Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Cinema


Gay and lesbian concerns and characters often found more varied (and less pejorative) representations outside the Hollywood industry, in foreign, experimental, and documentary filmmaking. One of the first films ever to feature homosexual love as its theme was the Swedish film Vingarne ( Wings , 1916), directed by Mauritz Stiller (1823–1928; who was himself homosexual). Carl Theodor Dreyer's Mikaël (1924), filmed in Germany a few years later, was drawn from the same source novel. In fact, Weimar Germany was home to gay directors like F. W. Murnau (1888–1931) ( Nosferatu , 1922) and produced the first film to make a plea for homosexual rights and freedoms. Anders als die Anderen ( Different from the Others , 1919) was made in conjunction with early sexologist and gay rights pioneer Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1934). A few years later G. W. Pabst's famous film Pandora's Box (1929) featured a lesbian subplot. Perhaps the most well-known German film of this era to deal with homosexuality was Madchen in Uniform (1931), a film about a schoolgirl's crush on her teacher. It should be noted that if and when these films played in America, they were often censored in ways that elided their homosexual content.

French avant-garde filmmaking also offered an alternative to Hollywood form and content. Poet and playwright Jean Cocteau's (1889–1963) film Le sang d'un poète ( Blood of a Poet , 1930) explored homoerotic themes, and Jean Genet's (1910–1986) Un chant d'amour ( Song of Love , 1950) centered on the homoerotic bonds between men in prison. One of the first American avant-garde films to deal with homosexuality was James Watson (1894–1982) and Melville Webber's (1871–1947) Lot in Sodom (1933). In the postwar era, Kenneth Anger's (b. 1927) Fireworks (1947), a surreal psychodrama about a young man's homosexual desires, both scandalized and inspired a new generation of filmmakers. Although Anger lived abroad for most of the 1950s, he returned to America to make his most famous film, Scorpio Rising (1964), a film that combines found footage, contemporary pop songs, and a host of other cultural artifacts to examine the homoerotic cult of the motorcyclist. Also making queer avant-garde films in the 1960s were Jack Smith (1932–1989) and Andy Warhol (1928–1987), two artists who were associated with the New York underground film scene. Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures (1963) featured characters (slave girls, vampires, Roman guards, etc.) and overly dramatic music drawn from exotic Hollywood melodramas. Andy Warhol's films (including Haircut , 1963; Couch , 1964; and Lonesome Cowboys , 1967) also parodied Hollywood style and conventions; his actors (many of whom were drag queens) called themselves "superstars" and behaved as if they were Hollywood royalty.

In the 1970s, prolific lesbian feminist filmmaker Barbara Hammer (b. 1930) began to make short experimental films. Her early work, made in and around San Francisco, captures the feel and spirit of the 1970s lesbian feminist community as it was then defining itself. Other lesbian feminists of the 1970s, including Greta Schiller (b. 1954) ( Greta's Girls , 1978) and Jan Oxenberg ( Home Movie , 1973), made films that documented the movement, and more recent experimental work by Su Friedrich (b. 1954), Michelle Citron, Michelle Parkerson (b. 1953), and Sadie Benning (b. 1973) forge important links to the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s.

The burgeoning gay and lesbian civil rights movement of the 1970s and 1980s was not confined to America: many western European nations and Canada also began to produce films that acknowledged or reflected the movement. In Germany, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1946–1982) directed over forty films about race, class, and (homo)sexuality, while Rosa von Praunheim (b. 1942) and Ulrike Ottinger (b. 1942) made even more surreal excursions into the politics and pleasures of homosexuality. In England, Derek Jarman (1942–1994) made a series of highly stylized films ( Sebastiane , 1976; Jubilee , 1977) that critiqued sexual repression and the British Empire. In Spain, Pedro Almodóvar (b. 1949) became one of the world's best known queer filmmakers, repeatedly winning international film prizes for his films. In Canada, John Greyson (b. 1960) made a series of short films and then features ( Moscow Does Not Believe in Queers , 1986; Pissoir [ Urinal , 1988]) that dealt with homophobia and the AIDS crisis. While a few foreign films dealing with homosexuality (including La cage aux folles [ Birds of a Feather ], 1978; and Kiss of the Spider Woman , 1985) became art-house hits in America during this era, many of the more queerly provocative works made abroad remained very difficult to see.

Starting in the 1970s, documentaries made by and about gay and lesbian people began to be produced. One of the first and most important of these, Word Is Out (1978), was made by a collective of gay and lesbian filmmakers, and told the stories of a cross-section of queer Americans. (The film remains a fascinating time capsule of 1970s culture and the nascent gay liberation movement.) Since then, gay and lesbian documentaries have brought to light stories and issues that mainstream media routinely ignores. Some of these films, such as Before Stonewall (1985) and Silent Pioneers (1985), documented forgotten aspects of gay and lesbian history. The Oscar ® -winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) chronicled the rise to power of the first openly gay city supervisor, as well as his eventual assassination by an unhinged right-wing politician. Other documentaries, such as Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989) and Silverlake Life (1993), explored the AIDS crisis, and activist video collectives made pieces that helped spur education and organization. Marlon Riggs's (1957–1994) personal video documentary Tongues Untied (1989) remains the definitive statement on what it was like to be a black gay man in the 1980s. Countless other documentaries, such as One Nation under God (1993), Ballot Measure 9 (1995), and It's Elementary (1996) continue to explore gay and lesbian lives and issues.

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