Where we’re at with queer TV

Beware: This blog does contain spoilers.

The representation of gay, lesbian and queer stories on television has evolved quite a bit in the last few years – thank goodness. It still has a fair way to go, according to many, but I thought I’d take a look at some of the queer shows and characters we’re watching these days. And they’re not all about pretty young people; the stories are much more diverse.

Thanks to the wonders of streaming TV, we’re getting to see some pretty good – and diverse – queer content. Netflix has the following:

Grace and Frankie: Jane Fonda (Grace) and Lily Tomlin (Frankie)play sixty-ish women whose husbands Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterson) have divorced them to marry each other after 20 years of an undercover affair. It’s a sitcom, of course, with Fonda playing an uptight ex-businesswoman and Tomlin playing a flaky hippy, but it deals with the issues that coming out later in life raise, for the wives, the husbands, and their children. It’s easy to watch, and like, but tells a story not often seen on TV.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Another sitcom, one that centres around Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), a girl rescued from an underground shelter where she’d been imprisoned by a doomsday cult leader for 15 years, and her efforts to come to terms with a very different world. She ends up sharing a New York flat with the ambitious but out-of-work actor Titus (Tituss Burgess), who is gay and black. It’s camp and silly and can be a little forced, but there’s enough sly humour to make it work. And Titus, while being an exaggerated stereotype, pokes fun and holes in the stereotype.

Orange is the New Black: This series, set, if you didn’t know, in a female prison, is four seasons in, and is not only full of strong performances and storylines, but, perhaps not surprisingly, features a whole range of queer characters, from trans-women to femme lesbians, butch lesbians, sometime-lesbians and every number on the Kinsey scale in between. And they’re all flawed, real characters who you love sometimes, and other times just want to slap.

London Spy: This British five-part series stars Ben Wishaw as Danny, a London gay man, who after a night out, has a chance encounter with a handsome man Joe (Edward Holcroft) jogging alongside the Thames – as you do. A whirlwind romance ensues, but Joe isn’t exactly who he says he is, and when he goes missing, Danny discovers he’s actually a spy. Also starring Jim Broadbent as Danny’s older gay friend Scottie, and Charlotte Rampling as Joe’s frosty mother, it’s a thriller where the characters’ sexuality is certainly part of the tale, but not the focus – thankfully.

Meanwhile, over on Stan:

Transparent: With three seasons now available, this show covers a lot of ground – in a very honest, uncensored and unfiltered way. It’s the story of Mort/Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), and older man who is transitioning from male to female, and how that affects his family. It’s an incredibly intelligent and complex exploration of sexuality and gender on a very personal level, and it does so with a remarkably neutral tone. It’s not preaching and not Queer Politics 101, but it offers a number of different opinions, experiences and responses from the very human characters. But it does treat transgender issues with respect, and that’s not something we’ve seen a lot of on television before.

UnREAL: Also on Stan, but SBS2 has broadcast the first season, this is a dark, dark mockumentary satire on reality TV, especially shows like The Bachelor. It’s not queer as such, but it does feature a gay producer, and one of the contestants in the first series comes out as a lesbian – quite prescient, given this year’s Australian series of The Bachelor saw two contestants fall in love with each other.

Elsewhere, via HBO, there’s Looking, with Andrew Haigh, who wrote and directed the wonder UK film, Weekend, as executive producer. It revolves around three close friends – all gay men – and their lives in San Francisco. Understated, and like Transparent, non-judgemental, it stars Jonathan Groff, Frankie J Alvarez and Murray Bartlett as the three friends, and features Russell Tovey and Scott Bakula, amongst others, as satellite characters and/or love interests. It ran for only two seasons, and a feature film in 2016 ties up all the loose ends, but it’s a shame that such an honest representation of gay lives on screen wasn’t given more room to breathe.

Closer to home, there’s not been much in the way of queer stories on commercial TV, biopics of peter Allen and Molly Meldrum aside. Even gay supporting characters have become thin on the ground in local drama, but SBS and the ABC have been more active.

Earlier this year, SBS broadcast the series Deep Water, a murder mystery set in Bondi about a series of murders of gay men that unearth unsolved murders from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Starring Noah Taylor and Yael Stone (Orange is the New Black) as police detectives Nick Manning and Tori Lustigman, the story is mostly told through Lustigman’s eyes, whose gay brother was murdered many years ago. An important story based on actual events, but there was some criticism that it was a ‘straight’ telling of a dark chapter in Sydney’s gay history.

The ABC has come to the party better dressed with a number of shows from Matchbox Pictures, headed by Michael McMahon and his partner Tony Ayres. Along with Glitch, an intriguing story of long-dead people climbing out of their graves in a country Victorian town – one of whom *Spoiler* is a young WWI soldier who’s gay, they also gave us Barracuda, based on the novel by Christos Tsiolkas.

