Cinematography has always been an extremely powerful tool since it is able to appeal to the empathy of the audience. Films can influence the way members of the queer community perceive themselves (especially, younger LGBTQ+ individuals), and people outside of the community will most likely establish their own understanding of unknown topics based on what they will see on the screen.
The New Queer Cinema movement has become an artistic response to what many LGBTQ+ members saw as a lack of media representation of their own experiences. Such films were often produced on a low budget with non-professional actors, but despite that were very influential. Nowadays, the queer agenda in cinematography has become more mainstream and typically features big-name actors and straight directors willing to tell queer stories only to gain mass appeal.
Does New Queer Cinema even have its own style or is it simply a collection of pieces that are united by one topic? Why do contemporary LGBTQ+ films often fail to accurately represent the stories of the members of the queer community and what does the future hold for such works? Let’s dive deeper into the topic.
What Is New Queer Cinema?
The term ‘New Queer Cinema’ typically refers to the films that were produced by queer people for queer people back in the 1990s. The storylines are centered around members of the queer community, and, unlike, in a lot of other films of that time, the characters are well-rounded individuals that are defined not only by their gender identity or sexuality.
Does New Queer Cinema Have Its Own Style?
The movement emerged shortly after the start of the AIDS pandemic, and it was the first time since the coming out of lesbian and gay filmmakers that a distinct genre has been created. However, not everyone agrees about whether a ‘movement’ actually exists.
Some like to think of New Queer Cinema as a collection of separate works that are united by a common theme rather than a distinct genre.
Such films as ‘Poison’, ‘My Own Private Idaho’, and ‘Swoon’, for example, all have a status as outsider works that offer critiques of society, but they don’t exactly share a common cinematography style.
The term ‘New Queer Cinema’ was first coined by film critic B. Ruby Rich back in 1992 simply to describe the generation of queer-centered films that were made outside of the Hollywood studio system’s control. The term stuck and soon became more of a marketing label. But that does not mean that all these films did not play an important role in the queer film production.
Does New Queer Cinema Style Still Exist in LGBTQ Films Today?
Plenty of mainstream movies nowadays fail to accurately represent LGBTQ+ individuals. Yes, you might be able to find at least one queer character in practically every movie, but the storylines are often too simple and superficial.
In fact, adding LGBTQ+ characters to practically every movie has become a way for major studies to profit from subculture groups. And that’s the main difference between New Queer Cinema and contemporary movies.
The quality of queer characters has diminished throughout the years, and with only a few exceptions, you’ll typically see an LGBTQ+ character appear in the movie for less than 3 minutes (56% of the time).
By depending on male-centric and often false representations of queerness, the majority of films with queer characters reinforce misconceptions about the community and negatively impact the way LGBTQ+ viewers perceive themselves.
A Comparison of New Queer Cinema and Contemporary LGBTQ+ Films
Though queerness has multiple layers, faces, and subcategories to it, there are a few topics that seem to be used in cinematography a bit more often than others. Those include portrayals of lesbian relationships and people with HIV/AIDS and camp.
One of the objectives of New Queer Cinema is to challenge the viewers’ preconceived notions of queerness. And that’s exactly what the 1994 film, ‘Go Fish’, managed to do.
The storyline revolves around the relationships of a group of lesbians. The experimental storytelling techniques do not stray away from discussing only queer-related issues. The protagonists talk about gender expression, monogamy, the problems that they face in a heteronormative society, and so on.
The script holds absolutely no shame in lesbianism, and the male and straight audiences are forced to adapt to the realities that the women are living through.
In mainstream cinematography, gay men are generally used to gain sympathy, while queer women are often objectified by the film industry.
A lot of contemporary films that portray lesbian couples are actually set in the 17th or 18th centuries. That is disturbing as the choice of such a time period allows the director to do the bare minimum of expressing queerness and produce the film through the male gaze without the audience realizing it.
One rather popular contemporary film that comes to mind when talking about female gay couples is ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’. Though in this particular piece, the director did try to explore lesbianism through a sensual lens, unfortunately, the movie ended up being filmed mainly for male pleasure. The principal sex scene became the epiphany of a straight man’s vision of lesbian sex – two attractive women with full lips and big breasts rubbing against each other.
