The day the new queer cinema said: Let’s do it
On January 25, 1992, the Sundance Film Festival convened a panel on contemporary gay and lesbian cinema and “the importance of this movement”, according to the program. It was a bold statement that drew nine speakers to a podium at noon, though they were likely hungover from the big party the night before, where Brad Pitt showed up.
Sharing a name with a Jesus and Mary Chain album, the Barbed-Wire Kisses panel was a turning point for queer film. Not just because of the idiosyncrasies of identity and militant cinema it covered – there was talk of “having to rethink history on our terms”, as director Todd Haynes said during the discussion, and debate on the protests over transgender portrayal in “The Silence of the Lambs.”
What happened that day was a flashpoint in the genesis of New Queer Cinema, a call to arms of angry and shameless independent films that were made in the 90s by, and arguably for, a community in crisis.
“It was a high-octane moment,” said Tom Kalin, filmmaker and one of the speakers. “The rest of the year confirmed what happened on this panel.”
“People paused to catch their breath,” said film critic B. Ruby Rich, who moderated and helped organize the panel, which lasted nearly two and a half hours.
The legacy of that Saturday afternoon is revisited this year as New Queer Cinema turns 30, and it will be a raucous throwback. The new queer cinema threw punches, and it’s no wonder – the mostly white gay men who made the first wave of films were terrorized and exhausted by the first murderous decade of AIDS, and they were fed up with what they saw as the crushing conservative politics of the Reagan-Bush era.
“The ’80s were so brutal – the work didn’t get done because people were dying too fast,” said Rich, now editor of Film Quarterly magazine and author of “New Queer Cinema,” a collection of his writings. “That’s when these movies started, to try to start making sense of what was going on.”
Three directors on the panel were at Sundance with feature films that became the foundations of New Queer Cinema: Derek Jarman (“Edward II”), Isaac Julien (“Young Soul Rebels”) and Kalin (“Swoon”). There was also Todd Haynes, whose dark queer film “Poison” received the Grand Jury Prize for Drama Film at Sundance the previous year. Another beacon of New Queer Cinema, Jennie Livingston’s “Paris Is Burning,” shared the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary the same year with Barbara Kopple’s “American Dream.”
Next to Haynes in a backwards baseball cap sat 18-year-old Sadie Benning, known for shooting short intimate strips on a Fisher-Price camera. Stephen Cummins and Simon Hunt, from Australia, directed “Resonance”, a homoerotic experimental short film. Rounding out the panel were Lisa Kennedy, then Village Voice’s film section editor, and Rich, who wrote about new films after the festival, and is credited with naming New Queer Cinema.
Julien said he remembers the panel as “the beginning of a movement and a change”.
“There was a push against genre and boundaries, and against what were seen as more mainstream ways of making film – a disruption,” he said. “It came with anger and urgency about how the movies could reflect our lives in ways that expressed our concerns.”
The New Queer Cinema didn’t shoot the heart, it kicked the crotch. His AIDS-themed movies in particular — they were the storm after the calm of early life-affirming movies that mourned young dead like “Longtime Companion,” which in 1989 politely asked straight people to be careful. Three years later, Gregg Araki’s “The Living End” warned everyone to take shelter.
It’s not like gay-themed movies weren’t being made back then. It’s just that the simpler ones that got attention – box office hits like “The Crying Game” and “Basic Instinct” – were part of a media landscape that was, as Benning said on the panel, “responsible for the kind of pain I felt by not representing my identity at all.
Haynes said what set New Queer Cinema apart was that its films were “acts of protest and rebellion.”
“What’s most surprising, especially in today’s culture around identity politics, is how the movies that we were all doing, independently, were incendiary,” said Haynes, an Oscar nominee whose career Hollywood remained queer in films like “Far From Heaven” and “Carole.” “There was a spirit of defiance of normalcy and heteronormativity and identification with criminality.”
In its embrace of queer bad behavior — “Swoon,” for example, was a gay riff on the Leopold and Loeb murder case — New Queer Cinema owed debts to its renegade ancestors like John Waters and Kenneth Anger. Formally, he walked in the footsteps of scrappy queer films made in the 80s: “Born in Flames” by Lizzie Borden, “Mala Noche” by Gus Van Sant, “Tongues Untied” by Marlon Riggs.
