Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema
November 6, 2006
While Brokeback Mountain (2005) may have placed Queer Cinema into the mainstream spotlight, it had been going strong for many years before with such notable examples like My Own Private Idaho (1991), Go Fish (1994) and Happy Together (1997) as the IFC documentary Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema (2006) amply illustrates. In fact, pioneers like Kenneth Anger and his 1947 film Fireworks was the earliest overtly homoerotic movie. It wasn’t made within the Hollywood system because depictions of gay or lesbian activity were forbidden. You could actually get arrested for even attending a screening of such a movie, which, as filmmaker John Waters points out, was the subversive thrill of seeing something like Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures in 1963.
The social activism of the 1960s and 1970s influenced queer cinema and inspired countless documentaries in the ‘70s that examined gay life and encouraged people to be open and proud of their sexuality. And then along came John Waters in the mid-‘70s who made several low budget movies that gleefully smashed every cultural and societal taboo imaginable and a few that weren’t. He claims that he gave his gay characters problems and complications in their lives which differed from the simplistic portrayals of the past. He also, as he puts it, took “the clichés of gay culture and try to make fun of it in a good way.” The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) was also an important milestone that celebrated the openness of sexuality.
Hollywood finally took notice and tried to make mainstream gay films with Making Love (1982) and Personal Best (1982) with recognizable actors like Harry Hamlin and Mariel Hemingway. The 1980s saw the rise of home video and independent cinema allowing more gay and lesbian films to be made and seen than ever before. It also saw the emergence of important filmmakers like Gus Van Sant with Mala Noche in 1985 and important films like Desert Hearts (1985), the first narrative lesbian film made by a lesbian to get wide distribution and starring a name actress – Helen Shaver.
The AIDS epidemic really galvanized Queer Cinema and motivated people to address this disease and its effects in their work. The early 1990s saw another wave of queer filmmakers with Todd Haynes’ Poison (1991) and the documentary Paris is Burning (1990) winning the two top awards at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival. As a result, these two films reached audiences that wouldn’t normally have seen them. The floodgates opened up at next year’s Sundance with the screening of key films like Derek Jarman’s Edward II (1991), Christopher Munch’s The Hours and Times (1991), Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992), and Gregg Araki’s The Living End (1992). Critic B. Ruby Rich wrote about it in Sight and Sound magazine and dubbed the movement “The New Queer Cinema.” These films weren’t afraid to be edgy and provocative with politically incorrect characters.
Fabulous! is an excellent introduction to queer cinema that touches upon the landmark films and filmmakers in each decade. It also takes a look at how they informed the gay and lesbian community and how, in turn, they inspired subsequent films. This documentary also traces queer cinema’s development over the decades and how it evolved, right up to Brokeback Mountain.
“Say Your Name and Who You Are” features many of the talking head subjects briefly introducing themselves in sometimes straightforward fashion and sometimes in a humourous vein.
“First Gay Film Memories” has them talk about the first gay film they saw and how it affected them.
“Sex” asks what is their favourite sex scene in a movie with some picking My Own Private Idaho, The Hunger (1983) and even But I’m A Cheerleader (1999).
“Christine Vachon” features more on this influential producer of queer cinema who helped launch the career of Todd Haynes and propel movies like Boys Don’t Cry (1999) into the mainstream.
Finally, there is “Coming Out,” its importance and their feelings on it. Also, they talk about when they did it and what happened.