A short history of New Queer Cinema

A partial transcript of Episode 15 of THE ART MOVEMENT. To listen to the full radio show, click here.

Now, let’s take a quick look at the way in which cinema has represented the LGBTQ+ community over the years and I will particularly focus on the ’90s cinematic movement known as The New Queer Cinema, which really launched a wider and more legitimate representation of this community.

Ok, before the late ’80s and ’90s, gay, lesbian and transgender representation was mostly based on stereotypes. The gays were mostly sissys, the lesbians were dangerous creatures, witches and vampires, transgender people were serial killers. Things started to change in the ’60s and ’70s for a few reasons, including the rise in popularity of television that prompted film producers to attract passionate niche audiences.

In 1961, a British neo-noir titled Victim and starring Dirk Bogarde was one of the first films to legitimately humanize homosexuality and the first English-language film to actually use the word, at a time when homosexuality in the country was illegal.  In America, in 1968, a film like Midnight Cowboy came as close to portraying a homosexual relationship without actually explicitly referring to it as such as it possibly could.

New Queer Cinema too was prompted by technological advancements, particularly the proliferation of small video formats at the turn of the ’90s. But the movement, dubbed New Queer Cinema by critic B. Ruby Rich, also came out of a period marked by the AIDS pandemic, which attracted universal mainstream compassion for the community. At first, this movement about legitimate representation of the LGTBQ+ community was pure, meaning that the films of this movement were directed by gay directors and often starred gay actors. They were also mostly consumed by gay audiences. For example, Gus Van Sant and the godfather of the movement Derek Jarman were both men.

But as their popularity grew, Hollywood started to become interested and several titles from the mid-’90s are considered part of the movement — including Boys Don’t Cry from 1999, featuring an Oscar-winning performance by the straight Hilary Swank and Chasing Amy from 1997, directed by Generation X comedy auteur Kevin Smith, often defined as a lesbian movie but to me, actually exploring bisexuality in a surprisingly mature and sometimes hilarious way.

While this peak in interest from straight film artists is viewed by some as problematic, a film like Happy Together by Wong Kar-Wai clearly shows that as B. Ruby Rich states and I am paraphrasing, the quality of the movie comes down to genius rather than sexual identity.

The reason why I agree, is that for years, straight filmmakers treated gay, lesbian and transgender characters as stereotypes. And while, to this day, stereotypes persist, there is no doubt about the giant leaps that have been made since the days of the sissies, the dykes and the cross-dressing serial killers. In 2005, a larged mixed audience around the world gathered in cinemas to watch two A-listers share a passionate, animalistic sex scene in Brokeback Mountain, which marked another huge turning point. And in 2017, A Fantastic Girl from 2017, starring a transgender actress, went on to win the Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards. And this would simply have been unthinkable up to a few decades ago.

Let me make this clear. I may be an art lover and self-professed art connoisseur. But I don’t particularly believe that there is such a thing as good art and bad art, just as long as it isn’t solely motivated by financial gains and as long as you can’t see right through them.

For years, there have been concerns about the future of cinema and calls for an impending death of cinema. These concerns are silly as cinema is actually quite a young artform, a little over one century old. So, when I think about the future of cinema, I don’t only think of technological advancements. I also think of an increased representation of all people — regardless of gender, sexuality, nationality or ethnicity.
Lastly, if you would like to know about the history of LGBTQ+ and cinema, I urge you to check out Vito Russo’s 1981 book, The Celluloid Closet and the 1995 documentary of the same name based on that book.

Written by Matt Micucci

I'm an international journalist, reporter, website editor and content creator. I actively work for JAZZIZ Magazine and FRED Film Radio, collaborate with other websites and curate my own projects, including IN ARTE MATT and CineCola. I have also curated and produced my series of films in Galway, Ireland, and photo exhibition and arts events in various European countries. I have a working class background and have and have a postgrad degree in Film Theory + a BA in Film & TV.

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