BACK TO LOVE!
Walking through intersectionality, fighting against old and “new normal”
The “New Cinema Queer” is not just a cinematic genre identified by B Ruby Rich in the early 90s: it is an artistic intersection between political struggle, the urgency of new artistic expressions and representations and the democratization of creativity. The social and political situation we live today therefore seems to be the most opportune context for the birth of a renewed “New Queer Cinema” necessary to contribute not to a supposed “new normal” post-pandemic – and hopefully soon post/war – that nothing calls into question the current and increasingly active dynamics of heteropatriarchal power, but to a radically opposite “new different”. For some years now, the MiX Festival has embarked on an intersectional path to make its contribution to this type of opportunity, exactly in tune with what B Ruby Rich summarizes in the title of her very interesting latest article “After the New Queer Cinema: Intersectionality vs. Fascism”1.
Often as organizers we wonder about the meaning that in 2022 a Queer Culture Festival like ours can still have for our community and especially for the new generations who have had free access to the “Poses” and “Drag races” series on the mainstream media. The answer is in the middle part of this interview: if our community regains the revolutionary and creative drive that characterized it in its beginnings, there will always be a new need for expression that the mainstream media will not be able to codify in a timely manner and therefore to include in their programming. Even then, our and your MiX Festival will always be waiting for you. Proudly “International Festival of LGBTQ + Cinema and Queer Culture”.
The MiX Festival Executive Team
Paolo Armelli, Andrea Ferrari, Debora Guma
1 “The Oxford Handbook of Queer Cinema”, Edited by Ronald Gregg e Amy Villarejo – Oxford University Press, 2021.
Debora: In the early 90’s, which kind of political and social conditions let you feel the need to coin a term like “New Queer Cinema”?
Rich: There were a few things. Partly, of course, it was because I was so excited by these new films that were being made. In September 1991, I went to the Toronto International Film Festival and in the same year I attended the huge Amsterdam international festival and conference on lesbian and gay cinema and the conference panel, “Lesbian cinema: After the love story”2. Then I went to Sundance in January ‘92 and I was thrilled with these brand new films that I was seeing that seemed so fresh, so powerful, and at the same time, were in dialogue with a political movement. They were not only coming out of an individual artistic expression or a personal imagination: they were also speaking to a community that very much was formed by the fight against AIDS.
It was also a cultural moment in what was then being called “queer culture”. It was a brand new term using this word queer in a positive way. I wrote the article but it was only in its third version that finally I could clarify what I was talking about and that was when it was published in “Sight and Sound”3 in coordination with a big conference called “New Queer Cinema” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.
Four things characterized the “New Queer Cinema”. First of all, the twelve years of political repression in the US during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, what we thought (then) was the most repressive government ever. Then of course AIDS: remember that the AIDS cocktail, which turned the infection into a chronic illness instead of immediately fatal, was not discovered until the mid 90s. People were still dying very fast, even though not as fast as in the 80s when there was no medication at all, and also people were burnt out from the political struggle against these repressive governments to get help for this epidemic that was killing so many gay men. Then it was also, and I think it’s a very strong element: the invention of the video camcorder. Perhaps we should thank Sony for this movement because they invented this new cheap camera that allowed people to make films, short films at first, then feature films without going to film school. Back then, there was an industry monopoly on the film medium. You had to be trained, you had to know how to do exposures, you had to get into a Union, you had to know a cinematographer. The cameras were expensive, the film stock was expensive, you needed strong lighting.
And suddenly everything changed. People were coming straight out of art school, much more experimental, taking these cameras and breaking down the cinematic barricades with these camcorders. It not only gave access to a broader range of people, but it also lowered the cost. Therefore it created a new kind of aesthetic, a new kind of cinematic language that was very well suited to this moment. The fourth thing, and I cannot emphasize it enough now in 2022, was cheap rent. It did not cost a lot to live. Cheap rent is just shorthand, but really it was the economics of the late 1980s, early 1990s. You could have a job, you could have free time, you could quit your job and know you would get another one. You could have an apartment that cost very little. Students were not in debt. The system of student debt in the United States, that now has people terrified and endangered, was not a big thing then. Now it’s completely different, as if we’re back in the Middle Ages. We’re living a kind of neo feudalism where people now are being reduced again to peasants or to the Lords in the court.
These are the four things that I felt came together to create the conditions for this new film movement. And there was an audience that was starved for representations of itself, exhausted from the struggles around AIDS and needing to be lifted up by artists, which is not always the case. So there was an appetite, there was a hunger and at the same time there were these new tools to try to fill it. Also it was the heyday of the start of “performance art” and people were moving between these sectors, going from video to film to performance in the bars, in the alternative spaces, and this was a very exciting combination of factors. When you think back to the beginnings of cinema, it’s heavily infiltrated with theater and with vaudeville4. So once again we had this kind of moment where things were moving between these different sectors and new genres are being invented. So I think it was a unique moment. And out of that I came up with this term to try to put together a lot of the new films I was seeing that I really loved in this new cultural atmosphere.
