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Sticks and Stones

After Normal

‘Looking,’ Michael Sam, and the state of gay culture

Looking is essentially a half-hour dramatic sitcom about three friends — Patrick, Agustín, and Dom — in their late twenties to very early forties in San Francisco. One’s white, one’s Latino, and one’s got a mustache. They’re all gay. The show airs Sundays on HBO, after Girls, and its structure should be familiar to anyone who’s turned on a television since the advent of Mary Tyler Moore. Characters walk and talk and eat and go to work, all while trying to get to the point of their lives. Since Looking airs on a premium network, the characters can use such non–Mary Richards terms as “motherfucker” and say things like, “I’m going to come,” and getting to the point can be as existential a journey as the show wants.

Last Sunday brought the fifth episode, and it was magnificent in its simplicity. It was just Patrick (Jonathan Groff) touring the city with Richie (Raúl Castillo), a guy he’d met on the train, offended, and later ran into at a bar. The previous episodes of Looking worked just fine. But when a new series begins, everyone is feeling out everyone else — the producers, the writers, the characters, the audience — and the show seemed to be consciously pushing back against the long, intimidating history of half-hour television. Like most TV on a premium network, it was like a movie delivered in segments.

Episode 5 was a movie unto itself. For one day, the other characters ceased to exist. The world seemed to stop in order for one man to understand the other better. The day began and ended in bed, but included a train ride, a stroll through Golden Gate Park to the Morrison Planetarium, a conversation at Ocean Beach, and a visit to a fortune-teller. If you were down on or ambivalent about Looking, if you found it boring or lazy or flavorless, if you were still feeling it out, this was the episode meant to push you off the fence.

Patrick and Richie’s morning-after date doubles as a treatise on how to turn love into discourse without losing the balance of romance and comedy, not unlike those Richard Linklater movies with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke — this would be Before Outer Sunset. “Look at what we’re finding out about each other,” Patrick says. “Neither of us has AIDS. You don’t like your teeth. You have bad taste in movies.” At the Morrison, a conversation about anal-sex terminology and its limitations begins with them gazing up at the stars. Richie is reminded of the time on Friends that Ross took Rachel to a planetarium on their first real date.

Pop culture has given us several memorable planetarium sequences: Rebel Without a Cause, The Mack, Manhattan, The Wonder Years. But Richie references “The One Where Ross and Rachel … You Know,” which contained a medium shock for network TV in 1996. They haven’t had sex yet, but are making out in the planetarium at the Museum of Natural History, which they have to themselves, when Rachel feels something wet against her and says to Ross, “Oh, honey. That’s OK.” She thinks he’s ejaculated early, and he tells her it was just one of the juice boxes they brought, and she looks up at the stars and says, more or less in italics, “Thank God.”

As it happens, one of the men behind Looking is Andrew Haigh, a filmmaker who made a little-seen but passionately adored 2011 movie called Weekend. It’s also about two strangers getting to know each other and falling, if not in love, then in deep emotional and political alignment. Both men — a discreet introvert named Russell and an extroverted ideologue named Glen — are mutually enriched through intense, prolonged, drug-and-alcohol-fueled exposure to each other.

At a bar one night, Glen gets up on a high horse and trots through the ways in which perceptions of romance are circumscribed heterosexually, so that relationships are seen through the frame of who’s the man and who’s the woman. That conversation Patrick and Richie have about Friends would stand as a case in point. But they rejigger the framing so that “Ross” and “Rachel” become terms for “bottom” and “top.” As television, Looking is passively considering what it means to be gay. What’s been frustrating for some gay viewers is that there’s nothing to figure out, and so what they feel they’re watching is an explanatory show, a demonstration of homosexual life for people who aren’t living it. The men are handsome. They’re presentable. No one has a drag name. It’s queer guys for the straight eye.

