15 December 2013

Feature - A New Wave in New Queer Cinema

Spurred on by the AIDS crisis, the social exclusion of homosexual men during the 1980s induced fear and anger from both sides of the gender boundaries. Wanting to break away from various pithy representations at the start of a new decade, UK and US based gay filmmakers such as Gregg Araki (The Living End), Todd Haynes (Poison) and the late Derek Jarman (Blue) sought to create films which were expressionistic and upfront in their frustration towards heteronormative boundaries and relationships. They represented a new way of belonging within a gay community, a stronger acceptance of a grounded identity where there was pride in being different. Knowing these films were completely unlike anything else, film critic B Ruby Rich classed this wave of filmmaking as ‘New Queer Cinema’ in a 1992 issue of Sight & Sound. Yet, as the 90s continued and breakthroughs with AIDS treatments progressed, homosexual identities became more politically recognised and accepted. As a result, the central gay character grew to be more present within mainstream (Philadelphia) and populist Indie (Beautiful Thing) film throughout the decade. Following the standard template of having an identity problem with being gay or living with AIDS, these forms of conflict seemed the only way of making a story interesting or crucial in forcing a statement.

However, by the end of the 90s, the activist force of ‘New Queer Cinema’ seemed to fizzle out as gay equality within Western society became stronger and more widely accepted than ever before. As a result, the representation of the triumphantly well adjusted homosexual man took over most narratives. In Hollywood, popular centralised gay storylines (Brokeback Mountain, Milk) still centred on weepy ideals, set within a certain time period, where central characters were martyrs to highlight just how significantly times had changed. As for the some of the original ‘New Queer Cinema’ filmmakers, after having said everything they needed to, they moved on to different styles and forms of storytelling, either within mainstream or independent productions. Since the popularity behind the politics resulted in a move into the ordinary, many of the early gay activists and filmmakers – who thrived in their difference from the hetero norms – would argue that the war for recognition, acceptance and equality is over. However, the lack of fluidity within the structure of gay narratives still created dissatisfaction with a few younger directors. Rather than portray the direct anxiety that can be faced with homosexuality or have gay characters completely represent the community, directors Andrew Haigh, Travis Mathews and Ira Sachs have created stories where this identity is a mere factor towards a more universal story. In their films, characters are already well adjusted with their identity. They lead a standard suburban life where the issues of death or coming out are not important. Most importantly, they do not fall into a perception of a gay community. Although these characters may struggle with issues of their identity, they are subtlety handled by these filmmakers, making their connection with other characters or their community resonate. It is a sudden and unique shift within ‘Queer Cinema’, but also a welcome one.

Haigh’s Weekend, released in 2011, proved to be a surprise hit for the filmmaker. The small production, detailing a brief - yet passionate - weekend between two very different personalities, earned consistent critical praise and box-office success (earning the second highest screen average on its opening week in the UK, behind Speilberg’s TinTin). Similarly, Matthew’s acclaimed 2013 film, I Want Your Love, charts the various sexual encounters of a local mid-twenties San Francisco hipster within his social circle of friends. Finally, Sach’s Keep the Lights On, follows a relationship set over a decade, from its amusingly awkward beginnings through to its tribulations with addiction. Although these stories may be different, the characters within them reveal various personalities and situations which are relatable to both homosexual and heterosexual audiences. With dialogue and performances that feel improvised and stylised hand-held cinematography, the naturalistic qualities of these works present how social boundaries within more everyday settings have been abolished. Rather than smack various issues over the viewer, these films treat their audiences with respect in regards to their intelligence and own experiences. Speaking exclusively to Mathews, he says ‘I don’t want to take someone’s hand and say ‘‘we are about to go somewhere gay and this is what you need to understand.’’ It is what it is.’

The existence of this new wave of film came from frustration. Before these filmmakers, there was merely a desire of wish fulfilment in seeing fully adjusted, happy, gay men within the media. For Haigh, films and television displayed a sense of contemporary gay life which he himself knew nothing about. However, Sachs was confused at why the subject of troublesome long-term relationships was never an issue, after experiencing one himself. Such was the popularity and importance of ‘positive’ representations within the media that Mathews believes that he and his peers are making progress in depicting the lives of gay men; ‘Not all of us are living perfectly well adjusted lives and I personally don’t want to shy away from something that could be seen as a bad portrayal. We can be just as flawed and interesting as the next guy and we [Mathews, Haigh and Sachs] want to show that.’

In showing the honesty and flaws within their characters’ lifestyle, each filmmaker relies on addressing the thorny issue of sex. Previously, the depiction of gay sex usually proved unjustified or a crass ‘will-they-won’t-they’ plot device. It provided cheap thrills or was thrown in for the sake or liberation of being able to show it. Yet, for these filmmakers, sex is integral in showing the normality within the everyday of a developing relationship. Unfortunately, this is an area which immediately classifies a direct demographic within these universal storylines. Unlike the works of Lars Von Trier and Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), who approach the topic of sex within heterosexual relationships to drive their stories, the subject of gay sex can still divide an audience. As the character of Glen says in Weekend – when speaking about his personal art project – ‘straights won’t care because it’s not about their world.’ However, as many highbrow critics have noted, this is where the appeal of these three films lie. The topic of sex displays a generational experience within many contemporary works of rooting your identity and displaying who you are. With the ideas depicted within these films evidently crossing over the lines that have divided sexuality, the characters become more resonant purely because the story takes place within the relationship of two men. Yet, one might wonder that whilst the barriers of cultural sexual rigidity still remain slightly profound and – especially in this case – can divide an audience, would these characters ever be fully appreciated?

The reason Mathews wrote I Want Your Love was through bafflement over the void left within cinema where sex between two characters revealed an extension to their personality. However, what puts Mathews above the rest in his depiction of intercourse is that he had his actors perform live sex in front of the camera; ‘When two people try to or have sex, there is a lot of information exchanged and I didn’t want to shy away from it when telling my story. I could not present the intimacy with my characters without showing sex. I just feel like we’re in a place in time where the stories we’re telling about ourselves can be a bit more complicated and modern.’ Haigh, however, was more reserved. Developing his two characters before showing any intimacy, he takes an empathetic eye, allowing his scenes to feel more meaningful and personal for his two leads. In his own words, he says, ‘it was very important for me not to just shoehorn the sex into my film. I wanted to present the effect of the first encounter and have the audience understand the characters before revealing more. By the end of the film, you want them to enjoy the sex they have in their final moments together.’ As with Keep the Lights On, critics in the UK and US have applauded the portrayal of sex being naturally integrated and included in people’s everyday contemporary lives, rather than separated from it.

Within the context of these individual works, the depiction of intimacy provides a level of character development which is rare to find in a lot of cinema but progressive in how narrative forms are changing.
There is a sense of satisfaction that comes from watching these films. Not only are you witnessing a change in the norms of representing homosexuality, but they are making progression with the identity by setting it within contemporary urban landscapes. In moving gay identities to the background and having other facets contribute more towards these flawed characters, it injects a much needed sense of realism in depicting the lives of these people. Rather than hammer you over the head with the issues raised in these films - ideas such as muted homophobia in Weekend, faithfulness within relationships in Keep the Lights On, or the importance of a small community within a culture in I Want Your Love – they linger through their lack of force. In going underneath the larger issues and executing them with empathy and intelligence, it allows the universal appeal to open up which is liberating. It is invigorating seeing filmmakers embrace how much of a mess life can be sometimes.

David Darley

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article Mr Darley. Thought provoking and makes me want to experience more gay cinematography.