If I see one more 17-year-old white boy come out of the closet…
— Billy Porter
Billy Porter’s estimation of the pervasive whiteness of “queer cinema” is, unfortunately, accurate. According to Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema, the few exceptional films focused on queers of color — like Punks (2000), The Watermelon Woman (1996), and Saving Face (2004) — only make this whiteness all the more glaring. If we add to this the class privilege and maleness of most queer characters, one might think there’s not that much difference between queer and mainstream cinemas. Though these “marginal” films offer brief homoeroticism and, more regularly, tragic circumstances (AIDS, intolerance), too often, queer cinema leaves dominant power structures unchallenged.
Fabulous! might have been more accurately titled, “Assimilate! The Mainstream Commercial Success of Gay and Lesbian Cinema.” Fabulous!‘s claim to tell the story of “Queer Cinema” is a bit disingenuous, or at the very least severely misinformed. What B. Ruby Rich dubbed the “New Queer Cinema” in 1991 came out of a specific cluster of historical conditions. Arising from the gay liberation movements of the 1970s, the AIDS pandemic, and the emergence of an often quite militant queer activism, a new generation of self-identified queers began making confrontational independent films that demanded social recognition and challenged dominant presumptions about queerness in all its varieties.
But Fabulous! glosses over this independent film movement while focusing on what it suggests is the primary gain of “queer cinema,” commercial viability. The height of queer cinema for Fabulous! is 1991, the year that Todd Haynes’ Poison and Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning won Grand Jury Prizes as the Sundance Film Festival. Despite and because of cultural controversy over both films, their Sundance success signaled to Hollywood the viability of movies with queer subjects.
“Independent” studios quickly cottoned to the fact that films with low production and marketing budgets could hold their own in competition for screen time and return disproportionately high profits. And so a slew of formulaic, gay-white boy romances began to litter movie screens large and small, like Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss (1998), Trick (1998), and Edge of Seventeen (1998). These films are hardly “queer,” politically or aesthetically, yet they are the focus for Fabulous!
The DVD extras for Fabulous! suggest what’s been left out. A series of short featurettes culled from the filmmakers’ interviews with GLBTQ actors and directors are organized topically. So you have, on “First Gay Movie Memories,” John Waters waxing on about the queerness of Elvis Presley and rockabilly flicks of the ’50s, Nina Landey talking about how many times she watched Mädchen in Uniform (1931), and Heather Matarazzo recalling how she would scour the racks of Blockbuster looking for any video cover with even a suggestion of queer content. In the “Sex” featurette, various queer movie folk talk about their favorite sex scenes, which for Margo Gomez is the scene with River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, and Udo Kier in My Own Private Idaho (1991), because, as she quips, “Lesbians love boy on boy action.”
What these reminiscences point to are the creative and often subversive reading practices of GLBTQ individuals in times and places where representations of queer desires and identity were hardly as “acceptable” and much less common or overt as the sanitized images we have today.
In these moments and occasionally in the film proper, Fabulous! notes the subversive potential of queer filmmaking. Early on, it recounts Kenneth Anger’s underground aesthetics, the confrontational politics of John Waters, and the avant-garde of Chantal Ackerman. The film recognizes the activism of ’70s documentaries like Word is Out (1978) and more recent contributions to the genre, like Silverlake Life: The View from Here (1993) and Family Fundamentals (2002). And Fabulous! acknowledges the direct challenges to dominant perspectives (queer and straight alike) that New Queer Cinema at its best posed, in films like Gregg Araki’s The Living End (1992), Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992), and The Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye.
Even though Fabulous!‘s final chapter, almost inevitably, holds up the success of Ang Lee’s overly sentimentalizing Brokeback Mountain (2005) as testament to how far “queer cinema” has come, it also complicates its own political quietude by considering, alongside Lee’s film, Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (2003). Caouette’s narrative “auto-biography” of his own queer childhood and experiences growing up with a mentally disabled mother raises as many questions about queerness, identity, and mental disability as it potentially answers. It’s unsettling, intellectually challenging, and politically pointed. Tarnation also marks the possibility of the emergence of a New New Queer Cinema.
This potential is available to the current generation of queer filmmakers, if only, like Caouette, they seize it. Waters expresses his hope for the revitalization of an insubordinate queer cinema: “I want young gay filmmakers to surprise me… to change things and to cause trouble. To come up with a new idea that offends the generation that has come right before them.” Amen. Queers don’t need more Brokeback Mountains, we need more Tarnations.