2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 55, fall 2013
New Queer Cinema
review by Roxanne Samer
B. Ruby Rich, New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 360 pp., $24.95.
In her March 24, 1992 essay for The Village Voice, “A Queer Sensation,” film critic B. Ruby Rich declared the emergence of a new queer cinema that was independently produced, energetic, and attentive to the issues most relevant to the lives of contemporary gay men and lesbians. Rich claimed that it sported an ironic social constructivist style, which could be described as “Homo Pomo,” and argued that, most importantly, its films were “full of pleasure.” Tracking their global emergence across three 1991-1992 film festivals, Rich charged her readers, “They’re here, they’re queer, get hip to them.” And they did. The September 1992 issue of Sight and Sound republished her manifesto, this time with the title “New Queer Cinema,” alongside a series of responses (some complimentary, others critical), including those of four filmmakers named in Rich’s original essay (Derek Jarman, Isaac Julien, Pratibha Parmar, and Constantine Giannaris). “New Queer Cinema (NQC)” soon became a key term in LGBT film criticism, scholarship, and pedagogy.
Whether or not one completely agrees with Rich’s characterizations of either these films or the climate in which they were immediately received, her essay and its own immediate reception mark an important moment in film history in which critics, scholars, filmmakers, and audiences were thinking queer politics and aesthetics together in a manner that continues to inspire those invested in queer living and filmmaking today. The publication of Rich’s New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut (Duke University Press, 2013) prompts us to return to NQC and travel along with Rich as she comments upon and expands her initial essay and links NQC to its predecessors as well as many possible successors.
A collection of twenty-seven essays, the book is divided into five sections: “Origins, Festivals, Audiences,” “Bulletins From the Front,” “Genre Meets Gender,” “Queering a New Latin American Cinema,” and “Expansions and Reversals.” “Origins, Festivals, Audiences” offers a series of broader reflections on the development of queer cinema across the decades, including “Before the Beginnings: Lineages and Preconceptions,” a history of NQC’s precursors from the sixties, seventies, and eighties, as well as two different essays posing the question of what queer audiences want, which take up long-standing tensions between pleasure and politics, commercial and independent platforms, and “positive” and “negative” representation. Later in the book Rich turns to the most popular gay films of the last decade (Brokeback Mountain and Milk), but in these early essays she champions queer cinema’s many alternatives. She reminds the reader of the highly independent and often experimental nature of the earliest gay and lesbian filmmaking, noting how the postwar U.S. avant-garde cinema, which included the work of Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Gregory Markopoulos, and Andy Warhol, was “manifestly a gay cinema” and claiming that the seventies and eighties lesbian feminist cinema of Jan Oxenberg, Barbara Hammer, Su Friedrich, and Lizzie Borden predated NQC in its unique blending of radical politics, sex, and humor.
Perhaps the neatest contribution of this collection is the expanded nature of a number of Rich’s key essays. Included in this first section is a republication of the “New Queer Cinema” essay. Here it appears for the first time in its original, extended “director’s cut,” unadjusted for journals’ word count limits. The result is a more nuanced and ambivalent extrapolation on the investments of the movement. The wit and celebration are still there but so is a reticence that was not nearly so strong before. Among other things, this extended NQC essay addresses racial, gender, and national tensions at the Amsterdam festival, which complicates Rich’s prior characterization of NQC’s intersectionality and allyships.
“Bulletins From the Front” includes ten short essays on individual NQC films and/or filmmakers from the nineties, each of which offers a different take on the stakes of this community-based cinematic spring-well. Rich’s essay on Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner’s Go Fish (1994) tells the story of the director/co-writer/co-star team’s financial struggle to get the film made, which moved from relying on the free labor of friends to soliciting the support of lesbian producer Christine Vachon in New York (who has since gone on to produce films such as Boys Don’t Cry, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Far From Heaven) to premiering at Sundance and securing a distribution contract with Goldwyn with an unprecedented sexy and widespread marketing to boot. Though Go Fish undoubtedly ushered in an era of feature-length lesbian filmmaking made by, for, and about lesbians, Rich concludes the essay by offering an eclectic speculative listing of the film’s many origins, including what she names as “the first lesbian comedy”—Jan Oxenberg’s A Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts (1975)—and early-nineties lesbian bar culture and the explosion of alternative lesbian videos played on its TVs and VHS players.