It’s about Danny (Elias Anton), a working class teenager who wins a scholarship at an elite Melbourne private school because of his swimming prowess. Along with the difficulties involved in fitting in to such a smug and privileged social class, he’s also dealing with his emerging sexuality. So it’s a gay story told by a gay man and gay executive producers, and it aired in a primetime slot on ABC1. Being gay isn’t even a big part of the miniseries; it’s just one element, dealt with in an understated but effective way. And that’s a great step forward for Australian television.

Barracuda is not alone on the ABC. Josh Thomas and his series Please Like Me has just finished screening its fourth season on ABC1 – after previous seasons were broadcast on ABC2. In this latest season, Josh and his friends have had to grow up and become ‘adults’, and in doing so, the series itself has too.

While this continuing development and sophistication shows Thomas has grown as a writer and performer, one of the things that makes this series unique and refreshing is that it’s unapologetic and not issue-driven about Josh’s sexuality. His gay life, including family dynamics, friendships, relationships and sex life are presented frankly, but not milked for its sexuality. If anything, it’s more about mental health, and this is also expressed in a very matter-of-fact way. Even the surprising – and very moving – penultimate episode, where *Spoiler* Josh discovers his mother has taken her own life, is beautifully and sensitively understated.

Please Like Me celebrates gay life, but it also pokes fun at it, exposes its ugly aspects and recognises its sad times too, just like many other straight ensemble series have done. Being gay is not seen as something out of the ordinary, and really shows that Australian television has indeed come a long way. It, and the other shows included in this blog, just need to keep that momentum going.

Melbourne Queer Film Festival 2016 – part two

Proudly DifferentFor the second weekend of this year’s Melbourne Queer Film Festival, I headed across to Cinema Nova in Carlton on Friday night – the first time it’s hosted MQFF screenings – and saw In The Grayscale (Chile, Claudio Marcone).

InTheGrayscale2

Bruno likes Fer’s stubble against his cheek.

Architect Bruno has recently moved into his grandfather’s workshop, away from his wife and young son, because he’s got some stuff to work out. While researching a new building project in Santiago, he meets tour guide Ferdinand, openly – and black-and-white – gay, and of course, there’s an attraction.

Not surprisingly, that attraction ends up in a very steamy and erotic sex scene, and while it’s quite the revelation for Bruno, he’s still got some things to work out – including exactly what this new project will actually be. Ferdinand, however, isn’t really up for indecision.

All of this is not exactly new, but it does make for a thoughtful story, and even though the metaphor of a bridge to joing two different worlds comes close to overstatement, not everything is tied up neatly at the end, because life rarely is that tidy.

BeautifulSomething4

It seems very clear that Jim is definitely a beautiful… something.

Beautiful Something (USA, Joseph Graham) isn’t particularly tidy either – but it’s messy in a different way. It follows the activities of four gay men across one night in Philadelphia: Brian, the damaged poet; Jim, the pretty muse and model; Drew, the driven sculptor; and Bob, the restless talent agent. Paths cross, lots of sex is had, decisions are made and inspiration found.

Oh, Brian just reeks of damaged hipster poet, doesn't he?

Oh, Brian just reeks of damaged hipster poet, doesn’t he?

At times, the characters, especially Brian, veer towards stereotype, and the search for a real connection and acknowledgement is a little prosaic, but the film and the characters are admirably unapologetic, and there are some well observed scenes about love, lust and intimacy.

The same can’t be said for the Saturday night 10.30 session, Everlasting Love (Spain, Marcal Fores). Lecturer Carlos enjoys crusing the local forest-slash-beat, to watch and engage in anonymous sex, but his encounter with one of his students, Toni, leads him into disturbing territory. Because Toni has some very dodgy friends…
If you go into the woods today...

If you go into the woods today…

While I appreciate the programme note writer’s wish not to give the ending away, this film should have come with a warning, to be honest. It’s not that I’m averse to horror, or queer horror, but a heads-up wouldn’t have gone astray. And yes, there were walkouts when it became too gruesome.

Ah yes, this main image for the film is on screen for all of five seconds.

Ah yes, this main image for the film is on screen for all of five seconds.

All that aside, it wasn’t the best edited film I’ve ever seen. Following the plot wasn’t always easy, and some of it was just poorly scripted – in an effort, I imagine, to create the shock ending. Oh well, at least it was the only turkey I saw this year.

Greg Louganis - doing what he does best.

Greg Louganis – doing what he does best.

 

Back on Board: Greg Louganis (USA, Cheryl Furjanic), not surprisingly, is a documentary about openly gay and HIV-positive Olympian Greg Louganis. It explores his early career as a diver, and how he became the world’s greatest diver, with Olympic records still unbroken 28 years later. It also charts the more recent battle to save his houyse, and his reintroduction into the diving world.

Greg is now a handsome silver fox.

