In the United States the gay and lesbian cinema that emerged in the 1970s emphasized documentary and experimental work. On the West Coast in 1971, Milton Miron’s documentary Tricia’s Wedding (1971) captured the The Cockettes for posterity, and Jim Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus (1971) updated experimental cinema for the new era. Jan Oxenberg’s A Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts (1975) became a classic of lesbian cinema. In the Bay Area, the filmmakers Curt McDowell (a friend and disciple of George Kuchar) and Barbara Hammer created an aesthetic for the gay and lesbian scene exploding around them in Thundercrack! (1975) and Dyketactics (1974). In 1977 the landmark documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives was (collectively) released. It was made while Harvey Milk was still alive and the Castro district’s baths were still steaming.
Despite such West Coast classics, gay cinema would become most firmly based in New York City, the storied metropolis, where it flourished amid other subcultural arts and figures of its time, from Allen Ginsberg to Frank O’Hara, from Langston Hughes to Djuna Barnes. In fact the history of New York City ought to be viewed in terms of its gay and lesbian history as much as its Italian or Puerto Rican or Irish or Jewish history; gay men and lesbians too were immigrants, part of the great domestic migration that left the heartland for the coasts in search of a better life.
Audiences had long looked to European cinema for sexual sophistication, and that continued to be the case even after Stonewall, as a gay and lesbian cinema developed there. In 1971 Sunday Bloody Sunday was John Schlesinger’s coming out; in 1978 Ron Peck’s Night Hawks uncovered gay London. Stephen Frears’s gutsy gay films My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Prick Up Your Ears (1987) opened an era of frankness barely rivaled since. In Germany, R. W. Fassbinder, Ulrike Ottinger, and Frank Ripploh (Taxi Zum Klo, 1980) were all in their prime. In 1981, when Vito Russo published Celluloid Closet, the field was already changing: an independent American cinema was about to end the binarism of U.S. filmmaking.
When Christine Vachon started out, she said, “there were extremely experimental films and there were Hollywood films, but there wasn’t a whole lot in between.” Not a lot, no, but there was one. At Sundance in 1988 I was escorted up a rickety staircase to the Egyptian Theater and settled into a folding chair next to the projection booth by the festival’s director Tony Safford. It was there I saw the world premiere of John Waters’s Hairspray, the film that brought his radically outré sensibility to a mainstream audience. The crowd went crazy, and Hairspray won the jury’s grand prize. Waters predates the New Queer Cinema by decades; he’s a creature of the hippie past, the countercultural revolution, a pre-Stonewall era of shock and awe. He’s an indelible part of nqc prehistory, a patron saint presiding over its doings, chuckling at its follies, applauding its successes.
John Waters was there first. He and his films were formed by the nutty, exuberant prelapsarian days of the 1970s, after gay liberation, before aids. The trademark Waters style, with its camp sensibility and impatience with both heteronormativity and homonormativity, is well reflected in the New Queer Cinema, as if its traits were lying in wait all that time like a recessive gene. A shout-out, then, to the ever-young daddy of us all, the one with the Maybelline moustache, Mr. Waters.
Queering the American Independent Film
If the emergence of an American independent cinema is the fertile ground from which the New Queer Cinema will soon leap, then the year 1985 is as close to its defining moment as any. It was in that year that Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan and Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts thrilled a new generation of lesbian audiences and filmmakers and showed it was possible to make a sexy movie that could be empowering to women and even lesbians, and actually play in theaters, something not taken for granted at the time.
Four other American independent features, all released in the mid-1980s, stand out as precursors to the early New Queer Cinema: Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983), Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche (1985), Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances (1986), and Sheila McLaughlin’s She Must Be Seeing Things (1987). All four blazed a trail of formal innovation, queer sexuality, and eccentric narrative that deeply informed the early nqc filmmakers. All four were low-budget broadsides issued to the world by communities of outsiders, laying claim to a new and authentically queer way of being: sexual, a/political, courageous, and, not incidentally, urban.
Lizzie Borden was part of a downtown radical art world that included Adele Bertei, Cookie Mueller, Kathryn Bigelow, and a host of others. Her Born in Flames was an exercise in utopian imagining, set in the near future with women battling an indifferent state. The women of Radio Ragazza and Radio Phoenix swing into action, fight the powers that be, form bike brigades, and even blow up the transmission tower on the roof of the World Trade Center. Conceived during the heyday of feminism, it starred Honey, the African American leader of Radio Phoenix and Borden’s partner at the time. Honey’s face dominated the posters for the film, plastered all over the plywood construction walls of lower Manhattan, beaming out at passersby with a defiant, irresistible gaze. Released when Ronald and Nancy Reagan inhabited the White House, Born in Flames offered a vision of a different world. The soundtrack came straight out of punk, bands like the Red Crayons and Honey’s own music. With a stirring vision of political organizing and militancy, it was a vicarious experience of battling power in some alternative — and sexy — universe.
At the same time, across the country, Gus Van Sant was back in Portland after trying to break into the film industry in L.A. He turned to low-budget filmmaking instead, with his debut feature Mala Noche, based on the autobiographical novel by Portland’s native son Walt Curtis. Filmed in atmospheric black-and- white, it focuses on a skid-row universe populated by the eponymous Walt, a down-and- out Anglo store clerk, and the desperate young Mexican workers he meets, lusts after, and tries to get into his bed with $15 offers. One of the few films to look at the erotic economics of gay cross-race, cross-class desire, it had a creative intensity at least as powerful as its sexual charge. A gritty style and a loopy nonlinear narrative defied the bland viewer-friendly movies of the time, appealing instead to a band of subcultural adventurers. By example, Mala Noche announced how tame gay representations had been and suggested the potential of the medium to capture life as lived, off-screen, if only filmmakers would dare.
More conventional in form but no less radical in subjects and themes, Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances constructed a very different slice-of- life piece of evidence. Steve Buscemi was Nick, an acerbic no-illusions gay man living with aids in a tiny New York City apartment, tended to by his ex-lover. It was Buscemi’s first starring role, and Sherwood was the first to bring the quotidian realities of aids to the screen, presenting the horrors of the illness with a matter-of- fact clarity that was the exact opposite of the hysterical demonizing in the newspaper headlines, television news, and government propaganda of the time. It was a hugely important film for the city’s gay community, shot in 1984 and released in 1986, one year prior to the founding of the aids Coalition to Unleash Power (act up). Its qualities were those of early independent film: unrepresented communities, low-budget rough-hewn production, characters who appeared in daily life but never yet in movies. A gay man with aids certainly fit the bill, especially one who was full of opinions on New York’s bars and relationships and hangers-on. He was full of catty cynicism and wary romanticism, with dreams and despair to match. Just like us.