What happened to the New Queer Cinema? It’s a question I’m often asked. Did it disappear, or is it everywhere? There’s no one easy answer.
Undoubtedly, the New Queer Cinema lives on in all the gay film festivals — more than a hundred, last time I counted — staged around the world: Guadalajara, Fortaleza, Manila, Saint Petersburg. At the Berlin Film Festival, the Teddy awards for best gay film are such a big deal that even the mayor of Berlin attends the ceremony. (Of course, the new mayor of Berlin is gay…) Festivals gather queer communities together in a statement of identity and solidarity. Problem is, there’s no financial return for filmmakers and video artists — nobody’s going to finance their next project off the queer festival circuit. Hollywood development folks and independent financing green-lighters became convinced in the late ’90s that the niche market was played out.
The movement was also affected by what I call the Anne Heche syndrome. Queer audiences fall head over heels whenever mainstream celebrities tip their hats in this direction. They can be gay or straight (ah, Sharon), lesbian or bi, queer for a minute (love you, Anne) or openly out (Sir Ian, Ellen). No matter — there’s a rush to see them play queer on-screen or off, in movie theaters or, increasingly, on television. Who needs a New Queer Cinema when there’s Buffy and Will & Grace and Queer as Folk and Six Feet Under? Hollywood only wants gay best friends. Television gives us brothers and girlfriends and boys next door.
Moreover, the fierce political and aesthetic energy of the early-’90s cinematic breakthroughs is hardly omnipresent today. The prevalent Queer Lite formula endlessly recycles romantic comedy, pausing every now and then for tragedy, then getting back on the dancefloor. Issues of race, class, family trauma, and life-changing desire are not likely to pop up on the current menu.
For that, you have to search outside the mainstream, or revisit some of the queer films of the last few years that never got the attention they deserved. Check out Isaac Julien, who has moved deeper into the art world after years of filmmaking; his three-screen video installation The Long Road to Mazatlán was short-listed for the Turner Prize this winter in London. His work, which includes the landmark Looking for Langston and the subversive short The Attendant, troubles the waters of queer complacency, raising erotically potent questions about race crossing and sexual taboos. Or rent a copy of Ira Sachs’s The Delta, which imagined a pleasure-boat escape by a rich white boy and the half-black, half-Vietnamese hustler he’s picked up and toyed with. This groundbreaking work examined the open secret of gay sex for hire and its effects on those whose bodies are bought and sold. Another overlooked film, Alex Sichel’s All Over Me, a teen-girl coming-of-age tale made over one hot New York summer, had the bad luck to open in the same season as Chasing Amy. That straight-boy fantasy about flipping a lesbian was the one that got the audience, not Sichel’s gritty love-lost, love-found lesbian drama, which revealed how gay-bashing violence rises with the temperature. For the sins visited on queers by their families, there’s no beating Australian director Ana Kokkinos’s Head On, a clear-eyed view of how homosexuality plays out in a Greek immigrant community. And then there’s Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art, which spurned a happy ending, in the process offending as many lesbian sensibilities as it gratified.
Films about Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard have received a lot of attention, but it shouldn’t take murder to get lives onto the screen. Now that the U.S. has rushed headlong into war, nursing a toxic cocktail of masculinity and patriotism, we need queer visions of sexuality, gender, desire, and community more than ever. Without them, all we’ve got for a queer cinema any time soon is the closing scene of Lord of the Rings: two boys in a boat, devoted to each other, off to battle evil with swords. Need I point out that this is not the movement I had in mind?
See also: The Reckless Moment: Two Pioneers of the New Queer Cinema Look Back on a Short-Lived Sensation by Dennis Lim