Last week, two separate events begged the question: What do we expect from lesbian films? The two situations raise more questions than answers, but both warrant further examination.
The first scenario was a lecture at NYU by film critic B. Ruby Rich -- one of the many events that came with the publication of her quite amazing collection of essays, reviews and articles about queer cinema before, during and after the early 1990's movement she named, New Queer Cinema.
The introduction to "New Queer Cinema: The Directors Cut" -- a book long in the making -- explains the four factors that Rich thinks came to shape the movement into the productively transgressive cultural movement it was: Reagan, AIDS, (Sony) camcorders, and cheap rent. After eight years, Reagan ran out of Presidential terms, AIDS became less of a political priority in the gay movement, a new line of prosumer filmmaking technology has come to dominate the cheaper end of filmmaking, and rent has become a huge problem for artists without wealth.
In the time since Rich coined the term, too, the "independent" film industry has exploded and there are more venues for the projects than LGBT film festivals, which are clearly trying to find out the best way to transition with the changes in the industry.
Rich spends the end of the book questioning whether or not the term still has valence; the book proposes New Trans Cinema ("By Hook or By Crook," "Wildness") has the contemporary hotbed for the most cutting edge storytelling. But her lecture also ended with the possibility that Stacie Passon's "Concussion," produced by New Queer Cinema stalwart Rose Troche (who was in the audience), may be an example of an energy and sensibility akin to New Queer Cinema in a contemporary lesbian film.
But, she asked, will Abdellatif Kechiche's intensely discussed Cannes Palme D'Or winner "Blue Is the Warmest Color" -- which has gotten lots of press as a result of its steamy sex scene -- outshine Passon's film, which challenges well-worn conceptions of sex as it presents a middle-class married white lesbian who, after being hit in the head by a baseball, enters sex work? For Rich, it seems, both films are worthy of attention, but "Blue" is getting attention more for its sex scenes than for its treatment of class. And "Concussion" may not get the attention it deserves.
After debuting at Sundance, "Concussion" opened in theaters earlier this month to just $8,000 in box office receipts in its opening weekend on two theaters. RADiUS-TWC is releasing the film simultaneously in theaters and digitally (and though its box office receipts have been minimal, it's notably been high on the iTunes indie charts for the past two weeks).
After winning Cannes, "Blue is the Warmest Color" went on to screen last week at the New York Film Festival also at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The film will be released by Sundance Selects on October 25 in the US.
After the film's press screening at the festival, Kechiche was asked earnestly, "Given that the film was considered eligible for the Queer Palme at Cannes, I wonder how you feel about Queer Cinema as a label. And in that context, I wonder if there are films, particularly films by lesbian filmmakers that you consider as forebears or antecedents for this film?"
The press stops for the "Blue" team have led to some unexpected headlines. At a Los Angeles press conference, the film's lead actresses and crew members complained about Kechiche's treatment of them on set and he later responded (See that whole saga here.). Kechiche went on to say that the film shouldn't be released because of all the controversy surrounding the film. He then corrected that statement in an interview with our own Eric Kohn.
But Kechiche's answer to the film's queer genealogy was mystifying (or maybe just very French?):
Kechiche: What's the name of that film with Charlton Heston?
NYFF programmer Kent Jones: "Ben Hur"?
Kechiche: I saw "Ben Hur." I'm going to tell you an anecdote about "Ben Hur." Since Charlton Heston didn't want to accept certain directions from the filmmaker….It's a really nice anecdote…The actor playing opposite him…He said to the actor playing Charlton Heston's childhood friend [Stephen Boyd], he said to him "Okay, I can't tell him, but when you look into his eyes, I want to you to look at him remembering that you two had a homosexual affair when you were adolescents. And you have to make him feel that when you look at him." But he could of course not tell Charlton Heston. But Charlton Heston was very uncomfortable, very embarrassed by his partner's look. There was really the impression at that point that something had gone on during their adolescence. That's an example of a movie that I saw in answer to your question.
[laughter from the audience]
With "Blue is the Warmest Color" and "Concussion," the film world has two worthy films with very different relationships to "queer cinema" or "lesbian cinema." Are either, both or neither a part of a New New Queer Cinema movement? Perhaps, as with many of the new observations in Rich's book, only time and distance will tell.
Bryce J. Renninger has been a regular contributor to Indiewire since 2009, as well as a prominent academic and film festival programmer. He is the guest columnist on this week's "Que(e)ries," a weekly LGBT-focused column here at Indiewire run by Senior Writer Peter Knegt.