Unless you’re already heavily involved in queer studies you may well balk at the sound of ‘queer cinema’. For the majority of people who only know ‘queer’ as a slur, it might be a surprise to find that it is very much the happily used and fiercely reclaimed blanket term for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, asexual, non-binary culture. In other words, any sexuality or gender discussion outside the accepted binary norms of straight men and women can be discussed under the umbrella of queer cinema. The concept itself is relatively simple – cinema which deals with queer themes or by queer filmmakers – but the movement itself has moved through complex phases and encompasses stories which simply do not presume heteronormativity in its characters and audience.
There are many ways to be embraced by the loving arms of queer cinema. Film as a platform can be used to discuss queer ideas and challenge accepted norms, to celebrate queer idols and culture and to expose the hideous suffering and experiences of queer individuals in fundamentally or subtly homophobic societies. The films of John Waters (Pink Flamingos (1972), Hairspray (1988), Cry Baby (1990), etc.) are often cited as pillars of queer cinema. They are wonderful ‘outsider’ films, excellent examples of films that challenge ideas of gender performance, stereotypical character roles and what was seen as ‘film worthy’. Waters’ films are infamous for their challenging vulgarity but also as star vehicles for drag superstars such as Divine. The scene itself was really first explored in Jennie Livingston’s phenomenal documentary Paris Is Burning, in which the Harlem drag world and the concept of the dance style ‘voguing’ were debuted in the relative mainstream. These films often marry the violent reality of living a queer life with the rebellious joy of safe queer spaces. In many ways this was the only way in which to openly celebrate the elements of queer culture that had sprung up under the pressure of mainstream prejudice.
However, queer cinema is a platform in many ways. Often, though not always, it is the expression of queer writers and filmmakers that makes these films so valuable. The path to representation is always laid most easily when suppressed groups are their own spokespeople, when their voices are heard and they’re in control of their stories and image. After the horrors of the ’80s AIDs epidemic and the refusal of the Reagan administration to acknowledge the problem, let alone take steps to combat its spread, the gay community had suffered individual and communal tragedies beyond the general homophobia of religion and state. As representations of LGBTQ characters reached a tipping point in which their existence was accepted but marred by stereotyping, censure and ridicule, queer filmmakers found a need to take their representation into their own hands. At this time, Gus Van Sant, Ang Lee, Stephan Elliot, Jamie Babbit and Bruce LaBruce made their names, and found their influence was growing.
In 1992, the term ‘New Queer Cinema’ was coined by B. Ruby Rich in Sight and Sound. It described a new increased movement of independent films that rejected heteronormativity and were concerned with the representation of marginalised groups. Out of the rise of ‘indie’ films through the ’90s and the increasing sway of film festivals such as Sundance and Cannes – and later the greater accessibility of digital film – groups on the fringes of society were increasingly able to create and exhibit films about their lives. Crucially, the concept of the ‘pink pound’ or the ‘Dorothy dollar’ took hold. Though somewhat patronising, this was an industry term that described the disposable income of an unmarried and childless gay population, and their interest in seeing non-derogatory films about their lives. In true capitalist form, the pink pound placed a value on the queer audience which had until then been reserved for the male breadwinners of the traditional family unit. The monetisation of the queer community was essential in the US in particular; citizens who can spend are culturally valuable and politically influential. This shift in perception marked a huge step for film culture and the queer community.
Films such as Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art (1998), starring Radha Mitchell and The Breakfast Club Brat Pack alumna Ally Sheedy, began to marry marketability with portraits of queer lives (in this case a woman begins a relationship with the lesbian photographer in the flat below); meanwhile, the home movie phenomenon made movies which might have only seen a short run on a few screens far more accessible. Increasingly the producers, directors, writers and stars whose reputations were built in queer-themed movies on the festival circuits rose to mainstream prominence, shining a light on their less familiar back catalogues. Cholodenko would go on to direct The Kids Are All Right in 2010, which starred Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as a lesbian couple whose two children track down their sperm-donor father. This would be widely lauded as a hugely significant moment for the representation of gay families on screen; that is, as a ‘normal’ family. Similarly Gus Van Sant, whose challenging queer works included My Private Idaho, directed Milk, the biopic of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, in 2008. Both were recognised on the mainstream awards circuit and in sales.
Queer filmmakers such as Rose Troche and Travis Matthews are among those who have identified a more recent trend which sees the New Queer Cinema niche finding a more universal box office acceptance. The likes of Brokeback Mountain (2005), Milk (2008), Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) – which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes – and Pride (2014), reflect the increased interest that continues today, where a film such as Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015) can be marketed as a love story first and a lesbian film second and get the ecstatic reception it deserves, both critically and at the box office.
Top 5 Crash Course to Queer Cinema films:
Scorpio Rising (1963) Kenneth Anger directed this experimental short in 1963 and it may well be considered the birth of queer cinema. Coming in at around an hour, it tells the story of an army of gay bikers with no dialogue and, mostly through montage, touches on gay culture, rebel icons such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, masculinity performance and biker culture as well as Nazism and the occult. The film won a landmark court case over its themes and examples of nudity that secured freedom of expression in film was protected.
Pink Flamingos (1972) One of John Waters’ best known and most popular films, Pink Flamingos is a black comedy and exploitation film. Starring Divine, it tells the story of a family living in a pink trailer on the outskirts of Phoenix, Maryland. Pure unadulterated filth, it’s a phenomenal work of self-proclaimed perversity, and challenged everything that can be challenged in one film. This is a single sentence from the wikipedia plot description: “Later on, they all witness a topless dancing woman with a snake and a contortionist who flexes his prolapsed anus in rhythm to the song “Surfin’ Bird”. Fair warn.
Paris Is Burning (1990). Jenny Livingston films this detailed and touching documentary throughout the 1980s, and for many it was the first they had heard of the drag scene. In Harlem, drag balls were a fascinating safe space for the many homosexual (and overwhelmingly black) men who found themselves rejected by their society and their families. Paris Is Burning focuses on several particular drag houses and the drag mothers they made famous, along with the men who created the voguing dance technique (who were hired by Madonna to choreograph her infamous music video).
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) Stephan Elliot wrote and directed this Australian musical about two drag queens and a transsexual woman who drive a tour bus, christened Priscilla, across from Sydney to Alice Springs for a well paid gig. The central performances by straight cis actors Hugo Weaving, Guy Pierce and Terence Stamp were a challenge to a masculinity obsessed culture and gave the film a lift into popular audiences. Though it may rely on stereotypes which feel uncomfortable today, Elliot’s film showed female impersonators and gay men positively as comrades and complex individuals worthy of love and acceptance, and unflinchingly expected popular audiences to know this to be true.
The Kids Are All Right (2010) Lisa Cholodenko’s Golden Globe winning and Oscar nominated comedy explores the effects on Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules’ (Julianne Moore) family when one of their two children (Joni and Lazer, played respectively by Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) contacts their sperm donor father without discussing it with them. When Paul (Mark Ruffalo) turns out to be open to a relationship, the family must navigate his place in their lives. Widely adored, funny, sensitive and charming, The Kids Are All Right signified a crucial breakthrough in the positive mainstream representation of gay relationships and parenthood.