Kristen Cochrane goes in-depth in this list of seminal films from the New Queer Cinema movement, that you need to see, like, RN.
It’s disheartening to think that in 2015, queer representation in film and TV is still plagued with stereotypes, inaccuracies, and concerning images. As I’ve talked about before on Slutever, there are many issues with bisexual and bierotic representation onscreen. And even though people have been bisexual forever, media tends to erase us. Think about Brokeback Mountain—why do so many people laugh it off as a “gay cowboy movie?” Brokeback Mountain is a movie about two dudes who are married to women, who end up becoming intimate and falling in love while they herd sheep in the Wyoming mountains together—wouldn’t that make them bisexual men? However, because of widespread homophobia and histories of thinking about gay men as something to joke about, the film is seen as a caricature when talked about in our cultural consciousness. (If you want to see an essential briefing on the history of the trope of “The Sissy” in classic Hollywood film, I recommend the incredible 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet.)
But before Brokeback Mountain made a lot of us rush to the movie theatre in 2005, there was a cinematic movement called New Queer Cinema (NGC). The term was coined by queer film theorist B. Ruby Rich. For Rich, it was the onset of American independent cinema that provided “fertile ground” for NQC’s takeoff. This makes sense: indie film, like many non-Hollywood cinematic frameworks, is where filmmakers can experiment with cinematography, editing, and—most importantly for NQC—they can play with genre. In the following list of films, you will notice how there is often no “fixed” genre. This can appear nonsensical to a lot of viewers, which explains why independent and genre-fluid films often receive mixed reviews. But for other viewers (aka a more sophisticated audience, like us—wink) these films can enable you to experience what French theorist Roland Barthes wrote about in his famous book, The Pleasure of the Text—an argument that I’m extending to film. Basically, in the midst of the peculiarity of genre-fluid films, you eventually begin to decipher and recognize the playfulness of the codes and symbols that identify a genre (e.g. kissing in the rain can indicate you’re watching a movie in the romance genre). And hopefully, you’ll experience that while watching these!
I recommend you watch these films, and also show them to all of your frattiest, bro-iest friends and parents :)
1. Poison (dir. Todd Haynes, 1991, USA)
One of the narratives from Todd Haynes’ Poison (1991). This one is called “Homo,” and the other two narratives are aptly titled “Hero” and “Horror.”
If you’re film-obsessed, Poison is the kind of movie whose narrative, mise-en-scène, and everything in between is one big, fertile garden for your theoretical, navel-gazing musings (no shade—I’m speaking from experience) This was the film spurred queer theorist B. Ruby Rich to declare the new, intertextual genre that we now call New Queer Cinema. Poison is a moving-image triptych, where three different stories take place, and it’s aesthetically specific to NQC because of how different each story looks. In one story, it looks like a prime-time detective show that plays on a government-subsidized broadcaster (dim lights, semi-corny dialogue, and exaggerated performances). In another story, it’s arranged as highly homoerotic, particularly in a scene where a young man is humiliated by being spat on by groups of young men. There are many ways we can conceptualize this scene where translucent fluid is being ejected onto a man in a submissive position. My hypothesis is that it’s a visual essay on the hypocrisy of homosociality, where men act very intimate with one another in same-sex social situations, and yet fear or hate homosexual people. It’s uncomfortable to the point of laughing; the same response most woke people feel about the paradox of homosociality and homophobia.
2. No Skin Off My Ass (dir. Bruce LaBruce, 1993, Canada)
“The Skinhead” (Klaus von Brücker) and “The Hairdresser” played by director Bruce LaBruce himself in his 1993 film No Skin Off My Ass.
Canadian filmmaker and self-proclaimed pornographer Bruce LaBruce once said that he hates the term “queer”. I’m not exactly sure why he doesn’t like this nomenclature, but there are many plausible reasons: Queerness as a description is an arguably inadequate umbrella term that doesn’t attempt to encapsulate much nuance. Some thinkers, like Jack Halberstam, think the word itself is now dead, and that to breathe life back into it, the idea we are trying to describe needs to be re-named and re-theorized. For this reason, Halberstam is now working on a book on a notion of “the Wild,” which would overthrow the exhausted notion of “queer” to uncover the ways in which we experience all the vast possibilities of being a person, particularly a non-heterosexual or cisgender person in our current moment.
