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Queer Cinema: Out of the celluloid closet

Explore the history and practice of queer cinema through this new short essay and the linked free-to-view content below.

Histories of gay and lesbian representation

Still from The Haunting
Actors Julie Harris (R) and Claire Bloom in The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise, 1963. (Photo by MGM/Courtesy of Getty Images)

Gay and lesbian representation has been a feature of cinema ever since its inception, but before homosexuality was legalised in some countries, filmmakers found other ways to signal gay characters and queer desire. In this chapter on representations of gay men in early German and Swedish cinema, Shane Brown traces how directors including Dreyer and Stiller used sympathetic gay characters to argue against laws that criminalised homosexuality. In classical Hollywood cinema, forbidden sexualities were often implicit, and queer desire displaced into manifestations of the monstrous or the supernatural. In Patricia White’s study of Robert Wise’s 1963 horror classic The Haunting, she explores the representation of lesbian desire and its implications for the lesbian spectator. In more recent times, despite changing attitudes and liberalising legislation, homophobia and transphobia have continued to impact the lives of gay and trans people. This is powerfully shown in Ang Lee’s 2005 Brokeback Mountain and Kimberley Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry of 1999, a fictionalisation of the short life of the trans man Brandon Lewis, discussed by Rona Murray in this chapter from Studying American Independent Cinema.

Documenting Queer Lives

Still from Paris is Burning
Paris is Burning, 1990 (© Off White Productions/ Courtesy Everett Collection / Mary Evans)

Empowered by the arrival of cheaper and portable video cameras, filmmakers, often working within radical or experimental film networks, began from the early 1970s to document gay and lesbian lives and key moments in gay and lesbian history. In this chapter from A New History of Documentary Film, Betsy A. McClane describes a history of queer documentary from Word is Out: Some Stories of Our Lives (1977) by the Mariposa Film Collective to Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) about the gay San Francisco politician murdered by a homophobic colleague, and 1989’s Common Threads; Stories from the Quilt by Bill Couturié, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, about the AIDS crisis.

In the BFI Screen Guide 100 Documentary Films, Barry Keith Grant discusses two films of 1990 that portray Black and Latinx queer subcultures and sexualities. Grant explores Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied in this chapter, which celebrates Black gay culture at the same time as it acknowledges the impact of racism, homophobia and the AIDS crisis, and Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning in this chapter which chronicles New York City’s performative ball subculture and the street life of its Black and Latinx gay male and transgender communities.

A New Queer Cinema

Still from She Must Be Seeing Things
She Must Be Seeing Things Lois Weaver, Sheila Dabney (Image courtesy SHEIULA MCLAUGHLIN / Ronald Grant Archive / Mary Evans)

The 1990s saw the development of a new movement of gay and lesbian filmmakers, heralded by the film critic B. Ruby Rich as ‘the New Queer Cinema’. This article by Jackie Stacey in The Cinema Book explains that the ‘New Queer Cinema’ was defined by a deconstructive cinematic style, a fierce and vocal political protest and a focus on the dark ‘underbelly’ of sexual desire. Films such as She Must Be Seeing Things (Sheila McLaughlin, 1987) and Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992) examined questions of violence, jealousy, power imbalances, possessiveness and betrayal within gay and lesbian relationships. In this chapter from International Film Festivals, Ragan Rhyne examines the importance of lesbian and gay film festivals for the New Queer Cinema movement, providing a space for queer filmmakers to exhibit and gain wider distribution for their work, as well as an opportunity for gay and lesbian audiences to see consciously ‘queer’ movies.

Filmmakers in their own words

Still from Young Soul Rebels
Young Soul Rebels Jason Burr, Valentine Nonyela (Image courtesy SANKOFA FILM & VIDEO SANKOFA FILM & VIDEO / Ronald Grant Archive / Mary Evans)

In this article from the film journal Projections, two leading lights of Queer cinema, the British director Derek Jarman and the American Gus Van Sant, discuss their movies including The Last of England, Edward II, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho in relation to gay sexuality and politics. In this interview with the film writer Geoffrey Macnab, Isaac Julien, another artist-filmmaker who came to prominence in the 1990s, describes how his filmmaking practice has been informed by his experience as a Black British gay artist.

Homepage banner image: Young Soul Rebels Jason Burr, Valentine Nonyela (Image courtesy SANKOFA FILM & VIDEO SANKOFA FILM & VIDEO / Ronald Grant Archive / Mary Evans)

Visit our Previously Featured Content page to view other topics including Horror Cinema Filmmaking, Citizen Kane, World Cinema, Cinema of Japan, Peter Wollen, Thomas Elsaesser, Film Festivals and The Work of Stanley Kubrick.