2 Organized by Teresa de Lauretis, the Italian academic and writer who at that time was in residence at the University of Utrecht.
3 A British monthly film magazine published by the British Film Institute (BFI)
4 A type of entertainment popular chiefly in the US and UK in the early 20th century, featuring a mixture of specialty acts such as burlesque, comedy, and song and dance acts.
Paolo: So what do you think were the main esthetic or thematic consequences of these factors you say that lead to this change?
Rich: One thing was a lack of politeness. People were tired of trying to present a good image to give to the imaginary heterosexual audience. This also affects the aesthetics of the film because if people felt they were making films to be watched specifically by queer audiences, they could make different kinds of films than if trying to imagine that their professor or their mother or father or their next door neighbor were the ones that were going to see it. There was a desire to break away from the whole idea of positive images: people wanted to find even villains, like Tom Kalin’s film “Swoon” about the Leopold and Loeb murders in Chicago. He wanted to say, look, if you have this kind of repression, you will create this kind of monstrous behavior. Or Gregg Araki’s film “The living end”: if the heterosexuals can have Bonnie and Clyde, why can’t we have Clyde and Clyde? Its protagonists have AIDS and go on the road with nothing to lose. It was not original at the level of genre, its breakthrough was placing gay men into this criminal-on-the-run genre. Also: because people were using video cameras in the beginning, you had a very different kind of video aesthetic, much sharper, lots of rough edges, much more postmodern than modernist, nontraditional cutting, nontraditional addresses to the camera, less obedience to cinematic conventions. I would say these are some of the things that you begin to see at that moment.
Paolo: What do you think was the major change in LGBTQ+ filmmaking in the 21st century?
Rich: Well, I suppose the major change is money. Those early films were made for very little money. Now it costs much more money to make anything. But what I really mean is that now there’s a market. The NQC movement created a market and the expression “New Queer Cinema” became a marketing tool. For a few years at first, and then again, periodically, you could bring out a film and describe it as “the latest work of NQC”, “a new breakthrough in NQC” so that it sounded like a hip thing. Maybe today it can sound retrograde or classic but then back then, for at least a decade, it was a new cutting-edge term that people could use to help get their films bought, get the audiences to turn out to see them, get them booked into theaters.
Also, when these films were first being made, the only place you could see them was in the gay and lesbian film festivals. And of course, as I’m sure you know, over the years, these festivals have had to fight for their lives because people have fantasies of a big commercial breakthrough and don’t want to give the films to you (LGBT festivals). This is something that everyone running a queer festival has dealt with. So anytime a filmmaker has the hope or the fantasy or the delusion that their film is going to cross over into a market release, they would say no to the queer festivals that were the only place that in the past they could show. I have had so many fights with people who say that these queer festivals should not exist anymore, because these festivals are as important as ever: you don’t know where the new borderline is. You don’t know what the new work is in the queer culture. A new generation is every five years in queer life, and they want to see their stories, and their stories are not yet in the marketplace. So there’s always this space “in between” that you occupy and, as Queer Festival organizers, you need the support of these filmmakers.
What’s interesting at this moment is that, because of the move towards streaming, a move accelerated by COVID, people have shifted away from going to movie theaters into seeing everything on their private screen. I think that there is such a demand for, as they like to say, “content” that there should be a lot more support for Queer Films (from streaming companies). I’m curious about this new batch of films. One of the films I’m looking forward to seeing this spring is by Andrew Ahn, who made his first film in 2016: “Spa Night”. He’s made a new film called “Fire Island” and he told me there’s lots of sex, unlike “Spa Night”, which had none, at least on screen. So I think that we’re once again in one of these conversion moments where we don’t exactly know what’s happening or who’s going to be left standing at the end of it.
Paolo: You made a lot of examples of American movies, and New Queer Cinema is often referred to the American scene. But we have some examples in Europe, too. And you said, if I’m not wrong, that Pasolini can be kind of related to NQC. So could he be considered like a precursor of NQC?
Rich: In 1995, I went to Casarsa in Friuli for a Pasolini conference for this same exact reason. They wanted to know if I made a link between Pasolini and NQC cinema and later they published my essay5. Basically, I don’t think Pasolini is an example of NQC cinema, but I think that he inspired the original generation of filmmakers who made the NQC cinema because these original filmmakers – like Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin and others – were cinephiles. And they knew the work of Pasolini. Everyone always talks about Todd Hayne’s first film, “Poison”, as an homage to Jean Genet, but I think you also could interpret it as an homage to Pasolini. That’s the way in which he relates to this movement, not he himself, not his work per se, but rather his model as an inspiration. For instance, John Waters is not the same generation as Pasolini but they are the same cinematic generation because Pasolini came later to film and John Waters came very early, practically as a teenager. Pasolini dies in 1975 and John Water’s first big feature, “Pink Flamingos”, was released in 1972. I like to imagine this imaginary overlap. I think that Pasolini’s political example of going against the fascists, his way to look at regionalism, underlining that the place where you come from has a great impact on how you create, his example of a transgressive sexuality that could bring down the social order, like in “Teorema”, all of this is very much in sync with what goes on with the early years of NQC cinema.
