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The Ache of Desire

The Ache of Desire

It’s a strange feeling: adoring cinema while at the same time always sensing that it’s not made for you. This is how I felt growing up, at least. I came of age watching movies, crushing on them so hard that they became the only true romance of my tender years. Yet so many of the ones that I watched seemed to have something in common: the implicit message that love and sex existed only between men and women. There were exceptions, peeking out from the corners in my young film education: The Color Purple, with its chaste yet undeniably amorous kiss between Whoopi Goldberg and Margaret Avery; Cabaret, in which Michael York admitted to cheating on Liza Minnelli with Helmut Griem; and Persona, which I’ll never forget watching for the first time, in my bedroom on a VHS rented from my local library, wondering just what was the nature of the attraction-repulsion between Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann, mysterious, beautiful women whose bond certainly didn’t conform to any standards I had been conditioned to. But these were the disrupters, the odd ducks among the rows and rows of films that, no matter how much they might later be embraced by queer studies, were quietly reinforcing mainstream—i.e. “straight”—culture.

With its shakes and shudders, its unexpected cuts or longing, unbroken glances, cinema all but quivers with lust. The form itself cannot live, might have never lived, without human desire to give it shape and meaning. What was one of the first films ever shown to the public but Edison’s 1896 short The Kiss? The camera looks, we look, the actors look. The dream world of the movies functions on the assumption that we in some way crave, idealize, or fetishize the people we see on-screen, whose faces, bodies, and lives we can never touch. In a sense, then, cinema is a denial of our physical pleasure, a strictly imaginary evocation of what we want. The movies show us our dreams, but they’re behind a thick, unnavigable fog that keeps them forever just out of reach.

The sense that cinema is an unrepentant flirt, or for some a diabolical tease, is particularly heightened for the queer viewer. With more socially acceptable heterosexual desires already policed by restrictive codes, gay desire has long been especially obscured. The Motion Picture Production Code in the U.S., for instance—first prescribed in 1930, then seriously enforced in 1934—regulated gayness by labeling it as “sex perversion” and moved on, better to have inferred rather than actually writing that nasty word “homosexual.” This attitude was largely true in film industries across the globe for most of the last century (and unfortunately remains the standard in much of the world, despite incremental steps toward progress). As a result, the handful of movies from the first half of the twentieth century that dared to thrum and burn with queer desire have stood out like sparkling rubies in a vast, dark wasteland: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Michael (1924), Germaine Dulac’s Princess Mandane (1928), Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (1930), Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform (1931), George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour (1950)—all thrill from the margins, pointing toward an alternate, queer film history that has long existed in parallel to the given narrative of film history taught in colleges and textbooks. There was no such thing as “heterosexuality” until, in the late nineteenth century, “homosexuality” was coined to define its alleged opposite. To consider cinematic history without identifying the queerness that makes its “non-queerness” definable is irresponsible, or at least shortsighted.

“To locate queerness on film, one needs to be attuned to the erotic longing that courses through the medium.”

“The heart wants what it wants, but as Stranger by the Lake reminds us, so do the genitals. ”

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