- New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut by B. Ruby Rich
We are the barbarians, and we are finally at the gates. Events of the past few years have been truly startling: in terms of general acceptance and the securing of basic rights, queer folks have made advances that, only twenty-five years ago, would have seemed like science fiction. Twenty-five years ago, I was a closeted teenager in a poor Southern state, and the idea of being recognized as a “normal” member of society was such an impossibility as to be literally inconceivable. A few short years later, in 2004, I watched as a Volkswagen Beetle, carrying two women in white dresses, rolled down Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco—“Just Married” in shaving cream on the back window—with three dozen aluminum cans tied to the bumper rattling loudly on the pavement. It was like the Rapture: it never occurred to me that such a thing could ever happen, or even that it should.
The new collection of essays by B. Ruby Rich, our foremost chronicler of queer cinema, reads like a rocket trajectory from one era into another, from the darkest days of the AIDS crisis to the premiere of Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008). At one end are the congressional scandals of Marlon Riggs and Todd Haynes, and, on the other, gay cowboys and Sean Penn’s Oscar. (To be sure, these are all films about homosexual men: films about lesbians and the trans identified still have not broken the twin sound barriers of governmental hysteria and box-office success.) In 2000, Rich herself wrote that “identity politics don’t meld well with market considerations”; only six years later, she would be participating in a Film Quarterly roundtable about the mind-bending public reception to Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005), an event—like the release of Van Sant’s Milk shortly thereafter—that [End Page 160] appeared to Rich as a kind of miracle, an astonishment of history.1 But the movement that Rich describes in this new book was always eleventy-zillion light-years ahead of the mainstream, and one of the many pleasures this book affords is rediscovering the momentum that the new queer cinema has enjoyed and that, perhaps, it has gifted to the culture that lags behind it, like a sporty red car dragging an armful of tin cans.
It is Rich who named this movement; as she recounts, the phrase appeared not with the publication of her germinal Village Voice article in 1992, but with its republication, under that title, in Sight and Sound less than a year later.2 The name has stuck, for better or for worse, and if that were to be Rich’s only contribution, it would be enough to secure her place in any history of queer film. However, Rich has always been more than that. If Christine Vachon was the movement’s doula, then Rich was its godmother. As a journalist and film reviewer, Rich has always operated under the obligations of the journals and newspapers that have sponsored her, and this means that her job as a writer has always been to report, to distill and synthesize. Most of this book, insofar as it has a linear narrative drive, takes place at various film festivals in the United States and abroad. Rich watches as audiences of all kinds—well, festival audiences of all kinds, that is, groups of film critics and industry folks as well as audiences exclusively composed of queer spectators—react to this explosion of queer image making. She chronicles enthusiasm and derision, shock and impatience, incomprehension and instant identification. Through the 1990s and 2000s, as queer filmmakers were learning to commandeer new and cheap ways of putting images on the screen, queer audiences were learning to assert themselves as an economic force.
This is a crucial point. The economics of the matter is never far from Rich’s mind: one of her greatest strengths is her constant attention to the fact that...