Intentional Elasticity. Queer Cinema and Mainstream Films

Jan Künemund

Defining queer cinema is essentially a simple matter, even if, like most people, you only see this as a genre that tell stories about forms of desire and constellations of characters from the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. A straightforward response that would do justice to both aspects of the composite (queer and cinema) would be that film, as a moving-image medium, lends itself to the portrayal of unpindownable objects, categories and bodies. Given today’s endless succession of superhero franchises, Transformer films and masked characters that blockbuster films have long employed to generate massive self-satisfying buzz and hype, does anyone really feel the inclination to talk about fixed identities based on origin, race, class, gender or sexual orientation? In cinema, montage provides the context, not binary social classifications like woman/man, inside/outside, private/public, homo/hetero and cis/trans. Film relies on a range of techniques that can resolve apparent contradictions, yet still render what is depicted as coherent and comprehensible. You could say that film, as a queer practice, has what it takes to counter stereotypes and fixed notions.

But this response is, of course, too simple. A medium like film as well as an instrumental and social setting like the cinema do not exist in an ideological vacuum. They are expressions of their contextual origins, have developed traditions, raised expectations and, last but not least, are expected to convert financial investments into profits as reliably as possible. A queer film or cinematic experience can be perceived as a disruption, a disappointment, a deconstruction – even for an LGBTQIA+ audience. It runs counter to what is seemingly ‘natural’, a sense of ‘rightness’ and common modes of viewing, and exposes invisible textures of the social fabric that are woven into cinematic depictions.

The intentionally elastic queer concept was also applied to cinema in the early 1990s. New Queer Cinema was a term coined by publicist and film critic B. Ruby Rich to a describe selection of films that she encountered at festivals at the beginning of the decade (Paris Is Burning by Jennie Livingston, 1990, Poison by Todd Haynes, 1991, Tongues Untied by Marlon T. Riggs, 1989, to name just a few). She saw these works as a break from the positive, identification-oriented portrayals of lesbians, gays and trans people that had been introduced before the AIDS crisis as a corrective measure to combat the discriminatory and stereotypical images that heteronormative cinema had produced up to that point. In New Queer Cinema lesbian and gay identity politics were not the primary mode of identification. Instead, storylines featured antisocial, criminal, and non-mainstream characters, and sexuality and gender intersected with other distinctions such as ‘race’ and class. What also struck Rich at the time was the experimental aesthetic approach of many of the films, which crossed genre boundaries and appropriated and twisted familiar narrative formulas. Even though the term New Queer Cinema solely applied to films from the USA, UK and Canada, this new discursive approach articulated a general connection between heteronormative critique and innovative form.

Anyone referring to New Queer Cinema is essentially going under the assumption that there already existed something that could be described as ‘old’ queer cinema. In fact, film scenes that can be interpreted as queer date back to the very early days of the medium. In Thomas Edison’s first film studio Black Maria, two men can be seen dancing cheek-to-cheek (Dickson Experimental Sound Film, 1894/95), and in Georges Méliès’ glass studio, which did away with the binary division of inside and outside, the lustful sun (with the face of an older man) slipped behind the expectant moon (with the face of a young man) with clearly sexual intent in L’Éclipse du soleil en pleine lune, 1907. Explicit references to homosexuality (Different from the Others by Richard Oswald, 1919) have been made at different times and places, alternating in character depending on the dialectic of censorship and openness throughout the course of film history, with obscure hints or a ‘queer reading’ that deliberately belies the intentions of the producers (revealing yet another facet of queer cinema, namely that of the ever-changing gaze of the audience, which can flexibly identify with, and voyeuristically invest itself, in the experience). Identity-politics agendas of pride visibility followed – and continue to follow – in the footsteps of successful campaigns for decriminalisation, while queer questioning of identities based on sexual orientations visually gauge the opaque space of protected privacy and raise the issue of resources, in other words, who can venture to be out and proud, and when? The notion of an unproblematic depiction of LGBTQIA+ experiences in the mainstream narratives of Hollywood, Bollywood, Netflix and so on is also a recurring theme throughout film history: Do the formulas of narrative cinema also match those that were previously excluded from it? Does a gay James Bond or a lesbian detective chief inspector signify social inclusion? What is lost when queer critiques of heteronormative imageries and modes of viewing are embedded in heteronormative narrative structures?