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That feels like a valid — if narrow — criticism. But what do you do with it? Where do you go from there? Haigh and Looking’s creator, Michael Lannan, are both gay. The show they’ve made doesn’t pander to any audience. It is simply, though not solely, the product of an unprecedented social moment for gays and lesbians. Decades of agitation, aggression, and activism have achieved some of what was intended, which includes the decriminalization and destigmatization of homosexuality, access to humane medical treatment, and equality in all walks of life, most momentously in the walk down the aisle. The determination to live without hate and harassment became a demand for tolerance. The demand began to wear society down, and as closet doors around the world began to open and heterosexuals saw friends, coworkers, members of their families, and now teammates standing in the doorway, tolerance turned into love. The fury and tragedy of Larry Kramer’s landmark 1985 play The Normal Heart1 turned into plain old normal — seeing gay people not as gay, but as people.

It was the not seeing that causes some worry. It’s the idea that acceptance is a less loaded way of saying that acclimation has been achieved. For all of modern history, homosexuals have been defined as other than heterosexual. In many cultures, it’s still deviant. That marriage equality is being accepted around the country with relative ease is surprising clergy people and legal scholars. In a small sphere of the culture and not-so-small sphere of American society, the reality of marriage has occasioned some hand-wringing about domestication, and some of that uncertainty is playing out in our movies and on our television shows.

At Ocean Beach, Richie asks Patrick whether his mother would be happier about his being gay if he were married. He thinks so: It would mean I’m just like everyone else, he basically says. Marriage would make his sexuality more palatable to her. That anxiety about normalization courses through the show. It also courses through the criticism of the show. We’re all paying attention to Looking because it’s on HBO, which tends to warrant notice and puts it in both the enviable and unenviable position of being a bellwether. But Looking isn’t alone. A similar anxiety about domesticity factors into other shows and movies. It’s there in the lesbian marriage on The Fosters, which is on ABC Family, and was the engine of a fascinating film by Stacie Passon called Concussion, which came and went too fast last year and was about a bored lesbian mother and housewife (Robin Weigert) who becomes a call girl for other women. Her fantasy turns into a business that grows out of dissatisfaction with suburban contentment. On Looking, Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), who’s just shacked up with his boyfriend, is pursuing a similar course of action — and all he did was move to Oakland.

With medical advances reining in the AIDS epidemic from a six-alarm crisis to a persistent concern that’s left some gay and straight people complacent, there are corners of society and culture afforded the luxury of asking: What if now it’s not silence that equals death, but marriage?

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In some ways, it’s a classic question, whether marriage is an end. Novelists, playwrights, filmmakers, and television producers have argued that it can feel like the end. I don’t know how much to read into the fact that Episode 5 of Looking ends with “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” Morrissey’s dreamy, down-lifting single about a town Armageddon forgot. Setting aside the lyrics, hearing the drums and strings as Richie tosses a condom at Patrick, who laughs, made me laugh, too. It’s a perversely happy song for what passes on TV for a perversely happy moment.

In any case, that episode (and the show itself) feels like a breakthrough for TV, not for the sex, exactly, but for the lack of hysteria or gymnastics with which the sex is conducted. Anyone who’s watched Queer As Folk or The L Word might find relief in sex that’s after something other than revenge or sport or a disturbance of the pay-cable peace. Looking, with its alleged normativeness, just re-asks the original question: How much comfort is too much?

There was a time, not terribly long ago, when there was no comfort at all. Take 1980, when Al Pacino spent William Friedkin’s thriller Cruising as a detective undercover in the gay leather bars of New York, looking for a serial killer. Friedkin tries to make clear that mainstream gay life exists. Somewhere. The film was released with a disclaimer stating that the movie is representing only a subculture. But all you see is a director being turned on by and terrified of the public parks and bars where Pacino spends his days and nights. The horror comes from the appalling randomness of it all. The psycho kills because his dead father instructs him to. The audience is left to conclude that these are crimes of self-loathing.

