Love App-tually: Grindr and Queer Cinema
By Kyle TurnerApril 23, 2019
There was digital dick hunting before Grindr, of course, websites like Adam4Adam or gay.com that were fictionalized as key sites of gay exploration in in mid-aughts films like Shortbus (2006) and Another Gay Movie (2006). In those movies, Yenta650 and ManHunt.net were treated as cutesy, “alternative” ways of finding sex and romance, gay versions of the online dating sites that appeared in straight romantic comedies. They were secretive, still in the closet (and maybe a little shameful), but their comparatively limited functionality lacked the specificity of how Grindr ultimately would change gay men’s sexual culture (and, later, everyone else’s as apps like Tinder took off). So, even if there’s a kink site in Another Gay Movie, and even though there was an amusing hidden, schoolboy quality to the scene, it was both too novel and generic, distinctively pre-Grindr.
And even before then, before the message boards, boys were brought together by Stevie Nicks CDs in Edge of Seventeen (1998), the underground leather parties in Cruising (1980), and the drunken birthday parties that could be the site of hookups and catfights in The Boys in the Band (1970). Gay self-loathing and the desire to access sex and romance were still the focal points of dramatic pathos, responding to a broader culture of heteronormativity.
The first time I recall hearing Grindr talked about in a film was in Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011). Haigh’s enchanting Brief Encounter–like romance challenges its two leads — working-class gay men Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New) — to unpack what their gay and working-class identities mean to them, and what those identities might mean to other people. Art student Glen’s project on intimacy, projection, sex, and self (he asks Russell to recall the hookup to a tape recorder) opens up questions of identity to be explored both within the personal context of their immediate lives and their broader, political implications. Russell prods Glen on whether he is happy, and Glen, vociferous provocateur that he is, nudges Russell on the question of marriage and institutional recognition:
GLEN: Don’t tell me people get married because of love. People get married for a reason that they buy a house or a dog, to tie them down, so if they go, “Oh no, we couldn’t possibly go away this weekend, who’d look after Buster? We couldn’t possibly leave Buster alone.”
RUSSELL: Glen, maybe some people just like dogs.
GLEN: And it’s not even proper marriage, anyway. In America, they went out on the streets and fought for equal rights, and over here people are too busy on fucking Grindr or shaving their arses to be able to do anything. Where’s their fight?
Not two years after the app’s advent, Grindr was being used in film as a point of discussion within a political context, through which an entire community could exist relationally to it. Not a matter of if people used Grindr or not, but rather, its larger stultifying impact, as Glen asserts.
The launch of the app signaled a new kind of potential for LGBTQ people as far as their place in society and their access to one another and the (Western) world at large. Grindr could be the best and most modern gay bar, or maybe the “scariest.” But Glen frames the app as a tranquilizer of sorts, one that, in spite of its revolutionary possibilities, ended up creating a lazier generation of queers unwilling, or uninterested, in doing the work of fighting for justice and equality in the vein of their elders. Why do political work when you’re busy getting that perfect shot of your Nasty Pig jock for your Grindr avatar?
Was Weekend the first film of the Grindr era? Glen’s claims are bold in retrospect: that an app barely three years old could have such a power as to shape rhetoric of LGBTQ activism in the United Kingdom, decades after Stonewall in the United States and over a decade after Sutherland v. United Kingdom, and the introduction of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000, which decriminalized sodomy in the UK. (Grindr would come to feature heavily in Haigh’s show for HBO, Looking [2014–2016].) There’s the implication that Grindr is not unlike a spell, the drowsiness of a dream that seeps into reality before you know it and keeps you fixed there.
