New Queer Cinema:

An Ecce Homo Intro!

For queers all over the world, pop culture in general and cinema in particular has always been an indispensable and inexhaustible source of inspiration, empowerment and comfort. For younger queers who were lucky enough to grow up watching queer films, some of those even going mainstream and having a wider cultural impact, this seemingly innocent ‘privilege’ has been a form of cultural reproduction of queer identities and queer subcultures across generations. In other words, as David Halperin (2014) puts it, watching queer movies has taught many of us ‘how to be gay’ via a series (dis-)identifications and the creation of an imaginary queer community beyond borders. On the one hand, we should keep in mind that queerness itself has always had a special relation to aesthetics as a recognizable yet hard-to-pin-down sensibility whose camp might be the most telling example. One the other hand, whenever the word ‘queer’ is used as an adjective, one is rightfully wondering what are the specific characteristics that qualify something as a queer, and if such a move runs against queerness itself as anti-identitarian gesture. This article is an Ecce Homo introduction to the so-called New Queer Cinema or Queer New Wave, a loosely defined underground cinematic movement in queer-themed independent filmmaking that gained critical acclaim on the festival circuit in the early 1990s. In what follows, we are going to track the history of the emergence of this movement and list some of its defining features.

It all started in 1992 when film critic and scholar B. Ruby Rich published an article in the Village Voice magazine titled ‘Queer Sensation’ in which she outlined the sudden proliferation of films with queer content mostly made in North America and Europe, among them the blockbuster Basic Instinct but mostly independent low-budget and highly experimental films and videos such as Derek Jarman’s Edward II, Gregg Araki’s The Living End and the work of Sadie Benning. This very same article was republished later that year in a special issue of Sight and Sound magazine under the title ‘New Queer Cinema’ establishing this way Rich as the godmother of this then forming movement. This special issue also included a series of responses to Rich’s article, among them those of four filmmakers named in Rich’s original essay. According to this seminal text,

‘Definitively breaking with older humanist approaches and the films and tapes that accompanied identity politics, these works are irreverent, energetic, alternatively minimalist, and excessive. Above all, they’re full of pleasure. They’re here, they’re queer, get hip to them (1992: 18)' 

I guess a few caveats are in order at this point. Firstly, this paradigm shift should not be considered as seismic as one might initially think, since these films and tapes had drawn heavily from older queer films that laid the heritage and paved the way for the emergence of New Queer Cinema. This Old Queer Cinema includes films by Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet, Andy Warhol, Ulrike Ottinger, Chantal Akerman, Pratibha Parmar, Rosa von Praunheim, Héctor Babenco, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Secondly, New Queer Cinema’s legacy continues to exert an undeniable influence on contemporary queer filmmaking. As Rich puts it, ‘these videos and films, so fresh and powerful, decisively shifted modes of representation, exhibition, and reception in ways that continue to evolve today (2013: xi).’ Thirdly, New Queer Cinema had never been an unified cinematic movement and its characterization as ‘Homo Pomo’ by Rich herself testifies to ‘a melding of style and subject in its moments of origin’ ‘in search of new languages and mediums that could accommodate new materials, subjects, and modes of production (2013: xi).’ And finally, the term ‘queer’ might be used catachrestically here since New Queer Cinema was chiefly focused on ‘the construction of male desire’ reinforcing this way an already established within mainstream filmmaking exclusion of lesbian directors and the related representations (Hayward, 2006). At the time, representations of other queer subjects, such as trans, intersex and bisexual persons were mostly missing from its canon.

The question, however, remains: Which were the conditions of possibility of this New Queer Cinema? From which social, historical, and political contextes these films had sprung? On this matter, Rich lists five elements that converged in the early 90s to result in the New Queer Cinema:
  • The HIV/AIDS crisis, an epidemic whose symbolic weight has unequally burdened the shoulders of gay men. One should remember that the Gay Liberation Movement of the two previous decades had already managed a series of victories against queerphobia. This way the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the concomitant homosexualization of the virus had as a result the undoing of this hard-won progress. The moment when gays started feeling proud, AIDS breathed new life into homophobia and dragged gays back to their closets. The dismantling of the welfare state and public health infrastructures by the neoliberal financial politics of Reagan along with the neo-conservatism towards heteronormativity only made things worse exacerbating the already precarious social position of gays.
  • Reagan’s administration which saw the rise of neoliberalism in the policies of Ronald Reagan’s administration according to which the dogmas of lesser state and laissez-faire have dictated ever since the relationship between the state and the free market, and between the state and its citizens. Reagan’s tenure as the President of the United States from 1981 to 1989 was also marked by a forceful -Republican- neo-conservative turn that advocated for the traditional families values and a Christian way of life that must be protected from the Counterculture Movement of the 60s and the rise of the new social movements of the 70s, such as the anti-war, the feminist, the gay and the civil rights movement among others, that had questioned the American Dream and its racist and heterosexist values that sustained it. 

