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'Brokeback Mountain' Ushered in a New Era of Gay Cinema

In honor of the ten-year anniversary of the release of the iconic gay Western, we spoke to B. Ruby Rich, the film scholar who coined the term 'new queer cinema,' to discuss the evolution of gayness on the silver screen.

by Rod Bastanmehr
13 December 2015, 2:30pm

This week marked the ten-year anniversary of Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain. Since the film was released, a seismic shift has happened in American culture. The dialogue around gay marriage intensified, resulting in a historic Supreme Court decision forcing all 50 states to legally recognize same sex marriages. Meanwhile, the visibility of the trans community continued to grow thanks to figures like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and the public transition of Caitlyn Jenner. And Apple's Tim Cook became the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company, proving that the tech giant is living up to its "Think Different" credo.

Since 2005, LGBT rights have frequently been at the forefront of some larger conversations about visibility, equality, and justice, often with pop culture guiding the discussions. Pop stars became advocates; reality television mainstays became radical figureheads; gender and sexual fluidity became so widely discussed that some even began to muse the notion of transracial identity, to varying degrees of success.

So where have the movies been? Almost ten years to the day of Brokeback's release, Todd Haynes's lesbian melodrama Carol begins its push into awards season, nabbing five Golden Globe nominations, including Best Drama. The film is just one of the mainstream's new additions to the canon of gay cinema, joining the ranks of Milk, The Kids Are Alright, Blue Is The Warmest Color, and more as the next stage in what film critic and professor B. Ruby Rich dubbed "new queer cinema," referring to the independent, queer-themed cinema that made up much of the early 1990s. This new breed of the past decade is less interested in the fringe or radical experimentation, choosing instead to trade grit for glitz and explore the totems of genre and awards bait. Look no further than Haynes's own work to see this schism: In 1991, his NC-17 film Poison helped launch the genre, while this year's Carol is a serious candidate for a Best Picture statue.

We spoke to Rich on where gay cinema has developed in the ten years since Brokeback and where it's headed now, and just why we find ourselves so fascinated with the gay past while living in such a gay present.

VICE: The last ten years have been pretty radical for the gay movement, at least in terms of how quickly everything seemed to happen. During this time, what's the relationship between culture and politics like?
B. Ruby Rich: I suppose the last ten years have been about shifting technologies as much as shifting legalities. I've thought a lot about what online streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Prime have done to change the landscape of queer representation. I suppose that's especially that last two to three years, but I remember everybody use to talk about "cable channels." Now with the rise of television as the central platform for new work and new ideas—and I mean television in a very broad sense, it's really anything you watch on screened devices alone—I think it's made a big difference in how much there is to watch, how people watch it, and how people absorb it.

You wrote in The Guardian ten years ago that Brokeback Mountain is the type of film that comes around every so often and manages to shift the scope of the culture and signal a new era. Is this the kind of seismic shift you were talking about, or is the film model so far from where we're at now that it's actually proved to be a completely different kind of moment?
I would have to say that this is a completely different kind of moment [laughs]. I mean I don't want to underestimate the extent to which Brokeback did its work, because it really did. It changed attitudes across generations. It was obviously extremely powerful among gay men, but it was also unimaginably transformative for people in rural areas outside of major metropolises. And even across race, because of the ways it encapsulated attitudes of repression and disapproval that hipster white kids in cities weren't necessarily feeling.

So Brokeback was really something of a corrective. It's almost a historical film from the start of an emerging movement, frankly. And I think its work was done in the years following it. By now, it's been so totally absorbed in pop culture that it might not be an active influence in the same way. But having said that, there might be a kid in the middle of the country discovering it right now as we're talking. So it's probably still a lifeline.

Well, that movie also had a very unique response. It was sort of bigger than just the movie itself, and kind of had an early viral element to it.
Right, it had memes. There was a Bush-Cheney "Why can't I quit you?" meme, and all kinds of parodies and comedy sketches, but at the same time, maybe less visibly in the mainstream. Focus Features basically created a message board on the film's website where people could share their personal stories, which got so much attention. I was really struck by how current that film's level of isolation and alienation still was. So I think that in some ways, the film helped flush that out into the public eye a little bit more.

So Brokeback was really something of a corrective. It was almost a historical film from the moment it was released, frankly — B. Ruby Rich, film critic and scholar

You're noted for coining the term "new queer cinema," referring to the era of independent films released in the 1990s that really began to deal with gay issues. Is there a definable arc in gay cinema that you can trace, that's either been retroactively formed by scholars or purposefully informed by the filmmakers?
Well, there are different stages of it that have so much to do with what's going on in society. First there was a very long period when it was in the eye of the beholder, so it really all had to do with subtext. It was about people queering the work, as it were.

