Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Male Bisexuality in Current Cinema, by Justin Vicari

Male Bisexuality in Current Cinema: Images of Growth, Rebellion and Survival, by Justin Vicari. Jefferson and London: McFarland, 2011. Paperback. $45.00

In analyzing the 1970s cinematic Eurodecadence, the Italian-originated school of locating fascism in an entire spectrum of sexual deviance, critic Raymond Durgnat suggested that it was a strategy by which to condemn heterosexuality as more adaptable to social corruption than the already marginalized homosexuality, and to regard the early attempts by Visconti and Bertolucci as the starting point in a genre that would come to deny any hope of human salvation. We may have come a long way in suturing ideology to sexuality, but Justin Vicari’s new book makes it abundantly clear that the theory and practice of bisexuality in contemporary cinema has been lost to political all-or-nothing attitudes of most filmmakers. Vicari posits that the male bisexual experience in recent film has either been folded negligently into gay identity, the exploitation of female bisexuality presenting a “cinematic ghetto” of its own (and is therefore not covered here), or reduced to a floating signifier for coming-of-age rebellion that has left it equally undefined . Relegation of a sexual identity into a cliché character “phase” has made male bisexuality in film less a trait of individuality and more a trend, one that is overloaded with sociopolitical and cultural coding to the point of abstraction. As Vicari points out, the first flood of bisexual chic emerged in the 1970s with rock-star androgyny as the result of the sexual and social revolts of the previous decade. Militant gays insisted that bisexuality was a way to be homosexual and yet not take the leap into open realization. The skewed images of bisexual men in the media ranging from the “Rocky Horror Picture Show-Interview with a Vampire branding of predatory, super human bisexual men” (19), to the persecution of the early AIDS era, to the resurgent chic in the guise of postmodern gender role slippage and the metrosexual, has made the study of the cinematic patterns of this non-identity vital to needed re-theorization. Bisexuality and its metaphors may have been relegated in default to queer studies, even to post-colonial readings, but as Vicari delineates, bisexual characters “do not possess the power of novelty which would make them into bona fide cultural events: they are not a galvanized or galvanizing movement or even necessarily interconnected in a way that speaks directly to our times” (26). And yet such ambiguity reflects the very climate of our new century, in which identity, culture, even race are eclipsed by posthumanism, virtuality, and a self-perpetuating political correctness.

Vicari deftly explores how the Millennium Generation has become more tolerant of the bisexual as individual in their half-hearted revolt against establishment values of the ’80s and ’90s, but also as a result of their sense of postmodern dislocation. Gregg Araki’s neo-psychedelic pop satires on the teen film and teens as film are a primary cinematic reflection of this phenomenon. Vicari finds Araki’s bisexuals to be the truer humans in his rainbow confusion. Experimentation comes from both gay and straight characters and their ultimate “knowledge also provokes the wish to escape from all labels, which perform the equally ruthless function of categorizing, segregating, dehumanizing” (55). With the increased separation of sexual communities, Araki’s bleak endings demonstrate the chasm of male bisexual representation — no longer a liaison between sexual camps but instead a new man in no-man’s land. Similarly, Vicari’s analysis of Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (1998), articulates the director’s attempt to comprehend the origin and value system of the bisexuality/glam-rock star connection of the 1970s, but even as the film toys with the liberation of its characters, it suggests a simulacrum for the “performance” rather than the revolution of bisexuality, particularly in the staged death of Bowie-like star Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who is literally “reborn” as a hetero pop singer when his private activities become too real. The bisexual identity that liberated teenyboppers for a season or two is rejected offstage and neutralized by a heterosexual culture that is “able to outbid bisexual realities . . . transforming them not only into commodities but bland, generic heterosexual fictions” (71).

Not all contemporary bisexual characters are the stuff of Araki and Haynes’ dreamlike dystopias. Vicari’s chapter, “For Whom the Bi Tolls: Craig Lucas’ The Dying Gauland Ozon’s Water Drops on Burning Rocks” discusses films that revisit traditional genres (the Hollywood bourgeois melodrama) and attempt to engage the difference between gay and straight by retaining the “threat” to heteronorm society but also by creating more rigid definitions through the good bisexual/bad bisexual dyad. The characters’ interpersonal relationships in Lucas’s film are as ever fraught with uncertainly and guilt: “love and sex have become locked in to abstract notions of identity, a kind of artificial, fixed allegiance which demands constant fealty and sacrifice” (82). Francois Ozon too, relegates the unstable bisexual experience into the power grid of class and sadomasochism and teases out the desire to devalue identity for action. Vicari’s concept of the use of love and its companions — shame and fear — as social control, which he calls “interpersonal fascism,” and which he relates to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “destructive instinct that crosses all lines of social demarcation” (87), is a significant volley against the rigidity of queer theory in terms of exploring the relative terra incognita of cinematic and literary bisexuality. The author further posits that “there still are not many films centered around bisexual heroes” (93) and that in classic pre-’60s cinema, the hero is assumed to be heterosexual, and non-hetero characterization is of course, only hinted at. The desire by queer studies to define and rescue such a figure as a crypto-gay character is limiting in its radicalism. Ozon’s films are deemed important in the communication of an actual bisexual space that is positive, demystified, and self-aware of the repressions of dominant (and marginalized) society. Vicari’s analysis of both Bill Condon’s Kinsey (2004) and Richard Shepard’s The Matador (2005) suggests a progressive if problematic linking of hetero-masculine roles such as the scientist and the hard-living spy/assassin to the suspicion of a bisexual consciousness. WithKinsey, the author rightly claims that Hollywood had to follow the “Bad-Monster-Worse Monster” trope of The Silence of the Lambs to insure mainstream audience sympathy for the title character. However, Pierce Brosnan’s role in The Matador provides a remarkable intertext with the highly calculated heterosexuality of his James Bond (perhaps not for long if the icon’s current embodiment Daniel Craig gets his well-publicized wish to have 007 experience a homoerotic relationship), in which the sinister side of the film’s male characterizations are dispelled by a humanizing bisexual suggestivity. Nevertheless, bi-erotic possibilities are even here utilized as a foil against homosexual panic, and although the admission that one hetero marriage has healed because of a platonic male (mis)adventure, “one’s own masculinity is reinforced in the mirror of another man’s: the latent bisexual subtext of every buddy action film and western” (106) and the end becomes only innuendo.