In No Skin Off My Ass, LaBruce was grouped into the cultural movement of “queercore,” where punk sensibilities were bound with queer subject matter. In the film, a seemingly heterosexual young skinhead meets a hairdresser (played by LaBruce) who takes him in and bathes him, but then locks The Skinhead in a bedroom. Eventually, they have sex and are clearly fond of each other. This generic tendency of comedic kidnapping is something that Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar has done in his film !Atame! (Tie Me Up! Tie me Down!), and which Argentinian filmmaker Diego Lerman did with his adaptation of Argentinian author Cesar Aira’s novella La Prueba (The Test), where two female lovers (who claim they are not lesbians) kidnap a woman who says she doesn’t like girls, concluding with mutual desire for one another. In this way, New Queer Cinema has historically gestured to the fluidity of sexual identity and desire, despite its use of problematic metaphors like kidnapping and assumed Stockholm Syndrome.
3. Zero Patience (dir. John Greyson, 1991, Canada)
John Robinson (left) as the Victorian ethnographer Sir Francis Burton in Zero Patience (1993).
One of the defining features of the New Queer Cinema movement is its ability to use multiple genre or generic tendencies at once. Canadian filmmaker John Greyson hones this NQC custom by making a film about the origin of HIV/AIDS that could be described as a historically fictional musical. The film’s narrative is driven by actor John Robinson who plays Victorian-era Sir Richard Francis Burton. The film can be confusing if you only watch mainstream films that don’t deviate from dominant generic tendencies. In Zero Patience, the film oscillates between cinematography and narrative that resembles a historical docudrama on PBS to a camp musical. It’s not surprising, then, that Zero Patience received mixed reviews when it first came out, like much great art that is difficult to understand as a result of being ahead of its time.
4. El ley del deseo (Law of Desire) (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 1987, Spain)
One of the quintessential Almodovar “chicas,” Carmen Maura, as the transwoman Tina in the Spanish provocateur Pedro Almodovar’s 1987 La ley del deseo (Law of Desire).
Spanish enfant terrible Pedro Almodóvar’s corpus of films can be compared to the American Gregg Araki or the precocious Xavier Dolan, whose works almost invariably contain queer coding, whether the characters are admittedly queer or not. But with El ley del deseo (Law of Desire), Almodóvar makes queerness explicit and visible, with gay male characters (one played by Antonio Banderas, a recurring actor in Almodovar’s work), a transgender character played by Almodóvar “chica” Carmen Maura (although arguably problematic since Maura is cisgender in real life), and the famous actress, singer, and model Bibí Andersen (who is actually a transwoman in real life). When examining the genre in El ley del deseo, the pastiche and intertextuality of drama and musical that John Greyson experimented with in Zero Patience are strikingly similar. It would not be surprising if Greyson knew of Almodóvar and this film in particular. For both films, the musical numbers in between dialogue are a method of expressing emotions that the characters cannot express through dialogue. This is also a signature of Almodóvar, whose choice of music and random parts where characters sing classic Spanish bolero songs is hilarious in its absurdity.
5. My Own Private Idaho (dir. Gus Van Sant, 1991, USA)
River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, which, despite the title, was mostly shot in Portland.
Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho portrays the late River Phoenix as a young male sex worker. The sex work element brings up the “positive vs. negative images” argument, where the former side argues that images of marginalized people should only be cinematically represented as the best person they can be. The purpose of this approach is to address historically tragic representations of queer people (i.e. that we are insane) or of women (that we are also insane), among other examples. Van Sant even admitted that people had issues with the film’s subject matter, saying that ““It made certain people hesitate in the Hollywood community. I think largely it was the gay male hustler aspect. That wasn’t a hot topic at the time.” It doesn’t matter anymore, though, especially if you’re a (James) Francophile like me—Franco has said that he is “obsessed” with My Own Private Idaho.
6. Desert Hearts (1985, dir. Donna Deitch)
From left to right: Patricia Charbonneau as Cay and Helen Shaver as Vivian in Desert Hearts (1985).
