in aren't very good. There just has to be more of them. A lot more. Ideally created by queer people. Queer films need to be as diverse, complex and ridiculous as their straight counterparts. Otherwise, they'll just keep getting pigeonholed by idealistic assholes like me.
So no. I ddn't like "G.B.F."Frankly, maybe I wouldn't have liked a lot of the movies at Reeling. But I'm not sure I could trust myself, with all the barriers I build to my own enjoyment, to recognize the good ones when I see them anyway.
Kate is on Twitter: @katchatters