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.
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.
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.
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?
TK: Isn’t the battle only won when we stop having this discussion? I think of Agnès Varda — how some people pigeonhole her as a “female director,” especially in relationship to the New Wave. I’m a huge fan of Cléo From 5 to 7. Why isn’t that talked about the same way as Breathless? I wonder how she would describe her work in direct relation to feminism. Some might say that Cléo could only have been made by a woman. I don’t know, the idea of making identity-based films feels limiting. Most of us are walking contradictions.
CM: It’s interesting that some of Varda’s more uncategorizable films are the ones that are least often shown. Like Lions Love or Kung-Fu Master, my favorite of hers.
TK: I don’t think it’s an accident that there’s no overt gay content in [Todd Haynes’s] Safe. Each one of Todd’s films for me is a statement of his diverse interests. But I thought Safe was maybe his queerest movie. And not just because James LeGros and Peter Friedman are playing gay characters — apparently Todd only found out afterward that the actors had decided their characters were boyfriends.
Do you feel out of sync with the rest of the independent film world?
TK: There’s a funny quote from Jack Smith in the book J. Hoberman edited [On Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures”]. He wrote in a grant application that for him the process of making a film is not a matter of years but decades. Which I just took great solace in. It’s OK that some of us take a long time to steep our tea.
CM: Yeah, it’s tastier.
TK: The frustration of wanting to make, almost making, not making can distract you. But I’ve come to terms with having an eclectic career. There was a point in the early ’90s when making short work as a primary focus was not considered viable. I don’t think that’s the case now. There’s been a real proliferation of short work, especially by people in their twenties, that I find reassuring. It’s led to a revived underground, and people working in different forms. I feel like I’m in good company. Also, I’m incredibly stubborn about making the movies I want to make.
CM: That’s the thing. The older you get, the more unyielding the conditions of satisfaction get. You really can’t adopt a way of working that’s inauthentic. It becomes harder and harder to do anything but what you do.
See also: Vision Quest: Searching for Diamonds in the Rough by B. Ruby Rich