This week’s curated collection of films to get you through quarantine focuses on the past of cinema itself and includes some historic films that have recently been rereleased in beautifully restored versions. These restorations feature greatly enhanced picture quality and are often released with a variety of fascinating special features.
As Vito Russo, Susan Stryker and other film and cultural historians have noted, queer filmmakers and LGBT subjects have been part of the industry since moving images were first captured on celluloid. Thanks to the staff at Kino Lorber (kinolorber.com), some of the earliest images from queer cinema have been preserved for future generations of cinephiles.
The “Pioneers of Queer Cinema” Collection includes three ground-breaking movies. Directed by Leontine Sagan, “Mädchen in Uniform” (1931) is both a celebration of a lesbian romance at an all-girls boarding school and an important anti-fascist film. Directed by Reinhold Schünzel, “Victor and Victoria” (1933) is the inspiration for the gender-bending Julie Andrews musical about an out-of-work female performer who becomes famous working as a female impersonator. Directed by the famous Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, “Michael” (1924) follows the ill-fated love triangle between a successful young artist (Walter Slezak), his aging mentor (Benjamin Christensen) and an unscrupulous princess (Nora Gregor).
Kino Lorber has also preserved another early film from the queer cinematic canon. Directed by gay filmmaker F.W. Murnau, the pioneering expressionistic German horror film “Nosferatu” (1922) is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The classic movie still offers some chills and established many of the visual motifs seen in contemporary vampire movies.
The Merchant Ivory Library at the Cohen Media Group (cohenfilmcollection.net) includes a restored version of the queer classic “Maurice” (1987) based on the novel by closeted English author E. M. Forster. Forster completed the gay love story in 1913 but given its controversial subject matter, the novel was not published until after his death in 1970.
Inspired by the real-life relationship between Forster’s friends Edward Carpenter and George Merrill, the novel centers on Maurice Hall (James Wilby) who falls in love with the aristocratic Clive Durham (Hugh Grant). Clive ultimately decides to marry a woman and pursue his political ambitions; Maurice instead finds love with Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves), a gamekeeper on the Durham estate.
The movie was written and directed by James Ivory (who later won the Academy Award for Adapted Screenplay for “Call Me by Your Name”) and was produced by Ismail Merchant. Ivory and Merchant, who were both business and life partners, produced more than 40 films together, frequently in collaboration with writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
In addition to the queer classic “Maurice,” the wonderful Merchant Ivory Library includes “Howards End,” “Shakespeare Wallah” and “Heat and Dust.” Known for the phrase “only connect,” “Howards End,” also based on a Forster novel, was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won three (Best Adapted Screenplay for Jhabvala, Best Actress for Emma Thompson and Best Production Design).
Fans of the distinctive Merchant Ivory style will also enjoy their adaptation of Forster’s “A Room With A View” which featured a breakout performance by Helena Bonham Carter.
The Bressan Project (bressanproject.wixsite.com/website) is dedicated to preserving and promoting the ground-breaking work of queer filmmaker Arthur J. Bressan Jr. He is best known for the historic AIDS drama “Buddies,” the first feature film about the AIDS crisis. Initially released in September 1985 (days before President Ronald Reagan finally said the word “AIDS” in public), and now finally available in a beautifully restored print, “Buddies” is a timeless portrayal of a crucial period in modern LGBT history.
The film tracks the growing friendship between David Bennett (David Schachter) and Robert Willow (Geoff Edholm). David is a 25-year-old “guppie” (gay yuppie) who has volunteered to be a buddy to an AIDS patient. He is assigned to Robert (Geoff Edholm), a 32-year-old politically impassioned gardener transplanted from California to Manhattan. As the movie progresses, Bressan subtly captures David’s gradual awakening from bystander to activist. (It’s very depressing that David’s excuses for his inaction sound rather likes today’s declarations of “I’m not political.”)
Like all of the movies discussed above, “Buddies” is an important piece of LGBT history. Thanks to the amazing artists who are preserving these valuable pieces of film.
New doc illuminates Patricia Highsmith’s life and work
‘Intercourse with men is like steel wool to the face’
If you’ve been transfixed by the amusement park scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” rooted for the sociopath Tom Ripley in the 1999 film “The Talented Mr. Ripley” or been moved to tears by the love of Therese and Carol in Todd Haynes’s movie of “Carol,” Patricia Highsmith is etched in your DNA.
Highsmith, who lived from 1921 to 1995 wrote more than 50 books (novels and short story collections). Nearly all of her books were made into movies.
Recently, “Loving Highsmith,” a fab documentary about Patricia Highsmith has been released. The film, written and directed by Eva Vitija, opens Sept. 2 at the Film Forum in New York and Sept. 9 at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles. “Loving Highsmith” premiered at the Sydney Film Festival and bowed at the Frameline Film Festival in June.
