Sunday, 22 April 2012

Happy Birthday New Queer Cinema: 20 Years On

According to B. Ruby Rich (who coined the term and chronicled the movement) New Queer Cinema started with a party. There was cake – to mark Derek Jarman’s 50th birthday, celebrated at the 1992 Sundance film festival where Jarman proudly participated in the first all-queer panel to take place at a mainstream festival. In celebration of the 20th anniversary (and in a celebratory spirit), here are 20 candles NQC lit and keeps burning:


The British are Queering!
Derek Jarman’s place on the panel, along with Black British director Isaac Julien, suggests the crucial role that British cinema played in shaping NQC. Despite more than a decade of Conservative rule, whose homophobic nadir was 1988’s Section 28 of the Local Government Act banning local councils from funding any aspect of education that “promoted” homosexuality, British independent queer cinema was in rude health. Perhaps it was the influence of Section 28 shaping resistance – but it also can be traced back to the late 1970s BFI production board that kickstarted the careers of Jarman, Julien, Sally Potter, and Terence Davies, and to Channel 4, which started broadcasting in 1982, and providing funding and – more importantly, perhaps – an informed audience for queer cinema such as Rosebud, which was commissioned in 1991 for the short film series OUT.


Let’s Get Together!
Like the Sundance panel, Rosebud celebrates the formation of queer community (as well as having fun with the idea of homosexual conversion/infection that conservatives love to dread). Rich talks about the importance of a defined community, produced by LGBT film festivals internationally: Jarman, she says in her 2000 obituary for the movement “Queer and Present Danger,” “pronounced himself finally able to connect with an audience thanks to the critical mass of the new films and videos that burned a clearing in the brush and attracted attention from the media as well as audiences.”

Let’s Act Up!
That community had been brought together not only by the pioneering work of directors like Jarman, and photographers like David Wojnarowicz (who died in 1992 of AIDS-related complications), but by HIV/AIDS and activism in response to it. NQC, burning bright in the face of AIDS/HIV, which had dominated gay cultural production in the 1980s, was defiantly about the moment: presentness, pleasure, aliveness, and even a reclamation-celebration of a decadent, amoral sexuality that had been sanitised by pious AIDS films such as Philadelphia.

Step Back in Time
Being of the moment, it was also bound up with a sense of history, and the danger of that history being erased. Not only did films such as Jarman’s Edward II or Tom Kalin’s Swoon queer history, but the movement/moment invoked a queer history running (backwards) from the 1970s gritty glamour of Warhol’s Factory and the German New Wave to Weimar Berlin – all of which are referenced in Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art, from its title on. There was also a serious aspect to the history lessons, with Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman continuing the precursor work of revisioning Black history in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust and Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston. Dunye’s film, though, mixes archival research with hot sex.


Hot Sex!
Is another defining factor of the films: not that they are about sex, or that sex represents a climactic, Sarah Maclachlan-soundtracked revelation of pure emotion. Sex – good, bad, awkward, druggy, affectionate, paid, rough, kinky, consensual – is part of the texture of the characters’ lives and of their dialogue. Swoon, Go Fish and My Own Private Idaho talk sex, but also use tableaux to stylise the presentation of sex on screen, verging on experimental video art and influenced equally by Robert Mapplethorpe and the German filmmakers such as Fassbinder (whose star Udo Kier is part of the tableaux in My Own Private Idaho), Ulrike Ottinger and Monika Treut.

Life is a Cabaret!
This quoting of New German Cinema often brings a cabaret-like atmosphere to many NQC films, exemplified in the NQC 2.0 work of John Cameron Mitchell (who was mentored by Gus Van Sant). Hedwig and Shortbus are both playfully decadent, quoting a riot of high and low art, toying with camp and irony, with poses and surfaces, to make political points about cultural history – and show that doing theory can be fun.

