Return of the
New Queer Cinema
Critic B. Ruby Rich revisits four films from the 1990s
by David Lamble
Frameline 36, coming up June 14-24, honors the critic who first dubbed 1990s in-your-face outlaw LGBT films "the New Queer Cinema." B. Ruby Rich, this year's Frameline Award honoree, picked four for the film festival that still sting.
(Photo: Sheila McLaughlin)
Head On In the opening frames of Australian lesbian director Ana Kokkinos' sadly neglected exploration of the land Down Under's vibrant but largely misunderstood Greek community, 19-year-old Ari (the ruggedly masculine, straight-identified actor Alex Dimitriades) appears tightly bound to his family's wheel of life. Ari spins out of this family bosom into an underground world of drugs. We see Ari jacking off to the sights and smells of toilet sex, as if he could literally ejaculate himself from the head of his penis into a 24/7 world of total freedom.
Kokkinos detonates cutesy stereotypes about the fun-loving Aussie culture by showing the dark underside of racism and immigrant-bashing, as well as the ethnic self-loathing that's papered over in hits like Strictly Ballroom. (Roxie, 6/15, 5 p.m.)
The Living End This year, Gregg Araki's fable of two lovers on a killing spree turns 20. The poster has a thuggishly cute, straight-acting boy holding a queer-acting, bottom-inclined film critic at gunpoint.
Shot in 1990 on a dimestore budget raised by a loan from the producer's grandma, released in 1992 (three years before the miracle cocktails, and as a wave of long-term survivors was dying) to huge single-screen grosses in New York and here at the Castro, and generating heated debates in cafes and queer studies classes, this weirdly funny, terminally bratty romp has been significantly neglected in the wake of Araki's more imposing masterwork, Mysterious Skin.
It helps the film's mystique that the two leads have all but vanished – hence they remain forever frozen as these characters. Craig Gilmore has the tricky job of making his sarcastic, weary-before-his-time critic "savaging other people's art at 25 cents a word" sympathetic as he spins trancelike through his HIV "death sentence." (His doctor is played by the late queer-cinema genius Mark Finch.)
Mike Dytri is a punk terrorist (stolen from the John Waters playbook) who "kidnaps" Jon into a crime binge that is as politically constructed as the hetero lovers-on-the-lam were for Godard's 1965 assault on the senses Pierrot le Fou. (Castro, 6/22, 11 a.m.)
All Over Me In this haunting lesbian coming-of-age movie from the Sichel sisters (director Alex, writer Sylvia), smartly set against New York's 1990s "riot grrl" alternative rock scene, a young dyke breaks down crying. Claude (Alison Folland) is 15, and coming from a world where a girl needs a guitar every bit as much as a main squeeze. Suddenly, she hears the anthem of her soul: Patti Smith's "Pissing in a River." Claude realizes all she's about to lose at childhood's end.
Set in Hell's Kitchen, All Over Me recalls the special bittersweet moments of adolescence when a teen discovers that her best friend is becoming a stranger. Ellen (Tara Subkoff) is a user, and smart enough to tease Claude in bed. Ellen's real passion is for drugs and bad boys – Cole Hauser plays a working-class tough who thinks he's top dog in this hood until he confronts Luke, an in-your-face, anarchist gay punk-rocker brazenly created by Psychotica frontman Pat Briggs. (Castro, 6/20, 11 a.m.)
I knew I was going to love my phone chat with B. Ruby Rich when my eye happened to fall on the paragraph in her witty account of life as a pioneering feminist critic, Chick Flicks, in which she describes a scarring close encounter with Hitchcock remarkably similar to my own.
"I was in the seventh grade in 1960 when I walked with a classmate, unwarned and unaccompanied, to see Psycho. We spent much of the movie with our coats over our heads. I didn't take a shower for the next eight years, [initiating] my lifelong affection for baths and aversion to horror movies. Cinema was never the same after Psycho, but, girl-child on the verge of puberty, neither was I."
Swapping adolescent war stories – hers from a barely lower-middle-class Boston clan, "Jews without books" – we recalled the now 20-year-old magical moment when she slapped the tag "New Queer Cinema" on the rambunctious "outlaw" films showing up at hip festivals from Sundance to Toronto and Amsterdam. My questions about the quartet of gems she's showing this year led her to a feisty discourse on her favorite: African American writer/director/actor Cheryl Dunye's "fake" docu-drama about a little-known black Hollywood actress from the 1930s.
The Watermelon Woman "Apart from The Living End, from 1992, the rest of my picks are a little later, because I really wanted to prioritize some of the films by women, and they weren't there at the beginning. It took them a little while longer to have anybody give money to make them.
"The Watermelon Woman remains one of the great films of that era. In fact, I'm delighted because I got Zoe Leonard's permission to use one of her fake portraits of Faye Richards, the imaginary actress that Cheryl Dunye conjured up. Actually, I missed my big chance: she wanted me to play a professor who talks about watermelon and the watermelon woman, and I couldn't do it because my father was dying at the time. So she had to settle for Camille Paglia.
"I used to say that for gay men, these historical reclamations really demanded a kind of archeology, but lesbians couldn't use archeology, they had to have alchemy, because there was nothing to be dug up. And that's the point that The Watermelon Woman makes: that in order to find this mythical past she literally had to invent it, because it did not exist." (Roxie, 6/15, 9:15 p.m.)
David Lamble: I remember when The Living End opened at the Castro. I think it did about $85,000 over a weekend, and I thought, "This [New Queer Cinema] can put butts in seats, which for the directors trying to make these films is pretty damn important!"
B. Ruby Rich: To this day, Gregg Araki says the New Queer Cinema created this opening in the theatres for his career. I think that's why the term stuck, frankly. I'd like to think it's because I had such a brilliant idea, or I wrote so well, but really it became an instantly effective marketing tag. I used to joke that the only people who were angrier with me than the people left out of the article were the people included in the article.
Just like the gay writers in the 1980s who didn't merely want to be in the "queer" section or the queer bookstore.
It happens to anybody who's part of a group that hasn't previously been allowed in.
You have a book coming out early next year.
It's The New Queer Cinema: The Director's Cut. The title's kind of a joke, but it's going to be my version of what I think is memorable about what I've written. Half the book is new writing.