Must-see hidden gems: Celebrating new queer cinema on its 30th anniversary
Content Warning: This article contains mentions of queerphobia.
Film academic B. Ruby Rich coined the term ‘New Queer Cinema’ in March 1992 in an essay for The Village Voice. The term was also famously republished in Sight and Sound in September 1992, in response to the rise in LGBTQ+ themes and characters in film.
According to Rich, the creation of ‘New Queer Cinema’ was a combination of Reagan’s presidency, the AIDS epidemic, the invention of the camcorder, and cheap rent. While many more factors have been argued to be large contributors to the beginnings of the movement, for example, Hollywood cinema’s response, or lack-of response to AIDS in general. It is worthy of note that in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in America, more low-budget independent films were hitting the market. It was a time where many filmmakers seemed to feel that other voices needed to be heard in the industry.
When ‘New Queer Cinema’ emerged in the film festival scene, the filmmakers behind these independent features sought out new ways to revolutionise the way that queer stories were represented in cinema. Queer life’s reflection on the Hollywood lens before New Queer Cinema came along was often depicted as predominantly nihilistic. Many queer characters often succumbed to inevitable tragedy, they also seemed to be troubled, or in some instances morally questionable – particularly bisexual and transgender characters.
“These new gay characters no longer had to conform to the confines of traditional Hollywood representation, thus these films could feature characters that were previously unacceptable as protagonists, including the gay male sex worker.”
- Russell Sheaffer ‘New Queer Cinema: Renegotiating ‘Male Hustlers’
When we think of ‘New Queer Cinema’ the pioneers that instantly come to mind are the likes of Gregg Araki, Gus Van Sant, Cheryl Dunye and Todd Haynes. While their iconic films remain as important as they were when they were originally released, when discussing the progression in LGBTQ+ cinema, there are many hidden auteurs that are also deserving of recognition in their roles in the development of the way Western cinema celebrates queer life in film today.
As an independent film enthusiast, I spend most of my time looking for the weird and wonderful, (but mostly weird) additions to the big screen.
Bruce La Bruce is a Canadian director, most well known for the 2013 film Gerontophilia which had a successful festival run upon its release. Bruce’s underground film debut No Skin Off My Ass was influenced by the punk scene of Toronto, which is heavily apparent in the film’s soundtrack.
Bruce La Bruce’s No Skin Off My Ass is an experiment
al treasure that is sadly deeply buried in the chest. A difficult underground flick to source, but definitely one to explore if you can hunt it down. Often described as the gay remake of Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park, the film centres around The Hairdresser (played by Bruce), a man who becomes infatuated with a young skinhead and invites him to his apartment.
Much like the experimental films of Andy Warhol, Jack Smith, and Kenneth Anger, Bruce uses provocation and low budget aesthetic to imbue political discussion surrounding subcultures and otherness. If none of that is of much interest, there are several close up shots of a flaccid penis.
Canadian director Denys Arcand was quick to acknowledge HIV and AIDS in the 1986 film The Decline of the American Empire, through the character of Claude who is worried his promiscuity has put him at risk. Denys’ contribution to queer stories in cinema is also significant and important to acknowledge, through the way he depicted queer characters in an informative and warm way.
One of my favourite films to grace the kooky film-sphere of the 90s is Denys Arcand’s Love & Human Remains. Based on the play Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love by Brad Fraser, the film went on to win a Genie for Best Screenplay Adapted from Another. Denys transports us to the gloomy city of Edmonton, and inside the cynical minds of its residents. A group of young adults look for the meaning of life in their own erratic fashions, while a serial killer is on the loose close to home. While Love & Human Remains also seems to discuss HIV and AIDS, the approach is more allegorical, and concentrated on the fear and anxieties in modern culture through the threat of exposure,
Love & Human Remains is a really interesting film. It could be looked at as an ethereal mood piece to illuminate the mysteries of the cosmos in times of existential confusion, through the search for a deeper sense of purpose and identity. Many may experience the film like an episode of Seinfeld if they were under the influence of hallucinogens. Neither is wrong.
Maria Maggenti started in the film industry doing documentary work for an AIDS activist group, making political films and educational materials. When she enrolled in NYU film school, she focused on creating independent films focusing on gay and lesbian stories. The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love was Maria’s first feature film, which became a box office success and hit the Sundance Film Festival in 1995. The film also won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film – Limited Release in 1996.
Maria Maggenti’s romantic comedy follows the story of two teenage girls who fall in love. Randy is seen as pretty low on the class scale and largely an outsider at school. Evie is from a wealthy family and popular with her classmates. As their relationship develops, Evie begins to experience the social exclusion that has always followed Randy, and has to decide whether she is worth the sacrifices ahead.
The narrative of the film is hypnotic, and you can tell almost instantly how personal a filmmaker Maria is. The characters and performances in the film are also captivating, there is much to engage with in this film and it captures youth so vibrantly. It’s a little like a lesbian version of Pretty in Pink, but with more likeable leads.
Campbell Ex’s background is in documentary filmmaking, with many shorts encompassing the stories and worlds of Queer people of Colour. The script for Stud Life was influenced by the underground LGBTQ+ scene in London, along with the desire to make an atypical love story, and explore the complexities behind relationships.
Campbell Ex’s Stud Life dives into the lives of masculine-presenting lesbian JJ and her gay best friend Seb, who both work together as wedding photographers, but never seem to be as lucky in love themselves. When JJ falls for the alluring but arduous Elle, maintaining her friendship with Seb becomes more challenging.
The film is quite low-budget and minimalistic but the central themes at the heart of Stud Life are intoxicating. Throughout the film, JJ and Seb encounter homophobic violence and derogatory language which is difficult to digest. The film also explores feelings of alienation within the LGBTQ+ community through JJ who feels misunderstood by the femmes around her. While the film makes very loud nods towards The Watermelon Woman, the overall result is far more of an inspirational homage, than a derivative work.
There is no doubt that LGBTQ+ narratives have become more popular in mainstream media. The contributors to New Queer Cinema have most definitely been part of the catalyst to the representation of queer stories in larger studio films, as a movement that pushed LGBTQ+ themes and characters into the spotlight. While cinema in recent years has illuminated the success of the movement and its predecessors with queer romance films such as Carol and Moonlight gaining critical acclaim, the auteurs of New Queer Cinema are a reminder that there is much more to do, and many more stories to be told.
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