Homo Pomo
… the phrase coined by Rich to describe the style of the films she saw in 1992, not only at Sundance, but at the Amsterdam Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and at the Toronto Festival of Festivals. So NQC was of its moment in American indie cinema, too: Amy Taubin compared Swoon, Haynes’ Poison and Gregg Araki’s The Living End to the stylised violence, supercharged masculinity and fast and free play with conventional narrative and morality that defines the postmodernism of early Tarantino.


Camping it Up
This knowing surface of play, which Susan Sontag had defined as “camp,” had become part of mainstream urban US culture in the 1980s, characterising music videos, advertising, and the fiction of the Blank Generation such as Brett Easton Ellis: its presence helped the NQC films translate from the arthouse festival circuit to theatrical distribution. Queer culture took it back with a vengeance.

Revolution Girl Style Now!
1992 was also the heyday of riot grrrl, a zine-fuelled, DIY-band culture steeped in political postmodernism and discordant guitar music. Mary Timony’s band Helium and other riot grrrl icons appear on screen in All Over Me (Sichel Sisters), released two years before High Art and part of a baby-dyke brand of NQC that included Maria Maggenti’s Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love: films that seemed to bear out the promise of Sadie Benning’s Fisher-Price-made videos about affect-deadened, rebellious girlhood. Benning herself went on to work with Kathleen Hanna of riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill in her later bands Julie Ruin and Le Tigre. 

With the Lights Out, It’s Less Dangerous…
It also co-incided with another DIY lo-fi movement emerging from the Northwestern US: grunge (Nirvana’s Nevermind also marked its 20th anniversary recently). Although quickly co-opted by mainstream plaid shirt retailers, grunge initially celebrated independent artistic production as part of an anti-capitalist ‘slacker’ lifestyle, in which male musicians wore dresses when they weren’t plaid-clad à la classic West Coast butch

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out
Characters in NQC films, if they’re set in the present, often work McJobs (as defined by Douglas Coupland in Generation X, published in 1991) to support – well, not so much their artistic careers, as their free time for dating, fucking and talking, rebelling against the venture capitalism of the 80s. Producer John Pierson called his memoir of early 1990s cinema Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, and Rose Troche’s Go Fish shares a talky, slacker attitude – as well as Pierson as producer with – Kevin Smith’s Clerks. Watermelon Woman’s Cheryl, a video store clerk, could hold her own on film trivia with Smith’s clerkly lads.


All that Cinema Allows
NQC was an auteur-driven movement emerging equally from film schools and Sundance, and its films are chock-full of cinematic references and (ir)reverence, from Kalin’s revisioning of Hitchcock’s Rope in Swoon to Dunye’s embroidered history of African-American cinema in Watermelon Woman. It’s cinema that swoons over cinema; even when lo-fi, it was rich in detailed production design, costume and cinematography, learning from directors such as Jarman and Sally Potter, whose NQC-contemporaneous Orlando was nominated for an Oscar for production design, and is stacked full of references to the high drama and glamour of Powell and Pressburger.

Without You, I’m Nothing! 
But for all that we namedrop the NQC by its filmmakers, the movement was highly collaborative, and defined as much by producers such as Pierson and the legendary Christine Vachon, whose Killer Films has produced all of Todd Haynes and Tom Kalin’s feature films, as well as Haynes’ HBO series Mildred Pierce – and her company’s title hints at the amoral glamour her films embrace.

Moore, Moore, Moore!
Looking over Haynes’ oeuvre leads me to Julianne Moore, who appeared in his films Safe, Far From Heaven and I’m Not There. Her frequent appearance with Haynes at Q&As makes it clear that she’s a collaborator not, as another Hollywood director infamously called his actors, a “warm prop.” Her recent role in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids are All Right was imbued with her association with NQC, including a leading role in Tom Kalin’s recent Savage Grace, and as queer or queer-ish characters in van Sant’s Psycho ’98, and post NQC films such as The Hours, The Big Lebowski, Boogie Nights (Andersons Paul Thomas and Wes, as well as the Coen Brothers and the Kaufman/Jonze/Gondry continuum, pick up a lot of their kooky style + dark humour + revival of melodrama from NQC – Rich picks Being John Malkovich as her new queer film of 2000), and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. Tilda Swinton carries a similar charge, from her work with Derek Jarman and her breakthrough role in Potter’s Orlando.

