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
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The Independent Culture
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."