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Pacino’s sensitive cop is the only real character in the movie. He tries to back out of the job when it starts to take a psychological toll. Friedkin supplies a girlfriend (Karen Allen) who doesn’t know the particulars of the assignment. She just receives his rough sex until she has to ask why the sex has stopped. “What I’m doing is affecting me,” is all he’ll say, and who knows what that means? Pacino’s performance aside, the movie is anti-psychological. It literalizes its homophobia, then passes it off on gay psychopathology. Still, as an artifact of pre-AIDS-era New York, the movie is more fascinating now than it is revolting. It doesn’t stint on the kink, and Pacino devotes a lot of time staring at men in bondage getups. The movie’s called Cruising, and Friedkin means it.

Gay activists protested during the production and complained it would incite hate crimes. They perceived a straight director’s gay panic: Night of the Living Village People. Twelve years later, there was more cause for alarm, over Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas’s Basic Instinct, in which nearly every woman is a homicidal bisexual or lesbian. But Alex Pappademas helpfully pointed out in an assessment of Verhoeven last week that “[Sharon] Stone’s rapacious Catherine isn’t presented as a representative of the gay community any more than the shark in Jaws was a representative of the ‘ocean community.’” Basic Instinct was Cruising at 120 mph. At that speed, it’s hard to raise your hand to object without losing an arm.2

In a 2006 interview with Mark Adnum, the self-delighted contrarian intellectual Camille Paglia denounced gay protesters of both movies as “Stalinist.” (She did the audio commentary for the Basic Instinct DVD.) Paglia came out in favor of most of the gay-anxiety nightmare movies of the 1980s and 1990s. She liked the danger and the camp of that era, and she feared that self-seriousness was taking over depictions of gay life, that all the fun would eventually leave the building. She was right. The shitty little sex comedies that used to occupy an important wing of gay and lesbian film culture as recently as five or six years ago have earnestly morphed into shitty romances.

If you find Cruising on Netflix, for instance, the service’s recommendation algorithm doesn’t endorse more Cruising-era excitements, no Making Love, with Michael Ontkean, Harry Hamlin, and poor, discarded Kate Jackson. Instead, it will spit at you a dozen titles that are like Brokeback Mountain, which Paglia attacked for being dreary and having too many ironed shirts (the leads “looked like Ralph Lauren catalogue models”). In other words, Netflix identifies you as interested in general gay movies, not in camp and/or disasters. Unless, of course, the algorithm taxonomizes Cruising as romance.

Paglia’s annoyance feels apt for 2014, even if, on a movie-to-movie and show-to-show basis, she’s sometimes wrong. What she’s advocating for and what the detractors of Looking seem to want is some great art to come out of this moment, more deviancy. These people sense that the gay cultural boulevards are being Giulianied — that the kink, the camp, the mess, and maybe even the art are all being turned into the equivalent of Manhattan’s High Line. We’re a long way from the ragged independent radicalism of the gay new wave of the 1990s. Todd Haynes’s most recent project, for instance, was that gleaming, campless, multipart remake of Mildred Pierce with Kate Winslet for HBO.

Twenty-five years ago, Haynes was the provocateur who raised hell with the explicit gay sex in Poison. He went on to make Safe and Far From Heaven. For now, he’s moved on to other subversions. You might argue he’s matured. You might then ask whether maturity is good. But that’s the wrong question. Haynes has nothing to prove. He’s done his part. It might be better to ask where the new incarnation of early-’90s Haynes is, or whether that incarnation is even possible now.

You can still find these sticks of dynamite that seem as if they’re from another, less fraught time, like Billy Eichner, who sprints around New York screaming questions at pedestrians and often dragging a celebrity behind him. He’s a panic attack with a microphone, and his show, Billy on the Street, both on Fuse and Funny or Die, is a no-budget masterpiece of maniacal camp that attacks you with profane gayness (one segment’s called “Quizzed in the Face”). In one segment, the dragged celebrity was a hilariously chagrined Debra Messing and the game was called “It’s Debra Messing, You Gays!” Eichner usually wears a sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers. He looks boyish and sane, and then he takes off, and you realize Eichner’s joke — one of them — is on boyishness and sanity. Eichner’s exclamatory abrasive indecorousness makes him the gay friend you can’t take anywhere but do because who knows what’ll happen. He’s a disinfectant for earnestness and propriety. He’s so funny that they die.

