Tim here. Just in time for Gay Pride Month, sometime Film Experience contributor and generally terrific film writer Nick Davis had his very first book published, The Desiring-Image: Gilles Deleuze and Contemporary Queer Cinema. After having torn through my copy a little bit faster than the densely academic arguments necessarily deserved, I sat down with Nick to chat about some aspects of the book.
(Disclosure: not only are Nick and I friends, I make an appearance in the acknowledgements, as does Nathaniel, our host. But that’s why this isn’t a “review”)
Tim Brayton: Just to clarify: for you and for the book, “queer theory” and “queer cinema” is complementary to, but not necessarily the same as, gay and lesbian cinema.
Nick Davis: Yes. “Queer” both as a scholarly term, and a term that filmmakers are using for their work, is sort of bringing a more political edge to gay or lesbian or bisexual storylines, and doing so in such a way that it’s hard to talk about sexuality without also talking about other forces and other aspects of your social situation that impact who you relate to, how, what you know about yourself, whether you think you have a sexuality, or whether it’s something that changes or goes by another name.
TB: The book is an investigation into queer theory and the writing of Gilles Deleuze, using them to comment on each other. I gather that Deleuze is not somebody who crops up often in queer discussion very much, so what started you on this line of thought?
One was being a senior in college, reading this article in Film Comment that was specifically objecting to how this specific queer cinema of the early ‘90s, that had brought us My Own Private Idaho, and Poison, and The Living End, and Paris Is Burning, by the end of the ‘90s to this author was feeling totally de-politicized, uninteresting, and abstract. Just as a magazine reader and as a filmgoer, I felt so excited and challenged by things opening at the same time, that I just didn’t believe him, but it was when I realized that there were a whole lot of filmgoers and scholars out there who were really invested in a specific set of directors continuing to do the same thing that they had done ten years ago. And it turned that what I had been excited about those early ‘90s movies was that they did not feel predictable. So that was what gave me the idea to write against the idea that this trend had died, that it might be feel a lot more like a French New Wave, or something where you know what the movies are that get it going, but it’s not the point for it to stay the same for five or ten years.
And the other moment was in the middle of grad school, when I read those two Gilles Deleuze theory books, Cinema 1 and Cinema 2, and those books so notoriously difficult, and so weird with what they call things, but unlike a lot of film theorists and I daresay even a lot of film scholars, they were written by somebody who went to the movies all the time, and wanted to have an idea about how different movies are from one another. So it was a great challenge to understand those books, and then try to imagine myself as teaching those books to other people, and then it felt like the crossover of how he thought about film, how I thought about desire, even how he thinks about desire in other books that are not about film, that that would be an exciting topic.
TB: One of your main case studies is a pair of David Cronenberg films, read through two Deleuzian filters. As you point out several times in the book, Cronenberg is straight, and has traditionally been seen as antagonistic by queer scholars. How did you come to the realization that what he was doing was in the wheelhouse of queer cinema?
ND: When I saw Crash (1996) twice on opening weekend and felt like a big perv for wanting to see Crash twice on opening weekend. And that came out within a year of my own coming-out, and trying to explain even to my parents and my friends, “I’m not sure ‘gay’ is a great word for what I’m telling you I am, there are women and men that I would happily be in relationships with, and… I’m telling you I’m not straight, is what I’m telling you.”
What Crash, as fucked-up as it is as a movie, was saying, was who even knows why this is what these people want to do, they each have a variety of partners that don’t remind you of each other. So that was the first inspiration, to think of Cronbenberg as doing this, and later, when he became part of the project, it was actually because I was critiquing myself, because the first version of the Cronenberg material was a grad school seminar essay in which I argue exactly the points I argue against in this. I realized my own hypocrisy, maybe, because what he was doing was so envelope-pushing and challenging about what anybody thinks that desire is, that the sheer impact of recruiting him as a potentially queer filmmaker would get the book out on a solid note, of “don’t assume anything about anybody.” And also I didn’t just want to critique what other people have thought that I don’t agree with, I wanted to critique myself, for what I used to think.
TB: Have you gotten any pushback?
ND: There’ve been interesting conversations...