Greg is now a handsome silver fox.

With lots of archival footage, and frank and candid interviews with Louganis and his coaches, it’s an absorbing and well-crafted film. Louganis was – and still is, in his early 50s – an infredibly handsome man, and footage of his Olympic diving demonstrates his skill, grace and beauty as a diver. It also affirms that diving showcases the male physique at its best.

These white Speedos are just a little sexy...

These white Speedos are just a little sexy…

And of course, there were plenty of Speedos – including the very racy, slightly transparent white Speedos Louganis wore at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Nineteen

Nineteen

Our final session for 2016 was the Australian Shorts program – always on the list because it’s interesting to see what’s happening in our local filmmaking industry. This year featured a strong selection of films, covering a wide range of outlooks, experiences and approaches.

The Summer of ABC Burns

The Summer of ABC Burns

Oasis1

Oasis

Winning the City of Melbourne Award for the Best Australian Short this year was Nineteen (Madeleine Kelly), the story of a vulnerable young man’s encounter with a rent boy. Taking the Film Victoria Award for Best Director was Dannika Horvat for The Summer of ABC Burns, a well-told tale of schoolgirl love and popularity. And the Shaun Miller Lawyers Award for Emerging Australian Filmmaker went to Joshua Longhurst for Oasis, an understated story of an awkward boy’s interaction in a caravan park shower block with the object of his desire.

Other notable shorts include Cake (Jacintho Muinos), a fun film about a Grindr hookup and its consequences, and Marrow (Stevie Cruz-Martin), a brave and confronting self portrait of sexuality and disability.

Marrow

Marrow

Each short film embraced and explored their sexuality and Australianness – voices that have not always been loudly proud. No cringe factor here, thanks very much.

 

 

And that’s it for another year – the first for Spiro Economopoulos and Dillan Golightly, and a successful one. let’s see what they present for us in 2017.

 

 

MQFF 25

Lisa Daniel, we salute you for 16 years as Festival Director

Lisa Daniel, we salute you for 16 years as Festival Director

2015 was something of a landmark year for the Melbourne Queer Film Festival – not only did it celebrate its 25th year, but it was also Lisa Daniel’s last year as Festival Director after 16 years in the position. Under her educated and keen eye for queer film, the festival has grown and become one of the largest and most respected queer film festivals in the world – something she should be very proud of, and Melbourne should really appreciate.

This year I decided to go for (mostly) quality over quantity of screenings, and took heed of some of Lisa’s recommendations, as well as seeing two Australian feature films – something that’s been very thin on the ground for some time now.

The Way He Looks

The Way He Looks

Opening Night is always a good night, and this year Lisa selected Brazilian film, The Way He Looks, to open the festival. And it hit the mark. In the past, there’s been negative responses to foreign language films on opening night, but not this year – which demonstrates that Lisa has indeed done a good job in educating Melbourne audiences.

Leo and Gabriel find themselves attracted to each other

Leo and Gabriel find themselves attracted to each other

It’s the coming-of-age/coming out story of blind teenager Leo as he becomes attracted to the new boy at school, Gabriel. It’s sweet and gentle, and affirming without preaching, and remarkable not only because its focus is not on physical attraction and there’s a pleasing lack of sex on screen, but also because the word ‘gay’ is never used, and the boys’ sexuality is not an issue to any of the characters, themselves included.

They may be wearing aussieBums, but Drown is not all about sexy men.

They may be wearing aussieBums, but Drown is not all about sexy men.

The first of two Australian feature films I saw was Drown, directed by Dean Francis, based on a play by Stephen Davis. I’ve seen a number of his short films, and they’ve dealt with homophobia and bullying in a dark and angry way, so I knew this film wasn’t going to be light and fluffy. This is the story of Len (Matt Levett), the local hero at a Sydney surf lifesaving club, until he’s threatened by new member, Phil (Jack Matthews), not only because of his physical abilities, but also because he’s gay, and that creates quite a bit of conflict for Len.

Len isn't having a great night

Len isn’t having a great night

Drown is a fascinating, often confronting, exploration of masculinity and sexuality and how they are expressed by both straight and gay men. There’s an inherent aggression here, for all the characters, and it demonstrates that at their most extreme, straight men and gay men aren’t that dissimilar; while straight men channel that aggression into sport and competition and fighting, gay men express it through dancing, drugs, seduction and sex.

Told through the eyes of Len, Drown has a heightened and often exaggeration perception of reality, and while there’s plenty of bare flesh and aussieBums on screen, it’s not a superficial or titillating film. Yes, some of the sex scenes are erotic, but for the most part, they’re overshadowed by violence and conflict. At times it is too violent, and some scenes could have done with an edit, but there’s also a lot of ambiguity and unspoken subtext at work here.

Just a bit confronting...

