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Michael Varrati Headshot

Lights, Camera, Action!

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For as long as I can remember, I've worshipped at the altar of cinema. I moved a lot as a kid, and though my childhood was a loving one, I think I always appreciated the stability movies provided. There's this magical sense of "other" that is consistent in films, no matter where or when you watch them. As any self-proclaimed film nerd will tell you, settling in to watch your favorite flick can be the emotional equivalent of coming home. It's a comfort I know well, and because of this, I have no problem admitting that movies very likely saved my life.

I'm a gay man, and I'm proud of who I am. However, this wasn't always the case.

In the mid-'90s, being a gay teenager in rural America just simply wasn't done. The few references to homosexuality at school or on TV were either as cruel one-note jokes or callous dismissals. Although my home was a caring one, the world outside seemingly hadn't made a turn for the better. This raised a lot of interior conflict that I skillfully avoided by throwing myself into school, an active social life, and, of course, movies.

Maintaining a healthy diet of late-night cable and midnight movies, I already had a deep appreciation for cult and outsider cinema. Being someone who internally felt apart from society, I always took great delight in the films that poked holes in the "normalcy" of the world around me. However, I wasn't ready for what I was to discover in the fall of 1998. What I wanted was a film about David Bowie, but what I got was a revelation.

The film was Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine, a gender-bending, glam-rock opus that blew my sheltered little mind. Allegedly evocative of Bowie's life (but, for legal reasons, not about the man himself), the film explored the same-sex love affair between a glam-rock god (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and a punk icon (Ewan McGregor). It was the first time I had seen people like that onscreen, people like me. Though their behavior wasn't the most stellar, there was some great solace in seeing this love unfold between two (admittedly gorgeous) men. From my seat in small-town America, the film served as a moment of recognition that I wasn't alone. There were other people out there who felt and desired the same things I was keeping to myself.

The film wasn't just an experience, it was a relief.

Viewing Velvet Goldmine made me hungry for more. Like the opening of Pandora's Box, I didn't feel I could return to the life I had known previously. I began searching for similar films and discovered that there was a whole queer cinema movement. Filmmakers like Tom Kalin (Swoon), Issac Julien (Young Soul Rebels), Phillip R. Ford (Vegas in Space), and many more were redefining the conventional cinematic experience. Through them I discovered earlier works, including LGBT cinema progenitors like Derek Jarman, Jean Cocteau, and Fassbinder.

For a film geek like me, stumbling into this world was the equivalent of finding buried treasure. It spoke to me and helped me understand and be OK with who I am. Admittedly, not all films from this era portrayed the LGBT community in the best light, but all of them showed people living their lives. Whether good, bad, kind, or cruel, the movies helped us remember that their existence was just as valid and significant as the "normal" people next door. That's why, for me, these films aren't just mere entertainment; they're historically significant time capsules of the struggles those who've come before have had to face.

In a way, our movies are our history. Art has always been the sanctuary of the LGBT community, whether it be the Botticelli boys of the Renaissance or the Cockettes using performance to deflect and defuse the ridicule of society. Art is our mirror, and it's been our way of forcing our detractors to recognize who we are as a community. Sometimes it's flashy, sometimes it's laced with sorrow, but the great art has always reached the people.

Cinematic art helped change my life, and I know that so many of those great filmmakers I listed feel the same way. They use art to not only speak to others but purge the demons they have within themselves.

It may seem like an obvious observation, but I think now more than ever it is crucial for us to remember how important art is to the survival of our community. In flipping through the channels in our modern era, it's easy to forget that there was a time when gay people were an extreme rarity on television and in film. We've become accustomed to our favorite LGBT characters in our sitcoms and soap operas, and what once was taboo seems like it has slipped into the comfort of normalcy.

And yet I see groups attacking performers like Ellen DeGeneres for attempting to represent a department store. I read articles about how people in Middle America are angry that there is a same-sex kiss in a video game. There are those who want to pressure us to remove this from our art because it still doesn't conform to an outdated sense of morality. All the while I listen to fellow writers debate writing gay characters into storylines, not because it is controversial but because it's become too usual.

It is now that LGBT representation in our art is the most crucial. If we grow complacent, those "Million Moms" may not get their way, but they may still convince people that their message is the right one. Furthermore, I worry that in a theater somewhere, the son of one of those mothers is in desperate need of seeing the very thing he's told is wrong.

After all, maybe the movies can save him, too.

Lights, camera, action.