IMNN book review of Gilad Padva’s Queer Nostalgia in Cinema and Pop Culture

Capture d’écran 2016-06-17 à 19.06.18June 2016 – IMNN book review – written by Bridget Kies (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)

Queer Nostalgia in Cinema and Pop CultureGilad Padva – London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

In Queer Nostaglia in Cinema and Pop Culture, Gilad Pavda explores the intersections between queer theory and nostalgia studies. Pavda is especially concerned with the way in which contemporary gay popular culture films nostalgize a past that, despite political or social sanctions, seems freer and more expressive of sexuality. In each chapter, Pavda examines one or two films focused on gay history, such as the documentary Gay Sex in the 70s (2005, dir. Joseph Lovett), or with central gay characters, such as Were the World Mine (2008, dir. Tom Gustafson) and Another Gay Movie (2006, dir. Todd Stephens). While the book draws upon many theories of nostalgia, Pavda primarily engages with Alison Blunt’s claim that, although the word “nostalgia” refers to home, this home is often temporal, rather than spatial. Temporal nostalgia, which “glorifies yesterday’s successes, victories, struggles, braveness, and devotedness” can stimulate greater understanding for the present, particularly for minority groups like the LGBT+ community (228). While optimistic, this project is not naively utopian; Pavda sees queer nostalgia as a rewriting of queer history that is often told as a history of victimhood, exclusion, and even martyrdom to celebrate those more liberated aspects of sex and sexuality in certain decades (the 60s and 70s) and more liberated expressions of gender and sexuality in certain times of life (childhood and adolescence).

The book is divided into nine chapters, each of which combines one aspect of queer studies with nostalgia studies through analysis of one or two chosen films. For instance, one chapter examines camp as a queer aesthetic alongside musical nostalgia through several gay musical comedies. The film selection is varied: in the first chapter, Pavda studies an animation that was featured on the European television channel Arte, while a later chapter examines Lady Gaga. Other chapters feature queer canonical works like Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989) but also more contemporary feature films from independent American LGBT media producers. (Indeed, most, though not all, of the book examines American popular culture and history.) Because of the variety of scope and relative obscurity of some of the chosen films, the book could benefit from succinct summaries before the films are examined and before Pavda shifts away to theory. Some of the early chapters feel so heavy on use of preexisting scholarship into queer and nostalgia studies that there is little room for Pavda to engage with the chosen films.

In one of the more successful chapters, Pavda examines films by acclaimed director Todd Haynes. Pavda eschews looking at Haynes’ major entry into queer filmmaking (and the queer media canon) Poison (1991) or his more recent nostalgic, women-focused films (Far From Heaven [2002], Mildred Pierce [2011], or Carol [2015, released after the book’s publication]). Instead, the chapter focuses on a short, Dottie Gets Spanked (1993), and Haynes’ 1998 feature Velvet Goldmine, two films connected in their themes of queer childhood and nostalgia. In this chapter, Pavda introduces the idea of femininostalgia, a nostalgia for a lost sense of femininity that social expects for men and masculinity undo (73). Citing frequent practices of bullying effeminate boys at school and using the example of the protagonist from Dottie Gets Spanked being chided by his father, who does not understand his emulation for a female television character, Pavda claims that femininostalgia serves an emancipatory function for the queer subject, who comes to appreciate his childhood as an expression of his natural self after adulthood has forced him into gender conformity (95).

Other chapters explore a similar sense of nostalgia for the queer subject. Several chapters examine adolescence, coming out, and first sexual experiences. Pavda uses Beefcake (1999, dir. Thom Fitzgerald), a docu-drama about midcentury men’s physique magazines, to investigate bodily appreciation. Summer of the Sixties and Gay Sex in the 70s reflect on nostalgia for sexual promiscuity in the pre-AIDS era. However, it is worth observing that most of the book’s understanding of nostalgia is particular to the gay man – more precisely, the cisgender white gay man. Only one chapter is devoted to lesbians, and one other to black experiences. Often claims about “the queer subject” do not take into account the myriad intersectional identities and experiences within the community of those who self-identify as queer. More could be done to investigate the kind of nostalgia particular to the white gay man, given contemporary fractures within the LGBT+ community as more space is made for differently raced and gendered bodies. Since Pavda concludes the book by attesting to the value of queer nostalgia in breaking away from the power structures of heteronormativity, further investigation of the centrality within the chosen films of whiteness and maleness – two identities of power – seems substantially warranted.

Nonetheless, Queer Nostalgia in Cinema and Pop Culture offers an important contribution to the field of nostalgia studies through its insistence that queerness and nostalgia do not stand at odds. A reader unfamiliar with some of the chosen media texts featured within the book may still benefit from the larger claim that queer nostalgia offers the opportunity to rewrite the personal past and celebrate the collective history of a historically marginalized group. One can imagine applying this larger claim to other minority groups (as Pavda himself does in the chapter on queer black experiences during the Harlem Renaissance). The book’s more significant contribution, however, may be to the field of queer media studies. Not only does it offer some of the first scholarship on certain films largely ignored by scholars, but it also demonstrates how queer media studies might be less “present-day-centric” and more “pro-nostalgia” (228). In reconciling queer studies with nostalgia studies, Pavda offers a model for rediscovering a traumatizing past and celebrating the good within it.

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