“I think films do make a difference, I think they get under people’s skin and they reflect our lives and our experiences back to us” – Todd Hayne
If you were a member of the LGBTQ community during the 40’s, it would have been impossible to see a film that documents or displays a homosexual character as a result of the Hollywood production code set forth in 1930 that had forbidden homosexuality in movies that were being distributed at the time. The film that broke away from this oppressive filmmaking rule wasn’t anything that was being produced by the studios, it was a young filmmaker named Kenneth Anger who directed an independent short film titled Fireworks, which depicts a dream sequence displaying the brutal rape and torture of Anger himself by a group of sailors. This film was able to satisfy the gay fantasy whilst concurrently shaming and reproaching that fantasy – a clear reflection of the self-conflicting position of homosexuals during the 1940s. Fireworks became a precursor to the American art house cinema tradition and became a bridge film to the gay sensibility.
In 1963 a film titled Flaming Creatures directed by Jack Smith was being played in independent cinemas across the world. The film depicted some of the most controversial and confrontational images that had ever been committed to film; images of violent orgies and unflinching nudity. Concurrent to this film’s release and exhibition, censorship cases were being fought to ban pornography and films like Flaming Creatures from any kind of distribution. So, even going to your local cinema to see Flaming Creatures, or anything of that nature, was enough to get you arrested in the 60s. During the time of the Hollywood production code, European cinema would be where the rest of the world would turn to see sex on the big screen. Fortunately, gay and lesbian sex was not an exception. European cinema challenged a plethora of ideas and traditions including the homophobic lens in which the LGBT community were being looked at through in the 60s, therefore filmmakers like Pasolini, Visconti and Fassbender became very important and upstanding for this particular point in filmic history.
John Waters is recognized as one of the most influential queer filmmakers of his generation. His outrageous filmography would go on to shock, nauseate and delight both the mainstream and arthouse forms of cinema. Films such as Pink Flamingos, a movie that depicts a drag queen making a passionate attempt to claim the title of the filthiest person alive, epitomises everything that John Waters represented. The art of John Waters confronts the confrontational and complicates the already complicated, and Waters’ vision would go on to inspire the existence of more populist films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show. However, if one was to ignore the sensationalised shock factor of his movies you would notice a significant message active throughout all of them, a message that expresses the value of individuality. His films symbolise visibility and humanist recognition for the LGBT community which was reflective of the Stonewall movement, a series of spontaneous demonstrations by members of the gay community against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969.
In June 1982, a group of legal cases among gay men in Southern California suggested that the cause of an immune deficiency was sexual, and the syndrome was initially called gay-related immune deficiency: the birth of the aids epidemic became one of the most significant events in gay history. But as movies often do, this tragic moment in history was reflected and documented in the 1993 film Philadelphia. A powerful courtroom drama, flourished with a heart-wrenching character study, the eye-opening investigation of prejudices, and potent commentary on the fear of the unknown. It questions rights by way of interrogating discrimination, while showcasing eloquent performances with tense legal stagecraft.
Even up until recently, the effects of the early gay rights movement’s biggest advocators in the film industry is still felt in every frame of films such as Call Me by Your Name. It’s the summer of 1983, somewhere in the north of Italy and after weeks of flirtation and romance, 24-year-old Oliver and 17-year-old Elio are savoring their last night together in Luca Guadagnino’s masterpiece of queer cinema. They are locked in a passionate embrace. Guadagnino draws our attention to how fleeting these intense interactions are. Oliver repeatedly rushes out of the frame with a hurried “later”, the camera then lingering on Elio’s confused or baffled face, effectively stretching out and magnifying every tiny interaction with Oliver. When Elio first shows Oliver around the nearby town Crema, Elio is still in the midst of answering Oliver’s question when he realises that Oliver is already packing up his belongings — before leaving the frame, and Elio. The pattern repeats when Oliver makes his most forward move, massaging Elio’s shoulder during a volleyball game: his arm invades the frame, then he himself invades Elio’s personal space. Before Elio has any time to process what is happening, Oliver runs out of the frame and back to his game. Even when Guadagnino focuses on Elio, Oliver haunts the periphery of the frame, making us as aware as Elio is of Oliver’s presence and absence. While Elio transcribes music at the foreground of the frame, Oliver is visible in the background, pedaling his bike. Just as often, it’s the sound of Oliver that intrudes.
Recently, many of the theoretical issues raised by queer theory have found their way into gay and lesbian independent filmmaking, within a movement known as New Queer Cinema. Queer theory also helps us interrogate and complicate the category of “gay and lesbian cinema.” For example, the very meaning of the words “gay” and “lesbian”—how they are used and understood—has changed greatly over the decades, as have the conditions of their cinematic representation. There are great cultural and historical differences between films made by queer directors in 1930s Hollywood and those made by early twenty-first-century independent queer filmmakers; the characteristics that mass culture has used to signify homosexuality have also changed. While present-day films can be relatively forthright about sexuality, older films could only hint at it in various ways. Thus, many classical Hollywood performances, directors, and genres might be considered queer rather than gay, in that they do not explicitly acknowledge homosexuality, but nonetheless allow for spaces in which normative heterosexuality is threatened, critiqued, camped up, or shown to be an unstable performative identity.
Written by Harry Smith-Hampton Illustration by Harry Smith-Hampton