Considering the State of Queer Cinema
by Eugene Hernandez
From Thursday’s repeal of anti-sodomy laws in Texas to Senator Rick Santorum’s recent controversial remarks regarding homosexuality to the famous gay kiss that was broadcast live on the Tony Awards, queer issues have been at the forefront of news and pop culture recently. Earlier this month, indieWIRE took a look at current the state of queer cinema in an Internet-based chat with a number of people who have been at the forefront of the movement. The participants were B. Ruby Rich, Jenni Olson, Ray Murray, Marcus Hu, Stephen Gutwillig, Kirsten Schaffer, Kristian Salinas, Michael Lumpkin, Jennifer Morris, and Desi del Valle.
We started with a conversation about the birth of the New Queer Cinema movement more than 10 years ago.
“Queer cinema as I remember it was when renegade filmmakers such as Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki, Chris Munch, Rose Troche and Jennie Livingston were creating edgy, interesting, often darker works that the gay and lesbian community was hungering to see,” said Marcus Hu, co-president of Strand Releasing, “The community was eager to see any kind of imagery back then.”
Writer writer B. Ruby Rich added, “Scarcity was an element in the success of the New Queer Cinema (NQC) 11 years ago (12 years ago, if you go back to the 1991 Sundance, the preparatory year in which ‘Poison’ and ‘Paris Is Burning’ won the jury awards that first put everyone on notice).” She continued, “There were so few films that ‘everyone’ turned out for them, critics were curious, festivals were eager, and a movement was created. A decade later, each film is not a circled date on the calendar of every queer household any longer.”
Continuing she explained, “Those films were made by queer filmmakers (and video, don’t forget Sadie Benning’s float in the parade) who were spurred by a desire to make a statement, an intervention, a critique of codes, an artistic statement, a redirection… not just a career.”
Jenni Olson, filmmaker and founder of PopcornQ on PlanetOut said, “I think the term ‘New Queer Cinema’ brought coherence to a wide range of representations in a way that really propelled GLBT indie cinema to the next level — it brought a legitimacy and mainstream interest. In particular it was seized upon instantly as a marketing tool for folks like Fine Line and Miramax, who were already well along with handling gay films and recognizing the value of the gay niche market.”
Rich said, “On one hand, today’s ‘indie’ filmmakers are other folks entirely — filmmakers today want fortune as well as fame, whatever their sexuality. (Let’s be real, they’ve got those pricey film-school loans to pay off.) And as the ‘movement’ got accepted into the mainstream, the great American film-industry co-optation process roared into position.”
Hu followed, “Nowadays, the community can see (gay/lesbian/transgender and bisexual) imagery just by turning the TV on. There is edgy queer cinema, but its coming from different countries and you can often find it on shows like ‘Six Feet Under’!”
Rich said she still sees some risk takers. “There still thousands of queer filmmakers who remain resolutely committed to experimentation and relatively indifferent to the fame/fortune game. They can be found in the shorts programs of the ever-more-numerous GLBT film-and-video festivals that now circle the globe, where shorts have always been just as prized as features and where video has never been segregated from film.”
“Gay fests are as much about the community experience and cruising, as they are about the movies. It is a different experience to watch a film with a queer audience then at the multiplex,” explained Outfest programmer Kirsten Schaffer, in the conversation about queer fests. “The most important issue for me as a programmer is how to bridge the gap between artists (filmmakers) and audience. The majority of the audiences want to see romantic comedies, while the majority of filmmakers make challenging, smart and often dark dramas. Audiences used to just take what they could get, but now that they’ve seen gay romantic comedies they want more.” Continuing, she explained, “Queer moviegoers deserve to see films that are light-hearted and pure entertainment, but I wish they were more interested in the challenging (and subtitled) films as well.”
There have be significant changes over the past 10 years with queer film fests. One thing is that there has been an explosion of films available to screen,” said Philadelphia queer fest head Ray Murray, “With the changing social world of queer acceptance and the technological improvements to the video format, artists have been able to make films on the cheap. So today, a programmer’s files can be flooded with indie films – some nothing more than home movies but often you’ll find real gems in the bunch.” Elaborating on the thought, Murray offered, “Maybe the most challenging issue facing queer festivals in the near future will be less and less films of high quality. It has been difficult for independently financed gay/lesbian films to make enough money to pay back their investors — the golden days of queer fests may be over and new ideas of promoting queer film work (internet streaming) may some day take its place.
Looking ahead, it seems that TV will continue to have an impact in defining the current state of queer cinems. Rich noted how successful queer-themed TV has been of late. “The rest of the answer to what has changed, though, lies outside the film theatres entirely. Simply: it’s television. ‘Six Feet Under’, anyone? Not just the nation’s dysfunctional poster-boy couple, Keith and David, but also the line-up of directors: Jeremy Podeswa, Lisa Cholodenko, Rose Troche, Miguel Arteta. It is a queer-friendly show that plays like a movie, week after week. ‘Six Feet Under’ captures that particular combination of style and nuance, the subcultural sass mixed with mainstream swagger that flipped the NQC from moment to movement.”
[ To visit the complete chat or to participate, please visit: http://www.indiewire.com/whatisqueercinema.cgi ]