Desert Hearts is interesting because it’s romantic, but it’s not about heterosexuals. When popular movies come out, the romantic films are heterosexual, and films with gay people are always dramas where queer people are dying because they’re queer (either by HIV/AIDS or by the tragic violence that occurs because of queerphobia). Desert Hearts is also confusing—the matriarchal Frances (Audra Lindley) is visually coded as gay, which makes it strange when she becomes upset when she learns that the divorcée she has taken in (Helen Shaver) is attracted to women. I can’t help but wonder if the discomfort of Frances is just displaced anger at the stark homophobia of society in the film’s setting of 1950s America. Besides this tension that leaves the viewer with questions about Frances and her obvious but unmentioned sexuality, there is a rupture of stereotypical gender roles that are imposed onto queer people. Although we can’t always be mad at people for saying “who’s the man and who’s the woman” in a queer relationship, it is a common question that is compelled by the heteronormativity of what Judith Butler calls “the heterosexual matrix.” In other words, we are socially conditioned, whether we are homophobic or not, to think of “normal” intimate relations under the binary of man/woman. Film scholar David William Foster calls this the active and passive binary, which he argued is dismantled in the film Plata Quemada (Burnt Money).
The engrossing politics of Desert Hearts is not eclipsed by a bad story, either. B. Ruby Rich said that this film, along with Desperately Seeking Susan (also released in 1985), was responsible for the thrill among “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.”
7. But I’m a Cheerleader (dir. Jamie Babbit, 1999, USA)
Natasha Lyonne discovering her non-straightness in But I’m a Cheerleader.
Quintessential drag queen RuPaul as Mike, one of the counsellors at the gay conversion camp Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is forced into attending in But I’m a Cheerleader (1999).
In a role that brings Natasha Lyonne out of her incredible grungy-temptress archetype, we meet high school senior Megan, with an evident inability to enjoy enforced heterosexuality. A warning—this film is hyper camp. You need to be ready to watch the hilarious satirical cues, with an understood context of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) spirit of trying to convince people that heterosexuality is the only way. But I’m a Cheerleader is significant because it breaks down the stereotypes about the relationship between your visual gender presentation and who you desire at any given time. More specifically, society needs to get used to the idea that appearances do not determine gender identity and sexual orientation. (Aka not all lesbians have short hair and wear denim vests, thanks).
8. Plata Quemada (Burnt Money) (dir. Marcelo Piñeyro, 2000)
From left head to right head: Leonardo Sbaraglia as El Nene (The Baby) and Eduardo Noriega as Ángel in Marcelo Piñeyro’s 2000 film Plata Quemada
In the essential queer documentary The Celluloid Closet (dirs. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 1995), queer and allied celebrities alike discuss the hidden queer tendencies in Classic Hollywood Cinema until the Motion Picture Production Code (a.k.a. the Hays Code) was replaced by the far-less offensive MPAA rating system in 1968. Before leaving the cinematic Dark Ages, some things you couldn’t show on screen were: ridicule of the clergy (lolz), sexual relationships between black and white people (not lolz), and sex perversion. And since being gay, transgender, or queer is “sex perversion” for some people, they couldn’t be show in any film. So what did people do as a result? They added homoerotica and bierotica, whether intentionally or not. The high-profile examples run rampant, but a noteworthy film is Ben-Hur, where presumably gay writer Gore Vidal purposely made the screenplay sound like a gay romance. This has been debated, but the homoerotic subtext is extremely hard to miss. The Argentinian film Plata Quemada is a crime thriller with two stereotypically handsome men who engage in crime to make ends meet. El Nene (Leonardo Sbaraglia) and Ángel (Eduardo Noriega) are not only partners in crime, but serious lovers. The unadulterated carnality and passion that we see between them l is arguably a postmodern extension of the “shipping” that queer fans have engaged in to see ostensibly “straight” characters as queer. Famous examples of shipping are seen with James Dean’s character Jim Stark and Sal Mineo’s John “Plato” Crawford character in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), or the sexy “slash” relationship between Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy (a.k.a. Drarry, lolz).
