For decades now, “new queer cinema” (a term first coined in a Sight & Sound article written by B. Ruby Rich, but one with roots that can be traced back even further) has been in existence – a movement whereby the focus of a film, and subsequently the themes in which it explores, challenged both the status quo of heterosexual dominance and shifted focus onto LGBT characters, their relationships and their struggles not only to conform to society, but also to maintain a certain level of self-respect and individuality.
Films such as My Own Private Idaho, Paris is Burning, Totally Fucked Up and My Beautiful Laundrette came and went, with none making as big an impact as their respective directors (Gus Van Sant, Jennie Livingston, Gregg Araki and Stephen Frears) had hoped. It’s only in recent years, as beliefs and standards have shifted, that this movement has started to pick up pace, with filmmakers – whether they be writers, directors or producers acting on behalf of a specific independent film studio – becoming more and more confident in their abilities and the power of cinema; and audiences becoming less governed by society and more open-minded.
It’s perhaps films that have been released over the past decade that have had the most noticeable impact, however. The positive reactions to such well-known films as Brokeback Mountain and Milk, to the overwhelming success of other, less high-profile releases, including Mysterious Skin and Weekend, represent a change in society’s increased acceptance towards same-sex relationships and the representation of LGBT themes and ideas within modern-day cinema. There’s no clear way of understanding how or why this shift has happened, or why people have been so responsive to the aforementioned films, but if I were to hazard a guess, it would be because the films are gentler and less smothering, yet still as bold and unique as is necessary.
Take Brokeback Mountain, for example. Focusing on two married and headstrong men (one a cowboy and the other a ranch hand) who develop a deep romantic love for one another over the course of a few years as they are forced to spend night after night together in the harsh, lonely grasslands of Wyoming, Brokeback Mountain was brought to the screen by acclaimed Taiwanese director Ang Lee and marked the first time a major film studio, Focus Features, had invested so much money, time and effort into a film with a narrative principally devoted to a same-sex relationship. Weekend, though far less expensive yet arguably more successful in terms of critical acclaim and the most recent of the two (it was released in November of last year), took things a step further, centering exclusively on two men and the intense and erotically charged relationship they have over a brief two day period.
It’s here then, in the year 2012, that we can see just how far queer cinema has come since its early conception. The LGBT community is becoming increasingly well represented in a wider variety of films, whether they be big-budget or low-budget. Actors are using their star power and influential positions to advocate gay rights. And, most importantly, there are more films and TV series with at least one gay character in their cast than ever before, each happily and confidently portrayed by an actor or actress, regardless of their own sexuality. It’s a testament, then, not only to an ever-changing society, but also a changing film industry – the implementation and growth achieved by independent film studio Peccadillo Pictures, for instance – that many gay film enthusiasts, myself included, are pleased with the progress that’s been made.
That said, I have – and still to this day – understand some people’s trepidation towards queer cinema, I really do. But when you have so many filmmakers nowadays doing their utmost to award a continued voice and platform to a section of society that’s not exactly had the same concentration as, say, the heterosexual community has, then surely you have to give them the credit they deserve for standing up for what they believe in and using their position to aid in the fight for equality. Whether or not you believe the same shouldn’t matter. Film has been- and most likely always will be – a subjective medium, and so queer themes and ideas deserve their place just as much as any others.