Define Frenzy: Song and Dance in Queer Cinema

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Define Frenzy: Song and Dance in Queer Cinema

“Define Frenzy” is a series of weekly essays for Pride Month attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films as a way to show the expansiveness of what queerness can be on screen. You can read last year’s essays here and last week’s essay here.

When Rebekah del Rio launches into a rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Mulholland Drive, it feels as if one has fallen off the face of the Earth—or perhaps risen along with her soaring vocals to the closest thing one could call Paradise.

The enigmatic plot of David Lynch’s labyrinthine masterwork has never mattered, and especially doesn’t now. Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Harring) sit together in the balcony, the blue light simmering over them, and the spiritual and sexual connection they share is palpable. They find in the singer, and in each other, intense identification, even vulnerability, and in turn an unconventional strength. The light catches the tears that fall from Watts’ and Harring’s eyes. Dancing and singing in queer cinema, or in films that can even be read as queer, aren’t just throwaway happenings. Rather, they’re extensions of how one expresses queerness: Wrapped up in the joy and pleasure of the acts are pain and longing. But they coexist, the complexity of the implication of these scenes flaunted like the best moves.

Though we see the leads of Tangerine quite in their element, bounding and bouncing around in Los Angeles, goals in mind, we only glimpse their lives under a certain amount of distress. Sure, the world that surrounds them and somewhat contextualizes the film is unfriendly, even deeply violent against trans women of color, but Tangerine’s confines are an examination of the personal as political. Sin-dee’s (Kitana Rodriguez) goal to find the pimp that cheated on her is about trust, but so is Alexandra’s (Mya Taylor) desire to have her friends come to her cabaret performance at a West Hollywood club later in the evening. This is her chance to reveal an element of herself that exists within a particular space in her mind. And when she’s finally on stage towards the end of the film, it doesn’t quite matter that the audience is smaller than expected, because the pain would have been there anyways. Shot from above, Alexandra’s posture indicates for the first time a comfort in revealing herself and her tenderness. She sings “Toyland” from Babes in Toyland, and the woman who’s fired off clever retorts and zingers worthy of Lucille Ball or Katherine Hepburn suddenly allows herself to be exposed. Her place is on the stage, presenting the most honest version of herself that she can.

Ironically, presenting, even performing, authenticity is itself a puzzle. For glam rocker Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), his constant shape shifting on stage is exactly what creates a distance between him, his audience and, ultimately, himself. Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, a riff on the lives of David Bowie and Lou Reed, is heavy on articulating the role that artifice plays in musical performance, but interrogates the idea that artificiality may not be inauthentic at all—that performance may be the only way they know how to be vulnerable. It isn’t that his songs and music, his ornate costumery, or his elaborately awesome stagecraft aren’t authentic, but that Brian Slade, in his search for understanding who he is and where he “comes from,” as it were, can only communicate through these methods.

Slade is at once all performance, all fakery, but only in that methodology he can investigate and excavate his own interiority. As Slade’s career grows and intermittently careens, the pageantry becomes, as with Bowie’s own career, larger, making the work itself more esoteric and questionably accessible. Perhaps it’s this paradoxical relationship between authenticity and pageantry that draws journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) to Slade’s story, as a way to excavate his own repressed conceptions of his identity. What pushes both of them is to know themselves. It’s hard to do that in the first place, never mind through art; Velvet Goldmine examines what it’s like to try to understand oneself under the scrutiny of the public eye.

Though Tangerine and Velvet Goldmine seem particularly interested in somewhat more painful aspects of performance, there is beauty in letting loose to music on screen as a queer person. In films that feature drag, in particular, such as Beeban Kidron’s To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, The Birdcage or Paddy Breathnach’s Viva, aspiration is authenticity. In To Wong Foo, loosely based on The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, drag’s open volley with the politics of gender gives way to raucous fun: The pageant at the beginning of the film is set to Chaka Kahn’s “Free Yourself,” and a line of fabulous queens of various aesthetics serve face. Across the stage they werk, and when they look into the camera, it’s like they’re saying, “I’m giving you all the realness.” Even in the film’s most sensitive moments, such as when Veda (Patrick Swayze), Noxeema (Wesley Snipes) and Chi Chi (John Leguizamo) watch as a small town girl and boy dance the night away, the characters throw their arms toward the air and sway in the breeze to “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” by Mel Carter, swept up by the romance.

Song and dance, beyond the conventions of the musical, give queer people a chance to live in another world, not bound by the confines of a rigid society that dictates their expression and identities. From the iconic use of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in Girlhood to the tango in Happy Together, from the breakdance in Beau Travail to the entire score of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in song and dance, pain and honesty and strength meld into a layered broth of emotion and projection, projecting an undeniable energy wherein vulnerability becomes the radical power of queerness.

Kyle Turner is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. His work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Village Voice, Slate and Little White Lies. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.

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