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In this climate, you see the films of a director like Alain Guiraudie, and you feel like looking up at the planetarium ceiling and saying, “Anarchists! Thank God!” Guiraudie is a gay Frenchman whose movies explore sexuality in small towns with almost comical philosophical rigor. His new movie is a murder mystery called Stranger by the Lake that’s playing in New York and Los Angeles and opens this week in a handful of other cities. The camera patiently, gracefully watches men recline nude on lakeshore stones, cruise for sex, and hook up in the woods (the reedy landscape feels as if it’s watching — and judging). One swimmer, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), finds himself drawn to Michel (Christophe Paou), the only conventionally alluring man in sight. Michel has a mustache and a hookup partner. Franck watches them fuck in the woods. Then he watches a more disturbing incident and falls further under Michel’s spell.

In 90 minutes, Guiraudie, who’s been the recent subject of retrospectives at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Harvard Film Archive, organizes a moral universe around the absurd lawlessness of sexual attraction. This new one is the first that evokes the gay-killer thrillers of Friedkin and Verhoeven, but with an elegantly suspenseful conflation of Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski. Amid the ejaculating penises and slashed throats, an eerie sadness takes hold. After days of trysting on towels, Franck wants to see Michel in a bed. But Michel appears to have a psychotic aversion to attachment. Guiraudie takes the trappings of potboilers and porn and fashions a damning indictment of a strain of gay life. It’s not marriage that frays the fabric of community. It’s sex.

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The gay political movement has fought so hard to achieve equality, and in many ways equality begets normalcy, and that normalcy feels worrying even to the filmmakers and television producers leaving the ghettos of gay pop culture for the mainstream where normal is the ideal. When Robbie Rogers, Brittney Griner, Jason Collins, Fred Rosser, and Michael Sam announce that they’re gay, the collective response is that in a couple of years this won’t even be an issue. Equality in marriage and locker rooms will go from “Hallelujah!” to “Whatever.”

Sam is still considered a test case of what normal even is. He has yet to enter the NFL, but he spent an entire season playing football at the University of Missouri with young men who knew their teammate was gay and never called TMZ. Most experts expect Sam to wind up drafted. Who knows what happens then? What should happen? But it’s unreasonable to argue that life was better when the Michael Sams of the world, not to mention the Anderson Coopers and Robin Robertses, had to do their jobs hidden in plain sight. And doesn’t popular culture have a responsibility to reckon with, if not reconcile, that new openness?

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At Slate, J. Bryan Lowder submitted a pointed dismissal of Looking that took issue with the characters’ generic handsomeness, lack of confrontation, and general monotony. He argues that because gay men have already lived what this show has dramatized, it’s a show only straight people could love. He goes on to lament the show’s banishment of campiness and queeniness in favor of more conventional, more apolitical men — men you can take home to your straight friends. He mentions Stanford Blatch, Carrie Bradshaw’s swishy gay pal on Sex and the City. The Stanfords are still out there in the real world, but Looking banishes them.

“For if the campy Stanford Blatches of old were, on some level, products of a culture that needed to see gay men as clowns,” Lowder writes, “Patrick and his Looking companions are the product of a culture that doesn’t really want to see them at all.” And yet here they are being seen by a couple hundred thousand people every Sunday for two months. And what’s the alternative? Maybe something like Noah’s Arc, a half-hour melodramedy about four gay black friends in Los Angeles that aired on Logo. From the plots to the costumes, that show had an addictive, ruthless brazenness. It was the sort of TV that happens when a show thinks no one’s watching. But does there need to be an alternative at all? A show in which three gay men, of any kind, walk around the Bay Area seems beyond overdue.

