Nitrate Kisses: The Possibilities of Queer Sex on Screen

Movies Features Queer Film
Nitrate Kisses: The Possibilities of Queer Sex on Screen

FilmStruck, though imperfect for a number of reasons, was at least a platform to access fascinating work, both beloved and underseen. To think of TCM (and Criterion’s) streaming service somewhat utopically, it could operate, unlike other platforms, as a memory well, from which one could plumb the depths of cinema history. It covered, for mostly better, a wealth of international cinemas, time periods, waves, directors and, during its active period, would do special programming in June for Pride Month. Though the amount of queer content was, understandably, smaller in comparison to other aspects of its gigantic library, there was nonetheless opportunity to explore cinema through the lens of drag performance, star persona (that of Liza Minnelli), women directors, playwright Tennessee Williams and artist/auteur Derek Jarman. The films featured in this month stretched back to the 1950s, though there was the self-awareness that queer cinema history’s boundaries existed beyond that time stamp.

And yet, collective cultural memory, or what passes for it on Twitter and for Out Magazine, implies that the walls begin around 1998. Out recently published a listicle of the 15 Greatest Queer Sex Scenes in Film History and a complementary essay called “We Deserve More Gay Sex Scenes in Movies,” both authored by Out’s Deputy Editor Fran Tirado. Tirado posits, “To be queer is to be sexually free. To be free is to break away from the chokehold of heterosexual respectability politics, sin, monogamy, vanilla sex, and stigma. Many of our award contenders, it feels, are still in that chokehold.” Sure, absolutely. His list features films like The Handmaiden, Weekend and BPM. No arguments from me; all incredible films. The oldest film on the list is Gia, directed by Michael Cristofer, from 1998. There are no films directed by women on the list.

With regards to Tirado’s essay, perhaps I primarily disagree with the premise, which essentially boils down to the desire to see more gay sex in mainstream movies, citing Bohemian Rhapsody and Call Me By Your Name as guilty of being chaste, prudish and crafted for a straight audience. I don’t disagree that those films are primarily made with a “broader” audience in mind, however insidiously coded that word is, but I also believe that the comparison is somewhat misguided. On the one hand, Call Me By Your Name, in spite of its online popularity, is still a Sony Pictures Classics release, still basically indie art house adjacent in a way that Bohemian Rhapsody is not, which generally gives a little more wiggle room in terms of content and style. And on the other, as much as I detest the film, Call Me By Your Name attempts to codify sex not as explicit, but as the eroticism of bodies together, the space between them, the way they stand, figures inhabiting a space. I do not think this was achieved. (The less said about Bohemian Rhapsody and its repellent attitude towards queerness, AIDS, etc., other than to contextualize it as a work of blockbuster biopic aspirations, the better.)

I find myself resistant to Tirado’s thesis primarily because it’s hard to really pinpoint situations in which this wish would make sense: Queerness, as described by Tirado, elides the contexts of what oppresses it, and much of that has to do with where it exists in a broader sociopolitical/cultural space. Or, how I would describe it: Queerness and queer sex are about antinormativity, a challenge to the systems that constrain it. My questions, then: Wouldn’t mainstreaming queer sex be antithetical to its quest or challenge to normativity? Wouldn’t queer sex in film just become another thing to be, as with claims of queer sex in mainstream film, and regular sex, arguably, boiled down to its more palatable point? Does the gay and queer sex in films on the margins not count?

Does that not also take for granted the ways in which gay and queer sexuality and eroticism can exist in circumstances and scenarios and scenes that eschew explicitness to make a greater point about the notion of gender, sexuality and eroticism in general? Take, for instance, David Cronenberg’s Crash, a movie about straight people, on its surface. Straight people who get turned on by car crashes. And while, yes, the “kinky” sex depicted in the film is “technically” heterosexual, Cronenberg argues through form and suggestion that we’re all bodies waiting to be destroyed by what we love. Or perhaps one can talk about Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’amour, from 1950 and the writer’s only venture as a director. As two prisoners communicate with one another through walls, Genet transitions to show the two smoking, blowing smoke, sucking it in, letting it unravel, unfurl in their mouths. It is more erotic, more sexually charged than most sex scenes. Period. Yet, there is no nudity, no conventional presentation of penetration. So, too, is the case of Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (1964), which leaves the act to the imagination to focus on the transient nature of desire on its lead’s face, lit only by street light.

