The Reckless Moment

Two Pioneers of the New Queer Cinema Look Back on a Short-Lived Sensation

Writing in these pages 10 years ago about an explosion of gay-themed movies on the festival circuit, critic B. Ruby Rich employed the phrase "new queer cinema." The tag stuck, and to this day remains synonymous with that uniquely galvanizing moment—the full-frontal defiance of queer activism colliding with the headlong abandon of a new daredevil strain of independent filmmaking.

Some of the directors Rich mentioned in her report have gone on to greater (and various definitions of) success. Gus Van Sant took up residence in the studio big leagues for a number of years before making his most provocative film yet with the recent Sundance entry Gerry. Todd Haynes followed Poison with Safe (1995, voted the best film of the '90s in the Voice critics' poll) and Velvet Goldmine (1998), and is currently in post-production on his Douglas Sirk homage (and Safe prequel?), Far From Heaven.

But the overall landscape has appeared bleak for years now. Not least because it proved so valuable in attracting media spotlights, the concept of a New Queer Cinema soon became a marketing tool. By the mid '90s, the face of gay film had mutated beyond recognition. The sorry, indistinguishable parade of affirmative coming-out or sexual-confusion rom-coms continues, from Jeffrey to Trick (director Todd Downing sends up the subgenre in his animated short Jeffrey's Hollywood Screen Trick). Hollywood even did its part with In & Out. If visibility was the foremost concern, the battle was at least partly won—except most of the films failed even as identity tracts, clogged as they were with regressive stereotypes. Besides, the standout lesbian hit of the time, Rose Troche's Go Fish (1994), never bred its own litter of copycats. Like the New Queer Cinema, gaysploitation was a mostly white, mostly male phenomenon.

"I never made a so-called gay film that had an immediate, ready audience": Christopher Münch (right) with Tom Kalin.
photo: Dennis Kleiman
"I never made a so-called gay film that had an immediate, ready audience": Christopher Münch (right) with Tom Kalin.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the New Queer Cinema, we invited two of the movement's pioneers to revisit its giddy inception and grapple with its queasy legacy. Tom Kalin, who made the gleaming, densely analytical Leopold/Loeb case study, Swoon, and Christopher Münch, writer-director-cinematographer-editor of the delicate John Lennon/Brian Epstein speculative reverie, The Hours and Times, have worked consistently in the intervening decade, though not always in the public eye. In addition to directing a roster of shorts that have screened at festivals worldwide, Kalin has also served as a producer, with Christine Vachon, on Go Fish and I Shot Andy Warhol (1996). He teaches film at Columbia University and is currently developing a feature, Savage Grace, based on the true-crime book. Münch completed his second feature, Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day, in 1996; his latest film, The Sleepy Time Gal, a rapt contemplation of memory and mortality starring Jacqueline Bisset as a cancer-stricken former radio personality, airs on the Sundance Channel March 29. Over lunch last month, Münch and Kalin talked about their careers, their shared interest in history and biography, and their ambivalent roles in a movement that was extinguished almost as soon as it was identified.

Sundance '92 is often invoked as the hallowed birthplace of the New Queer Cinema. Can you talk about your experiences at the festival that year?

Christopher Münch: The Hours and Times had shown in Toronto but didn't really have a great deal of visibility there. At Sundance I think all those films collectively got more attention than they would have individually. Todd Haynes had been there the previous year, and his presence was reassuring. Gus Van Sant was there too, and I'd seen My Own Private Idaho in Toronto. I remember going to the first screening there, and just being electrified.

Tom Kalin: Derek Jarman was also at Sundance that year, and he had been such a key figure for me. All those period anachronisms in Swoon—people always ask where that comes from. Two words: Derek Jarman. I was scared to death to have him watch my movie. But he was generous and direct, a great social catalyst with a talent for bringing people together. I also remember my first impression, actually, of your movie, Chris. Such beautiful simplicity. You shot it yourself, right? Just went and booked a hotel room in Spain and got to work?

CM: Yeah, it was the most intense and satisfying filmmaking experience I've ever had in a way. The logistics were extremely simple. We just sort of went and did it.

TK: Did the hotel know you were shooting a movie?

CM: Yeah, although I didn't go into detail. Actually the manager was extremely sympathetic. I may have given him the impression that it was more of a documentary. But I think they began to wonder, because I kept requesting that they send bellboys up to act in the film—I didn't have an actor for that role. I kept saying, "No, younger!"

I think of Swoon and The Hours and Times not just as queer landmarks—it's not the subject matter that's provocative so much as the form. They're both really interesting examples of fact-based fiction.

TK: That characterized these films for me—many were in some way fact-based with a new take on historical or biographical filmmaking. That's also why Derek's connection was interesting; his work often explored the fictions of history. His portrait of Edward II was biography with a self-conscious, contemporary edge. What amazed me about The Hours and Times was the ease with which you faced the incredibly daunting idea of evoking a figure like John Lennon. And you did it with such economy and grace. It's still an exemplary movie about musicians, without anybody on stage; your story avoids biopic clichés and never directly evokes the music.

Next Page »