The Embers of Paris Glow for ‘Born in Flames: New Queer Cinema’


On the cover of this publication dated March 24, 1992, two naked men were locked in a deep kiss in a scene from Derek Jarman’s Edward II, an anachronistic remix of Christopher Marlowe’s play about the 14th-century regent. Inside the issue, critic B. Ruby Rich heralded the “New Queer Cinema,” films that were radical in both form and content, breaking away from the previous decades’ emphasis on pleading for tolerance and “positive” lavender screen representations in favor of historical re-appropriation and outlaw heroes. Although 1991 and ’92 are considered the anni mirabiles of the NQC—the era when uncompromising works such as Poison, The Hours and Times, and My Own Private Idaho swept up awards on the film-festival circuit—BAMcinématek’s week-long tribute to the movement spans 1983 to 1997. What unites this disparate corpus was aptly expressed by Rich in a later article on NQC that ran in the September 1992 issue of Sight & Sound: “These works are irreverent, energetic, alternately minimalist and excessive. Above all, they’re full of pleasure.”

Pleasure—and sometimes rage. A precursor to NQC in its genre hybridization (radical-lesbian-feminist sci-fi vérité) and political fury, Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, her Molotov cocktail from 1983 that gives this series its name, is set in New York City “10 years after the social-democratic revolution,” an uprising in which women are still second-class citizens. To right the imbalance, the Women’s Army—a group that “appears to be dominated by lesbians and blacks,” in the affectless words of Wooster Group troupe member Ron Vawter, playing a government agent investigating the insurrectionists—mobilizes the various wimmin’s factions. (Look for Kathryn Bigelow as a member of the lily-white editorial board of the Socialist Youth Review.) “It’s time to work some voodoo on these motherfuckers, sisters!” exhorts dyke DJ Isabel (Adele Bertei) of pirate Radio Regazza as newsrooms are taken over and the antenna of the WTC is bombed to prevent further transmission of patriarchal communiqués.

Another kind of transmission occurs in Todd Haynes’s Jean Genet–inspired Poison (1991), which opens with the epigraph “The whole world is dying of panicky fright.” The real-life paranoia and escalating death count from AIDS ravaging the globe at the time is the implicit subject of “Horror,” one of the stories in Haynes’s triptych project. Structured as a 1950s black-and-white science-fiction film, “Horror” traces the ignominious demise of a medical researcher who becomes a contagious, pustular pariah after accidentally ingesting a liquid in the lab. “Leper Sex Killer on the Loose” blares a tabloid headline—one that mimics the AIDS- and gay-panic of the epoch, hysteria that Haynes, as a member of Gran Fury, ACT UP’s unofficial “propaganda ministry,” had fought to combat. (BAM’s series also includes three nonfiction shorts made by artists affiliated with ACT UP spanning 1988 to 1993.)

Haynes’s film would be excoriated by right-wing pundits and politicians, shaking their fingers and jowls over the fact that Poison was partly funded by an NEA grant. Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989) also caused cultural warriors from the era of Bush the First to go apoplectic when it aired on PBS in the summer of 1991. Riggs’s personal video essay, full of spoken-word poetry and monologues about desire, shame, and racism, declares that “black men loving black men is the revolutionary act.”

Glimpsed briefly in Riggs’s exultation of being black and gay is Willi Ninja, voguing in slo-mo. Ninja and other legends such as Pepper LaBeija, Octavia Saint Laurent, and Venus Xtravaganza are the endlessly quotable stars of Jennie Livingston’s seminal 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning, a portrait of the ball culture of New York City. Livingston, a white lesbian, turned her camera on black and Latino subjects who were gay and transgender and living on the economic margins; some cried that her film was exploitative, others that it respectfully gave voice to those who had been disenfranchised for most of their lives.

“This is New York. And this is the gay life,” says one of the two barely adolescent boys hanging outside a ball at 2:30 in the morning on a school night at the end of Paris Is Burning. Is that kid still alive? (Many of Livingston’s subjects have died, either from violence or AIDS.) If he still lives in New York, does he recognize it? Several scenes in Livingston’s film were shot at the Christopher Street piers, crumbling congregation areas for queers, particularly those of color, often teens kicked out of their homes. The area is now part of Hudson River Park, across the street from luxury condos designed by Richard Meier. Only 22 years old, Paris Is Burning now seems like a chronicle of a city from another geologic time. The films of the NQC, bold, incendiary, sexy, and indebted to avant-garde traditions, also seem to have been beamed in from another planet—certainly not the one that made a theatrical release of Gayby possible.