Terrified Twinks And Gay Monsters: How ‘Knife + Heart’ Tackles Our Horrific Queer History
Gay men are either sissies or terrifying predators in film -- until now.
Note: this article contains light spoilers for Knife + Heart and Cruising.
He asked me what my favourite type of porn was — which I thought was an incredibly forward question to ask someone you’re meeting for coffee for the first time.
At the moment, I said, I’m into porn where straight guys go gay for pay or are like… corrupted into being gay. It makes me feel a bit powerful, you know?
“Sure,” he said.
“What about you?” I asked — not because I wanted to know necessarily, but because it seemed rude not to ask.
“I have a favourite website actually — it’s called Terrified Twinks. They get these skinny gay guys and just like…rough them up. Beat the shit out of them.”
“Oh,” I said, sipping my soy latte, “that doesn’t sound fun.”
“Oh not you,” he laughed, “I wouldn’t do that to you…you’re not skinny.”
Modern cinema is filled with images of terrified twinks and terrifying gay men. I thought about that date, that man, and that website while I watched the new film Knife + Heart at Adelaide Film Festival.
Directed by Yann Gonzalez, Knife + Heart tells the story of porn auteur Vanessa Paradis, who makes blue movies in Paris in the late 70’s. Members of her production house begin to be brutally murdered by a mysterious Leatherman and as she begins to re-construct the murders in her films she slowly draws out the killer in an attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery.
The film is violent and incredibly funny. It’s campy and sexy and stylish, but underneath all of those Argento-inspired split-screens (and there are a lot of them — which isn’t a bad thing) there is an interesting juxtaposition with the film Cruising, William Friedkin’s 1980 slasher which follows a detective (played by Al Pacino) who lives as a gay man to try and catch a killer targeting the men in New York’s leather scene.
The two films are worth comparing, because they exemplify the changing attitudes towards queers on the big screen.
Cruising is also filled with terrified twinks and is largely held up as stigmatising gay men and male homosexuality. The films look at each other through time, make fuck-me eyes at each other in the adult video cinemas they’re set in and speak to the way that the images of the queer community have changed.
The Myth Of The Gay Monster
Representations of the gay man in western cinema fluctuate between two key archetypes.
According to Harry M. Benshoff’s Monsters in the Closet, these archetypes are respectively “the sissy” and “the monster”, and they act to uphold “culturally constructed binaries of gender and sexuality that structure Western thought”.
The sissy is essentially the butt of a joke. An overtly feminine figure in the body of a male, he subsequently fails at each of the binary gender roles and is used as the yardstick by which traditional, successful, genders are measured. He lacks any libido or sexual urge — you’ve seen them in films and TV countless times.
Where gay men are allowed to be sexual, they are, again according to Benshoff, “usually filtered through the iconography of the horror film… both movie monsters and homosexuals have existed chiefly in shadowy closets, and when they do emerge from these proscribed paces into the sunlit world, they cause panic and fear.”
These filmic ideas had, and still have, a grounding in the real world treatment of queer people, which is a shame — because being a gay monster actually sounds like a lot of fun. It was the exact type of porn that I was, and am, into.
The opening shot of Cruising is of New York’s East River. As the camera slowly and calmly pans across the muddy water we come across a decapitated arm.
As Vito Russo says in The Celluloid Closet, in a film marketed as being about homosexuality, this shot is a positive statement that “homosexuality and the homosexual lifestyle is a violent one — to be homosexual is to be violent.”
This accusation of violence reverberates throughout the film’s narrative, with each sordid murder mimicking the visual of the gay sex act.
The most obvious of which happens in an adult movie theatre: the killer is sitting watching the film onscreen, his identity hidden by flickering darkness of the projector. A man walks in and sits across from him and after they check each other out, the man walks over and begins to suck the killer off. Mid-way through we see a knife come down into his neck and blood spatters all over the screen where the blurry bodies of two men are having anal sex. The cries of pleasure from the porno are matched by the victims cries of pain and suffering: they’re one in the same.
In Cruising, the identity of the killer is left ambiguous. There’s no resolution, but it’s hinted that the detective, a once happily married man becomes infected and corrupted by his associations with gay men and sex. He isn’t a violent or bad person, but his exposure to gay people make him such. The horror in Cruising is the spectre of homosexuality: it’s violence, its ability to shake and change the status quo.
Knife + Heart
Knife + Heart takes Friedkin’s noir-soaked film and re-codes the narrative to one where gay and lesbian identities, and the sex that comes with them, are a source of fun.
While the murdered are almost exact replicas of those in Cruising, there are slight differences. The gay men get to cum, and sex and the anxiety surrounding it (and there is anxiety surrounding it) isn’t the source of the horror in Knife + Heart, with the violence in the film serving the human drama at the film’s centre.
There is a gay monster in Gonzalez’s film, but he has a body, remnants of a face. He is a singular threat. There are sissies too… and they are incredibly, fabulously sexual.
Where Cruising places the blame on the homosexual and the lifestyle of the homosexual for violence, Knife + Heart posits that to love, to be in love is messy and dangerous and deadly and, yes- in its own way, violent.
Gonzaelz’s film recasts the queer identity as one that is complex, that is funny, that is brave, that is violent but, more than anything, human. And also incredibly sexy.
He recasts the homosexual monster as one that we can laugh at, be entertained and thrilled by.
The False Good/Bad Dichotomy
This isn’t all to say that Cruising is a bad film.
Too often when talking about art and media, especially as it relates to queer people, our conversations collapse into whether the representation is positive or negative, whether queer people are depicted in a good, moral, light which isn’t very productive when most art exists to bring the ideas and taboos of a cultural moment to the forefront.
Neither Knife + Heart or Cruising are positive but — as works of camp — morality doesn’t and shouldn’t apply. And while it’s good for writers (like me) with a base understanding of critical theory to get paid every now and then to write about it, it’s bad to view art through the lens of morality.
It negates the point of art, which is to synthesise a moment and draw taboos to the fore. It’s also incredibly boring.
I love Cruising. But when reading Cruising in the context of its time, with the devastation caused by AIDS in the queer community and the long-term prejudice engendered because of it (that has been felt and is still being felt all around the world), the outrage it caused is justified.
I would protest too if my community was under attack and there was a film that government-backed attackers could use against me. But to simply have Cruising live out it’s days as a blip on our celluloid history is unfair… especially when you can have so much fun with it, as Gonzalez has. But reading Cruising in 2018 it’s incredibly funny to me. It’s makes me feel powerful in the same way that watching those straight guys suck dick makes me feel powerful.
Or at least, a little turned on.
The gay leather scene of the 70’s and 80’s is a perfect place to locate a slasher film with its dark bars, anonymity, the smell of sweat and leather and the dynamics of domination and submission that ripple through the relationships that exist there, or ,at least, did once. It’s intense and smart and you get to see a young Al Pacino’s ass.
Knife + Heart (re)writes the ideas of Friedkin’s film into a time and context where they can be understood and enjoyed. Where the gay monster can exist and not be a figurehead for an entire group of people, but be funny, be entertaining and sexy enough that you could probably wank to it in a sleazy adult cinema… even if terrified twinks aren’t your thing.
Knife + Heart has just finished the festival circuit and received US Release on June 20. A wider international release is scheduled for later this year.
Anthony Nocera is a freelance writer and full time homosexual. His work has appeared in places like Vice, Overland and Krass Journal. He’s been rejected by many other notable publications.