This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
Film critic Emanuel Levy‘s new book Gay Directors , Gay Films? is an excellent examination of the work of five gay filmmakers–Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, and John Waters–though it never extensively explores its thesis as stated in the interrogative title: do gay directors necessarily make gay films? The question can of course be applied to any minority artist. Do black directors make black films? Do women directors make women’s films? It’s a fascinating and ultimately unanswerable question template, though in Gay Directors, as I said, Levy never really devotes much energy to finding an answer. Which is fine. His book is instead an erudite yet approachable, affectionate yet objective trip through the filmographies of five well-known, eccentric, and, yes, gay directors. His title makes more sense if we merely remove the question mark.
Levy wisely breaks the book into individual sections devoted to each director, rather than exploring his unifying question while working through these careers simultaneously. He begins each with a brief overview of the director’s career and aesthetic, and relevant biographical information. He then moves into a chronological examination of every film in the director’s filmography, which leads to some directors receiving significantly more treatment than others based on more extensive catalogs. He looks at each film, relaying the plot, visual style and technique, and themes, as well as the film’s critical and popular reception within the gay community, the director’s specific fanbase, and the broader culture. Levy does an admirable job of blending and balancing his presentation of his personal tastes with his objective analysis, not shying away from telling us what he personally likes and dislikes within a given film or career, while still giving fair treatment to every film discussed. In this way he keeps the book from becoming dry or cold, and resists the academic urge to stay above his material. Every film writer is (or should be) in the end just a person who loves movies.
Levy displays his extensive knowledge as a film professor without ever talking over our heads, providing clear, concise, and well-reasoned analysis for these films and their directors. Gay Directors would be an excellent companion book to read while working through the viewing of these directors’ films, and I’m sure it will be adopted by more than a few college film and queer theory classes around the country. The book looks only at white male directors, though one could defend Levy by pointing out these are probably the five most successful gay directors of their era. Those looking for up-to-date corresponding titles that examine gay directors of color, lesbian directors, and so on will have to wait (or not–let me know in the comments if there are up-to-date titles out that provide this).
Overall Gay Directors, Gay Films? is an excellent resource, and is surprisingly easy to read given Levy’s academic pedigree and the specificity of the book’s aim. I would recommend this book to any cinéaste who wants to explore the work of these filmmakers, or who wants to broaden and diversify his or her viewing and knowledge of film.