5 1995 – Fiori Infuocati: L’Eredita’ Di Pasolini Al “New Queer Cinema” (Pier Paolo Pasolini: Viers Podrenon e il mont), Vol. 1, Casarsa, Italy
DEBORA: Since several years the MiX Festival is devoted to intersectionality. So we liked very much your last publication named “After the New Queer Cinema: intersectionality against Fascism”. Could you please share with us what’s the deep meaning of such an impressive sentence?
Rich: I was supposed to be writing a small monograph on the German film “Madchen in uniform”, which I mentioned in this article. When I originally wrote about it in my first book, “Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement”6, I was angry that the film by Leontine Sagan about the girls boarding school and the girl Manuela, the student who falls in love with her teacher, was seen as a film against fascism. It was a time when I was just coming out completely into being with women and was ready to shout from the rooftops. So I wrote this article just as I moved in with the girlfriend I thought I would be with for the rest of my life. I was angry about the film being seen as an antifascist film when I felt: really, it’s a lesbian love story. So I wanted to reclaim it from anti fascism and claim it for being a early queer film.
Well, perhaps it’s not anymore. Suddenly, with Trump at the time and now with all of the horrors, the United States right now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and so many others in other places, like Bolsonaro in Brazil, I changed my mind. I think it is an anti fascist film. And I think I went too far in rejecting it.
So in coming back to look at it as a film about young lesbian love defeating fascism, I thought that what is being ignored is this whole concept of intersectionality. This is used a lot in terms of racial organizing, racial readings, as I discussed in terms of its origin. But I think that queer festivals, queer filmmaking, queer communities have got to be truly intersectional, which they have never, ever been. They have always wanted everybody else’s support—for us. But who have we turned out to support? Not a good record at all in the United States, at least. And so I wanted to make a claim that if we’re going to survive these hard times of fascism, we have to conceive a kind of queer intersectionality that can bring along other people and make common cause with other communities that are also under attack, that are also being oppressed, that also have imaginative cultures that have been developed as a form of resistance. We’re not the only ones. I was raised Jewish, so I’m always very nervous at the idea of a chosen people: if you don’t watch out, it leads to a new kind of fascism. So I liked the idea of trying to link a queer film culture and a queer culture and a queer history up with a notion of intersectionality as a way to think of strategies against fascism. I don’t have the blueprint for how to build the house, only the idea that a house like this deserves to be built. The person that I picked as the emblem for this was Janelle Monáe, because I think she’s so inspiring. If you can, have a look at her music video, “Pynk”, and you can see why I chose that. I thought it is wilder than anything I ever saw in New Queer Cinema for girls.
6 Duke University Press Books (30 September 1998)
B. Ruby Rich
B. Ruby Rich è una studiosa e critica americana di cinematografia indipendente, latina, americana, di documentari, e di cinematografia femminista e queer. Ha iniziato la sua carriera nell’esposizione cinematografica come cofondatrice della Woods Hole Film Society. Nel 1973 è diventata direttrice associata di quello che oggi è il Gene Siskel Film Center dell’Art Institute di Chicago. Dopo aver lavorato come critica cinematografica per il Chicago Reader, si è trasferita a New York City per diventare direttrice del programma cinematografico del New York State Council on the Arts, dove ha lavorato per un decennio. Mentre viveva a New York City, ha iniziato a scrivere per il Village Voice. Si è poi trasferita a San Francisco, dove ha iniziato a insegnare, prima all’Università della California, Berkeley, e poi alla UC Santa Cruz. In qualità di docente di cinema e media digitali, ha contribuito alla creazione del programma di laurea in documentazione sociale. Nel 2013, Rich ha accettato l’incarico di redattrice capo di Film Quarterly, una rivista di cinema scientifico pubblicata dalla University of California Press, incarico che ricopre tuttora. Ha riorganizzato il comitato editoriale e rilanciato il sito web con diverse nuove funzionalità, tra cui la rubrica “Quorum” e le registrazioni video dei webinar di FQ. Nel 2017, il Barbican Theater di Londra e la Birkbeck University hanno ospitato una stagione di film e conferenze per celebrare la sua carriera di critica cinematografica, accademica e curatrice, intitolata “Being Ruby Rich”. “Oggi la Rich si è ritirata dalla carica di docente emerita della UC Santa Cruz e vive a San Francisco e a Parigi. Continua ad apparire in documentari realizzati da registi indipendenti per il cinema e per la televisione, oltre che in diverse produzioni di Criterion. Tra i suoi numerosi contributi, è nota per aver coniato il termine “New Queer Cinema”.