Highsmith, like Tom Ripley and many of her other fictional characters, led a double life. She was a lesbian. But, because of the homophobia of her era, Highsmith had to be closeted about what she called “the ever present subject” of her “homosexuality.”
Except in the 5,000 pages of her diaries and notebooks. (1,000 pages of her diaries and notebooks were published in 2021 in “Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-1995.”)
Even if Highsmith weren’t acclaimed for her mastery of suspense, she would be a queer hero.
In 1952, her novel “The Price of Salt” was published under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan.” (It was reissued in 1990 under the title “Carol” and with Highsmith’s real name.)
Then, fiction featuring queer characters had to end unhappily: they died or went to jail. “The Price of Salt,” a rare exception, became a lesbian cult classic. Its protagonists end up together – alive and not in prison.
“Loving Highsmith” deftly uses writings from her diaries and notebooks as well as interviews with her family and lovers to illuminate not only Highsmith’s life and work but queer culture in the 1950s.
The film skillfully interweaves archival clips from interviews with Highsmith and famous film adaptations of her work with stories from her relatives and lovers. Gwendoline Christie (“Game of Thrones”) reads excerpts from Highsmith’s work.
Too often watching documentaries of talented, deceased icons is deadly. You feel like you’re entombed in lifeless talking heads and stagnant images.
You don’t have to worry about “Loving Highsmith.” Its talk and images make Highsmith’s story come alive.
As the film makes clear, Highsmith was quite “loving.” She had many lovers – in New York, England, France and Germany. Despite trying to cure herself with analysis, Highsmith sexually liked women. “Sexual intercourse [with men] is to me like steel wool to the face,” she says.
Highsmith’s mother, by the accounts of Highsmith herself, her family and her lovers, was a horror show. She told Highsmith that she was sorry she hadn’t aborted her. When Highsmith was 14, her mother berated her for “making noises” like a “les.”
New York had many gay bars in the 1950s, we learn from “Loving Highsmith.” But homophobia was so rampant that you wouldn’t get off at a subway stop near a bar out of fear that a straight friend, family member, or co-worker would see you going into a queer bar.
There is one problem with “Loving Highsmith.” It soft pedals Highsmith’s anti-Semitism and racism. It mentions Highsmith’s prejudices only once: saying Highsmith in her old age reverted to the bigotry of her grandparents.
Highsmith’s bigotry grew more virulent in her old age. But, though she had Jewish friends, Highsmith was anti-Semitic throughout her life.
This doesn’t diminish Highsmith’s literary achievement or iconic role in queer history. Anti-Semitism and racism were likely common in Texas where Highsmith was born and lived before moving to New York when she was six. “Loving Highsmith” is a thoughtful, informative documentary. It would have been more insightful if more attention had been paid to Highsmith’s prejudices.
Even with this caveat, “Loving Highsmith” is a must-see documentary. It will send you racing to read the nearest Highsmith book at hand.
Director of ‘They/Them’ on queering the horror genre
John Logan puts conversion therapy where it belongs
Even if you’ve never heard of John Logan, the odds are pretty good you’ve heard his words.
That’s because the former playwright, now writer and director of the new horror film “They/Them” (premiering on Peacock Aug. 5), has been bringing his literate sensibilities to Hollywood screens for more than two decades now, earning three Oscar nominations during a career that has included screenplays for movies ranging from “Gladiator” to “Sweeney Todd” to “Star Trek: Nemesis,” not to mention a pair of James Bond blockbusters (“Skyfall” and “Spectre”). He’s also the man behind “Penny Dreadful,” Showtime’s Victorian horror “mashup” series that became a cult sensation during its all-too-brief three season run.
Now Logan has returned to the horror genre he loves to make his debut as a feature film director, and he’s brought more than just a queer sensibility. He’s brought a whole bloody queer story, as well.
Diving headlong into classic ‘80s slasher movie territory from its very first frames, “They/Them” brings together a collection of queer teens at a retreat deep in the woods – the Whistler Camp, run by third-generation proprietor and chief counselor Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon) – where their parents have sent them in hopes of making them straight. Though the staff seems friendly and understanding enough at first, it’s not long before the “therapy” starts to become more aggressive; to make matters worse, a sinister outside presence seems to be menacing the camp, and the campers, led by trans nonbinary rebel Jordan (Theo Germaine), are soon fighting for their lives as well as their identities.
Apart from the genius of putting conversion therapy into a horror movie where it belongs, Logan’s movie scores high points all around for solid LGBTQ representation. Indeed, it’s as much a rousing queer empowerment story as it is a horror tale, and though hardcore horror geeks might find its scares to be relatively tame, it reaches beyond shock value to turn the genre itself into a vehicle for cinematic queerness – something long overdue for the countless queer audiences who have always been drawn to horror.
