Twenty-one years after she coined the phrase "new queer cinema," critic, journalist and scholar B. Ruby Rich is offering a remarkable culmination of the work she's done since with her just-released anthology on the topic, New Queer Cinema: The Directors Cut.
"I kept being asked for years, 'what made this thing that I call 'the new queer cinema' happen,'" Rich said at a recent launch for the book in Toronto. "I thought about it and I thought about it while I was finishing this
book. I had to come up with an answer because it has to be in the
introduction. And I finally decided -- and I've really been having fun
going around saying this -- that new queer cinema came out of the
conjunction of four things: Reagan, AIDS, the invention of camcorders --
thank you, Sony -- and cheap rent. I fully believe that all those four
things -- which came together in the late 1980s and early 1990s --
resulted in this movement."
Rich explained how this moment became a movement that then -- to her horror became a niche market.
"And then to everyone's delight or horror -- depending on who you are -- became a whole new kind of mainstream film," she continued. "So that today we get 'Behind The Candelabra' I'm discovering that the last frontier left for the rugged Hollywood heroes is to finally step up and play gay. This what became of it, it's become a new frontier for Michael Douglas. It wasn't supposed to turn out this way."
Anyone with even a passing interest in the LGBT cinema should quickly put this book at the top of their summer reading list. But to get you started, Indiewire is offering the complete first chapter after the below image. And if you're so lucky to be at the Provincetown Film Festival, check out Rich's book reading and signing at the Provincetown Library today at 5pm. You can also buy the book here. - Peter Knegt
Before the Beginning:
Lineages and Preconceptions
Nothing starts at the beginning, not really. The first chapter of every book already has a backstory, every birth its conception myth, every decade the shadow of the one before it. The New Queer Cinema is no exception. The first generation of nqc filmmakers, and many that followed, were well versed in the works and lives of their predecessors, the pioneers who’d lost their wagon wheels on the road to a different way of being. They were all watching films long before they made their own, and the traces of their cinematic education are coded in their own work, explicitly or implicitly.
Memory in the United States is short-lived, and cultural memory is no different. With every new technology that debuts, eons of earlier films, videos, and writings disappear into the mists of old technology, unreachable across the borders of phased-out formats, out-of- print books, defunct journals. If the markers of the 1980s live on a little longer in the flowerings of the New Queer Cinema, we’re all the better for remembering. Movements of history and cinephilia demand acknowledgment. The nqc didn’t come from nowhere: it came from (almost) everywhere.
Hints and Glimpses
Consider the state of “gay and lesbian” theatrical movies in the United States before 1969. Arguably there was no such thing, just a scattering of gay and lesbian directors, often closeted, making films that were masquerading as mass-market heterosexual fare, albeit with the occasional gay or lesbian actor or subtle wink. If characters were openly identified as gay or lesbian on screen, it was most often for a punch line or tragic demise. George Cukor, Dorothy Arzner, James Whale: they were about fitting in, not standing “out.” There were instead gay and lesbian audiences that adopted certain films as their own, celebrated subtexts and coded language, knew enough gossip to be able to identify gay and lesbian actors and actresses, and prided themselves at being adept enough to read their own desires into the plots. The category was a relational one, constituted by the interaction of viewers with films.
Gay and lesbian stories, aesthetics, and filmmakers were found elsewhere in the avant-garde cinema of the time. The New York filmmakers James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber were some of the first, with The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) and Lot in Sodom (1933). The American expatriate poet H.D. and her lover Bryher were in Switzerland, where they published the film journal Close Up and made Borderline (1930), a feature starring H.D. and Paul Robeson, with Kenneth MacPherson, H.D.’s lover and Bryher’s husband back then, before he became “gay” (or gayer).
The postwar avant-garde cinema that developed in the United States has been written about at length in terms of its experimentation, aesthetic invention, and modernist sensibility. What’s rarely noted is that this early avant-garde is manifestly a gay cinema (though not lesbian), where artists shut out of other worlds could find expression. Starting in 1947 with Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks, the “underground” cinema would grow to include Jack Smith, Gregory Markopoulos, Taylor Mead, George Kuchar, James Broughton, Nathaniel Dorsky, José Rodriguez-Soltero, and the most famous and successful of them all, Andy Warhol. The official histories of the New American Cinema as recorded by heterosexual chroniclers don’t take note of the sexuality of so many of its practitioners or link their aesthetics back to the subcultures and traditions to which they paid tribute. Today it is impossible to show Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964) or Markopoulos’s Twice a Man (1963) without facing disbelief from audiences over how they could have ever not be considered gay films. The American avant-garde was a very queer place indeed, hiding in plain sight for years until it was safe to come out.
In France too a new cinema was under construction. The most enduring gay film of this period was Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour (1950). Based on memories of prison and its erotic regimes, it would be a major influence on Todd Haynes and others. More mainstream audiences could turn to the European art cinema, with its long tradition of openly gay filmmakers and films. Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) and Death in Venice (1971) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) influenced a generation. Lesbianism was still a fillip for voyeuristic tastes — Claude Chabrol’s Les Biches (1968) or Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) — yet films were eagerly adapted by image-starved lesbian viewers. If hints and glimpses were the currency of the time, well, gay and lesbian audiences were used to reading between the frames.
When Gay Liberation arrived, it came hand in hand with the movies. The legendary Stonewall Riots started on the night of June 27, 1969. It was the day of Judy Garland’s funeral at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home uptown, which had stayed open the previous night to accommodate the crush of weeping mourners in lines around the block waiting to view the casket and bid their idol goodbye. Garland was a gay icon too, and it’s easy to imagine that on Judy’s night, butch dykes, nelly queens, and fierce trannies were not going to take any bullying by the police who routinely raided gay bars. For Judy, they fought back. And in that moment, and the day of street fighting that followed, a new era was born. And with it, a new cinema.