There’s no point to talking about the lack of gay sex scenes if one can’t draw from the history of film to conceptualize how queer artists can achieve just as much emotional and intellectual and visceral rigor as those on the alleged mainstream. Nor can one talk about the history of queer sex on screen and not talk about the contributions women filmmakers have made to the form and look of sex in cinema. Chantal Akerman’s Je Tu Il Elle (1974) is a film of patience, with a half-hour-long sex scene that asserts its own perspective of desire as opposed to submitting to the gazer’s. Barbara Hammer, a pioneer of lesbian film, has explored lesbianism and sex in films like Nitrate Kisses (1992), which specifically interrogated concepts of history and marginalization. Lilly and Lana Wachowski’s first feature, Bound (1996), uses the generic framework of neo-noir to examine how genre shapes understanding of gendered and eroticized power. Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (also 1996) locates lesbian sex as crucial to the formation of archetype and identity through imagery. Desert Hearts (1985), directed by Donna Deitch, frames sex as class dialogue, a sort of proto-Carol.

Elsewhere, Derek Jarman’s work could be both explicit and implicit in its sexuality, either as a tool to consider masculine idolatry (Sebastiane [1976]), institutional oppression (Edward II [1991]) or ideological hypocrisy (Jubilee [1978]). In the musical Zero Patience (1993), John Greyson makes a puppet show out of sex and a drag performance out of sero-transfusion. An entire wave of cinema in the ’90s (New Queer Cinema) sought to expand queerness, sex and how they could be used in cinema, featuring work from directors like Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki and Silas Howard.

In Toshio Matsumoto’s reworking of Oedipus Rex, Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) uses its collage of experimental, documentary and narrative aesthetics to complicate lines of gender, sex, power and trauma. Myra Breckinridge(1970), based on the novel by Gore Vidal, posits sex and camp both as political weaponry, as do the films of John Waters (Multiple Maniacs [1970], Pink Flamingos [1972]) and Bruce LaBruce (Hustler White [1996], The Raspberry Reich [2004]). Marlon Riggs’ essential Tongues Untied (1989) examines black queer male sexuality; Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982) is a fantasia of what manhood means; Paul Morrissey’s collaborations with/for Andy Warhol (Flesh [1968], Women in Revolt [1971] and Blood for Dracula [1974]) employ sex (and sex work) as a response to the artistic and political climate of the late ’60s/early ’70s. Frank Ripploh’s Taxi Zum Klo (1980) shapes and details a debate and dialogue about radical queerness and assimilated gayness, openness and domesticity through sex.

The list goes on, much longer than anyone ever wants to admit, and it feels almost beside the point. Is access the problem? Or visibility? Or education? Do these films that don’t get the same play as a Bohemian Rhapsody, but have occasionally reached Call Me By Your Name heights, no longer count because they are old or challenging, not necessarily “easy or fun to watch”? Maybe something as explosive as Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education (2004), where gay sex is narrativized personal history, sin and virtue and cinema, could have had a different, bigger audience in the age of social media. What would Vito Russo, historian, activist and author of the seminal The Celluloid Closet, think of everything?

It also, in my opinion, feels somewhat reductive to only frame queer sex, sex in general, as only about “joy.” Yes, it can be about joy. Joy is a good thing. And I’m never arguing for less representation. I am, however, always arguing for a more thorough understanding of the very representation that people seek, because it not only exists but is just as deserving of attention and evaluation and consideration as the shiny new thing.

Queer sex, as a literal act and as a figurative state of being, shouldn’t be reduced to just meaning “joy” or “free.” It has more power than that. It can be found from joy—but also of other emotions, points of view, motivations, states of being.

The number one on that listicle is BPM, but none of the scenes are described. In the essay, Tirado writes briefly about the handjob that Nathan gives to Sean while he’s in hospital, framing it as “necessary moments of joy for queer people found in the context of trials, if not great tragedy.” But the sex in BPM conveys even more than that saccharine notion. The sex scene that sticks out to me from Robin Campillo’s film is the one at the end: Sean has been euthanized, with his explicit wishes for his ashes to be treated like a weapon; as members of ACT UP swarm a fancy dinner filled with suits complicit in the lack of effective medication for those who are HIV+ and/or with AIDS, throwing Sean’s ashes all over, Nathan (Arnaud Valois) stays home and has sex with Thibault (Antoine Reinhartz), another member of ACT UP. Campillo crosscuts between these two scenes, Nathan intermittently shook by emotion, his skin seeming rawer and more sensitive. Strobe lights intrude on both scenes, and the passion with which an ACT UP members throws ashes is equaled by a thrust of the pelvis from Thibault. The two scenes bleed together, and the bedroom, the political activist arena and the dance floor fade into each other, becoming one. It’s queer sex, multifaceted, capturing a multitude of feeling, a molecular understanding of its political and visceral components, ultimately defiant of categorization and placement, but locked into history.

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