Queer Cinema: New Era–1990s

In an attempt to be inclusive, mainstream Hollywood has always held to a naive belief in the America as the “melting pot.” The strategy was to ignore gender, racial, and sexual distinctions in search of a common, unifying cultural denominator that would be acceptable to all, offensive to none. As a result, up to the late 1980s, movie-goers seeking gay or lesbian fare had limited options, mostly avant-garde and experimental film.

But the climate has changed. “It would be difficult to be like George Cukor in the 1990s,” said Gregg Araki, “if only because there’s a sense that the issues have become so charged that you have to take a stand one way or another.” “There’s this new generation of queers,” said Araki, explaining the new sensibility, who feel that being gay is a very big part of their identity and are much more vocal and much more expressive about it.” Gay and lesbian audiences began to express more aggressively their discontent, demanding fairer treatment, but Hollywood did not care–or dare.

That attitude began to change in the early 1990s, when an independent film movement polemically known as “queer cinema” began to coalesce. Like the black film cycle, the watershed years of the queer wave were 1991-2, which saw the release of Todd Haynes’ Poison, Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (all in 1991), Tom Kalin’s Swoon, Christopher Munch’s The Hours and Times, Araki’s The Living End (all in 1992).

Gay visibility finally hit Hollywood in the mid-1990s, when new voices began challenging old stigmas, fighting for more realistic representation. The more mainstream cinema responded with comedies like Three of Hearts and Threesome, and Jonathan Demme’s AIDS drama, Philadelphia (all in 1993). The queer cycle reached its maturity in the 1994 Sundance Festival, when director Rose Troche and her cast stormed Park City with Go Fish, their edgy lesbian romantic comedy. Industry suits suddenly began to envision the potential gay and lesbian spending power.

As soon as the numbers looked lucrative, showing there was money to be made out of “gay” product, the “new” market began to garner unprecedented response. “The reason there’s a higher degree of attention now is because distributors have shown a profit,” said Mark Finch of “Frameline,” a distribution company specializing in gay fare. Strand Releasing is another gay-friendly distributor, with a catalogue that includes Lino Brocka’s Macho Dancer, Araki and others. “It’s just like any trend,” noted Strand’s co-president Marcus Hu. There was that moment when the new films heralded the Queer Cinema.

The gay market did not appear overnight. It was gradually and steadily built by dedicated filmmakers and festival programmers and savvy distributors. A number of factors have contributed to the solidifying of the gay market, including:

The Role of Critics

Critical attention, which was initially provided in the independent press, spread to the more mainstream media. In the 1980s, papers like the Village Voice, L.A. Weekly, L.A. Reader, performed crucial role, with key critics (gay and straight) consistently reporting on the gay film arena.

Unique Marketing Strategies

Director Nicole Conn self distributed her film Claire of the Moon, using grass-roots marketing campaign, before turning the movie for wider distribution to Strand. Strand has developed its own strategies to serve their audiences, as Hu said: “We have tried very hard to link our company with films that are fun, and we market them like exploitation horror films. We don’t spend money on publicity, but go for word-of-mouth.” The word-of-mouth tact has been successful due to solid infrastructure of gay networks and media outlets.

Gay Magazines

The explosion of interest in gay films was paralleled by a similar outburst in the publishing industry, with the inauguration of numerous gay magazines (in addition to the well-established The Advocate), such as Out, OutWeek, Genre, Ten Percent and the popularity of gay cable shows. The on-line gay bulletins boards constitutes a powerful information network that weaves in and around the mainstream networks.

Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals

The impact of gay film festivals on the burgeoning queer cinema is immeasurable. For a decade or so, gay films began their lives–literally–at festivals. By the 1980s, almost every major city had a gay film festival, often screening movies that were unlikely to break beyond the festival circuit. Festivals deserve credit for serving as makeshift distributors–there’s nothing like the power of word-of-mouth generated at such festivals. Filmmakers whose careers received a boost from such forums include Gus Van Sant, whose Mala Noche first gained attention at a 1986 festival, and Jennie Livingston, whose Paris Is Burning was a festival hit in 1991.

The first gay film festival took place in San Francisco in 1977, when a few local filmmakers posted placards around the Castro District for a free showing of their films. They were amazed when hundreds of patrons showed up. Thus began what would become the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival. Two decades later, the San Francisco event is not only the oldest, but the largest gay festival in the country. Recent editions have unspooled in three venues, the Castro, Victoria and Roxie, with close to 200 titles from such farflung locales as Cuba, Serbia, and China.

