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Smile when you say figure skater — or Spartan

Who gets to be gay in movies now? “Blades of Glory” gets the jokes right. By Dave White
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

I live in West Hollywood, a tiny section of Los Angeles where so many gay men reside that being gay isn’t even news anymore. It’s just another thing to be. As an “issue,” the population is, on the whole, post-concerned about it.

But studio marketers know where we live, and I’m betting that our “Blades of Glory” bus stop posters look a lot different than the ones you’re seeing in your neighborhood, provided your neighborhood isn’t The Castro in San Francisco, or South Beach, Fla., or Chelsea in New York City.

The oversized poster at the stop nearest my home features Will Ferrell and Jon Heder on ice skates wearing sequined spandex unitards and crotch-locked in what can only be described as an illustration from “The Joy of Gay Sex”  re-enacted by movie stars. Before that poster went up, the “Dreamgirls” poster lived there for about three months.

I saw “Blades of Glory”  last week. It’s very, very funny and manages to get right what “Wild Hogs” — with its open threats of violence directed to characters that displayed anything less than Snickers-ad machismo — got so miserably, stupidly wrong. “Blades” goofs on gay panic in a way that’s smarter than its characters and manages to comment on the real discomfort some heterosexual men still feel when they encounter that which might brand them effeminate. And it does all this in a way that’s not old-school insulting to gay viewers. The joke is on the dopey, against-all-odds heterosexual male skaters themselves, and on you, too, if you’re feeling squeamish about it all.

So this is the growing-pains stage of queer assimilation. We came out in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and ’00s, demanded not to be invisible or brutalized anymore, and now the culture is slowly catching up. For better or worse, we exist on screen more than ever. And the general audience’s level of sophistication has risen alongside that visibility.

The power of Gerard Butler's absIf the seemingly intentionally homoerotic and homophobic “300” had been released in the 1950s, those contradictory elements would have been discussed privately among gay audiences with eyes self-trained to see past the surface. But now, in 2007, everyone has those eyes.

“I just saw ‘300,’” said my hetero friend Pete, over the phone. “And the night before that I went to the Scissor Sisters concert. Does a quick succession of events like this make me automatically gay now? I ask you this because, as the only gay I like, you’re sort of the expert.”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes it does. Now you’re gay. You caught it from Gerard Butler’s pectoral muscles. I feel sorry for your beautiful wife.”

“And what was up with that Persian king with all the eye-shadow? How (F-wordy) was he?”

The actor’s crazy characters rule small screens and large, from “Saturday Night Live” to “Land of the Lost.”

My response: “About as (F-wordy) as you are right now, you ‘300’-loving Scissor Sisters fan.”

Pete (he’s allowed to say the F-word that means gay because I say he’s allowed and I’ll explain why later) is a good friend that I once forced to watch 15 full minutes of homosexual pornography as a cruel experiment for a magazine article I was writing. It was him, his wife Catherine, me and my own partner in their living room. As Pete cringed and howled in agony and covered his eyes as the video burned itself into his memory, the rest of us laughed our heads off. It was a good time, kind of like the ending of “A Clockwork Orange.” It turned into a great piece for the magazine, he’s scarred for life, and that’s hilarious.

All of that to say that Pete is fairly typical as far as straight men who are vaguely uncomfortable with gay “stuff” goes. But even a guy like Pete — who sees a film like “300” and prefers to remember the battle action and not the bodacious oiled-up abs — even he has more in common with guys like the “You know how I know you’re gay?”-taunting characters in “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” or the “Jackass” crew than with the kind of testosterone-poisoned warriors of the very self-consciously masculine movie he just watched. In fact, that my friend even noticed “300’s” weirdly retro dominant male paradigm of painting the enemy as a flaming, pouting, imperious queen-king, a trick used to promote the idea of that enemy being morally and physically weak, makes him more aware and more post-concerned than even he would probably admit.

The movies, they are a changing
The movies themselves are shifting in small but real ways.  More or less gone are the days when a movie like the early ’80s comedy “Partners,” starring Ryan O’Neal and John Hurt, could ask you to sympathize and identify with a petulant pretty boy homophobe detective who’s being forced to go undercover as gay to catch a killer (think “Cruising” but played for laughs).

“Wild Hogs,” by virtue of its huge box-office take, gets away with this tone, but not without getting called on it by critics and gay viewers all over the country. And “Wild Hogs” would seem to be an exceptional case anyway. In the forthcoming R-rated, animated freak-out, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters” — a stoner-jam of a movie aimed at young, hetero males if ever one existed on a release schedule — a fat, orange alien with an Austrian accent spends most of his screen time making out with a male robot who calls himself The Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past. How’s that for post-concerned?

Meanwhile, on screens right now, a Morrissey T-shirt and short-shorts-wearing gay cop (Thomas Lennon) leads an inept police department in what turns out to be a mission of heroism in “Reno 911!: Miami.” A sales clerk in a department store comes on to Chris Rock in “I Think I Love My Wife” and not only is he not punished for his assertive behavior, but Rock’s character barely flinches.

And in “Reign Over Me,” Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler have a never-before-heard-in-a-mainstream-film, rules re-setting conversation about the public and private use of the F-word, one where the slur winds up, in context, weighing exactly the same as the word “poundcake.” It’s an exchange that distills lots of ideas about what a man is and is not allowed to say or be right now and, when written and shot, couldn’t have predicted Ann Coulter’s recent media-baiting or Isaiah Washington’s anger-control issues. Better yet, it’s informed by neither.

The “poundcake-ing” of the word (as in, “No, YOU’RE a poundcake”) is something that I, and lots of gay men I know, have lived with for quite a while. We’re kind of over being “types.” And we sort of sit around and wait for the world to catch up. It’s just a part of the reason why a movie like “Blades of Glory” gets the gold and why my friend Pete gets a verbal F-word pass. And it’s why when he buys the “300” DVD in a few months and watches it multiple times, I’ll question his commitment to his wife all over again.

Dave White is the film critic for Movies.com and the author of “Exile in Guyville.” He can be found at www.imdavewhite.com.