Queer Cinema Starter Pack by Seán McGovern
Illustration by Joshua Osborn
In an age of utter connectedness there is something radical about entering a darkened space, with rows of seats all facing in one direction, and temporarily removing yourself from the world. And as the world we live in seems increasingly strange and ominous, comfort yourself by remembering that only last year a tiny film about black queer kids was the Best Picture at the Oscars. And that this year, an LGBT film where the greatest threat to the characters lives is heartbreak, could do the exact same thing.
But just because straight society is taking notice of us doesn't mean there hasn't been nearly a century of queers on screen, and we don't need gold statuettes to know these queer histories. Sure, some of it may have been proto-homo, but we have claimed plenty of queer-adjacent films as our own. The films below are by no means definitive in the canon of Queer Cinema but are a starter pack for the riches you may want to discover. And since there are many colours to our rainbow, remember that our legacies aren't consigned to the past!
Tongues Untied (dir. Marlon Riggs, USA, 1989)
A polemic, poetic portrait of sex and AIDS in the black community, Tongues Untied by Marlon Riggs states that “black men loving black men is the revolutionary act.” Riggs was a poet and filmmaker, and in 55 powerful minutes tackles racism, safer sex, love, anger, civil rights and identity. Marlon Riggs laid the foundations for a film like Moonlight to follow nearly thirty years later. You won't be able to take your eyes away from the radical magic on screen. It also acts as a reminder of why Eddie Murphy is an ignorant prick.
United in Anger (Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman, dirs., USA, 2012)
In 2012, How to Survive A Plague by David France was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars. It's a slick, richly detailed and powerful film about the AIDS Crisis. It has, however, an angrier little sister in the form of United in Anger, by Hubbard and Schulman. Their film takes a panoramic look at the work of ACT UP and interestingly, the women who fought alongside people with AIDS (predominantly gay men). United, they fought against the inequality and prejudice that faced the LGBT community. It's the responsibility of every LGBT person to know who our heroes were in fighting for the life-saving treatments that exist today, and many of the subjects are still around today. It's also a handy reminder that change doesn't always come about by being polite!
Female Trouble (dir. John Waters, USA, 1974)
I don't know about you, but I first discovered John Waters on the classic Simpsons episode “Homer's Phobia”, and sooner or later I heard he made drag queen Divine eat dog shit in Pink Flamingoes. There's a lot more than that of course, and amongst his filthy repertoire is this anarchic classic where “crime is beauty!” Female Trouble, like many of John Waters' films, makes an unhealthy amount of sly observations about society at large, uttered from the filthy mouthes of its pllayers. Divine is Dawn Davenport, a young girl who spirals out of control after not getting her cha-cha heels on Christmas day. What follows is a life of crime and unspeakable beauty. Amongst Waters' grubby ouvre, this standout will set you down a dangerous path. And if nothing else, watch it for Edith Massey's Aunt Ida's who proclaims that “the world of hetrosexuals is a sick and boring life!”
All About Eve (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, USA, 1950)
All About Eve is not a queer movie. Or maybe it is? Regardless, it's a queer-adjacent classic with dialogue so tart that you really can't quote any of it without holding a deadly-dry gin martini in one hand. And to think straight people were involved in making this! Bette Davis is Margo Channing, an actress over forty who is being slowly usurped by a younger, hungrier starlet studying her in every way. It invites a whole load of interpretation – as to whether young Eve, played by Anne Baxter, is trying to replicate and replace her. Maybe Eve is a stand-in for commumism, if you like? Either way, All About Eve is the reason we are still fascinated by Bette Davis, and if you've never seen one of her many, many films, this is essential viewing. It's a queer classic, whether it wants to be or not.
Mädchen in Uniform (dir. Leontine Sagan, Germany, 1931)
What remains stunning about this film from the Weimar Republic is basically everything about it. In 2018 we still clamour for positive representation of young queers on screen, and in Mädchen in Uniform, our girls face off teenage hormones and an oppressive headmistress without anyone having to die (spoiler, I know). A female director and cast, the film was eventually branded “decadent” by the Nazis, of course, and faced bans and near-bans elsewhere. Take a look at this inspiring classic from 1931 and our progress since will seem slightly less groundbreaking.