Especially with Westerns, which sort of comes back to the larger significance of Brokeback.
Especially with Westerns, but honestly especially with everything [laughs]. Everything was coded, and audiences knew how to decode it for themselves, while mainstream audiences could watch the film on a more safe, vanilla level. But I think what changed was the emergence of this very sober gay documentary movement. Whatever the fight, there were documentaries exploring these lives. The Word Is Out was one of the first to play in theaters. I remember people talking about it as this important moment, and it leads directly to The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, which is the first real classic gay film in that modern era. And happily, I was a bureaucrat in the New York State Council for the Arts back then and I funded it.

How did these documentaries serve as an influence for the type of narrative films we'd end up seeing really soon after?
Well, it was really happening right along side it, right at the time during the early-80s, where you began to see all these new American films that make it and we're not just seeing imports from France or Germany. There begins to be a kind of homegrown filmmaking practice. The precursors are really in the 80s: Lizzie Borden Born in Flames or Parting Glances; you have Gus Van Sant's first film, Malla Noche.

What exactly is the DNA of those films? They're all very urban and really prioritize the look and feel of grit.
Yes, very urban and gritty. Just very "we're here, we're queer, get use to it." They're very much in line with the actual political tenor of those times. I mean, they're reacting to Regan-Bush. And even though Clinton gets elected in '92, these films are responding to this political malaise that covers the entire decade, which prompts these culture wars, the rise of the Christian right. All of this is going on alongside the beginning, boiling moments of these films. And of course, AIDS. They're not reacting to the first years of the crisis, and I think that's significant, because they're actually coming out of this moment when people are exhausted, and huge numbers of people have already died, and it's an attempt to begin to make sense of what's going on. These films want to speak back to this decimated community about what's important, about who they are, about how to think about queerness.

A still from 'Carol,' courtesy of Dimension Films

Do you think that radicalism has sort of evaporated a bit? Because the new Todd Haynes film, Carol, is a period piece, much like Brokeback, and it really removes us from any AIDS context or any contemporary climate. It's very beautiful, but it's also very concerned with its own beauty. So how do you sort of negotiate that?
It's a really good question. For one thing, following Mildred Pierce, it really confirms Todd Haynes as the director of 'women's pictures,' which is what gay men used to be in Hollywood years back. So it's funny that he's been so perfectly slotted back into this position. But this is a project about reimagining the past from a queer-friendly present. Carol is obviously very different from anything else that was made during that period, but it's almost like a gift for the past. Like, If we could have had this film then, here's what it might have been like.

I also can't help but wonder if it signals a real percipient nostalgia for pre-AIDS days of repression. Pre-AIDS, pre-Stonewall; the sexiness of repression.

Or even a fear of real radicalism of any kind.
No, I wouldn't say that, because it's really about recognizing that something was actually lost. We always talk about gay history in terms of gains. We think, Thank god we don't live in the 50 anymore. But I also think there is something that's been lost, and that's a certain kind of romance, a certain kind of sexiness that has to do with taboo, with those times, with those bad ole days.

As you're working it out right now, would you say that that's reflecting the public's appetite in some way?
I'll tell you one thing that I was thinking about while admiring Carol, which is the effect Netflix has had on people now watching movies alone. But I think that the solitary viewing experience is becoming the dominant one. Maybe with a friend or a small group of friends, or with a partner or lover, but that's still very different from going out into a world that constitutes the public. I've begun to notice that there is a privatizing of viewing, and the refusal of the public. And even in the films, you see a demonizing of the group! We see it in Ira Sachs's Love Is Strange, where this party scene is meant to stand in for some horrors of life. In the early days of new queer cinema, that would have been a triumphant scene. And one has to assume that the filmmaker might feel the same.

When films want to celebrate the group, they can only do so by going into the past. So a film like Pride valorizes the beauty of the group, but sets itself back into the time of the miner's strike. It might be coincidental, and it's not a large sample, but I'm beginning to wonder if downloading and streaming is affecting the kind of stories we want to be told, and the films that are therefore being made.

I agree with that, and I feel like I saw that in Carol most apparently, because it was one of the first gay films where violence doesn't feel like it's teeming just below the surface. You know, The Crying Game, Boy's Don't Cry, Brokeback—all these movies feel like there is something violent and tragic waiting just around the bend. This really undeniable tension.
I would say there is much more violence towards men and trans women than with lesbians. This is of course in the US, it's not true of other places, like South Africa. But in both of those films, the couples are under surveillance. In Brokeback, the boss is watching them with his binoculars from one mountain over. And in Carol, it's her husband's detective. So there may not be a threat of physical violence, but the violence aimed at Carol is about her child being taken away from her, which for that era is violent.

These are both genre films. Is genre a constructive way of going about pushing queer cinema forward?
Oh absolutely, there is a lot of pleasure to be found in genre, because we all recognize the tropes. It should be more than just avant-garde or experimental film because it tends to be a frozen category, and it's a genre too. I think that a lot of this work has to do with bending genre, and making it do something that it wasn't originally designed to do. Genre is almost like a wardrobe choice. It decides the lens, the paint, the feel, the pace, and then that's when you see what we have.

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