Call Me by Another Name: Queer Cinema and the Oscars Narrative

Movies Features Academy Awards
Call Me by Another Name: Queer Cinema and the Oscars Narrative

As I’ve drifted away from writing and, ultimately, thinking about awards for movies, the discourse around certain films has started to feel strange and alienating. I love movies very much, and I love discussing them with people who may (or may not) feel the same, especially the films that invoke in me a powerful reaction, but my relationship to talking about movies continues to change. I am most passionate about queer cinema, highlighting the voices of marginalized filmmakers when I can, but there seems to exist, as Ren Jender points out in the Village Voice, a fairly homophobic notion that an audience can only love one queer film at a time.

Queer films are often pitted against one another in awards talk, framed as an antithesis or antidote, when, as is often the case, the two or three films selected as “queer race horses” have little in common beyond their general categorization as queer cinema. (The connection between BPM and Call Me By Your Name is tenuous, to say the least.) Great films are placed in competition against one another, or are reduced to being the new version of a film distantly related to it that came out the previous year—if I see another headline proclaiming something is the new Carol or the new Moonlight and Carol, I will scream—which is not great for art, nor art by (and perhaps for) particular audiences. At this point in my film love and writing career, I sit at my laptop, a Carrie Bradshaw pseudo-introspective monologue wafting in the air, and I wonder: Is awards discourse just another form of gatekeeping that ultimate does a disservice to marginalized filmmakers and their audiences?

It is a never ending cycle, masturbatory in what, to me, is the worst way to frame love (or even hate) for cinema. These narratives begin at film festivals; before the Academy Awards telecast is even broadcast “honoring” the films from the previous year, the wheel begins at Sundance, sparking conversation around a thing as the Next Best Picture Nominee, turning awards conversation into a crude, disingenuous Möbius strip. And when it comes to queer cinema specifically, the new good thing must be the new Carol, or the new Moonlight and Carol, or, after this 90th year of awards, the new Call Me By Your Name. Those films are propelled to the front line, regardless of quality, while other queer cinema is often left in the dust. What of Girlhood, Spa Night or Professor Marston and the Wonder Women? Is the issue that they’re niche, not falling into the good graces of The Discourse?

To a minimal degree, I understand the reason why talk about movies has been so driven by awards odds: We have a reached a point in media journalism and entertainment distribution/consumption that the two are now almost inextricably linked.

To quote my sharp-as-a-tack colleague Matt Brennan, “Awards season is killing film culture.” Brennan pinpoints “the collaboration between ‘the festival circuit’ and ‘awards season’” has made film culture insufferable, and this impacts the cinema on the margins, or of the marginalized, even more because those works struggle (maybe hope?) to get as much visibility as the Academy Awards ostensibly allows them. It’s a pageantry that threatens to make the art, and the way we talk about it, increasingly less interesting, shallower, meaner—intellectually and emotionally inconsequential.

Before one can counter argue with “Gee, is equal opportunity praise such a good thing?” I ask, “Is it any worse than the deluge of opinions we already have?” Why would restructuring the conversation around marginalized filmmakers so that they are talked about in tandem with one another instead of posited as competing against one another be a bad thing? Where social media and online platforms have ostensibly democratized opinion, tastemakers, even in the critical community (which seem to have the most impact on the very quote-unquote “niche” films that get hoisted on a pedestal), tend to present themselves more and more like gatekeepers that frequently predicate greatness on awards chances.

What is actually interesting about the Academy Awards—they are sharply a reflection of what the film industry wants to think about itself at a given moment in time—does not really appear in these conversations. There are writers and critics like Mark Harris, whose book Pictures at a Revolution is an outstanding examination of the complex relationship between Hollywood filmmaking and contemporary sociopolitical climates (particularly in the 1960s), who are able to examine the Oscars in a micro and macro perspective. Hollywood and Hollywood filmmaking is frequently reflective, inclined to look back at itself, and the Oscars are, by design, that way as well. But that self-reflectiveness comes at a cost: Honoring the best of cinema means awarding a handful of movies that adhere, at worst, to the taste of centrists, and, at best, to relatively progressive lip service. And this after all the politicking is done.

Must that be the case for how people talk about film outside of the immediate production side of the industry? If the reference point for every newer film that fits within a intersectional context is the most recent one that came before it that also won the hearts and votes of critics, that makes for reductive, empty rhetoric, as if the history of queer cinema (or Black cinema, or anything else) is limited to a select four or five films. This has little to do with my own fairly negative feelings about this year’s contender, queer film du jour, Call Me By Your Name—I’d be just as pissed if BPM or God’s Own Country got the “it’s the new Moonlight” treatment—and more with a rhetoric that claims to adore cinema, but may in fact adore the idea of its prestige even more.

I love Moonlight and Carol very much, and while it’s nice to have things acknowledged and recognized by a larger system, what if that system is troubling for how it shapes those conversations? The Academy’s greatest accomplishments are in preservation, restoration and the community efforts it makes, and yet, even those that recognize that the Oscars are no arbiter of quality do not seem to understand that such a conversation does seem to have a lasting impact on the shape of marginalized cinema.

To be real for a moment, queer audiences should really step up their game when it comes to looking for queer entertainment. If queer people (I include myself in this) want to frame themselves as so hungry for representation they can’t make an effort to look for and support the queer filmmaking that does exist, which then, as Brennan puts it, “[flies] under the radar,” what does that mean for the state of queer cinema and the way audiences participate and interact with it? This is not a call for less representation by any means, but the more attention queer artists are able to get from viewers, the more opportunity they will be able to get to tell necessary, provocative, interesting and incendiary stories. Go to your local library, find stuff on YouTube, check out your streaming service (if you have one). Don’t just “werk.” Work to support queer filmmakers.

My dream is that we can talk about things like queer cinema without the impetus of whether it will win awards. For every tick off the “progress for queers” box, there are as many great and undiscovered talents, films, etc. sidelined in favor of an easily ingestible narrative. This is not to speak ill of achievements like Strong Island and director Yance Ford, the first out transgender person to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, but to ask that the conversation not be limited to that. Queerness, to me, is limitless and without boundaries. It is the exact opposite of what the Oscars are.

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