FILM / A walk on the wilder side: 'New Queer Cinema' or 'homo pomo' rejects the political correctness of the 'concerned' gay films of the Eighties in favour of reuniting the sinful old bedfellows of sex and crime. Sheila Johnston reports

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Two gay lovers murder a little boy for kicks. A couple diagnosed as HIV-positive make off on a crime spree. A prisoner rapes a fellow-convict with whom he has become sexually obsessed. An airline steward wakes up from a one-night-stand to find that his lover has deliberately infected him with Aids. More examples of Hollywood's rampant homophobia in the wake of Basic Instinct, The Silence of the Lambs and JFK? No, all these criminal customers appear in recent films - respectively, Poison, The Living End, Swoon and Via Appia - by young, gay film-makers.

In America their work is newly fashionable: Todd Haynes and Tom Kalin, the directors of Poison and Swoon, not so long ago inhabited the underground sector. Now they have been sighted draped moodily across mass-circulation glossies like Harpers and Queen: 'I've got enormous and glam press,' says Kalin a little incredulously. Their work is being touted as the 'New Queer Cinema' or, more catchily, 'homo pomo' whose hip rhyme conceals the sonorous label: 'Homosexual Post-Modernism'. B Ruby Rich, one of the first critics to comment on it, says: 'What they primarily have in common is a difference from what went before. They're not earnest, not polite. They're much more genre-based, playful about fiction and narrative, and often concerned with re-reading history from a modern, gay sensibility.'

What a significant number of them also have in common, however, is a fascination with the link between sexual 'deviance' and crime. 'It was like taking the goblins out of my imagination, putting them under a lamp and looking at them more closely,' says Kalin of his motives for making Swoon. 'I wanted to deal with something that grabbed my imagination from childhood, and that dealt with fantasy and desire in a complicated way.'

Swoon is about the celebrated case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb who, in the Twenties, kidnapped and murdered a small boy to illustrate their superiority to others, and to prove their mutual love - the same story also inspired Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and Richard Fleischer's Compulsion (1957). 'In the United States and in my own personal history, this case is where the myth of the pathological homosexual comes from. I tried to re-introduce some of the material that was originally suppressed - the open discussion of their sexuality for instance.

'I hope that Swoon neither turns the couple into victims nor unduly glamorises them. It allows you to both feel attracted to them and repulsed by what they've done and find them loathsome and cold.' Hence the grand romantic agony of his film's title. 'There's something very paradoxical about using such a rapturous word, as opposed to calling the film, say, Bludgeon. Rather than just showing them as famous murderers, I wanted the passion between them to be famous as well.'

The idea of a link between criminality and sexual transgression has a long literary lineage, stretching back through Jean Genet (whose work inspired Poison's prison-rape section) through Wilde to De Sade. Kalin paraphrases Angela Carter: 'Criminality may present itself as a saintly self-mastery, as a rejection of hypocrisy. Her reading of De Sade, while recognising how repressive and sexist his work can be perceived as, argued that there is also a way of seeing it as a subversive text.'

There are dissenting voices: Rich recalls the historical origins of these ideas, when homosexual acts were criminal, and detects a kind of reactionary romanticism in them: 'Some people were queer because they were drawn to the idea of outsider status,' she says. 'But it's a deeply ambiguous concept and there may be an unexpected cost attached.'

At the same time, the embracing of this outsider status in films like The Living End reflects a peculiarly contemporary frustration. 'There's a lot of bravado and daring to them; I suppose they are aggressive. But they reflect the anger of the Aids decade,' says Rich, noting that Gregg Araki, the director of The Living End, likes to go round calling himself an 'irresponsible' film-maker (indeed it is the name of his production company). 'Originally Aids seemed to inhibit cultural production: people were more likely to go on a demo than make a film. Now, given that a medical cure doesn't seem imminent, there is a re-investment in culture to sustain people for the long haul.'

Kalin agrees: 'In the mid-Eighties I shelved a lot of the lyrical influences on my work in the service of an activist agenda,' he says. 'There was an implicit assumption that we were in crisis and needed to avoid things driven by unruly, messy forces - that we should make polemical work that was as clear as possible. Now I think that both are possible, that unconscious and didactic voices can be juggled at the same time and actually make the most satisfying work.'

For Rich, 'concerned' gay films of the Eighties, like Longtime Companion and Parting Glances 'feel like they've come out of a different era' and the pomo subtext seems to be that this kind of soap-operettish, politically correct cinema might be worthy but also, well, just a little dull. 'Longtime Companion has a somewhat assimilationist point of view,' say Kalin. 'Which is to say: 'We're clean, we're nice, we have great summer homes, we're just like you, we just sleep with different people.' On the other hand,' he adds quickly, 'I don't want to denigrate a film that might go out to an audience somewhere in a small town in Nebraska.'

It's too soon to say yet whether the Act Up pickets, who turned out in force to vilify Basic Instinct and The Silence of the Lambs, will be there to heckle Swoon (which opens in the US today). 'I've heard some have misgivings about it, but it would be difficult to picket a gay director,' says Rich, who in any case takes a sceptical view of these protests as attention-grabbing stunts - 'After all, who wouldn't rather picket Hollywood than a health clinic?' - and points out that actually a lot of women, gay and straight, rather liked both those films for their powerhouse female protagonists.

At the same time, more mainstream Hollywood directors are waking up to gay subjects (and may wind up making exactly the kind of white-bread movies that Queer Cinema is reacting against). Jonathan Demme - a prime offender with The Silence of the Lambs - is planning a film about a homophobic lawyer who takes on the case of a man sacked for being HIV-positive. 'You can't but read his desire to make this new film as in some part due to the attack,' says Kalin. 'I can't expect the perfect movie from Demme but he is a good white liberal man who wants to respond to criticism. I'm not going to be so quick to eat him alive for that. I'm much more dubious about Francis Ford Coppola being in pre-production for The Cure, about a cure for Aids.'

Oliver Stone, a film-maker not previously noted for his progressive sexual politics, has a project about Harvey Milk, the first gay politican - and, what's more, has caved in to pressure not to direct it himself (he is now executive producing while Gus van Sant directs). 'On JFK he did do a bit of a number,' says Kalin. 'He's an egomaniac, supposedly, and a bit crazy, but at least he's not out of touch with things. My biggest fear is Robin Williams being cast as Harvey Milk . . .'

'Swoon' opens at the Metro cinema on 25 Sept. The ICA's season of New Queer Cinema includes 'No Skin Off My Ass' (now playing), 'The Hours and the Times' (opening next Friday), 'Flesh Histories' (from Wed). A two-day conference with Tom Kalin, Derek Jarman, Christine Vachon and B Ruby Rich will be held on 19-20 Sept. Details: 071-930 3647. 'The Living End' plays in the London Film Festival in November and opens later this year.

(Photographs omitted)