The most challenging aspect of Vicari’s book is the way it deals with the cinematic possibilities of “Bisexualising the Family” as a counter to queer imagining, in that bisexuality “remains deeply subversive to the whole idea of family” and renders the patriarchy “artificial, unpredictable, illegible” (108). Vicari examines approaches to bisexual patriarchy, its collapse, and its demonization in Das Trio(1998), Nettoyage a Sec (1997), In Extremis (2000), and finally in Peter Greenway’s “extreme case,” the allegorical The Pillow Book (1996). The prospect of positive bisexual family formation is found in A Home at the End of the World(2004), which makes its point at the cost of the “artificially constructed woman” (141), so often the lover to the filmic bisexual man. Central to his look at the bisexual love triangle, which seems to be the way current films can flirt with sexual danger and yet retreat from it, is the author’s adroit examination of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (2008), based on the best-selling novel by Michael Chabon. The adaptation by Rawson Marshall Thurber features actor Peter Sarsgaard, who seems to be creating his own cinematic intertextuality as the bisexual threat in a number of recent films; an enigmatic Sienna Miller; and the underrated Jon Foster as Art, the center of this triangle, who excavates his deep rage against his father (Nick Nolte), the greedy criminal world that killed his mother, and a hyper-corporate masculinity (e.g., sanitized greed, deception, and criminality) that is his expected destination. Unfortunately, Art’s rebellion, which stems from his psychological need for masculine love and a sense of his own possibilities outside his father’s strident expectations, is played off as a coming-of-age shock to the system, which then quietly retreats in the wake of partial liberation.

Trauma caused by the death of the mother and problematic relationships with fathers are also at the core of the rural character study of The Mudge Boy (2003), where the naive grieving son Duncan, caught between recreating his mother’s identity and locating his own, becomes the subject of the confused desire of Perry, an aggressive straight teen. Vicari underscores how the nascent bisexuality in the film divides rather than unites. The object of desire becomes a “tarnished figure, a person of bad faith, in gay coming-of-age cinema. He is not liberated, not out. He will not follow through, romantically, on his sexual promises” (164). The chapter on schoolboy crushes moves into the consideration of “Bi for Pay” in cinema and the landmark film by Gus Van Sant, My Own Private Idaho (1991), which Vicari re-reads as a primary narrative on situational bisexuality. In the film’s hustler environment, “Heterosexuality . . . becomes subsumed within gay fantasy, in its enforced conversion to its opposite” (175). He examines other similar scenarios, the most interesting being the adaptation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist in a 2003 Canadian film, and the nervous dislocation of the rent boy in the British mob milieu in Endgame (2001). Curiously, films based on novels by Bret Easton Ellis, which have moved “decadent” bisexual impulses into mainstream cinema, are here only represented by The Rules of Attraction (2002) and its murky collection of college experimentation and unfulfilled fantasies.

Vicari’s chapter on “Allegories of AIDS” is a moving meditation that might well stand with Susan Sontag’s essay Aids and its Metaphors in its wise look at how sex re-visioned cinema, and AIDS re-visoned sex in the cinema. Some of the films examined here, such as The 24th Dayand The Velocity of Gary, only serve “to further pathologize a pathology (the virus) and even re-pathologize same-sex activity itself by presenting AIDS . . . [as] a kind of readymade judgment” (201). Nevertheless, French writer/director André Téchiné’s The Witnesses (2007), a “heartfelt, balanced masterpiece” (201), brings out the need for humanism in a posthuman era. Not AIDS, but the denial of its risk, the demonization of others, and the self-hatred are seen as the great destroyer. Vicari concludes by examining the male hetero and bisexual experience as filmed from a feminist point of view in Catherine Breillat’s Anatomie de l’Enfer (2003). The approach of the director and her “New French Extremist” film strives for essentialism and a biologist liberation of the body beyond society (reflected in its hard-core imagery) while it evokes a constant struggle of the woman against objectification (including her own). According to the author, in Breillat’s vigilance against male abuse of woman, “she liberates her characters from artificially constructed sexual identity only to nail them back into their respective categories all the more forcefully . . .” (227).

Vicari’s persuasive study, which takes on male bisexuality vis-à-vis heterosexual cinema construction and as a largely ignored aspect of queer reception, recalls among all things the well-known comment by Heidi Hartmann about the problematic relationship between Marxism and feminism: “Either we need a healthier marriage or we need a divorce.” Critic Gloria Joseph responded to Hartmann by further questioning the incompatible “ménage à trios” between Marxism, feminism, and minority perspectives. Offering a compelling examination of bisexual practice and its heavily metaphoric use in cinema, Vicari insists that the subject cannot be reduced to the sort of politicized binary oppositions and social constructions that have been the norm in examining gay identity in film. Growing critical reception of the topic will no doubt alter tenets in current queer theory — as the realization of heterogeneous and multivalent (post-) feminisms overtook early feminist premise. The well-conceived structure, detailed reflections, and lucid writing style of Vicari’s study should interest both casual cineastes and scholars. It is certain to become an influential staple and offer solid grounding for further research and examination.