Ask, Tell: Metrograph Celebrates the Queer Cinema That Set the Nineties Off


Maybe the queerest thing about the 1990s was film distribution. Politically, the decade was wildly incongruous (as most decades are): An ostensibly left-leaning president signed the transparently homophobic Defense of Marriage Act and “don’t ask, don’t tell” into law. Meanwhile, LGBT direct-action groups commanded national attention. ACT UP organized a large demonstration at the NIH in 1990, the same year that Queer Nation was founded; two years later, the Lesbian Avengers held their first action. In movie theaters, though, all kinds of lavender expression flourished. In December 1993, a cinemagoer could head to her local art house to see Derek Jarman’s final film, Blue, which consists solely of a single frame of the title color, and then to the multiplex to catch Jonathan Demme’s cautious AIDS weepie Philadelphia.

The enormous array of gay movies made during the decade is sampled in Metrograph’s “Queer ’90s” series, a thirty-title retrospective that includes paradigmatic works of the radical New Queer Cinema movement (like Blue); big-studio offerings (Mike Nichols’s high-swish The Birdcage, from 1996); documentaries (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s The Celluloid Closet, their uplifting 1995 companion piece to Vito Russo’s crucial 1981 compendium); experimental short- and mid-length works (Sadie Benning’s Flat Is Beautiful, 1998, a tender exploration of a nonbinary kid); and all idioms in between. The retro isn’t limited to North America — Wong Kar-wai’s depressive romance Happy Together (1997) is here, as is Alain Berliner’s Ma Vie en Rose (1997), about an exceptionally gender-talented French child. The sheer number of works in the series might seem overwhelming, but the curatorial vision is sharp and unmistakable: Philadelphia, quite pointedly, isn’t in the lineup.

Blue, unlike Philadelphia, does not tremulously plead for tolerance for gay men living with AIDS; Jarman, one of the U.K.’s most uncompromising filmmakers, became even more fearless after being diagnosed with HIV in late 1986. While his own body was being ravaged, his eyesight growing dimmer and dimmer, he conceived of a project that, brilliantly and paradoxically, visualizes his sightlessness. For 75 minutes, we stare at an unchanging ultramarine screen, listening to a dense audio collage dominated by Jarman’s first-person observations (voiced primarily by the actors Nigel Terry and John Quentin). Its rich text filled with details of hospital visits and the side effects of antivirals, and with the multiple metaphors engendered by the eponymous tint, Blue is many things — sober and puckish, elegiac yet intensely alive — but never maudlin.

A more oblique but still impassioned consideration of AIDS can be found 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 the pandemic 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 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 had fought to combat as a member of Gran Fury, ACT UP’s unofficial “propaganda ministry.” (Haynes’s film would be excoriated by those in this nation’s official propaganda offices: Right-wing pundits and politicians shook their fingers and jowls over the fact that Poison was partly funded by an NEA grant.)

Other films from the decade find characters adrift in hedonistic ennui. “It’s like we all know, deep in our souls, our generation is going to witness the end of everything,” eighteen-year-old omnisexual video diarist Dark (James Duval) says to his camcorder in Gregg Araki’s Nowhere (1997), the final installment of what the director called his “teenage apocalypse trilogy.” Dark is just one of several L.A. high schoolers having weird visions of ray-gun-wielding aliens, the reptilian creatures popping up during ragers and makeout sessions. More deranging than Araki’s subject matter is the experience of watching it nearly twenty years after its release: The cast is glutted with young actors who, like Christina Applegate, were trying to leave a signature role behind (Nowhere was released the same year Married…With Children ended its run), or, like Ryan Phillippe and Mena Suvari, were in the nascent phases of their careers. They’re all wholly committed to Araki’s outré fusion of adolescent libertinage and eschatology.

By the time Queen Latifah appeared as one of the all-distaff bank-robbing quartet in F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off (1996), the hip-hop artist and actress had been a star for at least seven years — and dodging questions about her sexuality for just as long. Does her exhilarating performance as stone-butch Cleo (“Whaddyou lookin’ at? I’m a bitch with a gun”), who can’t keep her hands and lips off her high-femme girlfriend’s thighs, answer them?

Luminaries who were never in the closet are shamelessly name-checked in High Art (1998), Lisa Cholodenko’s first feature. “Really, it ties into Barthes’s whole theory about photographic
ecstasy,” gushes magazine editor Syd (Radha Mitchell) to portraitist Lucy (Ally Sheedy), whose smack-addicted German girlfriend (Patricia Clarkson) can’t stop mentioning the years she worked with Fassbinder. High Art can sometimes buckle under the weight of such strenuous referencing. But it breaks free in its final minutes: In the highly ambiguous ending, the fate of a main character, however grim, doesn’t signal a return to a more benighted era, when most queer characters in film were punished by death. Instead, the closing scene leaves viewers with more questions than answers — an especially queer strategy.

‘Queer ’90s’
October 5–November 18