9. The Living End (dir. Gregg Araki, 1992)
From left to right: Jon (Craig Gilmore) and Luke (Mike Dytri), two HIV-positive guys who meet, become lovers, and get embroiled in a police chase when Luke kills a homophobic cop in The Living End (1992)
If someone asked me who represents New Queer Cinema in 1990s America, I would immediately say “Gregg Araki.” The Living End is a complex and enthralling film. A particularly profound scene is where a lesbian couple in a convertible pick up the hitchhiking protagonist, Luke (Mike Dytri). They then reveal that they’re going to kill him while bickering like a couple that has reached their final throes. Meanwhile, Luke’s facial expression is like a carefree James Dean. But this scene is political—it shows queer people in a violent struggle with one another. Rather than cisgender, heterosexual subjects showing their dominance over a socially marginalized identity, this is a scene that deliberately examines the cinematic history (and real-life history) where queer people are killed by straight people, women are killed by men, and people with accessibility issues are killed by people without accessibility issues (among other identity-based violence). Although it’s not the fundamental crux of the film, this scene has always stood out for me, even amongst the very sexy love scenes between two of the main characters.
10. The Doom Generation (dir. Gregg Araki, 1995)
Anti-heroine Amy (Rose McGowan) in Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation (1995), and her two “close friends” :)
There are many reasons why this film is one of my favourite movies, ever. When you’re a Millennial like me, you have probably seen Clueless (1995), Legally Blonde (2011), and Cruel Intentions (1999) way more than is emotionally (or physically) healthy. For me, The Doom Generation, like many of Araki’s works, puts the fashionable and hilarious use of the Valley Girl accent (a.k.a. uptalk) into a cinematic parody. I don’t know about you, but 80s and 90s slang is laugh-out-loud funny. The recurring vocal tic of “like” and expressions like “bag your face” and “grody to the max” are inarguably funny. It’s a beautiful linguistic array of absurdity, simultaneously illustrating the triumph of language as something fluid and ever-changing. Araki gestures to these comical utterances by making almost every line of The Doom Generation into a tribute to 1980s and 1990s linguistics. Anti-heroine Amy (Rose McGowan) steals the show with lines like:
“Why don’t you go passionately fuck yourself?”
“Eat. My. Fuck.”
“What is this—Night of the Living brain-dead?”
Besides these classic lines, every scene in this movie looks like a painting. It’s one of those movies where you could screenshot any moment and it would still make a really good Instagram picture to heighten your #personalbrand. This is because Araki is a master of mise-en-scène and pastiche, a uniquely significant tendency of the New Queer Cinema tradition.
11. Tongues Untied (dir. Marlon Riggs, 1989)
A still from the experimental and poetic quasi-documentary Tongues Untied (1989).
Tongues Untied is a beautiful and much-needed film with spoken word essays and dancing where Black male queer sexual identity is celebrated through the use of vignettes. This stylistic method is similar to Todd Haynes’ Poison, which draws our attention to the experimental vision of NQC. Marlon Riggs’ film was released during the AIDS crisis, where confusion and homophobia ran rampant. The monologues and dialogues by the subjects of the film recall bell hooks’ meditations on Black men and masculinity, where Black men are pathologized and seen as patriarchal and dangerous. Luckily, contemporary activism as seen by Black Twitter and Black Lives Matter protests have shed light on this phenomenon of prejudice against Black men and Black people, but we still need to be aware of the extra marginalizations that operate in tandem with the realities of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, and accessibility.
Honorable mentions in New Queer Cinema:
Blue, dir. Derek Jarman, (1993).
Boys Don’t Cry, dir. Kimberly Peirce, (1999).
Chasing Amy, dir. Kevin Smith, (1997).
C.R.A.Z.Y., dir. Jean Marc-Vallée, (2005).
Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate), dirs. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío, (1993).
Heavenly Creatures, dir. Peter Jackson, (1994).
High Art, dir. Lisa Cholodenko, (1998).
Mala Educación (Bad Education), dir. Pedro Almodóvar, (2004).
My Beautiful Laundrette, dir. Stephen Frears, (1985).
Mysterious Skin, dir. Gregg Araki, (2004).
Paris is Burning, dir. Jennie Livingston, (1990).
Pissoir (Urinal), dir. John Greyson, (1998).
Tan de repente (Suddenly), dir. Diego Lerman, (2002).
The Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy, dir. Gregg Araki.: Totally Fucked Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995), Nowhere, (1997).
Y tu mamá también (And Your Mother Too), dir. Alfonso Cuarón, (2001).
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body. Read her most recent essay for Slutever, on abortion in film, HERE :)