Rich’s essay on Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996), meanwhile, celebrates the film’s use of humor to engage serious issues of racism in lesbian culture and history-making more generally. It also includes an entertaining footnote wherein Rich divulges that she was once asked to play the role of “deluded academic,” which, due to a family emergency, instead went to Camille Paglia, resulting in a hilarious but also incredibly uncomfortable scene. Rich describes Paglia’s performance as “leav[ing] the viewer baffled as to whether it’s self-parody or a full-court display of Paglian earnestness,” an uncertainty that I can attest to as having provoked many unresolvable debates (it's self-parody, right?!). While it has undoubtedly been a joy for those such as myself to discover Go Fish, The Watermelon Woman, and their NQC cohort many years later, Rich pitches the films in such a delightful manner that one might wish that they could hop in a time machine and join her original readers on the lesbian date nights to the local theater that she argues such films are perfect for.
In the “Genre Meets Gender” section, Rich begins to engage more consistently with popular culture, reflecting on mainstream cinematic trends of the late-nineties of incorporating (and in some cases, such as The Talented Mr. Ripley and Boys Don’t Cry, focus on) gay, lesbian, and transgender characters. Especially interesting (but also quite contentious) is Rich’s chapter on “Lethal Lesbians,” in which she embraces the homicidal maybe-lesbians of the nineties (beginning with Thelma and Louise and Basic Instinct and culminating—happily—with Bound) as figures of lesbian feminist desire. Recalling formative lesbian feminist scholarship of the seventies, which controversially reclaimed spinster couples of the nineteenth century as lesbian lovers, Rich draws an analogy to what she is arguing here, namely that because these women commit murder together on screen they are in fact lesbians, as—post-eighties AIDS crisis—violence comes to replace sex as narrative catharsis. Whereas early lesbians in mainstream films would inevitably become the victims of violence, a warning to all proto-lesbians in the audience, in these films of the nineties women team up as partners and kill another (usually a man). This leads Rich to colorfully announce, “Murder, in this sense, may be the Boston marriage of the 1990s,” and claim that with these films “bloodshed became the new form of lesbian courtship, murder the new foreplay.” While Rich recognizes that there is a risk to inverting power relations such that the real violences perpetrated against lesbians, gay men, and transgender people get camouflaged, she also argues that such films are better than at least some of their punishing (though arguably more “realistic”) peers, such as Monster, and champions them instead for satisfying the fantasies of an emerging queer audience, politically correct or no. Bold moves such as these fill the pages of New Queer Cinema and in many ways, when bound together, it’s these poignant claims that come to characterize Rich’s writing over the years. Never saccharine and often seething but always quite compelling, the essays collected here are meant to move you.
The last two sections, “Queering a New Latin American Cinema” and “Expansions and Reversals,” provide a formidable demonstration that queerness and cinema fit together in a variety of historical and geographical locations and to wide-ranging results. In the essay “Revolution, Sexuality, and the Paradox of Queer Film in Cuba,” Rich recounts her experience in 1983 of serving on the joint U.S.-Cuban committee that organized the La Otra Cara (The Other Face) sidebar for the Latin American International Film Festival. The Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC) had failed to prepare the subtitles for Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977) as well as Rich’s essay on gay aesthetics for the conference in a purposeful act of silencing. All was fixed last minute when Héctor García Mesa stepped in as a cultural diplomat and convinced the ICAIC that subtitling the film and translating Rich’s essay was in Cuba’s best interests. This was just the first of a number of such queer happenings in Cuba that Rich has reported on over the years, as gay men, lesbians, and their allies have worked together to get queer films that spoke to Cuban audiences programmed at its most important festivals. In “Queer Nouveau,” meanwhile, Rich argues for a particular lineage of French cinema—that of Ozon, Téchiné, and Collard—as essential to NQC’s legacy in the “more fluid queer world of postmillennial, postidentificatory sexual styles” due to its sexual inclusivity, and she pairs analyses of their films with a history of French queer politics.
