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.
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“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
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.
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.
Equally revelatory was the representation of lesbian desire drawn by Sheila McLaughlin’s She Must Be Seeing Things, which drew its themes from her own life and from the seventeenth-century legend of Catalina de Erauso (the “Lieutenant Nun”), its style from the taboo-breaking work of performances in a storefront theater in the East Village, near where McLaughlin herself lived. The wow Café’s Lois Weaver starred as Jo, a filmmaker having trouble keeping her girlfriend happy, her life on track, and her cash-strapped film in production. Sheila Dabney, a member of the repertory company founded by the famed Cuban lesbian playwright Irene Fornes, played her paranoid girlfriend Agatha, convinced that Jo is cheating on her with a man in her crew.
Remarkably for a film that today appears so innocent, She Must Be Seeing Things endured the kinds of fights that erupted in the nqc years. It was denounced by a cadre of antiporn feminists, including Sheila Jeffreys of Great Britain. In the United States it divided the crowd by ideology, for it arrived at the height of the feminist “Sex Wars.” McLaughlin’s film became a case in point for both sides and helped lead the way to the new queer representations that lurked just around the corner.
All four films were shot in 16mm, a sign of their predigital era. All made on a shoestring budget, they departed from established aesthetics by going for a rough urban look, using friends as actors, using borrowed apartments or lofts for locations, even borrowing passersby for demonstrations and rallies. All four struck a blow for the outcasts, the subcultural heroes and heroines who’d been waiting so long in the wings. Life goes on. Bill Sherwood died in 1990 of complications from aids without ever getting to make another film. Sheila McLaughlin stopped making films; she lives in the same East Village apartment where she shot her film, but today she’s one of New York’s best acupuncturists and a terrific photographer. Lizzie Borden made two more films and now lives in L.A., but Honey, her star and lifelong friend, died of congestive heart failure in the spring of 2010.
Harbingers of the nqc had bubbled up throughout the 1980s, as filmmakers struggled to make sense of the time. Or to make fun of it. In 1987 a little film titled Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story made such a brilliant satire of Nixonian pop culture that the filmmaker Todd Haynes became an immediate sensation, though he was just two years out of college. In the same year, Isaac Julien’s This Is Not an aids Advertisement and John Greyson’s The ADS Epidemic struck back at the fear-mongering official campaigns against aids, using the new language of music video. Greyson’s humor and parody used lyrics as manifesto: “This is not a death in Venice, it’s a clear unholy menace, acquired dread of sex.” Julien’s take was elegiac, a subdued outrage leaking desire and soliciting dignity.
With Looking for Langston in 1989, Julien moved to a syncretic, meditative rewriting of history, queering Langston Hughes only to be censored by an unhappy Hughes estate, which denied copyright and forced the New York Film Festival to screen it with parts of the soundtrack muted. Looking sought to fuse a range of cinematic strategies (a return to black-and- white film, incorporation of still photographs and archival footage, a post-Brechtian embrace of theatricality and artificiality) with his love of pop culture (Jimmy Sommerville, resonances of Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol) to reclaim history for the queer black kids written out of it. Its status as a brilliant work was perhaps confirmed by the attacks it engendered for being too beautiful for its own good. Today it’s such a classic that it’s hard to recall the controversies set off in the 1980s or the bravery that produced it.
And there are so many more that came out of the fertile soil of the mid-1980s and built the energies and dreams from which the nqc would arrive in force in 1992. While not part of this argument, they are key works that merit serious attention: in Canada, Richard Fung’s Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians (1984) and Chinese Characters (1986) and John Greyson’s Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Queers (1986) and Urinal (1988); in the United Kingdom, Stuart Marshall’s Bright Eyes (1986); in the United States, Su Friedrich’s Damned If You Don’t (1987), Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989), and Jenny Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (1991). Chicago’s Video Data Bank engaged Bill Horrigan and John Greyson to compile a three-part program, Video against AIDS (1989), for video was where the most experimental work and the most urgent outcries could be found. Video artist Gregg Bordowitz, who worked with divatv, Testing and Limits, and GMHC’s Living with AIDS (1984 – 86), made Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993), a hybrid meditation on his life and the irony of community-approved aids messages. In 1990 the renowned dancer, choreographer, and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer announced, “I am out. small o.” She began living openly as a lesbian around that time, and declared that murder and murder (1996) was “about three unholy groups — lesbians, old ladies and cancer survivors. The deviant the damned and the desperate.”
Against the odds and the forces arraigned against them, filmmakers were creating a new queer film and video vernacular. A generation poured its heart and soul, shock and anger into modes of representation capable of spinning new styles out of old and new genres out of those that had worn out. Before the nqc emerged, lots of people would die, some that made films, some that acted in them, some that watched them.
In Martin Scorsese’s Public Speaking (2010), Fran Lebowitz says something I’ve never heard anyone say before: aids didn’t just kill the best artists of a generation, but also the best audiences.21 It’s an obvious truth and one that haunts me as I think about a lost generation and its voices. Revisiting the old hood, I’m stalked by ghosts. Avenue A, my old street, was the heart of a cultural scene that’s long gone, many of its denizens dead, and those who followed long since decamped for Dumbo, Williamsburg, Fort Green, Bushwick, wherever artists can still afford the rent.
In 2010 Ira Sachs created Last Address, an elegiac testimony to the final residences of numerous beloved New York City artists who died of AIDS. At first, he gives us only street noise and exterior shots of buildings, urban streetscapes divulging nothing — until a title quietly appears on screen: a name, an address. It’s a work that matches the present geography of the city with the lives of those who are gone. Here in these scenes of (mostly) Lower Manhattan are the traces of what transpired in the 1980s, the fabulous contributions and artists remembered even when the streets have obliterated their traces. Last Address does the kind of work to which I aspire, the work of not merely mourning but remembering and carrying on, holding the door open all the while to the new neighbors who continue to arrive, drawn by the siren calls and sirens of the past and the hopes and dreams of the future.
Complete first chapter after the image. Copyright Duke University Press, 2013. Buy the book here.