Queer and present danger: after New Queer Cinema

Boys Don’t Cry, Being John Malkovich and The Talented Mr. Ripley – each of these recent US films has a pronounced queer element. But what do they owe to the pioneering spirit of the New Queer Cinema of 1992, of Derek Jarman, Todd Haynes, Rose Troche, Gregg Araki and others?

☞ An introduction to B. Ruby Rich

B. Ruby Rich

from our March 2000 issue

Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

Almost a decade ago, the biggest independent-film news was the arrival of a phenomenon dubbed (by this writer, in this publication) the New Queer Cinema (S&S September 1992).

That was then, this is now. As this issue went to press, the most recent film that would seem to qualify for that moniker, Boys Don’t Cry (see page 18), had become one of the most acclaimed films of 1999. Based on the best made-for-the-movies true-crime story since In Cold Blood, Boys Don’t Cry tells the tale of a small-town boy from the land of country-western music who transgressed the rules of gender and finance and paid with his life. The fact that he turned out to have been a biological female who had changed names and cities to pass as male was central to the case and, by now, the legend; the fact that he’d forged cheques, less so. Not only had Brandon Teena started life as Teena Brandon, but he’d won girls over with a special brand of romantic charm lacking in the male of the species in the backwaters of America. For sure, the story had possibilities.

Critical raves have poured in, from the FIPRESCI award at the 1999 London Film Festival to the breathlessly awaited Oscar nominations, where Boys Don’t Cry looks to stand a chance of snagging at least one – for its luminous star Hilary Swank, who has already picked up a Golden Globe for her trouble. The coveted Independent Spirit Award nominations have already been announced, with first-time director Kimberly Peirce as well as her star and co-star Chlöe Sevigny qualifying, while critics’ associations throughout the US have bestowed honours on director and cast. Peirce even picked up a Five Continents Award at the European Film Awards. Recently PopcornQ, the pioneering and immensely popular queer-film website, completed a poll of its visitors and named Boys Don’t Cry one of the top queer films of 1999.

In so far as Peirce’s true-life saga of Brandon Teena, a woman murdered for passing as a man, can be counted as the full-fledged flowering of the New Queer Cinema’s early shoots, then the movement may really have arrived, hitting the big time at last. But not so fast: the story is more complicated than that, its conclusions less clearcut, the movement itself in question, if not in total meltdown.

Poison (1991)

Poison (1991)

First of all, from the beginning the New Queer Cinema was a more successful term for a moment than a movement. It was meant to catch the beat of a new kind of film- and video-making that was fresh, edgy, low-budget, inventive, unapologetic, sexy and stylistically daring. The godfather of the movement was the late great Derek Jarman, who 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.

This was an exciting moment, but hardly due purely to cinematic developments. The era was defined by two other major but utterly unrelated events: the survival of the Aids virus (but few of its victims) past the original crisis into a second decade and the proliferation of small-format video as a medium for both production and distribution. To these should be added the new alliances forged between lesbians and gay men in the wake of Aids organising, along with an exponential growth in gay and lesbian film festivals servicing emotionally spent communities in need of relief and inspiration. A new generation was growing up and old genres were wearing out. Clearly there was now fertile ground in which something new and powerful could take root.

Creation is never explicable, really. Elements can be identified, but not how they came together, or why, or when. And even when we see something happen, there’s rarely an explanation that satisfies. Why me? Why now? Even those caught up in the maelstrom are unlikely to know the answer. Similarly, when it’s all over, there’s never an adequate reason for why it had to end so soon. So it was with the New Queer Cinema and its short sweet climb from radical impulse to niche market.

Young Soul Rebels (1991)

Young Soul Rebels (1991)

In the late 80s Hollywood was too busy manufacturing blockbusters to take much notice of the independent world. But that changed, famously, in 1989 when sex, lies, and videotape won the audience award at Sundance and proceeded to fill the bank accounts of an upstart distribution company by the name of Miramax. The queer moment for independent film owes its genesis not to money but to repression, namely the savage attacks by US right-wing politicians on government funding for such films as Todd Haynes’ Poison (1990). The bad press, though, made for good reviews and decent box office. More dramatic features followed, laying claim to the same category: Young Soul Rebels (1991), Swoon (1992), Go Fish (1994), All over Me (1996), Beautiful Thing (1996), Lilies (1996), Watermelon Woman (1997), and dozens and dozens more. The work spawned a whole sector of queer filmdom, not just genres but viewers and distributors and venues. By the late 90s there were well over 100 film festivals billed as queer; according to one survey, a full 80 per cent of the work shown there was never seen outside the queer circuit.