If Weekend can be seen as a film more explicitly made as a reaction to the world Grindr was changing, with its explicit, playfully didactic discussions of contemporary gay identity and the decision to have its leads find one another in a bar as opposed to on the app, or more broadly then-contemporary gay politics, more films than not eschew Grindr in such an overt manner, but nonetheless implicitly at least exist in a Grindr cinematic landscape. The queer cinema that feels most changed by Grindr are the ones that focus not on its usage, but on the world that existed before it, the connections and relations that could be fostered non-digitally. The Brazilian drama The Way He Looks (2014), about a young blind boy and the able-visioned transfer student he falls for, fixates on the gaze in such a way that makes it easy to contextualize the film as being about the space that separates people outside of a digital topography, and outside of user interface that proliferates with images that cater to a particular white gay male gaze. BPM (Beats Per Minute)’s (2017) grounding in the early 1990s in Paris’s chapter of AIDS activist group ACT UP locates its sense of sexual culture and politics in an idea of community that some have claimed Grindr has destroyed. Its portrayal of a fluidity of roles between lovers, friends, and enemies, of queerness and political identity, also seems to challenge the utilitarian and coldly connoted functions of the app. Conversely, Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo (2016), though it does not feature Grindr, does push back on claims of its destructive power. Théo (Geoffrey Couët) and Hugo (François Nambot) meet at a sex club, where their unsimulated tryst on the floor is rendered as a transcendent, moving convergence of body, spirit, and mind. As the characters connect at the center of the floor, their libidinal ecstasy sparkles in the foreground as the audience and world beyond seems to fade away. This sweaty, sticky nirvana in which they have found each other here-and-now, without words or heys or into?s, is in stark opposition to the here-and-maybe-later dilated immediacy of what Grindr “offers” to its “looking” users. Théo and Hugo’s nighttime stroll is in person, a connection that is tactile, again, contrary to the intangibility of relations in digital space.
But, like BPM, Théo & Hugo is critically a film about HIV/AIDS made and released in the “Age of PrEP,” both asserting the politics of HIV/AIDS as continuing conversations as opposed to matters of the past. Grindr's configuration and menu of bodies transform desire and sex into a marketplace in the most explicit ways, with even a slot into which one can include their HIV status. This is a relatively new feature, at one point not part of the “product”’s description; that such a topic is so thoroughly integrated into the DNA of those films again suggests that they envision a sexual landscape that is traversed as alternative to that meat market. Or, if the gay bar is a marketplace, Grindr is a collection of dossiers, with as much or as little information about the product on display as the seller wants.
Deeper into a Grindr world, the app (or fictional versions of it) crops up in third-rate gay (but aspirationally very straight) romantic comedies by JC Calciano, including Is It Just Me? (2010), eCupid (2011), and The 10 Year Plan (2014) as an indicator of “what’s wrong with the gay community”: its hypersexual culture, its shallowness, et cetera. Even with the critical (and hypocritical moralizing and respectability) approach that films like these take, they conceive of apps like other queer films that employ them: as means to an end. Calciano’s movies cast his main characters as old-fashioned, yearning, again, for a world of non-digital relationality, but of the courtship kind, like old movies that never really existed, while the films themselves masquerade in bargain-bin versions of classic screwball tropes (mistaken identity, leads who hate each other and then fall in love, et cetera). The films imagine Grindr as the worst logical step for the gay community, but its failures to understand the complexities of Grindr and why people use it suggest a failure to understand the complicated politics of desire.
There are films that take a less moralizing perspective, instead using digital cruising as a signifier to gesture toward a more labyrinthine, unstable idea of identity and desire. Beach Rats (2017) notably has its ambivalent, near disassociative Coney Island–residing lead (Harris Dickinson) use a webcam-based cruising site, placing its temporal space in and out of the “present” somewhere between new and old technologies. That “betweenness” runs through the film’s hazy, hypnotic aesthetic and narrative; Dickinson has a girlfriend by day and webcams by night, and when asked by both his girlfriend and the men on the other side of the screen what he wants, he always replies, “I don’t know.” As he stands in a dingy bathroom taking pictures for his profile, director Eliza Hittman lets the flash of his phone obscure his face, as if his idealized version of himself is identityless, just a statuesque body to be projected onto. He may have found his niche, as Dickinson’s other queer film, Postcards from London (2018), deliberately takes place in the present and establishes its sexual culture and sex work culture in a stylized iteration of the tactile, giving Dickinson’s lead Stendhal syndrome and having him replicate Caravaggio for his clients, as if to imply that the greatest art and rendering of homoerotic beauty can’t be found on a grid, but in approximating the masters. Its questions about beauty and capital, though intellectually rigorous, may be slightly undermined by its own limitations of how it codifies beauty in its own universe.