Queer cinema is neither an identifiable canon of works nor an aesthetic and practical method of filmmaking. No matter what people may think or write about it, it cannot be pinned down and cannot be exhaustively described by a general definition. But it is interesting to examine how specific experiences of making films outside the norm are reflected in the aesthetic programmes and strategies of cinematic expression. A few examples:

Spaces. ‘Coming out’ is a spatial metaphor that denotes the act of coming out of hiding, out of the shadows of private life and into public view, out into the street as a political arena. What does this mean for cinematic work, in which film studios can serve as heterotopic safe spaces for the production of the most diverse fantasies and forms of desire (which also applies to Andy Warhol’s aluminium-clad Silver Factory and the rooftop where Jack Smith shot Flaming Creatures)? Queer film spaces (according to one possible theory) could be spaces in which the inside and the outside collapse as a binary order, or at least become permeable: the dissident desire in public (Tangerine by Sean Baker, 2015), the worldliness of private bedrooms (Jaurès by Vincent Dieutre, 2012).

Time. ‘Chrononormativity’ is a term coined by Elizabeth Freeman to describe the biographical timeline tied to heterosexuality and bisexuality that establishes productivity, reproduction, longevity and duration as absolute values. Where does this place queer experiences of rupture, of falling short of expectations, of the hedonistic celebration of the moment that will never be repeated? (The moment in Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Céline Sciamma, 2019, between the prescribed phases of education/marriage).

Emotions. Sarah Ahmed has written about ‘queer feelings’ that inhabit bodies that fail to reproduce a cultural ideal. Queer mourning (of those not socially mourned, e.g. those who died during the Aids epidemic or the Muslim-American victims of 9/11), queer discomfort (of constantly having to think about oneself and one’s otherness), queer desire (to try something new with heteronormatively shaped bodies). Musicals and melodramas come to mind here, genres of excess, of insistence, of highlighting a classic sense of aesthetics.

Narratology. The self-assured heteronormative subject tells their story (identity), starting with the (happy) end(s), with narratives that generate their own notions of unity, plausibility and coherence. Taking this as a starting point, can we grasp the experimental playfulness of queer cinema (from Kenneth Anger to Sadie Benning to Barbie)? The overt breaks, the emphasis on textures (not stories) and individual moments (how Marlene Dietrich holds a cigarette). Coming out is also a heteronarrative that forges identities.

Of course, it is important to differentiate. Queer experiences are different and are reflected in different imageries: Lesbian desire has to be liberated from the male, objectifying gaze; gay desire unfolds between de-masculinisation and participating in masculine privilege; trans subjectivity is often confronted with an intense stare at the naked body (the naked body shot) and needs to devise settings in which the characters can turn away from this gaze; queers of colour have to cope with varying visibilities which, depending on the context, can render them victims of diverse discriminations; queers with disabilities have less access to the community and to the empowerment of visual self-depiction. Conceptually allowing all of these differences does not constitute an assertion driven by identity politics or a longing to be special and privileged. Rather, it is an opportunity to share concrete experiences in a heteronormative, sexist, racist, ableist and classist world. These experiences, along with their longing to merge into the overall social fabric (minority stress is not a chic discursive figure), are inevitably depicted in a cinema in which, historically speaking (queer film festivals), a community of the diverse has emerged that is by no means exclusive and self-sufficient, but – as noted earlier – offers a critical view for the curious.

One of the most meaningful quasi-definitions of queer cinema has been adopted by Nick Davis from Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s reflections on a littérature mineure: Davis suggests that it be regarded as a ‘minor cinema’ that does not represent an alternative to mainstream cinema, but rather its intensification, amplification and impoverishment. This illustrates the ambivalence of being forced to adhere to the laws and formulas of conventional film language, while at the same time having to bring to the screen something radically different. This does not entirely bury the utopian notion of audiovisual self-representation, but the approach clearly shows that queer cinema always has an outside connection to ‘major’ or mainstream cinema. It cannot be simply clipped and hung on the walls of another galaxy.




Jan Künemund is a film critic, curator, author, scholar, film script writer and editor, living in Berlin. Currently he curates for the Festival DOK Leipzig, is part of the education project "Encounter RWF" at Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum Frankfurt, is writing review for the Berlin based newspaper Tagesspiegel and is head of public relations for Schwules Museum Berlin. Recent publications: "Queer Cinema Now!" (editor in cooperation with Christian Weber and Björn Koll, Berlin 2022), "Back to the Future - German Queer Cinema since 2000" (in cooperation with Skadi Loist), in: "Atlas of Contemporary Queer Cinema" (edited by Andrea Inzerillo, Mailand 2023).