Film: Queer vision, straight talking

Unprotected gay sex, S&M, Aids-revenge fantasies - the New Queer Cinema had no time for PC ethics. But now that generation of directors is moving with the times and making queer films to embrace straight audiences. By Liese Spencer

This is my first heterosexual movie," says Gregg Araki of The Doom Generation. Released this week, the second instalment of his Teen Apocalypse Trilogy is a wildly provocative stomach-churner of a road movie that satirises the romantic couple-on-the run genre with a surreal splatter-fest of stylised sex and violence. "In the way that Philadelphia and Longtime Companion were gay films for straight people," says Araki, "Doom is a straight movie for gay people."

Confused? You should be. Doom Generation, along with forthcoming releases from Go Fish director Rose Troche and Safe's Todd Haynes, aims to blur the boundaries between gay and straight, identity politics and entertainment. Swapping PC manifestos for a more subtle queering of the mainstream, the generation of young film-makers once grouped under the banner of "New Queer Cinema" is escaping the low-budget, festival-circuit ghetto to introduce its subversive aesthetic to a wider audience.

The term "New Queer Cinema" was coined at the Sundance film festival in 1992 by Ruby Rich, a Village Voice journalist, to describe a bunch of gay directors united by an unapologetic, in-your-face attitude towards their sexuality. Eschewing the red-ribbon liberal rhetoric of the Aids era, these film-makers were less interested in offering a "body count" of positive gay representation than in twisting narrative and generic conventions to explore ideas of social alienation and the construction of identity, in particular "deviancy".

Tom Kahn's 1992 post-modern period piece Swoon used the story of the infamous Twenties child-killers Leopold and Loeb to describe how society pathologises homosexuality in the act of defining it. Haynes's feature Poison had covered similar ground the year before. A queer portmanteau movie, it combined Jean Genet with B-movie sci-fi and rites-of-passage docu-drama to produce an elegant and intellectually rigorous response to hysterical media representations of homosexuality and Aids.

As its original title, Fuck The World, suggests, Araki's first feature was a more visceral reaction to the epidemic. A self-styled "irresponsible movie", 1992's The Living End featured two HIV-positive lovers on the lam. An angry answer to both the homophobia of the right and the fearful PC caution of the left, it was full of explicit unprotected gay sex, S&M and Aids-inspired revenge fantasies, in which Araki's glamorous outlaws fantasised about going to White House to inject Bush with their blood.

These, then, were the main players of New Queer Cinema, although other film-makers were loosely embraced by the label, including more established directors, such as Gus Van Sant and Derek Jarman. Drawing on the legacy of Cocteau, Warhol, Fassbinder and Kenneth Anger these directors employed experimental methods to describe the diversity of their difference.

"What I loved about the New Queer Cinema," Haynes later told journalists, "wasn't that it was gay film-makers making films about gay people. What I loved was the fact that it was a group of films which all had their different stylistic or formal approaches to the stories they were telling. People were thinking about the way we see the world. Whether we're looking at a gay character or a straight character, we will see the world differently."

Unfortunately, this otherwise eclectic group all saw a world without women, their movies reproducing the same male-dominated world of any Hollywood blockbuster. Indeed, it is possible that New Queer Cinema marginalised the female of the species still further. No longer even objects of desire, the few women who made it into these films were figures of parody and revulsion. Off screen the story was the same. New Queer Cinema was a boys club, and only retrospectively were lesbian directors such as Rose Troche added to its roll call of talent.

Mainstream film has always cannibalised the alternative in its search for new subjects and visual styles. In return, many of the film-makers in that first wave of New Queer Cinema appropriated negative stereotypes and exploitative images for their own ends. But these days things have become more complicated. Patronising, populist dramas such as Philadelphia have made way for the commercial, feel-good camp of movies such as Muriel's Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Queer directors such as Van Sant have been assimilated into Hollywood (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's male bonding in Good Will Hunting a far cry from River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho). Gay characters have been tamed from sexual predators into pet best friends: The Afflicted Other as The Object of My Affection.

For their part, many queer directors are using bigger budgets, mixed casts and conventional narratives to make more commercial pictures. Doom Generation abandons the shoot-and-run "guerrilla" tactics of Araki's previous films for polished 35mm imagery and a kinetic MTV take on juvenile delinquency. Araki's HIV-positive outlaws are replaced by high school lovers Rose McGowan and James Duval, who hook up with Jonathan Schaech's psychotic bisexual after the accidental murder of a fast-food clerk. Combining a distinctly camp, surf-speak philosophy ("I feel like a gerbil smothered in Richard Gere's asshole") with schlocky scenes of death, sex and decapitation, Doom is the queer answer to straight exploitation flicks such as Natural Born Killers.

Haynes's forthcoming glam rock epic, Velvet Goldmine, looks back to the Seventies as a time when gender-bending role play and sexual and sartorial experimentation escaped from gay subculture into the mainstream. Rather than the Nineties' apolitical assimilation of gay ideas and aesthetics, Goldmine's nostalgic period piece sees the Seventies' queering of the mainstream as a radical moment in which personal freedom went hand in glove with glam's concept of identity as performance.

"It was a period when the integrationist spirit was still very much alive" says Haynes, "and androgyny and bisexuality were very much in vogue. I tend to see it as a more progressive time than now."

Troche's new feature, Bedrooms and Hallways (still without a distributor), is more upbeat about the Nineties. Made for pounds 2.2 million, it presents a farcical ronde of chic London relationships that highlights the liberating mutability of contemporary sexual identity.

Of all the New Queer directors, Kahn has probably stayed closest to his low-budget, experimental roots, writing (in 1996) the screenplay for Office Killer, the camp pastiche on office politics, alienation and female identity by Cindy Sherman, an American photographer. Like his contemporaries, however, Kahn's recent work shows a move away from a singular, affirmative identification with male gayness towards a broader queer aesthetic.

Introducing women and straight characters, queer cinema in the Nineties has widened its sights to portray a fluid pansexuality accessible to gay and straight audiences alike. Cynics might say that New Queer film-makers are simply growing up and selling out. Certainly, in a bid for broader distribution the muscular gay sex of The Living End and Poison has been replaced by censor-friendly off-screen orgasms and a more diffuse homoeroticism. Coitus interruptus figures heavily (just as James Duval and Jonathan Schaech are about to consummate their relationship in Doom Generation, a group of homophobes intervene; in Nowhere, the last installment of the Teen Apocalypse Trilogy, one of two lust-filled boys just happens to turn into a cockroach). Then again, perhaps the wider appeal and more commercial approach of these new movies merely signals a mature Queer Cinema that is confident enough to enter the mainstream without losing its critical gay voice.

Just as straight dramas often use gay characters to confirm the status quo, new work by Araki, Haynes and Troche employs gay and bisexual characters to disturb the heterosexual norm. Doom's Schaech may seduce Rose McGowan, but it's the desire between Schaech and Duval that really drives the film. Similarly, the real romance in Velvet Goldmine is not between Jonathan Rhys-Meyer's glam god Brian Slade and wife Toni Colette, but between Slade and Ewan McGregor's grunge icon Curt Wild.

By appropriating mainstream styles and ideas, these queer movies reveal their artifice, slyly positing free-floating desire as an alternative to happy-ever-after heterosexuality. As Araki says of Doom: "It's heterosexual in a very queer way, which is something that is really interesting for me. I think that of the movies I've made it's the most subversive... I call it Last Tango in Paris for teenagers."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album