New Queer Cinema Stays New
As a Metrograph retrospective reminds us, these films weren't about to beg for tolerance.
In retrospect, the dawn of the 1990s seems an improbable moment for an LGBTQ art renaissance. The preceding decade had been catastrophic, with AIDS devastating the gay male community, and the Reagan era greeting that crisis with a disinterest that frequently bordered on outright contempt. (The President himself famously failed to speak the word “AIDS” in public until well into his second term.) The original “Gay Lib” generation was decimated, with many acclaimed or promising artists among the toll of the dead.
Yet amidst all that horror and loss, something very surprising happened: An unprecedented number of diverse, distinctive new gay filmmakers began to emerge, constituting such an unmissable trend that by 1992 critic B. Ruby Rich had dubbed the movement “New Queer Cinema.” A quarter-century later, that era still looks radical, even as some of its talents (such as Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, and Lisa Cholodenko) have long since successfully infiltrated the Hollywood mainstream.
Manhattan’s Metrograph is turning the clock back this month with a “Queer 90s” retrospective of more than thirty features from the decade. It kicks off this Wednesday with perhaps the quintessential New Queer Cinema title—Haynes’ 1991 Poison, a post-modernist triptych mashing up elements of 1950s sci-fi horror, Jean Genet, and other odd bedfellows—and ends November 11 with a week’s run of Cheryl Dunye’s newly restored 1996 The Watermelon Woman, the first feature directed by an African-American lesbian. In between, the program doesn’t limit itself to the U.S. independent work primarily associated with NQC; there’s also room for some very mainstream entertainments that variably toyed with gay themes or subtext (including Thelma & Louise, The Birdcage, and the notorious Basic Instinct), as well as foreign films like Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together and Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother.
Some of the directors associated with this emerging scene had been making movies for many years, like Almodóvar, Barbara Hammer, and the U.K.’s Derek Jarman. Others wouldn’t live to see the decade out—Marlon Riggs, of the remarkable black queer identity essays Tongues Untied and Black Is…Black Ain’t, died the same year the latter was completed. (Jarman also passed away in 1994, though not before creating his own cinematic epitaph with the singular Blue.) Though one could identify some common political motifs, few of them shared much further common ground either in style or content: How would you connect the dots between, say, Sadie Benning’s Pixelvision experimental shorts and Canuck Bruce La Bruce’s gleefully porny features? Save to acknowledge that these are all very personal visions, that is.
Most New Queer Cinema luminaries were of the first post-Stonewall gay generation, so their concerns weren’t as community-minded or didactic as those before them. They weren’t interested in using film to “come out”—they hadn’t been closeted in the first place. One characteristic notable in nearly all NQC is its disinterest in explaining gayness to non-gay viewers; these films won’t beg for tolerance. What’s more, they were often angry. The very different couples in Gregg Araki’s The Living End, Tom Kalin’s Swoon and even the Wachowskis’ Bound (a debatable NQC title, but one that certainly fit the spirit of the times) were homicidal without apology—their underlying rage was somehow understandable, even kinda cool. If the outside world was content to watch so many gay people die of AIDS and do nothing, gay filmmakers weren’t about to muffle their rage onscreen. It was an era in which “transgressive” was a term frequently applied to art, for good reason—particularly since the Reagan years had also seen a spike in politicized condemnation of offending artwork, such as the Congressional revoking of government grants awarded to the primarily gay performance artists known as the “NEA Four.” In a hostile environment, even relatively lightweight films like Rose Troche’s romantic comedy Go Fish felt like forms of resistance.
The ripple effects were significant. One can detect the influence of NQC on movies as diverse as 1997’s Dakan (the first gay-themed West African feature) and 2000’s French drama Come Undone, not to mention whole careers like that of François Ozon, (Young & Beautiful), Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange) and Haynes (Carol), whose very queer sensibilities haven’t hindered their seemingly inevitable progress toward Academy Awards. (On the other hand, winning an Oscar for Hilary Swank with the transgender drama Boys Don’t Cry didn’t magically open all doors for director Kimberly Peirce—it still took her a decade to make a follow-up feature, suggesting that Hollywood may get over its homophobia well before it ditches its misogyny.) Would Québec’s enfant terrible Xavier Dolan (I Killed My Mother) even exist without NQC? Born in 1989, it’s like he was conceived in the movement’s petri dish.
If any single characteristic still binds the surviving New Queer Cinema directors a quarter-century later, it’s that their work has remained individually idiosyncratic under all kinds of circumstances. Punky bad boys Araki, La Bruce, and Todd Verow (Frisk) are still making the types of films one might have expected from them twenty years ago. Van Sant, whose My Own Private Idaho provided one of New Queer Cinema’s most popular yet adventuresome moments, still alternates small personal projects with big-league Hollywood ones. High Art’s Cholodenko has maintained her fiercely intelligent, sardonic edge with increasingly high-profile work in both film (The Kids Are All Right) and TV (Olive Kitteridge).
Who would want to live in a world where these filmmakers aren’t alive, well, and prolific? They’ve made some of the best movies of the last years—as well as the occasional dog. (Van Sant is so uneven it’s almost like he wants us to question his judgment as some sort of performance prank.) It may seem like eons since AIDS was an automatic death sentence, and Ronald Reagan the never-ending POTUS. But New Queer Cinema is the gift from that era that just keeps on giving.