Just a bit confronting…

The fact that this film was produced quickly and through crowdsource funding is not evident on screen at all – it’s beautifully shot and has a polish and finish that belies its low-budget production. Let’s just hope that Francis’ next film isn’t quite as angry.

Jamie Marks is Dead... apparently

Jamie Marks is Dead… apparently

Jamie Marks is Dead is a US supernatural (I guess) directed by Carter Smith. When the dead body of teenage boy Jamie Marks is found in a river, the spirit or ghost of the bullied gay boy connects with Gracie, and straight boy Adam for help to cross to the other side. It’s a curious film, with almost incidental queer content. There’s a dark melancholy with a touch of whimsy at work here, but to be honest, I’m not sure that as a queer/supernatural crossover is works very well. Still, it was good to see an American gay film that didn’t follow the same tired formulaic story.

Barrio Boy

Barrio Boy

Cocktales was one of the short film packages and provided an interesting and varied mix of gay shorts. Like many queer films, the quality of the short films is much better than it used to be, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t get predictable stories, such as Dinner at 40 and Open Relationship, and mawkish ones like Pepper. But we also get the understated Searching and Barrio Boy, and the very silly and fun If We Took a Holiday. And interestingly, none of them actually featured an sex at all.

It's Mission: Impossible, gay-style!

It’s Mission: Impossible, gay-style!

Also silly and fun was the Dutch comedy, Queen of Amsterdam directed by Tim Oiehoek. Fluffy and far-fetched, and perfectly programmed at 6pm Friday night, it’s about the regulars of a gay bar in Amsterdam who concoct a plan to raise the money to buy back the bankrupt bar – and that plan involves a jewel heist and the Gay Pride Parade. Not necessarily groundbreaking but enjoyable nevertheless.

Ben Wishaw in Lilting

Ben Wishaw in Lilting

Onto something more grounded, Lilting is a British film directed by Hong Khaou, and is a beautiful portrayal of the awkward relationship between a gay man Richard (played by Ben Wishaw) and his recently-deceased partner Kai’s (Andrew Leung) Chinese-Cambodian mother, Junn (Pei-pei Cheng). To broach the language barrier, Richard brings in a translator and the two begin tentative steps to an understanding. It’s poignant and understated and a sensitive representation of a gay relationship. Once again, there’s no on-screen sex, but convincing post-sex discussions, and is much more powerful for what it doesn’t show or tell.

Unfortunately, that is something missing from the final film I saw, at its encore screening, the second Australian feature, The Dream Children, directed by Robert Chuter and based on a play by Julia Britton. It’s the story of a gay couple, Steven (Graeme Squires) and Alex (Nicholas Gunn), who live in St Kilda. Steven is a closeted game show host who nevertheless has a very active extra-curricular sex life, and Alex wants to adopt a child. Legal options are non-existent, so the couple explore black market adoption with predictable results.

Steven and Alex argue even at the pool while  swimming laps

Steven and Alex argue even at the pool while swimming laps

Chuter’s better known as a theatre director, and has quite an extensive back catalogue, including some well-respected outdoor period plays in the grounds of Rippon Lea, and more recently the divisive production of Teleny in 2014 (read my thoughts on that here), and indeed, he directed a stage production of this play in 2009. While The Dream Children‘s intentions are noble, the delivery is forced and heavy-handed. It opens with a fairly full-on sex scene between Steven and Alex which is decidedly unsexy and feels like it was included merely to shock. And many of its other sex scenes – and there are many, as well as a number of other scenes involving the trailer trash child surrogate and her cliched drug-addicted partner, feel contrived and gratuitous.

A rare tender moment in The Dream Children

A rare tender moment in The Dream Children

The relationship between Alex and Steven lacks intimacy and affection; they’re mostly arguing about the adoption arrangements or having mechanical, soulless sex, except for scenes where we see them enjoying time with their young son.

The dialogue is awkward and stiff and often didactic, the mood and the drama are overwrought and could really have done with a more delicate touch. Conflict and arguments don’t always equal good cinematic drama, and unfortunately there is too much of it. If only more time had been spent fleshing out the final ten minutes, where their relationship finally flourishes, rather than focusing on unnecessary and overlong scenes of conflict.

If only we'd had more of this and less conflict

If only we’d had more of this and less conflict

 

Having said all that, it’s an impressive looking film – Melbourne, especially St Kilda and Elwood, look great on film, and like Drown, is an independently-funded and produced film. Hopefully we’ll see more Australian queer features in the future – and heaven forbid, government funding bodies and local distributors may even look past their cautious and conservative choices and see the merit in backing films such as these.

And if that is something that Lisa Daniel has had more than a hand in changing, then that is legacy enough from her. But she leaves behind her a great legacy of which this will only be a small part. Congratulations, Lisa, on the 25th MQFF, and for 16 amazing years as Festival Director. You will be missed!