“New Queer Cinema” is a kind of curious concept. When we talk about most film genres we can address similarly structured plot arcs, cinematography conventions, etc. that bind them. For example, noir films tend to be mysteries, they make heavy use of shadow, and they deal with subversive elements of society. New queer cinema, however, seems bound together in a very different way. The very small set of films that fall into this category represent a particular attitude that arose within films during a very specific time period, but not necessarily films that are structurally similar. That attitude has been variously described as “defiant,” “irreverent,” or “assertive.” However, I think a more accurate way of describing it is “’fuck you!’ enthusiasm,” because that’s what it’s about. New queer cinema presented a rebellious, overtly queer (in the sense that it was radically alternative to normal social expectations) sensibility that was suddenly given serious economic and popular attention, unlike anything that the previous no-budget, under-the-table queer films of the past could’ve dreamed of.
Michele Aaron points out a number of qualities that NQC represented or possessed: they deal with marginalized sub-groups within the broader LGBT label, they are unapologetic about their characters’ faults, they defy the sanctity of the past, they defy cinematic conventions, and they defy standard perceptions of death. Following these descriptions, Silas Howard and Harry Dodge’s By Hook or By Crook seems to be a pretty stellar example.
The film follows two trans men who find each other in San Francisco and form a companionship. They are poor, Valentine has a significant mental disability, they are transsexual, oh, and they rob convenience stores, but none of that is represented negatively. In fact, viewers are encouraged to support them not in spite of these traits, but almost because of them. They exist in a different station in society and that doesn’t make them any less of people. Additionally, they move to supposed gay Mecca of San Francisco but find that it is much less a paradise than it has been popularly portrayed as, suggesting that such an ad campaign is only really relevant to relatively wealthy cisgender gays.
The film techniques that are used are also somewhat unusual. There is an extensive exposition that stunts immediate immersion in the film and the general visual style is characterized by a punk aesthetic that prioritizes fast camera movement and scene cuts and a shaky handheld camera. Additionally, the narrative structure lacks the typical climactic moments that pace most mainstream movies and ends in a way that leaves many questions unanswered. Structurally, it can be uncomfortable to watch and is highly deviant from a normal movie.
The overarching theme of By Hook, though, seems to most prominently be the idea Shy and Valentine are not wrong. They are not wrong for being trans, they are not wrong for being poor, and they are not wrong for being mentally ill. This can seem very odd at first, because standard conceptions of these statuses have often relied on pathology. That’s part of why it’s NQC, though. It is confrontational and radically different from normalized conventions. As Judith Halberstam points out, Shy and Valentine live in a truly queer world, where heteronormative institutions are only peripherally encountered. For example, when Shy steals Valentine’s wallet, an act that would normally inspire quite a bit of friction between two people, Valentine actually responds positively to it and the two become even more bonded. It is a looking glass world of queer subversion that is attempting to show and entirely different possibility for human experience.
As one would expect, this mentality is found in a number of other NQC films. In particular, the world-shifting effect is very pronounced in Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, which presents an otherworld of gender non-conformity conformity and alternative family structures. They key difference, however is that in that film, the audience is very aggressively ejected out of this world when they learn of Venus Xtravaganza’s death. The otherworld that these characters inhabited, a world that is very similar to Shy and Valentine’s, runs in parallel to the normative world and when the two meet, inhabitants of the queer world rarely come out ahead.
Alternatively, one could look at a film outside of NQC that dealt with relatively similar issues of being trans and attempting to find a family. TransAmerica directed by Duncan Tucker is a good example. It emphasizes traditional family in the form of a son a transsexual woman never knew she had on a road trip across the country. Additionally, revelations about Felicity Huffman’s Bree that might attempt to humanize transwomen are brought about through emotional sympathy and a kind of conformation to normalized cultural values while maintaining a queer body, not to mention that Felicity Huffman is a cisgender woman, playing a transwoman. This is startlingly different than the fuck you attitude of NQC and By Hook which deliberately portrayed queers who were socially non-conforming, as well.
Personally, I should point out that NQC can be very difficult to watch. Deviation from film conventions can be startling and not always super successful. However, the politic should be reexamined. Is it truly progressive for the queer movement to attempt to convert the haters by presenting “model gays?”
Aaron, Michele. New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004. 3-14.
By Hook or By Crook. Dirs. Silas Howard and Harriet Dodge. 2001.
Halberstam, Judith. In Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subculture Lives. New York: NYU Press, 2005. 92-96.
Paris is Burning. Dir. Jennie Livingston. 1990.
Transamerica. Dir. Duncan Tucker. 2005.