There were downsides, too, and they came along fast. First, the sheer volume diluted the quality. For critics the consequences could be dispiriting, as queer audiences flocked to films every bit as mediocre as those pulling in heterosexual dollars at multiplexes down the road. Soon enough the draw of the queer dollar and the aura of a queer fashion began to attract heterosexual directors eager to make their mark and skilled enough to do it well. Remember Heavenly Creatures? Bound, anyone? If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, then Chasing Amy (1996) was probably the most sincere product of its season. Not only did Kevin Smith manage a career comeback, but his film managed to draw all the attention in a year when numerous lesbian independent features languished for lack of publicity and audience.

Queerer than thou? Identity politics doesn’t meld well with market considerations. Soon enough the glut of product began to be blamed by distributors for the receding public: lesbian and gay ticket-buyers were no longer reliable and could no longer be counted on to rush to the box office in support of ‘queer’ work. The problem had become so acute by 1999 that PopcornQ started up a first-weekend club to try to fill the seats for queer films.

Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters (1998)

Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters (1998)

But what’s a queer film? The films and their receptions over the past few years have rearranged all such definitions. Gods and Monsters (1998), for instance, was such a crossover hit (i.e., beyond queer audiences to straight ones) that it propelled Sir Ian McKellen into an Oscar nomination and won writer-director Bill Condon a best adapted screenplay Oscar. The film, which beautifully excavates the life of James Whale (creator of the Frankenstein movies), crossed over in part because of its Hollywood-history theme. I suspect it was also helped by the homophobia of the Brendan Fraser character, who provided an identificatory figure for audience members suffering from the same ailment, and by the participation of such a class act as McKellen (stand by for more about actors and the New Queer Cinema).

Finally, though, I’d wager that Gods and Monsters, a film I dearly love, could achieve success beyond the previous run of queer films not only for these reasons but also because it’s set in a particular corner of the modern edition of Brideshead-land, a place in the not-so-distant past where British accents of the proper vintage can be heard and money is still required for entry (except, à la Sirk, for the gardener). The same American affection for upstairs-downstairs dramas helped John Maybury’s exquisite Love Is the Devil Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998): the box-office triad of high art, rough trade and a tragic death never fails, however queer the particular application.

Happy Together (1997)

Happy Together (1997)

Two other films might be seen, in retrospect, to have both gilded the lily and sounded the death knell of the New Queer Cinema. One is Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together (1997); the other Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art (1998). Both could tear your heart out with one hand tied behind their respective backs. (Indeed, tragedy seems paradoxically to have been the favoured tone of much of the New Queer Cinema.) Happy Together illustrated how brilliantly a heterosexual director could capture the essence and nuance of queer romance, lust, jealousy and rage; in so doing it also pointed up how cowardly many of the certified-queer films had been in dealing with the realities of queer relationships. So you see, it seemed to be saying, it all comes down to genius after all, despite all your labels of sexual identity.

As for High Art, well, that’s a bit different. Lisa Cholodenko very much fitted the mould of the New Queer Cinema filmmaker. Not only was she a certified lesbian, but she’d even been inspired to quit her career in Hollywood and move to New York to enrol in filmmaking at Columbia University after reading an article about these new films. Cholodenko’s High Art defied all the prior taboos of contemporary lesbian cinema by showing the dark side of lesbian society: cut-throat ambition and opportunism, infidelity, drug addiction. The film charted new territory and did so brilliantly. It even had the nerve to go for an unhappy ending. But it also did something else: it made stars of its actresses. Ally Sheedy launched a much deserved ‘comeback’ after winning awards and praise for her daring role, while Radha Mitchell showed she could play American and Patricia Clarkson, who played German so well, expanded a cult following into more widespread admiration.

High Art (1998)

High Art (1998)

With such films, it could be a moment of triumphant consolidation for the New Queer Cinema. Yet the opposite would seem to suggest itself: that it has become so successful as to have dispersed itself in any number of elsewheres. Lacking the concentrated creative presence and focused community responsiveness of the past, the New Queer Cinema has become just another niche market, another product line pitched at one particular type of discerning consumer. At a time when casting has become essential to getting independent films financed and produced, it’s clear why actors have to be involved.

On the other hand, it’s the runaway success of the New Queer Cinema works that has turned them into such welcome vehicles for actors, reversing the trend that in the past saw them turn away from films that would push sexual identity into a zone of ambiguity. Suddenly, queer directors can get actors. “We actually got to cast this film,” said one producer in reference to Boys Don’t Cry.

Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

And cast it they did! Hilary Swank’s performance as Brandon Teena has the film working overtime. It is Swank who makes the audience hold its collective breath at the magnificent, fine-tuned cockiness of the performance, capturing the exact feel of a young guy in the full flush of puberty. And it is Swank who makes the awards audiences hold their breath once more: the boyish Brandon transmutes back again into sexy babe as Swank shows up in form-hugging dresses, batting her eyes and thanking her husband. The good news? That was all acting. The bad news? The same. In the old days the New Queer Cinema tended to be peopled by friends or lovers of the director, or sympathetic actors who wanted to help put the picture over. Now it’s turned out that starring in a gay- or lesbian-themed film can be a career-making move. (This can, of course, be a huge advantage for queer filmmakers. Most recently, Ana Kokkinos benefited from the trend when she was able to cast an Australian television idol as the star of her passionate coming-of-age tale and gut-wrenching family drama Head On.)

Boys Don’t Cry has another problem fitting into any imaginary New Queer Cinema canon: it’s not about a lesbian at all. When the real-life Brandon Teena murder took place, a slew of stories followed in the gay press. One, by US journalist Donna Minkowitz, took a lot of heat for presenting Brandon as a butch lesbian – an identity roundly rejected by the transgender community that turned out for the murder trial. As an earlier documentary, The Brandon Teena Story (1994), made clear, Brandon saw himself as a transgendered person (even though at the time of his death he hadn’t yet had any surgery), not as a lesbian or as a woman. Gender confusion haunts the reviews of the film and even showed up at its big premiere bash at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Lindsay Law, then head of its distributor Fox Searchlight, rose to offer a toast to Brandon and “her bravery” only to be followed by director Peirce toasting Brandon for letting them film “his story”.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

It’s the murder at the centre of Boys Don’t Cry that links it, perhaps perversely, with the other hot film of 1999, The Talented Mr. Ripley, another lethal cocktail of covert queerness and killing. Back to back, the two make a new sort of sense. Step out of the cosmopolitan world of big cities at the turn of the millennium, switch time zones into the lockstep past or redneck present, switch identity into attraction to the same sex without the baggage of modern queer identity, wander into the land where the US military policy under Clinton (don’t ask, don’t tell) becomes instead a social habit, and voilà, there’s a perfect set-up for a new cinematic code of conduct: kill or be killed. Ripley kills, Brandon is killed. Both of them were invented: one by a writer, one by himself. Both based their lives on a driving need to be something they were not (wealthy, male). And both inventions depended on not being found out, lest the price be death, spilling either one’s own blood or someone else’s. Ripley becomes, in this scenario, the mirror image of Brandon. Is either one a New Queer Cinema product? I think not. If only because no such thing can exist any more.

If it did, though, I can think of another film entirely that I’d have to nominate for the honour: Being John Malkovich (see page 12). Here’s a movie that’s all about gender confusion, gender trading and the kind of identity destabilisation brought about by celebrity worship. Its characters are deeply implicated in the whole project of gender positioning, a crisis precipitated by the now-familiar device of discovering a portal leading into John Malkovich’s brain. As a result Lotte (Cameron Diaz) is bowled over by her unexpected attraction to another woman and immediately assumes she’s going to need gender-reassignment surgery, as though lesbianism were beyond the pale, a lesser alternative. Malkovich is just the sort of cheeky and original film that first made the New Queer Cinema possible. And it’s got something none of these other films can offer, apart from its box-office numbers: it offers a lesbian happy ending, though somehow none of the newspaper reviews ever mentions it.

Being John Malkovich (1999)

Being John Malkovich (1999)

I think of Being John Malkovich as a mainstream movie made possible by the advances of the New Queer Cinema. I like to imagine one of those television voiceovers accompanying any awards ceremony in which it figures. I can just about hear the stentorian tone, acknowledging the debt as rewards are bestowed, as though movies followed the traditions of science, rock music or pharmaceuticals. For truly, madly, deeply, without all that groundbreaking and heart-stopping work of the early days, it’s impossible to imagine the existence of the more mainstream films coming along now to play with the same concepts, cast bigger stars and shuffle the deck for fresh strategies. Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to have them. I’m happy to be part of a new niche market. And, yes, I’m working on my ability to synthesise current fashion with memories of the good ole days. I think of it as a millennial strategy.


Access the Sight & Sound digital archive to read all B. Ruby Rich’s writing for the magazine, including:

Art house killers

On violence in art house cinema, December 1992, pages 5-6

Goings and comings

On Go Fish, July 1994, pages 14-16

San Francisco notes: world and time enough

On the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, August 1994, page 5

Slugging it out for survival

On Allison Anders, April 1995, pages 14-17

Meet Jeanne Buñuel

An interview with Luis Buñuel’s wife, August 1995, pages 20-23

Dumb lugs and femme fatales

On neo-noir, November 1995, pages 6-10

Day of the woman

On Kill Bill Vol. 2, June 2004, pages 24-27

Mission improbable

A Cannes report on Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 451, July 2004, pages 14-17

Out of the rubble

On Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, October 2006, pages 14-18

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