Top ten queer films -- a countdown in honor of Cinema Q
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender cinema is becoming the new norm, according to Denver Film Society programmer Matthew Campbell: Festivals such as Sundance now feature films about LGBT characters who are fully fleshed out and whose stories have less to do with their sexual identity, he points out. Marriage and participation in dominant culture are the themes of the day and the Denver Film Society's annual LGBT festival, Cinema Q, reflects that, Campbell says.
On the surface, this normalization of LGBT identity seems like a good thing, but critics like Michael Warner and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore have been clamoring for what some call an "anti-assimilationist" queer identity -- a cultural practice that resists the expectations of heterosexual culture.
From a film history perspective, as LGBT people blend into mainstream culture, some of the aesthetic characteristics of queer cinema are morphing into pedestrian, Hollywood drivel. Some might say the heyday of queer cinema has ended and the artistic challenges of filmmakers like Kenneth Anger, Su Friedrich, Derek Jarman, Yvonne Rainer and Isaac Julien have been replaced with bland romantic comedies about LGBT couples fitting in.
While equal rights agendas and assimilation appeal to many who want their monogamous relationships legitimized by the church and the state, those who hold onto the values of the sexual revolution, whose desires and practices challenge monogamy and who resist the social impulse to breed in a nuclear family structure often get thrown under the bus or erased entirely from mainstream LGBT advocacy and stories.
And in the process, what's happened to queer cinema -- movies that radically oppose mainstream culture and dominant heterosexuality; movies that challenge the limits of heterosexual monogamy; movies that attempt to revolutionize the aesthetics of cinema to make way for explosions of desire, the destruction of the gender binary and the celebration of unrestrained, ethical sexuality?
If Denver's annual LGBT festival, Cinema Q focuses on LGBT communities that are mainstreaming, what segments of the queer community are being erased in this politic representation? What histories are lost?
In celebration of seventy years of radically queer cinema, we've compiled a list of ten of the most important queer movies of all time. Of course, the practice of narrowing down such a rich history into ten films is something of an absurdity; the queer canon is broad. Nevertheless, here we go....
10) Scorpio Rising
A group of bikers polish their hogs, groom their hair, straighten the leather jackets barely concealing their taut torsos and enter into a death-defying evening of drinking and orgiastic delight. Filled with irreverent Nazi, pagan and Christian iconography and a soundtrack consisting of kitsch 1950s and early '60s rock and roll, Kenneth Anger uses his 1964 film Scorpio Rising to assault post-World War II, middle-class American sensibilities and to advance a decadent and deadly vision of gay sexuality.
9) Un Chant d'Amour
Most famous for his novels and plays, Jean Genet crossed the borders of social acceptability in more ways then one: He was a notorious thief, prisoner and openly gay public figure who aided the Black Panthers and Palestinian revolutionary movements alike. His only film, Un Chant d'Amour, is a bawdy story of prison lust, in which two inmates express love by blowing cigarette smoke through concrete jail walls and contend with a sexually predatory guard, only to lose themselves in a fantasy about frolicking in nature.
Keep reading for more of the top ten queer films.
8) The Watermelon Woman
Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman is a black, lesbian classic merging a documentary aesthetic with a fictional story in which she plays herself, an aspiring filmmaker who works at a video store and seeks out her African-American, lesbian predecessors in film history. As she sifts through VHS tapes, she discovers "the watermelon woman," a fictional actress she obsesses over. All of this historical revisionism takes place amidst her own personal conflicts as she enters into a relationship with a white woman, much to the chagrin of her friends.
7) Born in Flames
Lizzie Borden's 1983 lesbian separatist, sci-fi film, Born in Flames, tells the story -- very loosely -- of competing feminist groups fighting patriarchy in an alternative, socialist United States. The film deals with clashes in the feminist movement around issues of violence and nonviolence and the struggles between white feminists and women of color vying for leadership in their movements. It is an unabashed celebration of direct action and the complexities of political organizing.
6) Tongues Untied
Incorporating fiction, documentary and performance art, Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied is a radical look at black gay politics, gender and sexuality in the AIDS era. Politician Pat Buchanan lambasted the film, arguing that it was a demonstration of how the government was abusing taxpayers' dollars by funding pornography. In reality, this hybrid film is a candid look at the impact of racism, AIDS and the violence of mainstream homophobia.
5) Paris is BurningJennie Livingston's enthralling 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning, explores New York City's ball culture, where black and Latino drag queens battled it out in dance competitions. The film looks at the underbelly of New York's gay and transgender communities and issues of race, class, sexuality and AIDS. Shot over seven years, the film has been viewed as the swan song of the age of ball culture.
Keep reading for the last four top queer films.
British filmmaker Derek Jarman began his career as a painter and brought his rich visual style to theatrical, poetic productions. After being diagnosed with HIV, his last films became a series of elegies for his generation of dying, gay men. Toward the end of is life, he suffered from blindness as a result of AIDS=related complications and created his film Blue, a lyrical exploration of the color blue -- Yves Klein blue is the only image on the screen for the duration of the film -- and the process of dying.
3) Looking for Langston
In Looking for Langston, artist Isaac Julien looks at the history of the Harlem Renaissance from a queer perspective, shedding light on the often repressed gay identities of many of the prominent artists of the time. The soundtrack consists of Hughes' poetry and that of other poets including Julien's contemporary, Essex Hemphill, and uses a visually opulent style to chronicle the forgotten identities of early nineteenth-century black artists. Ultimately, the film champions the resistant nature of gay black history and blows up the silos that black and gay identities are often confined in.
John Cameron Mitchell's 2006 film Shortbus is a cornucopia of sexualities and gender identities that refuses to obey all expected binaries. The film is an orgy of sexual possibility and one vision of 21st-century queerness, where boundaries of sexual identity blur. It explores New York's queer scene and addresses heterosexuality as well, creating an vision of a blooming sexual utopia where all things are possible and orgasm and emotional resolution are realistic goals.
1) Damned if You Don't
Su Friedrich has a rich history of films about lesbian identity that merge documentary, experimental and narrative forms. Damned if You Don't is her exploration of lesbian desire amongst nuns. It intertwines the story of a young woman seducing a nun, an adaptation of the film Black Narcissus and a readings from Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.
The festival kicks off at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 24, with Appropriate Behavior (tickets are $15 for members, $20 for non-members) and will close on Sunday with a screening of Limited Partnership, about the country's first same-sex marriage, with filmmaker Thomas Miller and Cleta Rorex, the former Boulder County clerk who issued that license in the '70s, in attendance ($13 members, $15 non-members). Regular screenings run $11 to $13, and all are at the Sie, 2510 East Colfax Avenue; for more information, go to denverfilm.org or call 303-595-3456.
Follow me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris
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