I met Peter Weller at a celebration of the novel Naked Lunch’s 50th anniversary, which was here in Chicago. And I told him I was working on this, and the minute I said, “I’m writing a book about queer cinema, and I start with Naked Lunch and Dead Ringers,” he said, “Do not do that. William Burroughs would have hated to be grouped as a gay filmmaker. He was not about identity politics and labels.” And I said, this is exactly what I wanted to dismantle about the way we think about Cronenberg and Burroughs, because I think he’s exactly the wrong writer and this is exactly the wrong movie to go looking for a role modeling of what gay desire looks like. And he got so excited. So that was an awesome moment of understanding what the rejection might be, and then feeling fortified.
Tim Brayton: As you discuss Velvet Goldmine, you introduce the idea that it was identified in 1998 as a dead end for queer cinema, and your response is to not only challenge that, but suggest that the film itself challenges that. Do you believe there is or was an orthodoxy in queer studies that films like that are contesting?
Nick Davis: I think in some ways that the theorists have been less prone to their own orthodoxy than people who write about the queer movies. I think the temptation to want Gus Van Sant to keep making gay avant-garde cinema was stronger in some ways than the need for queer theory to not evolve. But it’s probably something of a taste issue. I like movies that are non-dogmatic about who your allies are, who you might desire, what you might desire. So a lot of the later movies in the book, like Brother to Brother or Shortbus, I think do pose really exciting questions: do we even know who we are as a queer community, where does sexuality fall on some kind of ranked list of my priorities. Velvet Goldmine is last in the book, partially because I think it’s the most exciting… it doesn’t end really hopefully, it doesn’t end really pessimistically, it doesn’t give you a clear idea of who’s with you and who’s against you, it challenges you to think about that in a really big way. So I think a lot of the movies that excite me – Beau travail is this way also – do open up, get you out of a reflexive answer about that.
TB: Regarding Beau Travail, the book argues that the understanding of that film as “queer” is somewhat problematic, that it was forced onto it by outside marketing forces. Do you believe that it is queer?
ND: I totally do, but I think my sense of it… it’s the only movie in the book that I really didn’t like the first time I saw it. And then again, it was a case of understanding that it was just fundamentally different than what I expected the movie to be, which was a legible adaptation of Billy Budd.
I feel like… if you open a newspaper, and you see an ad for a bar, or a club, and it has a bare-chested really muscled guy on the front of it, suddenly it’s just clear that’s a gay club. In the same way, I think because our relationships to male bodies in movies have been so postponed, for such a long time, making them available as something to take pleasure in, that it feels weirdly backwards to associate muscled, good-looking guys with one idea. Most movies that are full of that many barely-dressed, worked-out guys, are doing that to awaken a lot of erotic tension among them, which seems like exactly what’s missing in that movie. When you start to associate homoeroticness, or queerness, or gayness with being super-buff and bare-chested, and that leaves out most of us, I think there’s a reason to disentangle that as an equation.
TB: What are your thoughts on the current state of queer cinema?
ND: My sense is that it’s probably someplace like where black cinema is, or women’s cinema, that it is now so hydra-headed, and works in so many ways, that it’s hard to take stock of how it’s doing right now, which was part of what was exciting about it. To me, that was part of the success story, how you often need a moment where there’s a huge push of really vigorous, challenging work, that you can ask at the end of ten years, how is the New Queer Cinema looking these days, and I felt more optimistic than people tended to at the end of ten years. There’s so many movies made around the world, or even at home- you know, like, in a Mulholland Dr. era, where there can be clearly telegraphed homoeroticism in a movie, but your impulse to call it queer cinema may be strong or weak. So my sense of it is just that it’s moved in a whole lot of directions, and to me that’s actually healthy, even though I understand the nostalgia for seeing it out and proud.
There was this full article in, I think The Guardian last year, about Weekend, and Keep the Lights On, and I Want Your Love, about seeing a collection of movies that were working as excitingly with total naturalism, as these early ‘90s movies were working with the opposite of that, with post-modernism and structural play. So I bet we’ll see ups and downs, it will feel like there are discrete movements where a few filmmakers are gravitating toward each other and doing something new again, and I’ll be excited for that also, but I also like these periods of diffusion.
The book is available right now on Amazon, in bended and un-bended editions. It’s well worth checking out, not just for Nick’s thoughts on big-name films like Dead Ringers and Velvet Goldmine, but smaller queer films that got overlooked, like The Watermelon Woman and Brother to Brother. Congrats to Nick on his big literary breakthrough!