By Mike Berlin
The voguing, shade-throwing queens of Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning and River Phoenix’s winsome gay hustler in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho are rose-colored mementos of New Queer Cinema’s heyday (roughly 1985–1996). During this time, films like Tom Kalin’s Swoon and Gregg Araki’s The Living End boldly tackled gay stories with dark bents and strong visions, operating on shoestring budgets. Emerging in the hostile climate of the Reagan years and the panic around AIDS, these movies reflected the anger and rage of the gay community and took pride in their radicalism. Amid the rise of the Christian right, they often became a flashpoint for activists on both sides of the equation.
Take, for instance, a watershed moment of Todd Haynes’s career in 1991, when Reverend Donald Wildmon wrote to Congress, attacking the National Endowment for the Arts for granting $25,000 to Poison, a movie that, according to Wildmon, contained “explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex.” Such attacks only spurred other directors to follow suit, exploring and exploding cultural taboos. “They were responding to something dark, with AIDS and the way that everything felt like the end of the world for gay people,” says Baran.
Funding was a constant issue for filmmakers then as it is now, with much of it coming from private backers, personal savings, or institutional grants. “At that time,” says director Bruce LaBruce, “our motto was always, ‘Whatever it takes.’ And we would do anything short of turning tricks -- or even turning tricks.” LaBruce remembers using personal connections to scrape by for his 1996 film, Hustler White. “My editor got a free $10,000 sound mix by dating someone at the post-production facility,” he says, adding, “She was really hot.”
As gay indie cinema prospered through the ’90s, bigger-name directors and actors began to get in on the action, heightening public awareness of LGBT issues but ultimately diluting the potency of the cinematic movement with a Hollywood varnish. Conversely, gay directors were rising in profile to the point where Van Sant -- whose 1985 black-and-white 16mm film, Mala Noche, bordered on experimental -- was rewarded with two Oscars for his hetero buddy-flick, Good Will Hunting, in 1997. “Lacking the concentrated creative presence and focused community responsiveness of the past, the New Queer Cinema has become just another niche market,” wrote B. Ruby Rich, the critic who coined the movement’s name, right before Hilary Swank won a best actress Oscar in 2000 for playing a transgender man in Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry.
Throughout the first post-Millennial decade, gay stories were essentially co-opted into Hollywood, most prominently as Oscar-grabbing fare, with films like Monster and Brokeback Mountain demolishing the need for queerer, lower-budget works. Even Milk, Van Sant’s return to gay storytelling, was viewed by some critics as a muted interpretation of 1970s San Francisco, devoid of the libertine sexuality integral to gay life during that period. “If you look at my generation,” says Sachs, “we all stopped making films with gay subject matter.”
The past decade saw a deluge of cheap, straight-to-DVD-(then-VOD) rom-coms as gay became concretely relegated to niche status. “Recently, a lot of the gay films that have been getting funded are, like, Eating Out 12, which might be fun, but it’s like eating frosting,” says Tom Rielly, the Fellows Director of TED, the wildly popular idea-focused conference organization, and the founder of PlanetOut, who raised over $110,000 on Kickstarter for his documentary, Moving Windmills.