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With More Mainstream Acceptance, Is Queer Cinema in Trouble?

With More Mainstream Acceptance, Is Queer Cinema in Trouble?

I’ve often wondered whether the lack of political urgency among today’s filmmakers living in the age of Obama, rather than the infuriating Reagan-Bush 1980s, has hindered the boldness and fury that has often driven strong cinema.

When I recently spoke to Christine Vachon at NewFest, the veteran lesbian producer talked a little about how the AIDS crisis gave the new queer cinema movement momentum. “People were dying all around us and we were so young,” she said. “I think that a lot of filmmakers went to that extra place to get their stories out there, because they felt, if they didn’t, they would never be able to. And I think that informed a lot of those early movies.”

But Vachon was pretty mum on the subject of current LGBT films, preferring to talk about changes in the indie film sector, in general.

And without the AIDS crisis, the further mainstreaming of gay content and characters, and legalized gay marriage in New York, among other states, it raises the question of what or how a new queer cinema might look like. I’ve seen Dee Rees’ “Pariah,” which seems to me a rehash of old queer movie themes, and I’ve heard very good things about IFC’s upcoming queer film “Weekend” (pictured), but other than that, I’m not sure what is the face of contemporary LGBT film.

Gregg Goldstein’s recent Variety article “Gay films get new life on fest circuit” (paywalled) raised some interesting points about the new queer cinema scene.

While the article largely focuses on gay and lesbian film festivals and increasing pressure on festivals to pay rental fees to producers and distributors in the wake of diminishing DVD sales–a major financial concern for queer films–Goldstein also brings up the point that fest directors are worried about the future of their audience.

“What we’re finding is the importance of gay and lesbian cinema to a certain demographic looking for positive reinforcement–a post-40 crowd,” Philadelphia QFest artistic director Ray Murray told Variety. “Every year it seems to be getting older, and we’re not bringing in a lot of young people.”

Goldstein also suggests that just because the media has incorporated many gay characters and gay marriage is legal in New York, “there are still so many people in this country who discriminate against the LGBT community,” Outfest exec director Kirsten Schaffer said. “There’s still so much work to be done.”

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Agreed on the comment about Jake Yuzna’s “Open.” If the film would have been made 20 years ago, it would have won Sundance and Mr. Yuzna would have been hailed as a new auteur. And yet somehow in today’s independent world, it barely registers a blip on the radar, even among queer filmmakers, when there are so few examples of exceptional crossover LGBTQ films.

As for whether queer cinema is in trouble, I find that to be a strange question. If anything, after finally moving past the cliched eras of coming out stories and disease dramas, mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ men and women actually frees filmmakers of every sort to make matter-of-fact stories with queer characters. “Weekend” is a perfect example. It likely wasn’t even made with the expectation that mainstream audiences would discover it. yet virtually every critic and even the filmmaker has stated that it doesn’t solely exist to be a gay film.

The problem lies less in whether the audience is willing to believe a gay film doesn’t solely exist to be a didactic or graphic statement, and more in whether or not producers are willing to dive into niche waters. Perhaps this is why Ms. Vachon was mum when asked about it.

The present-day queer film circuit has a distinctive “the-chicken-or-the-egg” problem to deal with in this regard – which begat what, years of lackluster queer films leading to poor sales numbers and a virtual elimination of their presence in theatres and end-of-year lists, or have the budgets for these projects been so marginalized and anemic that films can hardly be filmed as professionally as their mainstream counterparts and therein gain a foothold with critics and/or audiences? Unfortunately, the answer is likely a mix of the two, and that has left queer filmmakers with another tough question – do you spend years raising money for a project that could lose it all because legit distributors won’t back you, or do you aim low in order to make your money back year after year, while being culturally safe and artistically irrelevant?

The answer to that comes down to whether the stories being told today are worth the risk. Often, the screenplays merit the latter response, and yet there are more than enough examples of thoughtful young queer filmmakers who have come of age post-Brokeback or “Far From Heaven” who will tell their stories with the same artistry and integrity as Mr. Lee and Mr. Haynes. “Gun Hill Road” and “Circumstance” have brought new voices to the table this year, even if neither broke the bank with audiences. And if the studio behind “Brokeback” is willing to stake a significant amount of time, effort and money on what could be considered a queer cliche, the coming-out story, then they obviously see something spectacular nonetheless in Ms. Rees’ “Pariah.”

As for whether or not the mainstreaming of queer film will lead to the end of creating vibrant experimental views of subcultures within it, a British programmer said it best – “producers and execs who are “aware” will always use the marginal for inspiration. So those of us in the margins should continue to make vital work, regardless.” Correctly, the onus is put upon the more fringe artists to represent their works in as thoughtful a way as before. The only way your opening supposition about political urgency becomes legitimized is if today’s artists don’t step up to the plate with original ideas, and if “Open” isn’t a work of art that quiets that question, I don’t know what would. Frankly, the only thing queer cinema has to fear is fear itself.


I would love to see the major LGBT fests step up and create some sort of theatrical infrastructure for lauded films a la Sundance Selects, perhaps in partnership w/ LOGO and Showtime as a pay cable network partner. The fact that recent phenomenal work like Jake Yuzna’s “Open” have failed to get support is just profoundly depressing.

FYI the “printer friendly” version of that Variety article isn’t paywalled:

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