The campy queens are almost everywhere else on television. They’re the old normal and have been from the inception of television and the movies. But Looking feels distinctly characteristic of San Francisco, which after so many years at the vanguard of political upheaval has spawned generations of gay men who’ve evolved beyond camp affectations and adapted to less familiarly apparent gayness. The jazz hands of Will and Grace’s Jack become the sweatpants and slouching of Max on Happy Endings, the ecstatically obvious morphing into the out but undetectable. More straight guys, meanwhile, have shed the pretense of classical manliness for a more elastic, more primped, more feminized notion of masculinity, which is how you wind up with the stardom of Robert Downey Jr. Everything that rises converges, and it’s the convergence that might be unsettling.

We’ve been conditioned to expect sass. Jared Leto is likely to win an Academy Award for this sort of no-nonsense queer character — a transgender woman — who, in Dallas Buyers Club, serves as the heterosexual protagonist’s conduit to a needy gay customer base.

Looking’s lack of gay sass (Dom shares an apartment with a brassy straight woman) and fabulousness — the absence of what a good friend calls “A-gays” — feels like a conscious challenge. This is a show trying to see the men in gay males without forsaking their gayness. But you can feel Haigh and Lannan asking what else they can do with characters. The show in some ways is about that conflict with comfort — how, until the arrival of Patrick’s new boss, he was the only gay male at his game-design company and chose to overcompensate with self-deprecation.

The concern about the risks of gaining acceptance and losing your identity — or an aspect of it — is legitimate. I think Jack and Max are equally real and equally subversive characters. But you do long for greater indecency and deviancy to tell you where the standards and proprieties are. John Waters owes his career to fixed ideas of normalcy that had nothing to do with him. His brilliance grew out of opposition. It’s just that now the standards keep moving, enough for Hairspray to become a Broadway musical.

But not all of that decency was healthy. Cruising didn’t invent the leather scene. It just got the Friedkin horror-show treatment. Gays spent modern history being shunned, institutionalized, and murdered. They were called crazy. So crazy some of them went. Before The Normal Heart, Kramer wrote the 1978 novel Faggots, a furious catalogue of drugs and sex acts that was of its moment and very much a premonition of the coming AIDS epidemic. It’s still both electrifying and depressing — a punk-rock piece of writing that consciously roils with self-loathing caution. New York once had a gay bar called the Toilet.

We’re on the far side of that strain of self-destruction. But one wrinkle in 2014 is that there’s no handbook, no guiding principle of behavior. Kramer, the indefatigable activist, humanitarian, and holder of gays to the highest sociopolitical standards, married his longtime partner last July. Gays are often lumped in with women and blacks as another oppressed party. But blacks have a control for measuring what’s accepted as social progress: white people. There’s no reliably visible foil for gay people, in part because, for so long, they were visible only to themselves. Political strains of gay culture radicalized quickly against hatred and legal demoralization. I’ve never come across a black questionnaire that asks whether I’m political. But it’s a frequently asked question on the gay equivalents. The achievement of marriage equality differs from battles for suffrage or integration. The fight is for a right that someone like Patrick isn’t sure he even wants.

For all the grand political advances, there’s no elemental set of principles for how to reconcile those advances, principles that keep you from marrying stupidly or being exploited or neglected. Kramer can’t do all the most vociferous standard-bearing himself. There is no feminism for gays, no treatise of fraternity. A black middle class and equal rights for women presented both groups with the opportunity that acceptance does for gays: to look inward. It’s unclear how the gay equivalent of feminism would work, but what you sense in the debate over Looking is a larger question that’s been hovering over gays for a decade and now is the point of the show itself: looking, but for what?

Filed Under: TV, Looking, HBO, Al Pacino, larry kramer, the fosters, AIDS, queer as folk, Michael Sam, billy eichner, Alain Guiraudie, JARED LETO, dallas buyers club

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris