HOT & BOTHERED
After a few seasons off, I recently decided to dive back into the anthology series AMERICAN HORROR STORY. I heard the new one, subtitled NYC, was centered on a serial killer rather than some supernatural presence, and when it comes to horror, I much prefer the relatively grounded worlds of slashers (Jason Voorhees in Space notwithstanding) over those of ghosts or demons. The opening moments of the first episode made clear that producers/creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk mapped this one out as a spiritual remake of CRUISING, director William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 film about a murderous sicko using the New York City gay leather scene as his hunting ground.
I first saw CRUISING in college, when I’d only been out a few years, and my response was of the “what a homophobic piece of junk” variety, which was pretty much the general consensus. My opinion has become a bit more nuanced in the intervening years. CRUISING is a rough sit, to be sure, but Friedkin, as he displayed in THE EXORCIST and THE FRENCH CONNECTION, is a master of genre atmosphere, and the film’s elliptical ending seems to ask more questions than it answers, which is infinitely more intriguing to me now.
Set in 1981, the year AIDS came hurtling into our consciousness, AHS: NYC launches itself with a similar sicko hunting gay men, and this throughline is only one subplot: there’s also a gay journalist sounding the alarm over multiple threats to the community; a fresh-faced blond investigating the disappearance of his roommate; Robert Mapplethorpe/Sam Wagstaff surrogates navigating a grungy, S&M-infused, art-world underground; a doctor who discovers a mysterious virus infecting homosexual men; oh, and a hulking muscle dude in a harness and face mask setting fire to gay bars and swinging a spiked morning star at poor Russell Tovey, who gives a cop-on-the-edge performance for the ages while filling out a sweaty white tank top like a pro. References to queer and queer-coded movies I love like PSYCHO, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and DRESSED TO KILL abound. I was thrilled by the milieu, but by the time Zachary Quinto snarled “Let’s have some fun” to a caged, not entirely willing sex slave as only Quinto can, I was hit with the realization that such dark depictions of gay men are the ones to which I’m most drawn.
This realization took me to the natural next question: Why? The immediate answer is that I find them more exciting, and frankly, more honest. Which, on the surface, doesn’t make sense. I’ve never been into kinky sex or violence-for-violence’s-sake; I refuse to watch any movie in the “torture porn” genre; I, too, tire of gay heroes who must die at the end for the world’s sins.
And yet, I’ve always related more to the representation of contemporary gay culture as a gauntlet we survive rather than a source of comfort. Which is a dicey thing to admit out loud. I can’t change my experience. The truth is, I don’t feel all that safe around most other gay men, emotionally if not physically. The movies, books, plays and television shows that most appeal to me bear out this experience, and I feel less alone or like a “traitor to the cause” when another gay artist expresses those same feelings.
The expression of such feelings is not a bad thing. In fact, such blunt candor can provide a provocative dimension to any story: gritty, sensual, illuminating.
Recent discussions about LGBTQ film & TV bemoan the over-reliance on “gay trauma” to fuel our narratives. Fair enough. But it’s not the “trauma” that gets my attention any more than a wish-fulfilling happy ending. What’s most compelling in AHS: NYC, which is also found in the aforementioned films that inspired its homages, is the comingling of sex and danger in queer spaces. The vulnerable state we put ourselves in with fellow gay people – or by walking down any public street just holding your romantic partner’s hand – is an adrenalized rush whether we enjoy it or not, and has been since the days when homosexuality was a punishable offense. There’s no denying the fraught eroticism of movies like BASIC INSTINCT, APARTMENT ZERO, STRANGER BY THE LAKE, THE FOURTH MAN, QUERELLE, or recent festival indie DEVIL’S PATH, in which the protagonists experience a heightened version of the old 1950’s melodrama predicament “Is he/she gonna kiss me or kill me?” All of these movies are hot and bothered, the combination of which can be found oozing from the pores of every character in AHS: NYC. Sex is made risky, even dirty, again, and I don’t use either adjective as a pejorative.
With all the progress we’ve made in terms of civil rights and visibility, one familiar gripe – mostly from people in my own Generation X or older – is that gay sexuality has become boringly homogenized, assimilated, watered down; there’s more tantalizing gay heat in the AHS: NYC opening credits than in the entire running time of the widely celebrated romance CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. Remember Visconti’s THE DAMNED, in which impossibly gorgeous Helmut Berger started the movie in Marlene Dietrich drag, and concludes it in a Nazi SS uniform? While his character can hardly be considered a role model at either end of the film, the visual metaphor stands firm. What, Visconti seems to be asking, is the middle ground between unchecked hedonism and fascistic conformity? It’s a tension I don’t think gay men -- including Visconti -- ever really resolved. (That magnificent, deeply fucked-up movie is a whole head-spinning, Freudian dive on its own, but if you wanna hear something really scary, listen to the German Expressionism-focused podcast THE HAUNTED SCREEN, in which film professor Travis Mushett details how permissive Weimer-era sexuality, born out of “We’re all broke and miserable, so fuck it,” gets eradicated by a political party intent on a return to puritanical control via lots and lots of fearmongering and personal payback. Sound familiar?)
Speaking of podcasts, Karina Longworth’s excellent YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS recently completed her series “Erotic 80’s,” and her “Erotic 90’s,” reportedly due in the spring, can’t come fast enough. By looking at heterosexual paranoia and anxiety as reflected in movies of the 1980’s like BODY HEAT, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, FATAL ATTRACTION (the most misogynistic film I’ve ever seen; seriously, have you watched this sucker recently?), and my much-beloved SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE, Longworth reveals that it wasn’t just gay people undergoing an identity crisis in the age of AIDS, Reagan, and a feminist backlash. (Her episode on FLASHDANCE and RISKY BUSINESS is worth the listen alone. With penetrating hindsight, Longworth puts anyone else’s half-assed version of the currently trendy “reframe” to shame.) What Longworth reveals is the inherent turn-on of making dangerous choices; of putting ourselves in situations where things can easily go haywire; of placing our trust in people we barely know. This is what was always so sexy about the anonymous hookup, the cruise, the trick. These encounters don’t always end in a hot story you can tell your friends. (Just watch Murphy’s current hit about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer for the real-life worst-case-scenario.) But there’s always the possibility.
Risk-taking is hot. The juxtaposition of sex and death is hot. Film Noir, Alfred Hitchcock, Brian DePalma, Ken Russell, and Paul Verhoeven demonstrated this over and over again in movies about straight people, and I’d argue their work exposed more cultural hypocrisy about this subject matter rather than making any serious statement on such. They were out to thrill us with our own darkness, and to make us squirm with the question of why that darkness gets us off. AHS: NYC dives headfirst into exactly that for a gay audience, and we don’t even have to venture out into a theater for such self-contemplation.
What if Ryan Murphy made his magnum opus and nobody noticed? What if the most Jesus-Christ-they-actually-just-did-that story about LGBTQ characters hit television and nobody cared? What if the grimiest, most confronting, brutal work about gay men’s experience living on the fringes of a country in the middle of a nervous breakdown somehow made it past the PC police to get produced on an A-budget level, and everybody just shrugged? I have yet to see any think pieces published on AHS: NYC – and I’ve looked – even as the show exhibits not the slightest concern about how nasty (in every sense of the word) its gay characters come off, which usually gets the Twitter-verse hopping mad. Maybe this is because it arrives in season 11 of an anthology series that long ago lost its water-cooler hipness, or maybe because it’s coming from Ryan Murphy, who many consider too outré in his storytelling to warrant such serious consideration.
Or maybe it’s because straight people are not invited to this hellscape of a party. AHS: NYC exhibits a profound inward focus: the protagonists are gay, the antagonists are gay, the killers are gay, the victims are gay, the villains are gay, the heroes… wait -- there are no heroes. The only person who expresses any concern for a “fresh off the bus” twink, who was essentially fucked to death by two of our ensemble’s key players (both portrayed by gay actors), is the serial killer: “Someone should have watched out for him.” This is tough stuff to take in, but there’s also something darkly alluring about the shadows Murphy casts in a piece that, from this gay viewer’s perspective, more of us should be watching and talking about.
CRUISING and BASIC INSTINCT caused protests in the streets. Decades later, the much more challenging – not to mention thoughtful – AHS: NYC is all but ignored as Just Another Season Of That Ten-Year-Old Ryan Murphy Show. Underneath all the Grand Guignol is a potent study of vulnerability, fear and frustrated longing. And maybe those risks – the emotional ones – are the true dangers we dance with in the dark.