When Good Girls Go Bad: 
Both performance and star power, unsurprisingly for a movement engaged with queer theory (which loves nothing better than queering a film character through biography, or vice versa) and high camp, are both crucial to NQC. Films such as My Own Private Idaho and High Art both take and create pleasure through their cross-casting: teen idols Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix slumming and bumming it delightfully and knowingly as hustlers in the former, and former teen stars Ally Sheedy and Radha Mitchell (who’d appeared in Home and Away) do the same in Cholodenko.

Wear the Ruby Slippers
But the real star of NQC is B. Ruby Rich. She coined the term “NQC” and promoted it as a programmer and critic on the festival circuit, and her article “New Queer Cinema” for Sight & Sound (believe it or not) was definitional. Not only that, but the movement and criticism by Rich, Amy Taubin, Michele Aaron and others responded to each other. Haynes is famously alert to feminist film theory, and films such as Watermelon Woman take pleasure in intellectual debates, critical history and the eroticism of thinking. 

All Good Things Come to an End… 
Rich’s and “Queer and Present Danger” (2000) sounded the death knell for NQC, celebrating the excellence of High Art and looking critically at Kimberley Peirce’s struggle to bring Boys Don’t Cry to the screen. Beyond those films, Rich argued, while gay characters had gone mainstream, queer cinema had become “private,” losing its political charge and sense of community-building, turned into a style rather than an activist aesthetic, just as riot grrrl was bought and sold as girl power. 

Other Voices, Other Rooms
In 2005, she suggested that, moreover, US LGBT cinema (and activism) had become caught up in turbocapitalism and homonationalism: the right to have a wedding list at Bergdorf’s was pre-eminent, and Western-capitalist gay culture and rights were to be exported, by force if necessarily, globally. But as Rich pointed out a “new New Queer Cinema” was emerging transnationally at arthouse-oriented film festivals, in the work of directors such as Tsai-Ming Liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Lucrecia Martel. Their films focus on class, race and national borders crossed by desire, and tend to define sexuality more fluidly, but are equally cinephiliac and pleasurable.


Pay it Forward
Martel’s films are co-produced by Pedro Almodovar, and both van Sant and Haynes have fostered the work of younger filmmakers (Mitchell and Kelly Reichardt respectively), whose films are redefining gender and sexuality. Both of them have also returned to queer themes: van Sant’s Milk deconstructed Hitchcock’s queer killers and US history, while Haynes’ Mildred Pierce consistently deconstructs what passes for ‘normal’ in the US, turning his eye not only on outlaw culture but, like Todd Solondz, on the stultifying, pleasure-denying Puritanism of suburbia. In NQC, the pressure to conform eventually overcomes the power of pleasure found on the outside, or the excessive pleasure needed to drum out conformism kills: the classic narrative of melodrama.

Even with – or because of – the tragedy, and always shadowed by the generational decimation of AIDS/HIV – abandon is the mood of the original NQC: even as High Art shows the ravages of heroin addiction in a far more brutal way than the roughly coeval Trainspotting, it also yearns for – and delivers – the moody textures of Velvet Underground with images you just want to touch, or melt into. When Mildred loses the all that the narrative of girl power tells us she should have, and finally gives up her perverse auto-erotic fixation with her daughter Veda, the only possible response, Haynes’ adaptation suggests, is a rueful glass of rye and the final line: “Let’s get stinko!”

High art, high drama, high emotions – and partying. Long may the transgenerational, gender performative, decadent drop-out party started by NQC continue.


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