Gay representation in cinema was at its most immediate during new queer cinema, a term coined by the academic B. Ruby Rich in 1992 to define a surging independent film movement centered on gay themes and gay filmmakers. The most politically charged contributions to new queer cinema were directly in step with the poststructuralist ideas surrounding queer theory, particularly in the way they posited sexual and gender divisions as socially relativist and subject to change with cultural shifts. You can see my five favorite films from the era after the jump.
5. The Hours and Times (dir. Christopher Munch, 1991) This black-and-white drama imagines what transpired between Brian Epstein and John Lennon during an actual vacation the two took to Spain in 1963. Though modest in scope, the film is a masterpiece of characterization that manages to balance the immense stardom of its subjects with the subjective nature of the story. A sort of pop-culture curio, it's both a compelling docudrama and an incisive commentary on hidden lives and latent desires.
4. The Garden (dir. Derek Jarman, 1990) As Jonathan Rosenbaum aptly notes in his review, one's ultimate appreciation for this visually resplendent film "depends on a fascination with sadomasochism that many viewers won't share." Indeed, this is the kind of hyperpersonal work that might alienate some viewers, but that's precisely the point. Jarman links together images in a manner that resembles abstract freestyle poetry; most of it goes over your head, but its instinctual and messy construction is pure of heart.
3. Paris Is Burning (dir. Jennie Livingston, 1990) This seminal documentary captures the height of New York City ball culture, an elaborate underground LGBT community built around competitive drag shows with highly specific themes and rules. Not only is the film an accomplished examination of a subculture and its customs, it's a trenchant commentary on race, class, and gender inequalities that pertain to any number of minority groups. It has the indispensable, evergreen quality of great journalism.
2. Mala Noche (dir. Gus van Sant, 1985) New queer cinema's great comedy of manners. The film's black-and-white 16mm photography and urban milieu give a sense of neorealism, but the weighty aesthetics don't override the unconventionally sweet and intriguingly complicated love story, one that seems true of its era and intrinsic to its setting. Shot on location in Portland's Skid Row neighborhood, at that time a hub for starving artists and barfly philosophers, it's a virtual snapshot of a highly specific time and place. The film is dated, but in all the best ways possible.
1. Go Fish (dir. Rose Troche, 1994) This local production, cast with various nonactors and local eccentrics, has a decidedly natural tone, but it also incorporates elements of fantasy and surrealism. It often feels like a home movie made among friends, unaffected and natural in tone, but Troche often implements fourth-wall-breaking interludes that rip the material from realism. But even when the film digresses into Kafkaesque metacommentary or playful dream sequence, it somehow remains completely authentic. To once again quote Rosenbaum, "This isn't a movie about lesbians; it's a movie about these lesbians, and we're likely to think of them afterward as if they were people we knew."