Arts·Queeries

Queer cinema's seminal era is turning 30. Celebrate by watching these 5 essential films

From Paris is Burning to My Own Private Idaho, 1991 was a pivotal year in the history of LGBTQ film.

Have your own private film festival with the rich and provocative LGBTQ films of 1991

River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho. (Fine Line)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

30 years ago in the mountains of Utah, one of the most pivotal moments in the history of LGBTQ storytelling was unfolding — we just didn't quite know what it was yet.

When Todd Haynes's Poison and Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning both premiered at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, one of queer cinema's most rich and provocative years was inaugurated. By the fall, Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, Isaac Julien's Young Soul Rebels and Derek Jarman's Edward II would all debut at festivals as well. And by the following year's Sundance, these films collectively led to the declaration of a full-fledged movie movement: New Queer Cinema.

The term "New Queer Cinema" was coined by film critic B. Ruby Rich in early 1992 when she was commenting on the LGBTQ films on the previous years's festival circuit. It referred to a growing group of films made by queer filmmakers, primarily from North America and the United Kingdom. In her 2013 book New Queer Cinema: The Director's Cut, Rich described NQC as "a kind of filmmaking characterized by a melding of style and subject in its moments of origin." 

"It was a style favouring pastiche and appropriation, influenced by art, activism, and such new entities as music videos (MTV had just started)," Rich writes. "It was an approach in search of new languages and mediums that could accommodate new materials, subjects, and modes of production. Emanating from a (mostly) new generation, the NQC embodied an evolution in thinking. It reinterpreted the link between the personal and the political envisioned by feminism, restaged the defiant activism pioneered at Stonewall, and recoded aesthetics to link the independent feature movement with the avant-garde and start afresh."

The films that came out of this are among the greatest queer films ever made, fearless and uncompromising in using the medium to challenge our perceptions of everything from gender and sexuality to family and society. And the movement gave us some of our greatest queer filmmakers: Van Sant, Jarman, Haynes, Julien, Lisa Cholodenko, Gregg Araki, Tom Kalin, Cheryl Dunye, and a mighty Canadian trio in John Greyson, Bruce LaBruce and Richard Fung. 

Paris is Burning. (Miramax)

So what exactly allowed New Queer Cinema to happen? Besides the emergence of "queer" as an inclusive term for LGBTQ experience and identity in late 1980s academia, Rich argues that it was spurred on by four things, all of which converged in the decade before: AIDS, Ronald Reagan, camcorders and cheap rent. Two parts outrage, two parts opportunity. And collectively they allowed a generation of queer artists the outlet they needed in the midst of a remarkably brutal chapter in LGBTQ history.

"The need was intense for work that could make sense of what was going on, take stock, and reformulate our imaginings, to grieve the dead, yes, but also to reinvigorate life and love and possibility," Rich writes. "For gay men, it was a matter of life or death, a question of mortality or immortality. For lesbians, it was a matter of empathy, a horror at what was happening to our/their gay brothers and outrage at society's response."

It's curious to consider New Queer Cinema as we slowly make our way to the other side of a time where COVID and Trumpism collided in such a horrific way. While we might not have cheap rent, smartphones are basically capable of shooting movies with Hollywood-level production value now, so perhaps there's another cinematic movement on the horizon. We might even already see some examples of it at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which begins (virtually, of course) tonight, and includes a panel on New Queer Cinema that is free to watch for anyone, anywhere on Saturday afternoon (one small bonus of festivals in a pandemic). The panel features Rich along with Julien, Araki, Dunye and Kalin, and it both looks back at the movement and "imagines forward." I'll include some thoughts on the panel and the many LGBTQ films at Sundance in next week's column, but first, I want to go back to 1991 for a minute and rundown the significance of these five revolutionary films.

Edward II

The late, great British filmmaker and artist Derek Jarman adapted Christopher Marlowe's 400-year-old play Edward II into his film most directly associated with New Queer Cinema. Revolving around the romantic and sexual relationship between King Edward II (Steven Waddington) and his rumoured lover Piers Galveston (Andrew Tiernan), the film blends medieval props and sets with contemporary ones, at one point depicting Edward's army as gay rights protestors wearing t-shirts with slogans like "queer as fuck" and at another having Annie Lennox show up to sing Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye." The film offered up postmodernism at its queerest and most innovative, and it also features a breathtaking early performance from Jarman's longtime collaborator Tilda Swinton as Edward's wife Queen Isabella. Sadly, Jarman would pass away of AIDS just three years later, but this is just one of the many queer masterpieces he left for us to marvel at.

