Book Review: ‘Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters’ by Emanuel Levy

For me, it began with Volver. I went with my mother (of course) when it came out. I felt as though I was returning home, though I’d never been to this world before. Who were these fulgent women in red? Who was this director, and what was this physical and emotional place where kitschy interior furnishings, high heels, loud fights, kinky sex and sobbing could conjure a mix of joy and total devastation?

The answers, respectively, were Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura, Pedro Almodóvar, and “Almodovaria,” what the film critic A.O. Scott once defined as a “syndrome” inspired by the viewing of Almodóvar’s films: “a contradictory state, a mixture of devastation and euphoria, amusement and dismay that deserves its own clinical designation.” I began, and have never stopped, devouring these films, in a mostly successful attempt to self-induce and adapt to Almodovaria.

Few would deny that Almodóvar’s queerness is central to Almodovaria. Fewer still would argue with the notion that it’s unsurprising for a queer director to be preoccupied with highly decorated worlds populated by working class women experiencing emotional extremes that may even devolve into un ataque de nervios. And yet, as Emanuel Levy points out in the introduction to Gay Directors, Gay Films?—his new comparative study of five well-known living gay directors—the notion that there is a distinctly gay gaze and sensibility in the work of openly gay directors “has not been thoroughly explored in the fields of cinema.” This book—which focuses on the careers of Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus van Sant and John Waters—is his attempt to fill that gap. While it may seem under-theorized to an academic audience accustomed to more rigorous comparative work, for a general interest audience, it will serve as a breezy introduction to the field and to intriguing questions about gay subjectivity, identity and the difference. When viewed as an introduction, however, the book is troubling: directors of color are totally absent, and thirty years of inquiry into gay and queer subjectivities is largely ignored.

Levy begins his analysis by setting out the questions proposed by his title: “to what extent” gay directors have “expressed their worldview” through subversive and alternative “narratives, characters, and visual styles”? Do gay filmmakers “tend to elevate style over contents,” and/or do “they tend to succumb to camp strategies and/or expect viewers to perceive artifice as an integral attribute of their work?”

He then sets out to answer this question through the exploration of career, devoting relatively equal time to each feature-length film produced by each director. Questions of context, both social and personal, dominate the framing of each film. How did Waters’ sensibility, for example, function in two different cultural contexts—the 1970s him working with little money and scant recognition, versus the 1990s him working with far more of both? How can we read van Sant’s gayness across a breadth of films both explicitly gay and not?

Frustratingly, though, in his insistence on narrating the complete arc of each director’s career, Levy ignores far deeper explorations that have been made into these particular stylistic loci of queerness and gayness. Surely, the richness of existing analysis could have been introduced without overly troubling the minds of his readers. Interaction with Leo Bersani’s inquiries into gay shame and coded queerness in the work of Almodóvar, David Halperin’s observations about the gay fascination with over-the-top portrayals of working class femininity, and Lauren Berlant’s studies of sentimentality, to name a few, would have deepened his analysis. Many classic queer-theoretical texts appear in Levy’s bibliography, but they are almost totally absent from his narrative.

In addition to its lack of engagement with theory, the book ignores and excludes gay and queer filmmakers who are not white men. In the conclusion, Levy addresses his decision to focus on “gay” filmmakers, dismissing the term “queer” as a “hipper, cooler, all-pervasive” update of “gay.” The decision to make arguments about the general perspectives of gay directors while only analyzing the work of white filmmakers is certainly not adequately explained, if indeed it could be. Surely, in 2015, there is no excuse for this, nor for terms like “transgenders [sic].”

Levy closes with a wish that his five chosen directors will produce new work that necessitates an expanded and revised edition. I hope that that imminent edition acknowledges the difference between “gay” and “queer” and the rich theoretical traditions that both identities provide. Whichever it chooses to focus on, I also hope it sees fit to include some of the work of Marlon Riggs, Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen, Dee Rees and the many other queer directors of color; trans* directors; and queer female directors who are absent here; or to at least acknowledge their absence and thus the limits of its own perspective.

Gay Directors, Gay Films?:Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters
by Emanuel Levy
Columbia University Press
Paperback, 9780231152778, 392 pp.
August 2015

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