The Cinema Museum in London is remaining true to its ongoing attempt to cater for lovers of film whose needs are not met by the multiplex. The Museum is joining forces with Little Joe magazine and the Rio Cinema in Dalston to launch ‘A Little Film Club’, which over the next six months will be showing monthly screenings of films that would be difficult to see not only at the local multiplex but almost anywhere. The screenings will alternate between the Cinema Museum and the Rio and have been made possible by a grant awarded to the Little Joe magazine by the Film London Community Pilot Fund scheme.
Little Joe is a bi-annual magazine providing a platform for information about and debates around queer cinemas (mostly). Queer in this context is not used in the narrowly defined sense of ‘not heterosexual’, a definition that is dictated by the conventions of a conservative heteronormativity. The concept of queer as it is used in this context has a political intent and is concerned with breaking down the rigid binary oppositions between what is considered to be transgressive and non-transgressive behaviour. These binary oppositions are often utilised to bestow legitimacy on discriminatory behaviour and strategies of marginalisation. This concept of queer also draws attention to the ways in which these socially constructed boundaries are forms of oppression intended to confine people and their desires within easily controlled, socially approved ways of being and acting.
Much of mainstream cinema contributes to policing these boundaries and keeping them firmly in place. Generally speaking commercial mainstream Hollywood film treats characters who do not conform to the constraints of these socially approved ways as outsiders. (This includes gays, lesbians, transgendered people, many ethnic minorities, the working class etc.). In the case of gay people the outsider status can be constructed benignly as is the case with the ‘sissy’ or rather more harmfully as psychopathic murderers in films such as Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoven, 1992) or Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991).
The representation of ‘othered’ sexualities and life choices within the dominant media has implications for all of us because the way in which they are represented signifies what is considered to be acceptable in our culture.
Independent film, we could argue, is the ideal vehicle for bringing to the fore untold histories, providing a platform for marginalised people and voices not often, if ever, heard in the mainstream. Although this might be true, it is also true to say that an unrelenting series of positive representations is just as damaging as negative representation, as neither portray the ‘reality’ of people and lives that are led differently. This season of films hopes to open up the debate. The screenings will involve not just watching movies but introductions, discussions and debates continuing the work of the magazine in the space of the cinema.
‘Queer’ has been as much a part of film history as the western or the melodrama. The closeted homosexuals, lesbians and wild girls of the Hays Code era hid their tastes behind a repertoire of knowing tropes, double entendres and visual metaphors. Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946), which traces the ménage à trois between the beautiful Gilda and the two men who fight for ownership of her, and of each other, is a wonderful example.
Although these covert Hays Code violations could not be construed as political interventions they arguably provided some point of identification for those queer (in the broad sense of the term) members of the audience unsatisfied with the codes insistence on the rewarding of ‘moral’ behaviour.
After the relaxation of the Hays Code, the Stonewall riots of 1969 and the changing social attitudes towards women and ethnic minorities, the representation of queer became if anything increasingly negative and was often pathologised. Queer became habitually associated with crazy or sick in mainstream films.
Since the 1990s there has been a new era of positive representation of queerness although many of the old stereotypes persist and arguably positive means sanitised. After lots of ‘coming out of the closet’ movies, gay men have occupied a space where they are acceptable as long as they are not doing anything too gay. Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993) immediately springs to mind or any of the myriad films in which the gay character is there to be the friend of the beautiful, thin heterosexual heroine who is seeking a beautiful, thin heterosexual partner.
After aids came a group of films that addressed the condition not always in overt ways, but which came down firmly on the side of the sanctity of marriage. Films such as Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987) treated illicit sex as a contagion that would affect (infect?) everyone, even those not directly involved in the act itself.
As this rather brief and necessarily broad overview of queer cinema has demonstrated the concept of queer is one that is still open to challenge. Queer cinema came to prominence as an academic area of study after Ruby Rich coined the phrase in her article for Sight and Sound magazine in the early 1990s. Little Joe, the magazine, and the short season of films they have programmed question the concept of what we mean contemporaneously by ‘queer cinema’.
We could argue as Andrew Grossman has done that queer cinema and ‘gay identity, have been falsely legitimised by the mainstream’ and that we should be ‘disillusioned by the binary oppositions of indie film political correctness and underground deviance’. But as Grossman himself asks, where does that leave us? Perhaps more than anything this is what this short season is attempting to do – to forge a space where not only the films can be discussed but also what we mean by the term queer cinema.
The first film in the season will be A Bigger Splash (Jack Hazan, 1974). A fictional/documentary film about the life and love of the artist David Hockney, set in the not too distant past that was then the present. The title refers to one of Hockney’s paintings and the film delves deeply into what we might call the creative process and how it is nurtured by our experiences. It was banned for a time (or cut) after it was first released because of the full frontal nudity. The films director Jack Hazan will be in conversation with Tate film curator Stuart Comer at the event.
Deirdre O’Neill is PhD student at the University of Ulster. Her 12-year-old son volunteers as an usher at The Cinema Museum.