You can watch Edward II for free with a library card on Kanopy or rent it on iTunes, Amazon or YouTube. 

My Own Private Idaho

Another unlikely adaptation, Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho is loosely based on Shakespeare's Henry IV and Henry V. Van Sant came up against various homophobic hurdles when trying to get the story of two street hustlers financed and cast. He figured Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix's agents would reject the script when he sent to them on a whim — but while this was true of Phoenix's agent (who didn't even show it to him), Reeves got the script. Not only was he interested, Reeves decided to personally deliver a copy to his friend Phoenix, driving his motorcycle from Canada to the Phoenix family home in Florida over the Christmas holidays.

This led to arguably the most high-profile cast in New Queer Cinema's history, and to magnetic performances from both actors (particularly from Phoenix, who was just 20 years old when the film was shot and who tragically would pass just three years later). Insightful, delicate and at times quite funny, the film won major prizes at the Toronto Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival and pretty much every critics' award group. It's considered one of New Queer Cinema's greatest landmarks, and it's not hard to see why.

You can rent My Own Private Idaho on iTunes, Amazon or YouTube. 

Paris is Burning

A wildly entertaining, endlessly quotable and occasionally devastating exploration of New York City's ball culture, few films have said as much about race, class, gender and sexuality in America than Jennie Livington's invaluable Paris is Burning. Filmed over several years in the late 1980s, Paris gives us a window into a community of largely Black and Latinx performers who created a scene that would become hugely influential in so much of what queer culture is even today. And they did this while battling through discrimination, poverty and the AIDS epidemic, and while watching as certain white celebrities appropriated their every move.

A deserved critical and financial hit at the time (though controversially snubbed at the Oscars), we can at least be grateful that this document exists for us to make required viewing for generations of queers to come.

You can stream Paris is Burning through The Criterion Channel or Crave, or rent it on on iTunes, Amazon or YouTube. 

Poison

Todd Haynes — who would go on to make Far From Heaven, Carol and last year's vastly underrated Dark Waters, among others — made his feature directorial debut with this trio of exceptionally transgressive narratives inspired by the work of gay writer Jean Genet. The three stories are interwoven thorough the film, each with a queer spin on a cinematic genre: sci-fi horror ("Horror"), documentary ("Hero") and prisoner drama ("Homo"). Deeply provocative even three decades later, Poison won a bunch of major awards (including the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance), launched Haynes's career and marked his first of many collaborations with a New Queer Cinema legend in her own right, Christine Vachon.

This certainly didn't come without controversy. Partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, it became the centre of a public attack from Reverend Donald Wildmon, head of the American Family Association. Wildmon rallied against "explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex," which the film didn't even have (he later admitted he'd never seen it). And then, when screenings were arranged in for members of Congress in D.C., one congressman's wife said she needed to "bathe in Clorox to cleanse herself." Given how much free publicity this got the film, they might as well have just put that on the poster.

You can watch Poison for free with a library card on Kanopy or rent it on iTunes. 

Young Soul Rebels

Set during the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977 London, filmmaker and installation artist Issac Julien's Young Soul Rebels reckons with themes unfortunately all-too-prevalent today: the unlawful criminalization of Black people, racism within the queer community and tensions between cultural movements. Following best friends Chris (Valentine Nonyela) and Caz (Mo Sesay), the film opens with their friend T.J. being murdered while cruising for gay sex in a park. The aftermath of the murder sends Chris and Caz in conflicting directions as the city celebrates the monarchy around them, ultimately offering a vivid portrait of a moment in history from perspectives far too often ignored.

Young Soul Rebels won the Critic's Prize at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, and continued to confirm Julien as a major force in queer art (if it leaves you wanting more, watch his previous film, 1989's Looking For Langston, which explores black Gay identity and desire during the Harlem Renaissance in New York).

Unfortunately, Young Soul Rebels is not legally available for streaming online unless you live in the U.K. You have to buy or rent a physical DVD!

Watch Rich, Julien and many other notable contributors to New Queer Cinema discuss the legacy of the movement at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival during a virtual panel on January 30th at 3pm ET. It's free and available for anyone to stream.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2020s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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