The Current State of Queer Cinema: Taiwanese Tomboys to Singing Campers
by Jenni Olson
[Editor's note: As the season of the major gay and lesbian film festivals starts, indieWIRE asked queer cinema expert Jenni Olson to look at the gay fest lineups, theatrical releases, and television programming.]
I've written many of these kinds of articles over the years -- offering broad strokes and generalizations based on the crop of gay films at Sundance in a given year and the various flicks on view at the gay summer festivals in New York (www.newfest.org), San Francisco (www.frameline.org), and Los Angeles (www.outfest.org). What follows is a little bit of generalizing, some practical release date info, and a pinch of cranky armchair philosophizing. As we like to say when introducing AA meetings and queer shorts programs: Take what you like and leave the rest.
First let me tell you that the queer festivals have already identified the trends of the year in indie queer cinema and shaped their catalogs around them. In New York it's "Camp," gender outlaws, and Middle-Eastern sexuality and politics; in San Francisco it's AIDS then and now, queer youth, and historical documentaries; while Los Angeles is highlighting "Camp," American activism, and new directors.
Viewing hundreds of queer films each year, these festival programmers are the experts and I won't disagree with them. Some fest highlights which will be getting wider exposure later this year include: the Charles Busch camp fest "Die Mommy Die" (part of the upcoming Sundance Film Series); Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's feature debut, "Party Monster" (coming soon from Strand Releasing); "Yossi & Jagger," a gay Israeli drama opening in New York and L.A. this Fall (again from Strand); Taiwanese tomboy flick "Blue Gate Crossing" (Strand); the French tranny thriller "Gender Bias" (from Picture This!); the ITVS doc, "Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin"; and "People Like Us: Making Philadelphia" which revisits Jonathan Demme's cast and crew 10 years later.
As the world of indie theatrical exhibition gets still more crowded with niche distributors there are scads of queer-interest titles to watch for in theaters this year. This summer's crop includes Todd Graff's "Camp" from IFC Films; Francois Ozon's "Swimming Pool" from Focus Features; "Madame Sata" from Wellspring and two more from Strand Releasing -- "Boys Life 4" and an Italian lesbian feature called "Gasoline." In the fall look for Everett Lewis' "Lustre" from TLA Releasing; Thom Fitzgerald's "The Event" from ThinkFilm; "Prey for Rock and Roll" from MAC Releasing and "Venus Boyz" from First Run Features.
Upcoming queer indie DVD highlights include such kick-ass extras-packed releases as "Paris is Burning" (finally), "The Times of Harvey Milk" (freshly restored by the UCLA Film Archive) and "Trembling Before G-d" (which includes a doc about the impact of the film's screenings on queer and Jewish lives from Israel to Ohio) -- both from New Yorker Films.
If that's the indie snapshot, then what about the mainstream? Each year brings new trends and new pronouncements about the phenomenal visibility of gay themes in mainstream media. In 2003 I'd say we've already hit both apex and nadir with Paramount/Miramax debuting the first certified queer blockbuster ("The Hours") and HBO presenting "Normal," the most retrograde, if well-intended, tranny melodrama since Ed Wood's "Glen or Glenda." Honorable (nadir) Mention goes to Lifetime's astoundingly bad lesbo melodrama, "An Unexpected Love" (penned and helmed by Hollywood power-dyke Lee Rose).
In the last few years, for better and for worse, it seems that television has had a bigger impact on the state of queer cinema than anything else. From ITVS to HBO, from Lifetime to AMC more queer productions are being funded for the small screen than ever before.
Bravo to Bravo, three cheers for Showtime, six cheers for HBO, thank God for ITVS/PBS/POV and that lot, and (here's a plug made in heaven for the sponsor whose ads surround this piece) hurrah for the Sundance Channel, which actually shows indie queer films with something to say. There's no question that all this media saturation bodes well for gay integration into straight society (now your mother-in-law asks whether you're butch or femme and the plumber tries to convey tolerance by saying he loves "Will & Grace"). The "but" is coming and here it is:
Have I spent the last 15 years as a queer film activist fighting for equal GLBT representation on dumb reality shows like Bravo's upcoming "Boy Meets Boy" dating show or "The Queer Eye" featuring gay men giving makeovers to straight guys? Well, apparently I have. Because these days what everyone most wants to know is: Will there really be a gay TV channel? All right, here's the inside line. Britain's promised Rainbow Network never got off the ground, Canada's PrideVision has been hawking a U.S. channel for years, and we haven't heard a peep out of Showtime/Viacom in ages. Let's just say it could be a long wait for those hoping to find all the mediocre homo melodramas and bad made-for-TV gay crap at one spot on the dial.
Lest you think I'm a total snob, I'll tell you that in 2004 we can all look forward, with full jump up and down enthusiasm, to Craig Zadan and Neal Meron's yet to be titled ABC sitcom starring Harvey Fierstein and, with some trepidation, to Showtime's new lipstick lesbian series "The L Word" (slickly advertised as "a series about women and the women who love them.").
I have to conclude with my queer film cheerleader shpiel that never changes: If you're lucky enough to live in one of the 100+ cities around the world with a gay film festival get out there and buy your tickets ASAP. Tuning in for bad gay drama on TV (or even excellent queer indies on DVD) is a poor substitute for the thrill of watching gay movies in a dark room full of queers.