As a movement, New Queer Cinema took off in the glow of the 1992 panel, and for about the next decade it traversed the right-wing dominated indie scene with brash, sexually rebellious and believe it or not films. no. from directors Todd Verow (“Frisk”), Rose Troche (“Go Fish”), Bruce LaBruce (“Hustler White”), Maria Maggenti (“The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love”) and others.
Last year, one of the cornerstones of new queer cinema – Cheryl Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman” – was chosen for preservation in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. This year, it is one of 33 titles in “Pioneers of Queer Cinema,” a retrospective set to open February 18 at the Billy Wilder Theater in UCLA Film and Television Archive in Los Angeles. May Hong HaDuong, director of the archives, said plans were underway for the films — “queer legacies,” she called them — to travel to other cities.
Dunye said the move has legs, but its promise remains a work in progress.
“People on the margins who are still invisible – trans and queer people of color, or people who are on continents who have no rights – these are the stories we are still building a world for,” he said. she declared.
Queer film continued to take root at Sundance in the decades after the panel, and never left. Among this year’s selections is Chase Joynt’s “Framing Agnes,” a docu-drama about a transgender woman who participated in gender health research in the 1960s. (The festival runs through Jan. 30 in as an all-virtual event after organizers dropped plans for a hybrid of online and in-person programming.)
Joynt said he was inspired by the “urgency and challenge” of New Queer Cinema, even though transgender voices were mostly absent from his canonical films. He paid tribute to one of his mentors, director John Greyson, whose “Zero Patience” and “Lilies” are among the founding Canadian films of the movement.
“As a trans person making an experimental documentary, I recognize myself in the films” of New Queer Cinema, Joynt said. “These were stories that needed to be made by these people.”
As the 21st century arrived and LGBTQ lives weren’t under attack by AIDS or Congress like they were in the 90s, New Queer Cinema’s outrage and immediacy waned.
“In many ways, it pushed the medium forward,” Haynes said. “It turned into – and I saw it coming – a Rupert Everett-izing that helped calm and relax the country so it didn’t feel threatened.”
Fast forward to “Love, Simon” and “Call Me by Your Name” — mainstream cinematic worlds that are a far cry from that queer Sundance Jan. 30 ago.
Any commemoration of the Barbed-Wire Kisses panel will be absent by two votes. Jarman died of complications from AIDS in 1994, aged 52. Cummins also died that year, of HIV-related lymphoma, at age 34. Hunt, who worked with him, said the shadow of AIDS makes 1992 a bittersweet time capsule to reconsider.
“A lot of us had friends who were dying and sick and we thought, maybe we don’t have time to leave our mark on the world,” he said. “These people, who were all around 30, were trying to raise their voices and throw away the old rules.”
Kennedy, a freelance culture writer (whose work also appears in The New York Times), said his brother Kevin died of AIDS at age 29, just two months before the panel. She remembers feeling “completely destroyed”, but also encouraged as she sat next to filmmakers who were making their way to visibility.
“For me, there’s this sentimentality around him,” she said of New Queer Cinema. “He had some nice spins that continue today.”
Benning, a multidisciplinary artist, declined several interview requests through Mitchell-Innes & Nash, a New York gallery that exhibits their work. Benning, who uses the pronouns they/them, identifies as transgender and non-binary, according to a biography from the Museum of Modern Art, which has several of their works in its collection.
The panelists never stopped making art. Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground” is on this year’s Oscar shortlist for documentary feature. Julien has a new film installation at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte, NC Hunt is an artist and composer in Sydney.
Kalin is a writer, activist and videographer, and teaches filmmaking at Columbia. He said his memories from 1992 aren’t the only ones that still matter.
“I made a movie 30 years ago that people are still discussing,” he said. “I’m honored that this is the case.”
Where to watch new queer cinema
“Sundance Class of ’92: The Year Indie Exploded,” a new collection on Criterion Channel, includes several New Queer Cinema titles that screened at Sundance that year, including “The Living End” and “Swoon.” There are clips from the Barbed-Wire Kisses panel in a short documentary made as an introduction to the series.