Through the Looking-Glass, and What Queers Found There

“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.

Kevin Zegers and Felicity Huffman in Transamerica

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?”

Works Cited

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.

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2 thoughts on “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Queers Found There

  1. wednesdaywild

    I love the distillation of the genre to “fuck you! enthusiasm”–I think it captures the celebratory and optimistic nature of the type of resistance that NQC embodies. I remember watching TransAmerica when I was in high school and feeling very safe the whole time. The slickness of this independent production looked familiar and the fact that Felicity Huffman is a cisgender woman just left me marveling at her performance the whole time rather than confronting the reality of a transsexual woman’s body (since it wasn’t there). In a way, this reminds me of the negation and denial of homosexuality in Rope, where the very topic that the film centers on is only gestured at and never presented straightforwardly in its full reality. Viewers of TransAmerica are asked to care because Huffman’s character is goodhearted and viewers should come to the conclusion that transgender people “are really just like us.” While I think there’s a place for that kind of sentiment and it’s fine if it has some sort of positive effect on people, it’s much more compelling and meaningful to be subversive than to tug at people’s heart strings. Maybe it’s just the next step.

    By Hook or By Crook is a challenge in a holistic sense. I used to be very turned off by low-fi aesthetics and movies about and by people who are never represented in mainstream films (I’m thinking of Third Cinema here too, which is coming right up in our course). I hated the feeling of uncertainty it stirred in me and I simply thought what I saw was ugly. After being unwillingly exposed to these unfamiliar films in various courses, I now feel like these forms of cinema are often richer and truer than the movies we are all raised on and taught to desire and be comfortable with despite how distant they are from lived reality.

  2. channabach

    There are some interesting ideas here, and you’ve chosen an interesting collection of films to compare. However, there are no citations in your post, and none of your claims are supported by textual evidence (which includes quoted and analyzed passages, as well as in-text citations). Further, you don’t really engage with or explain what Aaron and Halberstam mean by the arguments they do, and your own arguments suffer for this lack of explication. Make sure to follow all assignment directions and requirements to avoid losing points.

    I’m curious about your writing of Val and Shy as trans men. What evidence from the film might you provide for this claim? Halberstam talks about them as butches (as do the directors), and in the film itself there isn’t a clear designation. If you want to make the argument that the characters are constructed as trans men, not butches or genderqueers or any other set of gender identities, you could certainly do so but you’ll need to provide filmic evidence and analysis to support this claim.

    You nicely identify some of the film’s politics in terms of the way it constructs disability, queer gender, and poverty. But what specific scenes might you analyze to support these claims? There are good ideas here, but without filmic evidence and explication they fall rather flat. You have a lot of material to choose from though—how precisely does the film depathologize disability, queer gender, and poverty?

    Paris is Burning and TransAmerica are really interesting examples of NQC and non-NQC films. What do you make of the significantly different racial politics of the film? How does each construct gender and sexuality through race and class? What point is being made in each about white U.S. nationalisms, and their violences? They seem to have quite importantly different relationships to this, no?

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