Perhaps the most exciting of these last few essays, however, is the one on Milk (2008). Here Rich’s writing—personal, vibrant, broad and yet sharp—is at its best. She begins by situating Gus Van Sant’s film in the context of its cinematic legacy, from Epstein and Schmiechen’s documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and the rumors in the nineties of a possible biopic to its eventual transformative production in 2008. Rich recounts visiting the set and finding herself mesmerized walking through the streets of seventies San Francisco again, the typewritten and hand-drawn flyers announcing gay liberation meetings and demonstrations stapled to the walls actually stopping her short. She relates the ghost and otherwise otherwordly stories circulating on set, including one about Dan White’s son visiting only to witness the filming of his own christening before taking off. However, when opening night comes and Rich attends the October 28, 2008 premier at the Castro itself, she recalls feeling like it was all wrong. The film was not as intimate as she would have liked, and she thought a “rougher look” would have done better at drawing the audience back into the era. But in an unprecedented mid-essay rhetorical bait and switch, Rich divulges the story of her change of heart, the passing of Proposition 8 emotionally depleting her and making the Milk that opened theatrically afterwards a much different film, one that came with a “renewed sense of loss and betrayal.” Rich tells of how she, in a manner atypical for her, listened closely to Dustin Lance Black and Sean Penn’s Academy Award speeches, setting aside cynicism and cherishing the power of cinema to move people and provide hope. The balance of criticality and celebration is compelling.
And the same could be said for the book as a whole. Rich gives us stories that are informed and comprehensive but also opinionated and from a particular perspective. She tells it as she sees it but leaves room for her reader to disagree. In reading New Queer Cinema, I myself was a bit dubious at times of her syphoning off of trans from queer, a critique I know she has heard before but warrants repeating. While gender and sexuality are two separate entities, they are nonetheless constantly entangled, and “queer” has come to mean much more than merely “gay and lesbian.” It’s not simply that gay men and lesbians ought to be trans allies (and they definitely should) but gender is also a gay and lesbian issue, which is often forgotten when the two are held at arms length. In the case of this book, this was most apparent in Rich’s casting of “trans as the new queer” of the twenty-first century. I do notdoubt that the number of trans films are increasing with each year, but her positioning of trans as that which follows gay and lesbian and her characterization of its filmmakers and fans as “youngsters…out in force again” effaces the rich and long history of transgender people living and fighting to survive both inside and out of the gay and lesbian community.
Her simplification of the relations between gender and sexuality surfaced at other points as well, including in her description of Pariah (2012) as “the coming-of-age story of Alike, a butch high school girl struggling to get through school and find a girlfriend while dodging her church-going mother's wrath, detective dad's disappointment, and kid sister's snitching.” While Alike wants a girlfriend and her family poses a number of challenges in achieving this goal, the main struggle she works through across the film is what being gay means for her gender, and this results in a journey that is much more complex than the “butch” in Rich’s description suggests. It is important to keep in mind the different experiences and concerns of gay men, lesbians, and transgender people, but violences can be done to each if they are held too far apart.
That being said, New Queer Cinema is an excellent book. It covers a lot of ground and tells the tales of so many films. I kept a list of films to watch or re-watch as I read, and it is long. Among other things, I learned is that Jamie Babbit’s Itty Bitty Titty Committee (2007) was inspired by Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983), which has convinced me to give Itty Bitty Titty Committee a second go. Rich’s writing is inspirational. Reading her essays feels like conversing with a close friend or mentor. Sometimes you find yourself in a heated debate but more often than not you’re happy to just sit back, listen, and learn.
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