The Blade talked with Logan about his vision for “They/Them” on the eve of the film’s world premiere at LA’s Outfest. Our conversation is below.
BLADE: Queer audiences have always loved horror movies, but horror movies haven’t loved them back until recently. Is that part of the reason behind this one?
JOHN LOGAN: That was the entire reason behind this one. When I was a kid, it would have meant so much to me to see a gay hero in a horror film. It’s a genre that SHOULD celebrate queerness, because horror is about the “other” – about the realization that people are not all the same. But queer characters in the ‘70s and ‘80s were mostly nonexistent, or they were jokes, or victims, or killers. They were never admirable people you’d aspire to be. And horror cinema has always had a very complicated relationship with gender and sexual identity, even back to the 1930s and the classic Universal cycle of horror films – except for “Frankenstein,” made by a queer filmmaker, where the most sympathetic character is the monster.
When we engage with storytelling in cinema, we want to see ourselves represented in some way. I wanted to write the movie that I didn’t get to see when I was 14 or 15 years old.
BLADE: You mentioned wanting to see a gay hero. One of the things that stands out about your movie is that none of these kids are “scream queens.” They’re all pretty heroic.
LOGAN: We wanted to take the tropes and subvert them completely. So, we have joyously celebrated things like, “There’s the camp in the woods, and it’s scary, and there’s a masked killer, and the killer uses different weapons,” and all the things I personally love about slasher movies – but it’s all in service of the great subversion, which is that these kids are not victims. They are not running and hiding, they are fighting for their identities. They are heroes.
BLADE: Speaking of subversion, the setting isn’t the only “camp” in the movie. There’s a lot of humor in it, from a certain perspective.
LOGAN: [Laughs] I would like to think there’s a “raised eyebrow” throughout. I mean, we have a singing and dancing musical number in it, we have some outrageous humor in it, as well. It’s meant to be a sort of exuberant exploration of the queer lifestyle in all its forms, from the most extravagant to the most romantic to the most erotic – as extreme as we could possibly get it. But it’s all played very straight, which is a testament to the actors, really.
BLADE: That’s another thing that stands out. You have a terrific cast, and Theo Germaine is a charismatic lead.
LOGAN: Thank God Theo fell into my lap. The movie begins, essentially, with Jordan’s face and it ends with Jordan’s face, so I knew it was really going to be important to find the right actor. Theo is so extraordinary, they’re so accessible to the audience. My heart breaks watching that character, because they’re emotional, but they’re empowered and strong – and that’s all from Theo.
Also, I’m not trans, I’m not nonbinary, and I’m also 60 – so I had to ask Theo to help me understand this character – not just the language around them, but how this young, trans, nonbinary human being moves through the world. And not only Theo, but Quei Tann and all the other actors were very generous with their own experiences, which is what, for me, makes them seem very authentic on screen, because they are playing versions of themselves that they can believe in.
BLADE: That’s the difference authentic representation can make.
LOGAN: Yes, and it also helped that the process of shooting really mirrored the story, in a way. None of the actors knew each other, and they were suddenly in Georgia, all slammed together in the middle of nowhere with no phone reception – and gradually, they built this tribe, this family, going through an experience much like the campers in the film go through. It was amazing to watch how they bonded and got together.
BLADE: One last thing – for the cinema buffs among our readers, it will be impossible not to notice shots and references that seem like nods to some of their favorite classics of the past. Are those on purpose?
LOGAN: All intentional. I may never direct another movie as long as I live, so I want to tip my hat to all the movies I love. There are shots that are a direct mirror of ‘Psycho,’ for example, or ‘Blue Velvet,’ or obscure slasher movies like ‘The Burning’ that nobody would know but me – and I worked really close with my DP, Lynne Moncrief, to find those moments. It felt important for us pay homage to the whole continuum of horror movies behind us, because we are building on all those as we try to step gingerly – or bravely – into a future where queer horror is finally the popular mainstream entertainment it deserves to be.
Porter makes directorial splash with ‘Anything’s Possible’
An exploration of two shy kids feeling their way through first love
Hollywood has given us so many queer teen romances over the last few years that it’s easy to forget a not-so-distant past when LGBTQ people had to grow up watching movies that only showed the pangs of first love through a heteronormative filter, and relate to the experience as best they could via the pretty straight kids enacting it on the screen. It was a take-what-you-can-get situation that left a lot of people feeling left out, isolated, and unseen.
That, among other things, is what makes “Anything’s Possible,” premiering globally July 22 on Prime Video, a benchmark in the still-evolving queer teen romance genre – because while many members of the LGBTQ community may now feel represented by movies like “Love, Simon” or “Booksmart,” there’s still a large gap when it comes to love stories about teens who are trans. Directed by Billy Porter, in his feature film debut behind the lens, this buzzy new movie goes a long way toward filling that gap; and for good measure, it raises the bar for the genre itself.
