Don’t let the question mark fool you: “Gay Directors, Gay Films?” is definitely about gay cinema. It’s a thorough examination of five openly gay directors who have each made films both obscure and mainstream, and there’s no lack of gayness in their respective oeuvres. Veteran critic and academic Emanuel Levy follows the depiction of sexuality as it’s shown onscreen by gay directors while simultaneously exploring the overall work of these exceptional filmmakers.
Levy is particularly fascinated by Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar — and for good reason. The many stages of his career — the outlandish camp of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” to the affecting melodrama of “All About My Mother” to the more recent darkness of “The Skin I Live In” — make for a compelling arc. Levy peppers his overview with quips, quotes and an appreciation of Almodóvar’s bold choices and deep empathy. “Critical and satirical yet always humanist, Almodóvar’s work is free of judgment or moralizing,” he explains. Many of Almodóvar’s protagonists refuse to conform to gender rules or conventional sexual mores, but he treats their taboo situations matter-of-factly while focusing on their inner lives and emotions.
Terence Davies, whom Levy tackles next, is far more restrained (and far more British). Preoccupied with his own difficult past as well as history and the passing of time in general, his films concern “the influence of subjective memory on everyday life; and the crippling effects of paternal abuse and rigid religiosity on individuals’ welfare and happiness,” says Levy. Of the five directors, he’s “the most rigorous, methodical, and subjective,” and “commercially, Davies is the least accessible.”
The stern approach of Davies’s filmmaking stands in sharp contrast to Almodóvar’s frequently palpable delight. Whether Davies is re-creating his own childhood onscreen, as in his early shorts, or taking on another author’s narrative, as with his adaptation of “House of Mirth,” Davies elevates his work through disciplined craft and a Proustian appreciation of memory. His starkly framed images stand on their own, without making literary allusions or grand metaphors, quite unlike the formal experimentation and subversive social commentary of Todd Haynes, Levy’s third subject.
Haynes toys openly with the artifice of filmmaking. Levy explains, “He used Barbie dolls instead of real actors in ‘Superstar,’ and he cast multiple actors to portray different facets of his sole protagonist, Bob Dylan, in ‘I’m Not There.’ ”
Levy is a bit overzealous in stating just how postmodern and deconstructive Haynes’s techniques are — perhaps a teaching habit Levy formed as a professor — but he does a good job at expounding on the challenging nature of the work. “Haynes assumes that his viewers possess a more highbrow knowledge of history, literature, music, and film — otherwise, they will not comprehend the quotes from Rimbaud, Wilde, and Genet and the allusions to Welles, Sirk, Bowie, and Dylan.”
Where Davies’s work gets specific about the oppressive weight of moral authoritarianism on the lives of those who don’t conform to gendered or sexual expectations, Haynes attacks the very idea of socially constructed roles and identities. In such films as “Far From Heaven,” Haynes depicts frank discussions of sexuality in a historical era, showcasing the changing ways in which people have defined sexuality.
Working with less highbrow theory and much less nudity, Gus Van Sant approaches his gay characters more personally. Levy admires the idiosyncratic, hard-to-imitate style of Van Sant and observes that, while he often features homosexuality in his films, “his concern lies more with working-class youths [and] the painful formation of identities of lower-class adolescents.” Though he veers toward more sentimentality than Davies, they both illustrate class divides as well as moral and sexual divisions.
“Mala Noche,” “Drugstore Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho” all deal with youths on the margins and varying sexual situations, yet Van Sant treats his characters as broadly relatable, even incorporating allusions to Shakespeare to emphasize their transcendence beyond any particular moment. His empathy for outsiders runs through both his smaller films and his bigger productions, such as “Milk,” “Finding Forrester” and “Good Will Hunting.”
One of the best-known American outsiders, John Waters occupies a crucial, unique spot in this book. His general indifference toward technical craft is miles away from the methodical Davies, the art school-educated Van Sant and the highbrow Haynes. Even his love of camp is quite a bit different than that of Almodóvar. He’s more interested in shock than sweetness. The legendary force behind “Pink Flamingos” champions bad taste without bitterness or pretense. “Waters’s films have pushed the envelope, testing the boundaries of what’s acceptable,” Levy writes, “but they have done so in funny and ironic ways, not hateful or angry ones.” Of course, although he works in a very different style than the others, he pushes against social norms in much the same way.
While Levy’s premise drives him to write fondly about five dynamic and worthy auteurs, tossing together anecdotes and analysis to provide a solid introduction to all of them, he falls strangely short of answering the question in his book’s title. The introduction clearly asks what connection exists between the sexuality of film directors and how sexuality crops up in their work, but Levy admits in the conclusion, “I have avoided the issue of the directors’ private lives.” In a different book, that might be laudable, but it seems entirely contrary to this book’s purpose.
Levy’s writing style isn’t entirely focused or compelling, either. He adores his subjects and knows plenty of trivia worth sharing, but amid copious plot summary, he drops in obscure academic vocabulary and patronizingly defines basic film terminology. Although his intentions are noble, in attempting a conversational tone, he alternates between pedantic lecturing, unnecessary personal asides and oddly amateurish declarations as though he were submitting a doctoral thesis.
These unexpected shortcomings aside, “Gay Directors, Gay Films?” is a smart primer on the work of five very deserving directors. Casual film enthusiasts looking for a new trail to follow and readers interested in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender cultural studies should find plenty of material to inspire both movie rentals and thoughtful conversations.
Ryan Little is a writer and musician living in the District.
By Emanuel Levy
Columbia University Press. 378 pp. $35