The film is yet another cinematographic piece made by a man in an attempt to tell a story about women through the bodies of women. As a cherry on top of the cake, the director, the actors, and practically everyone who worked on the film are straight, which might be the main reason why so many important queer questions were left unanswered.
The majority of people rely heavily on mass media to portray people with AIDS as they don’t have an opportunity to interact with such individuals in real life. That’s why it’s extremely important to consider the educational impact cinematography holds in this matter.
‘The Living End’ (1992) is one of the New Queer Cinema films that managed to accurately show how complex it might be to live with HIV/AIDS. The film was mainly directed towards a queer audience. As the story unfolds, we follow two HIV-positive gay men who decide to flee from law and society.
The director did not try to make the protagonists palatable for regular audiences. Instead, he decided to showcase the complexity of people living with the diagnosis and prove that HIV-positive individuals are not by default ‘a victim’. They can feel all sorts of different emotions, and in the movie, the characters use their rage as fuel for their lack of conformity.
Though ‘Philadelphia’ was released in 1993, during the flourishing of the New Queer Cinema movement, it failed to focus on the intricacy of queer characters. The protagonist was used as an educational tool for a straight audience, despite him being a homosexual with AIDS.
The film defined the main character solely as a victim of the disease which might have helped ‘Philadelphia’ gain the straight audience’s sympathy, but, in reality, it completely disregarded the aspects of queer life.
Camp is an aesthetic style that was initially created to highlight the queer’s community disconnect from anything mainstream. Historically, the term was mainly used to describe gay men. But thanks to the New Queer Cinema movement and the film ‘But I’m a Cheerleader’ (1999), the term got revolutionized, and could now be applicable to anyone defiant of expectations.
The story follows a high school cheerleader whose parents choose to send her to a conversion therapy camp to ‘cure’ her homosexuality. Despite the parents’ efforts, at camp, the girl comes to embrace her sexuality.
The movie is a romantic comedy with a very colorful production design. In the film, the straight characters wear only muted tones, while gay individuals are typically seen with rainbows. The theatricality was meant to blatantly satirize stereotypes and push against constructed gender roles.
The film was nominated by the Political Film Society of America for the PFS Award in the Human Rights category. Since the official release of the movie, it has developed a cult following, and its role in the New Queer Cinema really can’t be underestimated.
Unfortunately, camp has also often been used in an attempt to pander to queer audiences. Though the 2020 film ‘The Prom’ was promoted as “a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community”, in reality, the focus got taken off the protagonists, a teenage homosexual couple who were struggling with homophobia.
The film mainly shows the storylines of straight characters and quite a few musical numbers. By the way, the lesbian couple appears together onscreen in only five scenes, despite being the main characters.
In a nutshell, the director chose to showcase the extravagant choreography, instead of actually advocating for the queer community. In cinematography, camp should be used to enhance the storylines of LGBTQ+ members. But, sadly, it is often used only to capitalize on queer parody.
Does Post-New Queer Cinema Exist?
With all that being said, there are still quite a few cinematographic pieces out there that can fall under the term ‘Post-New Queer Cinema’. These films have managed to show the real lives of LGBTQ+ individuals and have been transgressive in their own stylistic ways.
Just like a lot of New Queer Cinema films in the 1990s, ‘Moonlight’ is centered not only around sexuality but also race. Furthermore, it features stunning cool-toned visuals that make the viewers shiver. ‘The Portrait of Lady on Fire’ lures the audience with beautifully composed shots, while ‘Tangerine’ has been entirely shot on iPhone 5s which only proves that the term is there to unite stylistically different cinematography pieces that revolve around the same topic.
By the way, trans representation can finally be seen on big screens as well, thanks to such films as ‘The Danish Girl’ and ‘Dallas Buyers Club’.
And though the use of big-name actors can sometimes overshadow the authentically raw themes embedded into the style of the New Queer Cinema movement, it is one of the ways to promote the film and the issues highlighted in it to a wider audience which can definitely be a great thing in the hands of the right filmmaker.
Though plenty of really bad movies that have been labeled ‘queer’ are being released on a regular basis, the impact of the New Queer Cinema is not forgotten even today when the LGBTQ+ agenda has become more mainstream.
Our world still lacks successful queer representation in the media. And that’s exactly why queer cinema is now entering a new prosperous movement that will hopefully continue changing our society for the better.
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