Snap: Pioneers of American Queer Cinema

Image reproduced courtesy of Signifyin' Works. 

Image reproduced courtesy of Signifyin' Works. 

From September - December 2017 Eyes Wide Open Cinema is incredibly proud to be teaming up with the University of Sussex's Centre for the Study of Sexual Dissidence and Centre for American Studies, to bring you a season of pioneering American queer cinema at Fabrica Gallery. This has been supported by Film Hub South East with National Lottery funds distributed by the BFI Film Audience Network.

In 1992, legendary film critic B. Ruby Rich coined the term "New Queer Cinema" to discuss what she saw as an emergent cinematic trend.

"The NQC embodied an evolution in thinking. It reinterpreted the link between personal and the political envisioned by feminism, restaged the defiant activism pioneered at Stonewall, and recoded aesthetics to link the independent feature movement with the avant-garde and start afresh..

What made the New Queer Cinema possible?...Four elements converged to result in the NQC: the arrival of AIDS, Reagan, camcorders, and cheap rent. Plus the emergence of "queer" as a concept and a community. Outrage and opportunity merged into a historic artistic response to insufferable political repression: that simple, yes, and that complex."

- B. Ruby Rich, 2013

Over the four instalments of our season Snap, we will explore a selection of films that preceded, existed within, and were influenced by the trend that Rich observed.

We begin with Desert Hearts (1985), Donna Deitch's tale of forbidden desire on Nevada’s desert planes borne out of the director's desire to create a story about love between women that "was mainstream, not in the context of the women's community or The Village".

Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied (1989) is a powerful and poetic vindication of black gay men, who, in this experimental semi-documentary, confront the racism, homophobia and social marginalisation they face.

The early short films of Cheryl Dunye (1991-1994) are criminally underseen DIY gems exploring '90s lesbian subcultures, their politics and their humour, and the realities of life at the intersection of black, queer and female.

Bruce LaBruce and Rick Castro's Hustler White (1996) is an explicit, playful, and electrifying portrait of hustlers on West Hollywood's Santa Monica Boulevard, a vibrant exploration of weird and wonderful queer lives existing gleefully on society's margins.

In 2017, as we look across the pond, we see a situation of immense political repression under the Trump administration, compared by some with the Reagan administration Rich cites as galvanising New Queer Cinema. What does the Trump moment mean for queer culture and queer survival? What happens when we snap beneath the weight of injustice and marginalisation? What can we learn when we revisit the queer film pioneers that not only told queer stories, but snapped the cinematic apparatus itself in telling them?

"A snap can be what happens when you are unwilling to meet the conditions for being with others...Queer as snap: the moment you realize what you do not have to be. Snapping can be necessary for being, which means for some, to be requires snapping, snapping not as a singular event, but as what you have to keep doing to keep being."

- Sara Ahmed, Snap! Feminist Moments, Feminist Movements

"Snap out of it", a queerphobic parent might say.

"She just snapped!", a cis man might say of a trans woman finally confronting his transphobia.

"Don't mess with a snap diva!", Tongues Untied warns us.

With the help of the University of Sussex's Centre for the Study of Sexual Dissidence and Centre for American Studies, we will begin to ask what these films tell us about queer creativity, queer resistance, queer responses to the American project. The cinematic snap and the social snap.

This is a time in which "LGBT" cinematic representation is more visible than ever in mainstream spaces, particularly in American film. But might we pause and reflect on the what these inclusions have excluded in their very emergence? Might we listen to our queer creative predecessors and their responses to the cinematic mainstream?

Might we snap at the realisation that queer liberation is yet to occur?

 

Jacob Engelberg