The script, written by trans screenwriter Ximena García Lecuona (another feature film first-timer), is a Gen Z tale of first love between two teens entering their senior year at a Pittsburgh high school: Kelsa (Eva Reign), a trans overachiever who plans to focus her confidence and determination on getting into a college as far away as possible, and Khal (Abubakr Ali), a sensitive “nice guy” with artistic leanings who has different ideas for his future than the high-intensity career track his Muslim parents have planned for him. Partnered for an art class assignment, these two seeming opposites have an instant spark, and despite obstacles in their social circles (this is high school after all), they eventually give in to their attraction. Almost immediately their newfound love is being put to the test, as they are forced to navigate the pitfalls of staying together through all the drama their “couplehood” has created in their lives – just like any other pair of teenagers in love.
Lecuona’s script, inspired by a real-life Reddit thread involving a boy who asked advice on how to tell a trans girl that he liked her, is a cut above the usual amusing-but-forgettable teen rom-com for a lot of reasons; while it embraces and reinvents the familiar tropes of its genre, it doesn’t hesitate to go deeper. Like the ‘80s John Hughes films to which it has already been compared, the movie allows space for a little goofy teen comedy while taking seriously the more complex and adult problems in its characters’ lives, and its savvy teenage perspective allows it to both celebrate and lampoon the absurdities of modern culture with razor sharp accuracy. Most significantly, it highlights and transcends trans issues in a story asserting that gender, biological or otherwise, has nothing to do with being in love. Kelsa’s trans identity may play a part in the blowback she and Khal experience from the crowd at school, but it’s irrelevant when they are alone together – except when it comes to the delicately handled treatment of negotiating physical sexuality, a topic that few other films have managed with as much sensitivity.
All of this comes to life with pitch-perfect finesse under the guidance of Porter, whose bold and stylish directorial style and determination to “lift up” queer experience within the public imagination is evident in every choice he makes – from the unapologetic soapboxing he allows himself to the behavioral modeling he drives home without making it feel forced. He has the attitude and vision to mine the story’s most essential points and bring them out, and the showmanship to keep us interested and entertained all the way. He embellishes the film with his personal touch – even to the point of showcasing the Pittsburgh locations with the obvious love of a hometown boy – and delivers a work that exhibits the same loud, proud, and loving dedication to shared humanity so abundantly clear in his performances on the stage and in front of the camera.
It would be unfair not to also credit the film’s cast for making “Anything’s Possible” shine. Reign and Ali have a natural ease and chemistry together, and the intelligence and understanding they bring to their characters is the glue that holds the movie together. Courtnee Cox and Kelly Lamor Wilson give likeable, memorable turns as Kelsa’s two BFFs, and Renée Elise Goldberry brings Broadway star power to the role of her fiercely protective mother.
Likewise, the efforts of Porter and Justin Tranter as music producers for the film should not be discounted; the infectious, lush, and dreamy pop music soundscape in which they bathe the film goes a long way toward creating its appeal – and “Anything’s Possible” has plenty of that, even for curmudgeonly adults.
There are moments, admittedly, when the movie’s insistence on aspirational self-determinism threatens to overpower its delicate reverence for the freeing power of love. After all, Kelsa and Khal are exceptional teens, attractive, smart, and more self-aware than most of their peers; their families are supportive and emotionally available, and the school they attend would be a dream come true for most American students. In its efforts to uplift and inspire, the film’s idealized vision sometimes feels like it might be as inaccessible to many teen viewers as those straight Hollywood love stories were to our queer elders.
Still, even in this seemingly idyllic setting, the cruelty and ugliness of high school life intrudes, and transphobia is just one of many ugly human traits that lurk beneath the surface – reminding us that such things are always there to hold us back. If we can’t quite believe in the movie’s too-good-to-be-true world, perhaps it’s because we recognize just how much we still must conquer to achieve it. In any case, this movie is far too wise to merely promote an agenda, and it ultimately rises beyond its sociopolitical messaging with its recognition that our individual realities are governed by the personal, not the political.
The romance between Kelsa and Khal moves us not because one of them is trans, but because it exists beyond such restrictive constructs. In a world of labels, each of them longs to be seen as something more; they rankle at being defined by their surface traits and long to be appreciated for the more nuanced qualities underneath. Their tentative steps toward a relationship are the awkward explorations of two shy kids feeling their way through first love, not savvy negotiations in a culture war, and it’s a testament to the authenticity that comes from letting queer people tell their own stories that what we take away from this one has more to do with the happiness that comes from living beyond boundaries than it does with the empowerment that comes from breaking them.
It’s that state of mind that resonates throughout “Anything’s Possible,” because most of the young people in the movie – and, perhaps, watching it – already live in a world where many of the boundaries that limit our humanity have already become meaningless.
If they can stay there, maybe their future is brighter than we think.
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