Bound (The Wachowskis, USA 1996)
Bound is a very special film. A butch/femme neo-noir. It was lauded on release for being a tightly-wound, twisted homage to Billy Wilder. Aside from having the sex scenes choreographed by esteemed sexologist Susie Bright, the whole stone-cold project seemed not to stem from the typical male gaze one would expect from its directors... and for good reason. Bound is a film directed by two transgender sisters, Lana and Lilley Wachowski, who created both Bound and Matrix trilogy while still presenting as male. It doubly queers the content, flips the view and gives so much depth to a work of such quality. With lesbianism commonly used as a convenient/horny/retrograde plot device by cis-het filmmakers, the sisters gave Bound an entirely different appreciation years after its release. And if that's not enough, I have two words for you: Gina. Gershon.
A Fantastic Woman (dir. Sebastián Leilo, Chile, 2017)
While Call Me By Your Name secured a nomination for Best Picture at this year's Oscars, elsewhere in Best Foreign Language Film is Sebastián Leilo's A Fantastic Woman. Leilo's broad brushstrokes create something hypnotic and fantastical. Transgender actress Daniela Vega, who is in nearly every scene, carries the film with the ease you'd expect from a bonafide star. Leilo is a director who seems laser pointed on interesting female characters (he's remaking his previous hit Gloria, in English and starring Julianne Moore, Hello!) And A Fantastic Woman isn't the only film breaking ground this year, with Yance Ford who has recently become the first transgender filmmaker nominated for an Oscar, for his feature length documentary, Strong Island.
The Watermelon Woman (dir. Cheryl Dunye, USA, 1996)
While we now expect LGBT cinema to be driven by LGBT filmmakers, as little ago as the early 90s this entire idea seemed both novel and radical. New Queer Cinema began in the early 90s and included young, daring and provocative filmmakers with names like Todd Haynes, Kimberley Pierce and Gregg Araki. Among these luminaries was Cheryl Dunye. The Watermelon Woman wasn't only a film about a young back lesbian loving and living her life, but whose own personal goal was to give names to the uncredited black women of early Hollywood film. Dunye's place in history is as the first queer black woman to direct a feature length film. Her contribution to cinema includes the talent of the women of colour who followed, collaborating on Queen Sugar with Ava DuVernay, who is breaking records of her own.
Rope (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1948)
While by no means pioneering, positive or even harmlessly stereotypical, Hitchcock's Rope is included to bring to our attention to the role of “psychotic murderer” - another queer character-type on screen. See, it wasn't all hairdressers! Inspired by the real life Leopold & Loeb murder, the film stars Farley Granger and John Dall as two intellectual aesthetes who have read too much Nietzsche and decide to kill a classmate they believe to be of lesser worth. Enter their old prep school headmaster, Jimmy Stewart, (who by definition must know a thing or two about homosexuality, amirite?) who sees through their dastardly crime. While the film wasn't able to underline the fact the two characters are gay, it was widely acknowledged, given the rumours that were attached to the murderers the film was based on. What makes Rope important in evaluating our history is that from the mid-twentieth century, queers on screen were essentially in three categories: sissies, victims and killers. The notion that “transgressive” sexualities were linked to murder lasted well into other decades: Cruising (1980), Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Basic Instinct (1992) being just three others. In 2004, Tom Kalin took the real-life Leopold & Loeb story and queered it, in Swoon.
My Beautiful Launderette ( dir. Stephen Frears, UK, 1985)
And lastly, a film in which an ex-fascist falls in love with a Pakistani launderette worker. It's central love story exists alongside a political divide: Daniel Day Lewis as a reformed white-nationalist, Gordon Warnecke as the son of left-wing Pakistani journalist. This is Thatcher's Britain after all. Three years after the release of My Beautiful Launderette, Maggie T implemented Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which stated that local authorities (and consequently, society in general) "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality." It only left the statute books when it was finally abolished by Labour in 2003. The good thing about film, however, is that it lasts.
Joshua Osborn is a London-based artist specialising in line drawing. Osborn began his career at drawing at London Fashion Week where his continued interest in illustrated reportage lead him to regularly contribute to online and print publications, including The-Out-Net. Using few marks on the page Osborn continues to balance form and energy to entertain the model of beauty.