Guest post by Chris Forrester.
In The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996), a lesbian video store clerk seeks out the history of a Black film star from the ’30s as she tries to make a movie of her own. Swoon (Tom Kalin, 1992) retells and relitigates the Leopold and Loeb murder case with a more contemporary focus on the pair’s relationship and the case’s sensationalism. The three segments of Poison (Todd Haynes, 1992) spin a larger yarn about desire and otherness, in which characters navigate ostracism and violence for their differences. In Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs, 1989), poetry, documentary, and personal reflection intersect at the emergence of a larger question: is desire a political act?
The linkage between these films is their belonging to a larger body, or movement, of cinema that would come to be dubbed the New Queer Cinema. That moniker was coined in 1992 by critic and scholar B. Ruby Rich, who wrote in a now landmark essay for Sight and Sound magazine of the watershed moment that LGBT cinema was having that year — both in films on the festival circuit, as well as their popularity; at the same time that the New Directors/New Films festival premiered The Hours and Times (Christopher Munch, 1991), Swoon, The Living End (Gregg Araki, 1992), and R.S.V.P. (Laurie Lynd, 1992), the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival’s attendance doubled from its previous year and it celebrated the most attended fest in its then 16-year history. But more than just recognition for queer cinema’s newfound popularity, Rich also offers a larger observation that the queer cinema of this moment coheres around ideas of representation and personal, artistic, even generic identity: “There, suddenly, was a flock of films that was doing something new, renegotiating subjectivities, annexing whole genres, revising histories in their image,” she writes.
And far beyond 1992, the New Queer Cinema and its re-litigation of the cinema’s portrayals of queer selfhoods and desires stretches into the past and present, the modes of artistic thought and practice that would come to define it clearly recognizable as far from ‘92 as the raucous queer cinema of the German auteur R.W. Fassbinder and the dragged-up trashterpieces of John Waters — and lingering as far into the (then) future as Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) and Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016), at least insofar as that the road for those films’ popularity was paved by trailblazers like Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki. As Rich offers in a follow-up piece (Queer and present danger: After New Queer Cinema), the idea of New Queer Cinema was “more a successful term for a moment, rather than a movement,” but its staying power as a moniker for that expansive, amorphous body of work helps to characterize the togetherness of a broad, slippery, and vastly different group of films that comprise a landmark moment for queer art.
The question around which these films orbit is one of representation; whether implicitly or explicitly, they ask the viewer to consider the ways that their characters’ identities are portrayed, and thus also have been portrayed. The Watermelon Woman is likely the best known and most essential film of this quality. It’s written by and stars Cheryl Dunye, who plays a sort of version of herself: a filmmaker named Cheryl whose arc in the film leads her to consider her identity as both a Black woman and a lesbian and the ways that celluloid reflects them. But then there is also Swoon — which fictionalizes an infamously sensationalized murder case so that the viewer must consider the way that the perpetrators’ (alleged) sexualities influenced the case’s reputation — and the superlative work of Marlon Riggs, a set of films that function together as a sort of career-long study of personal, sexual, racial, and political identity.
The idea of representation in the New Queer Cinema is also often twofold; not only are these films about characters not often portrayed onscreen, but they’re also about characters dealing with things not often portrayed onscreen, among them the political and social realities of otherness. Riggs’s work is one shining example of this, beginning with questions of racial and sexual representations in the documentaries Ethnic Notions (about the history and legacy of racist stereotypes and their function in upholding white supremacy) and Tongues Untied (a personal-statement-as-documentary about the intersection of race and sexuality) and moving toward silence-breaking documentaries about the stigmas and realities of living with HIV (1993’s Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien and 1995’s Black Is… Black Ain’t). Gregg Araki’s The Living End, too, forces viewers to think about the personal and political consequences of the AIDS epidemic as it reworks the blueprint of Thelma and Louise into a fiery provocation about rage and nihilism in the face of governmental inaction. Other films, among them Todd Haynes’s Poison, deal with the epidemic’s aftermath more subliminally through portraits of contagion and disease.
But vital to the New Queer Cinema, too, is a pushback against notions of acceptability, and so its questions about representations often double as provocations. The Living End proudly announces itself as “an irresponsible movie by Gregg Araki,” and channels political anger and disenfranchisement into a beautifully distasteful road movie. The director’s further efforts proclaim themselves as “more teen angst” and “another homo movie by Gregg Araki” (Totally F**ked Up) and “a Heterosexual movie by Gregg Araki” (The Doom Generation), and each in its way rebels against longstanding notions of how queer people ought to act for assimilation’s sake. Swoon asks the viewer to empathize with child killers — at least for the sake of its political argument — and the colorful works of Derek Jarman and Todd Haynes proudly channel queer, punk, and other countercultural aesthetics into status quo send-ups like Jubilee (Jarman, 1978) and Poison. That raucous energy is both a delightful textural element and a decisively political one: these were films made by a generation that had lost hundreds of thousands of their own community to government inaction, and as such they function as incisive political comments as well as a broader pushback against notions of acceptability.
A film movement is a hard thing to pin down — and so, just as one might argue that Elevator to the Gallows belongs to the French Nouvelle Vague or the works of Terence Davies to the British New Realism, any number of queer films from the 100-or-so odd years of cinema before the 1990s and a great many since might conceivably fit the mold of what looks and feels like New Queer Cinema. But the film movement is less a coherent group of films that all look or sound or act alike and more an after-the-fact recognition of what was zeitgeisty and when, and the impact of the New Queer Cinema is more profound as a whole than any one film. Indeed, without trailblazers like Marlon Riggs, Cheryl Dunye, and Derek Jarman, there would likely be no queer cinema of today — at least not as we know it. Every artistic moment (and movement) has its legacy, and the New Queer Cinema’s is one of representation for those who might otherwise have been cast aside. May its pioneers never be forgotten.
Chris Forrester worships at the church of Claire Denis (and really wants you to reconsider High Life). Also an admirer of Kelly Reichardt, Wong Kar Wai, and Michael Mann, he’s an IU journalism graduate, a film student at heart, and a lover of genre movies.