The Reckless Moment

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

It could be said that the New Queer Cinema paved the way for all these gaysploitation clones. In the years following your breakthroughs, you both continued to work on the margins or behind the scenes. Were you ever tempted to cash in?

CM: Gay indie movies became a commercial phenomenon of some sort. I've occasionally lamented the fact that I never made a so-called gay film that had an immediate, ready audience.

TK: I haven't seen many of those ensemble romantic comedies. It's not my cup of tea, but it's also not something I'm particularly inclined to be vicious about. There's a market for these films. The best have real vision and wit. Some rely too much on the conventions of television. I find that distressing: any filmmaker that lacks cinematic literacy or even curiosity. Nothing wrong with TV, but I still want adventure at the movies.

"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.

CM: You think it'd be the opposite, with so many people having a film education.

TK: A couple of students at Columbia asked me to do an independent study on "queer" film with them. It was eye-opening to have the first meeting and say, well, do you know Cocteau? No. Have you seen Un Chant d'Amour? No. An early gay movie for them might be Parting Glances. They're both really interesting guys, they just didn't know where to look for these films. One of them has made the case that, oh, you had it so easy. You had Reaganism, you had AIDS, you could define yourself in terms of an adversarial political stance. The previous generation had Stonewall, gay liberation. I don't completely buy that argument. You could probably find corollaries in black cinema, or other "minority," identity-based work.

What were some of your formative viewing experiences—not necessarily as filmmakers but as young gay men?

TK: Seeing My Beautiful Laundrette when I was in my early twenties blew my mind, and Midnight Express even earlier than that. There will always be these movies that have a certain function as identity movies, whether they're serious pieces of art or not.

CM: That's true. For me, when I was growing up, it was Sunday Bloody Sunday. I was with John Schlesinger a couple of years ago and he was lamenting that some list had been published of the best gay films of all time, and he wasn't on it. As an audience member I regret that at a certain point he made films that may not have lived up to his earlier artistry. But I've always been heartened by his rigor as a filmmaker, and Sunday Bloody Sunday remains a model of economy. I first saw it on an unlikely double bill, at the old Harvard Square Theatre, with William Friedkin's adaptation of The Boys in the Band. In a very graphic way this showed me "here is what to aspire to; here is what not to aspire to." Jack Hazan's film about David Hockney, A Bigger Splash, also made an impact, as much for being without genre as for the intimate way in which he made the film over a period of years. I didn't see Terence Davies's work until I was older, but once I did I never stopped admiring him and his path.

Do you have a strong position, one way or the other, on any recent gay films?

TK: Did you see The Talented Mr. Ripley? That made me furious. I'm a big fan of Patricia Highsmith's. I'm as interested in criminality as I am in homosexuality. I can't remember if the word homosexual ever appears in Highsmith's stories. The film's adaptation was often smart and dramatic, though all these small changes were made in order to make the homosexuality visible. What was unstated or between the lines became explicit. Jude Law's naked, dripping ass, and suddenly it's a whole new territory. At the end of the book, he faces an uncertain future, but is totally unfettered and free. At the end of the movie he has permanent skeletons in his closet. The movie is defined in relation to the closet. It's the problem of retrospectively imposing contemporary sensibilities on material from an earlier era.

CM: That seems de rigueur with some modern films, though I've liked the way historical figures like Lytton Strachey and Oscar Wilde have been treated recently. Julian Schnabel did a very good job, I thought, with Before Night Falls. And David Thewlis could've been a fine Paul Verlaine in another picture.

TK: Absolutely. I'm drawn to the details and facts of true stories. Though underneath my emotions aren't always so clear. I realize now Swoon is about AIDS, about my rage and confusion. I've sat at enough damn deathbeds. I certainly have enough material to make that AIDS movie, but I've never come close to considering it. When I saw [Jonathan Demme's] Philadelphia, it felt flat to me and I wondered if it might have been motivated, in part, by the criticism of Silence of the Lambs. Which is a great movie that I don't find at all homophobic.

Ten years on, how useful do you think a category like Queer Cinema is? Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together has been characterized as a great gay film by a straight director. But why isn't it just a great film about the end of a relationship?

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