The old gender stratification began to decline in artistic realms. “It’s harder and harder to identify films as either lesbian or gay,” said San Francisco Gay Festival’s co-director Jennifer Morris, “both creative personnel and onscreen characters are no longer exclusively ‘one or the other.'” In the early days of the L.A gay festival–now called Outfest–founder Larry Horne had to persuade Hollywood executives that films shown at the festival would not be stigmatized or difficult to market as a result of appearing there. This situation changed when distributors realized that the gay market is not to be taken lightly.

Organizational Networks

The development of new channels for exhibiting and distributing specialized films. In 1991, Strand was so confident of the gay market that it began producing gay features, such as Araki’s Totally Fu***d Up, the AIDS comedy-drama, Grief, and the more riske and experimental Frisk.

Gay Presence in the Film Industry

In the 1990s, mid-level management within the major studios is rife with lesbians and gays. While they work within a system that is dependent on market forecasts, it’s encouraging to see more of these people promoting gay causes within their power structure.

The AIDS Factor

AIDS, the lethal transformer of gay life, has influenced every aspect of American culture. AIDS has generated as much anger as sadness, with veiled and not so veiled references to politically correct values that sparked new offensives against homosexuality. But many gay and lesbian filmmakers have been energized by the ongoing debate. The new gay directors have stretched the boundaries of traditional cinema, rolling the stylistic dice, challenging viewers’ expectations with innovative narratives and styles. British director Derek Jarman (Edward II), and American Gus Van Sant (Male Noche, My Own Private Idaho) have served as role models for young gay directors.

The new films have differed in style and sensibility. To relegate Swoon and The Living End into the same category requires a certain bias, but it’s tempting to generalize about their similar motivation and effect. Several films have centered on social outcasts or fugitives from the law, propelled toward tragic fate by a hostile world and obsessive desire. Gregg Araki’s The Living End can be perceived as a gay version of Bonnie and Clyde and Gun Crazy. The two male protagonists wrestle with hypocrisy, mortality, and redemption, issues mainstream cinema has not probed with honesty. “Gay content in film is usually in the independent sector,” said Jennie Livingston, whose documentary Paris Is Burning is about black and Latino drag queens. “Before and after the Hays Code, gay subject matter was not permissible except as an index of freakishness, which you still see in films today.”

Mainstream Hollywood and Gay Characters

In 1991 alone, four major films: JFK, Basic Instinct, The Prince of Tides, and The Silence of the Lambs, came under heat for their one-sided, distorted portrayal of gay characters. Hollywood’s well-intentioned but flaccid efforts to be sensitive about gay issues, from Personal Best and Making Love in 1982 to Philadelphia in 1993, have only reinforced the idea that gay filmmakers must create their own cinema. The fact that Philadelphia was written by a gay writer, Ron Nysmayer, obviously didn’t matter much, judging by its broad, clinical approach. For director like Rose Troche, Philadelphia is not a really gay film, but a tidy representation of gays, a safe film that straights could embrace, because everyone knows Tom Hanks is straight. There’s no way that film would’ve done what it did if they’d cast a gay man in the lead.”

Still, the commercial success of Philadelphia in middle-America made it easier for adventurous gay films to thrive in the marketplace. “The studios have realized these films can make money,” said Troche, “but their attempts to cash in on the market have been pathetic.” Three of Hearts is fairly typical–it’s always a threesome where heterosexual desire has the final word. With their “implied disclaimer on homosexuality,” they leave people like Troche “feeling used.”

“I don’t think The Living End or Swoon or The Hours and Timesare ‘spokesperson’ films,” said Kalin, “but the whole issueraises questions about being a spokesperson, about a community, about the debate over presenting ‘positive images,’ what’s the inside and outside of queer” Some gay movies have crossed over, appealing to wider audiences, but despite their relative commercial success–compared to Hollywood movies, both the budgets and profits are minuscule. The crop of gay and lesbian indies came out of a Hollywood tradition, even if their strategy was to fracture the very foundations of that tradition. The new films were counterreactions, playing off Hollywood constructions and genres. Perhaps the most profound change effected by queer cinema was noted by Todd Haynes: “At least Hollywood is discovering that money isn’t homophobic.”