Frameline celebrates 20 years of "New Queer Cinema" — and beyond
FRAMELINE It was Blue (1993) and Swoon (1992) and Frisk (1995), or My Own Private Idaho (1991) and The Hours and Times (1991). Paris Is Burning (1990). The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995).
It probably depended a little on who you were and what you'd seen lately that made you feel grateful to be coinciding with this point on the timeline of queer cinema. For me, it was Lilies (1996) and Go Fish (1997), and All Over Me (1997) and Beautiful Thing (1996), and every other gay teen romance, and any totally f***ed up thing Gregg Araki chose to put onscreen (including 1995's Doom Generation, billed as "a heterosexual film by Gregg Araki," which made straight look like a fairly provisional state of being). It was kind of like irony or porn — I couldn't exactly define it, but I was pretty sure I knew it when I saw it while bingeing, mid–gay adolescence, on whatever the 1990s had to offer in the way of LGBT experience on film. "It" being this thing called New Queer Cinema, a term that film critic and scholar (and past Guardian contributor) B. Ruby Rich had coined in a 1992 essay in the British film journal Sight & Sound.
Rich, these days teaching in UC Santa Cruz's Film and Digital Media Department, offered up the idea of New Queer Cinema as a way to frame a ragged-edged genre that she saw emerging. Populating it were films that told unfamiliar, upsetting, outrageous, and sometimes deeply lyrical stories of queer experience, forcing a more complicated picture onto the screen. As many of them gained a cultural foothold (seldom reaching deep into the mainstream, but drawing respectable numbers of art-house-goers), they made a space around themselves for more such films to follow their unsettling examples.
Over the next decade and beyond, the genre, and the larger, disparate queer culture, welcomed a world of untold stories; films like My Own Private Idaho and later Velvet Goldmine (1998) and Boys Don't Cry (1999) entered the popular culture by way of some combination of star and story power; and one morning we woke up to the sight of significant swaths of the country heading to the multiplex to watch a swoony, gloomy tale of two cowboys in love.
Now, somehow, Brokeback Mountain (2005) is starting to seem like a long time ago, and you could say that New Queer Cinema has both evolved and devolved, a fact reflected in the rom-com-packed LGBT section of your friendly neighborhood video store as well as in each passing year's Frameline festival catalog. This year, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival offers the opportunity to compare and contrast, casting its eyes back on the genre 20 years after Rich pronounced its existence and sketched its parameters.
In addition to presenting Rich with its annual Frameline Award, the fest has programmed a retrospective of four films that offer a sense of New Queer Cinema's expansive scope and permeable borders: Alex Sichel's dark-and-light, riot grrrl music–infused All Over Me (costarring a baby-faced Leisha Hailey from The L Word); Ana Kokkinos's Head On (1998), about a reckless but closeted young man living in a tight-knit Greek Australian community; Gregg Araki's violent, trashily romantic, HIV-inflected road movie The Living End (1992); and Cheryl Dunye's experimental mix of documentary and dyke drama The Watermelon Woman (1996). (In 2012's Mommy Is Coming, also screening, Dunye adds to the mix Berlin sex clubs, explicit taxicab-backseat role play, and a parent-child dynamic likely to leave you flinching in horror.)