The monochromatic whiteness of gayness and the restrictive beauty and gender norms that entails were not caused by Grindr, but it has been inarguably exacerbated by it, and the aesthetic focus on those norms pervades much of gay cinema in the era of Grindr. But the camera, with its tendency to normalize standards of beauty from dominant cultures, has always loved a pretty, white, lean body. Are attentions to torsos, both ironic and unironic, humorous and serious, symptomatic of Grindr’s map of abdomens? Or simply a cultural heritage of objectification of the male body? While documentaries like Looking For? (2017) and Dream Boat (2017) feature nonwhite subjects, their trajectory is frequently informed by the myth of “connection” and the dissonance in illusory online intimacy. Narrative films with characters of color tend to intentionally or otherwise also elide or subvert these tropes: Spa Night’s (2016) lingering gaze unpacks the main character David’s (Joe Seo) relationship to (white) masculinity, and Moonlight (2016) presents itself outside of a white gay male gaze altogether, reconfiguring Chiron’s (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) own proximity to himself.
The way that Grindr has most changed the movies, in both explication and implication, is perhaps most evident in lensing proximity of bodies. It’s not hard to imagine a scene in Call Me by Your Name (2017) in which Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) transcend the chasms in their age and maturity levels to acknowledge their desires for one another by a fountain is suddenly intruded upon by a graphic that reads “0 feet away” over their respective heads, as they pas de deux around the fountain’s base. The Ornithologist (2016) places its protagonist, Fernando (Paul Hamy, voiced by director João Pedro Rodrigues), in the woods, in near isolation. He abandons his tech, ignores calls from his lover, goes off his meds. Yet, in spite of this, the loneliness he experiences itself becomes a point of eroticism. He is in proximity to no one but the natural world around him. In his feverish, almost phantasmagoric journey, he creates a topography of desire, where eroticism, identity, and loneliness are inextricable. Could those feelings be themselves products of a Grindr world, part of this, as Michael Hobbes asserts, “epidemic of gay loneliness”?
Is that, too, the drive to simplify the experience of intimacy, escape personal, political, and existential loneliness, to find “connection”, whatever that means, that propels the interminable 4 Days in France (2017)? It is the only film I’ve seen which makes Grindr, and not an avatar of Grindr, its focal point and its conceit; the film pushes married, thirtysomething Pierre (Pascal Cervo) to abandon his bourgeois home and husband to find himself through various encounters, sexual and otherwise. His husband, Paul (Arthur Igual), tracks him down via the app as well. It would be nice if this were a gay comedy of remarriage, like The Philadelphia Story (1940) or His Girl Friday (1940), because, in those screwball delights, time apart brings the couple back together in a reaffirmation and reification of heteronormative ideals. While the film’s implementation of Grindr’s GPS tracking is novel, it never quite understands its character and the relationship that he creates with the app. Grindr and its sedative-like power should be “boring,” not the whole film. Though one scene, recalling Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’amour (1950), is the closest the film ever gets to recreating the liminal space that Grindr encounters create: when Pierre and a traveling salesman (Bertrand Nadler) go back to a hotel after a drive and a talk, they go to their separate rooms. But sensing an energy in one another, they find the wall that separates them, press up against it, masturbate, and, as in the Genet, find an erotic essence that is both able to transcend the boundary between them but is all too aware of its existence. It is one of the most striking depictions of what Grindr feels like, its mix of performance and authenticity, of armor and vulnerability, freedom and constraint. Unfortunately, the rest of 4 Days in France doesn’t extrapolate what makes Grindr both interesting and dull.
Really, no film that unambiguously uses an app like Grindr understands how Grindr has come to function for queer men. Just like it’s taken a couple of decades for movies to get the everydayness of the modern internet, no film captures the reflexiveness with which one uses Grindr, the cyclical nature of how one uses it/doesn’t use it, the roteness or profundity of exchanges, the exhilaration or the ho-hum of conversation, its addictiveness, its bodies suspended. In film, Grindr is always mawkishly a means to an end. One may have to go to TV (Looking, Riverdale [2017–present], Ryan Murphy things, Skam Season 3 , The Outs [2012–2013, 2016]) to find more realistic, even thoughtful, uses of Grindr. Rather, the films that best capture Grindr’s shapeless, possibly pervasive, electric, erotic ephemerality are the ones that do not feature Grindr at all. Not unlike shame, and the efforts to challenge or break out from it, it’s most fascinating when it isn’t named, when work is made in response or reaction to it. Few images capture Grindr’s multifacetedness than Paul Hamy tied up like St. Sebastian in The Ornithologist: tied up, alone, confused, bored, looking for completion, unsure if one will ever find it.
Kyle Turner is a queer freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. He is a contributor to Paste Magazine, and his writing on queerness and cinema has been featured in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Playboy, and Slate.
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