  • A little device call camcorder’: ‘Newly invented camcorders enabled easy production of electronic media at the personal level for the first time in history. A new generation emerging from art school seized the new tools to reimagine cinema with a video eye, revising the medium thrillingly from the bottom up. In the streets, the camcorder enabled the reversal of surveillance: police could now be recorded by the crowds…The 1980s was also the decade in which cable television arrived, providing an instant outlet in the form of the municipal public access cable channels, where the work could be seen and come of age (2013: xvii).’   
  • Cheap rent: ‘The city was ours. Property values were low, apartments had rent control, clubs were everywhere, and the streets were locations of congregation, invention, and celebration…It was still a place of diversity, where people of color lived their lives in vibrant communities with intact cultures. Young people could still move to New York City after or instead of high school or college and invent an identity, an art, a life. Times Square was still a bustling center of excitement, with sex work, “adult” movies, a variety of sins on sale, ways to make money for those down on their luck. The benign economics and easy density enabled the continuation and even growth of a widespread community united by issues, sexualities, politics, aesthetics (2013: xviii).’
  • The emergence of queer politics and theory with all its postmodern sensibilities and radical socio-political imaginaries. For Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, four interrelated gestures have proven to be constitutive of queer theory in the 90s: first, sexuality is distinct from and irreducible to gender which was a key tenet of the feminist studies; secondly, sexuality itself gets elevated to a legitimate object of cultural analysis; thirdly, sexuality is constitutive of and constituted by culture to a point that any examination of cultural phenomena must take into serious consideration the key role played by sexuality in their formation; and fourthly, sexuality here refers mostly to sexual ‘dissidents’, namely the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex folks. As such, at the level of political theory and praxis, queer is constitutively anti-identitarian, a political attitude of direct action beyond lobbyism and rights discourse, a personal aesthetic of fluid and dynamic becoming that is irreducible to sexual identities such as gay or lesbian. Queer also names anything that goes against the regime of normal and as such defies the traditional understanding of politics. Most importantly, queer detests all the mantras of identity politics, such as inclusion and visibility, because it resists assimilation to both heteronormative and homonormative ways of longing and belonging.

As it becomes obvious from the above, the emergence of New Queer Cinema is concomitant with the rise of queer theory and activism, both of them offspring of the same socio-political context, a fact that explains the creative and critical dialog between the two and gives us a hint regarding the key thematic, aesthetic and ideological features that permeate New Queer Cinema. In spite of the heterogeneity that characterizes these films and videos, one could safely argue that some of the following traits are present in the majority of these filmic productions:

  • Low-budget and independent filmmaking with an amateur-like quality
  • A style favoring pastiche and appropriation influenced by art, activism, and new entities as music video (MTV was blooming at the time)

  • A reinterpretation of the link between the personal and the political envisioned by feminism

  • A recoding of the aesthetics to link the independent feature movement with the avant-garde and the camp stylistics

  • Challenging gender and sexual identities as stable and fixed essences in favour of fluid and constructed performativities and contingent gender and sexual expressions

  • A renewed emphasis on desire and pleasure which is depicted as an exceptional and subversive force

  • The rejection of victim and melodrama narratives centering on white middle-class gay men of the previous mainstream gay cinema

  • Experimentation with new narrative forms, themes, mediums and styles

  • A confrontational and often antagonistic approach towards heterosexual culture reflecting also the assertive outrage of AIDS activist organizations of the past decade to the point of defying death
  • A reimagining of mainstream genres by depicting in an explicit and unapologetic manner the question of pleasure and celebrating excess

  •  Re-adding homosexual themes or historical elements where they had been erased through straightwashing by revisiting historical relationships and firmly instate the overlooked homosexual content

  • Radical in form and aggressive in their presentation of sexual identities challenging this way both the heteronormative status quo and resisting the endorsement of positive, respectable and clean-cut images of queer subjects advocated by the gay liberation movement of the 1970s and 1980s now criticized for its homonormative tendencies

  • The protagonists and narratives were predominantly queer, but were presented invariably as outsiders and renegades at the margins of the society, who embraced radical and unconventional gender roles and ways of life, frequently casting themselves as criminal or fugitives

  • These films give voice to the marginalised not simply in terms of focusing on the queer community, but on the sub-groups contained within it raising this way issues about race, ethnicity and class 

*The pics that accompany this article are posters of movies belonging by most accounts to the New Queer Cinema movement and they are offered here as recommendations!

References used:

B. Ruby Rich. “New Queer Cinema”: Sight & Sound, Volume 2, Issue 5 (September 1992)

B. Ruby Rich, New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut, Duke University Press, 2013.

Susan Hayward. "Queer cinema" in Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (Third Edition). Routledge, 2006. p. 329-333.

David M. Halperin, How To Be Gay, Harvard University Press, 2014.

Michele Aaron, New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader, Rutgers University Press, 2004.