Giant Queer Movies!
B. Ruby Rich is an icon in the film world, the epitome of festival circuit celebrity and academic chic. She has worked as a cultural critic and festival programmer since the mid-'70s, serving on the jury of film festivals from Toronto to Guadalajara. In 1992, Rich wrote a ground breaking essay for the Village Voice on what she described as a burgeoning "New Queer Cinema" (NQC). Since then, Rich has been the definitive voice on queer cinema's history and trajectory, frequently weighing in on the subject in print and on radio. On the opening weekend of Brokeback Mountain, Rich spoke via telephone about the film and its relationship to NQC.
OC Weekly:In the Guardian you wrote of Brokeback, "Every once in a while a film comes along that changes our perceptions . . . that cinema history thereafter has to arrange itself around it. . . . Even for audiences educated by a decade of the New Queer Cinema phenomenon . . . it's a shift in scope and tenor so profound as to signal a new era." What is this new era, and how does it relate to the pioneering work of NQC in the '90s?
B. Ruby Rich: I think it's something very different from the pioneering work of the '90s. I loved that work, but it very much came out of the AIDS crisis in the '80s; they were haunted by death in the background, sometimes in the foreground. NQC was about affirming life and love, about an open sexuality, and about refusing whispering, refusing hiding. [Ultimately] it was work that was being made outside of the mainstream but demanded to be seen. In that sense I think it was kind of a filmic corollary to what was going on with movements like RIOT GRRRLS or, earlier on, the punk movement. NQC was a cultural movement with a very strong political foundation, creating a new style to go with its message. It was less interested in pouring new wine into old bottles. [Also,] NQC was almost exclusively urban. It was about the communities in big cities that were being decimated [by the AIDS crisis] and about the queer communities in those cities that wanted a more visible place in the culture world.
How, then, does Brokeback differ from NQC?
This is a completely different kind of film. Brokeback isn't made by a gay director, [nor] is it coming out of a political movement. [The film is made] by Ang Lee who, to my mind, is one of the most mainstream and successful directors we have. What I think is very different about it—apart from its platform—is that Brokeback takes on genre. Genre is something that everybody else was turning away from—with the exception of romantic comedy, which is something we're always being offered by Hollywood, like, here's a place for you. Certainly the Western, which is one of (if not the most) sacred genres in American cinema, would have seemed like the last place to go looking for a queer story. That changed, of course, a bit with Boys Don't Cry, which is in a sense a kind of modern western. Brokebackis really taking it all the way back to mountaintops and horses and in a sense swapping the subtext for the text, saying, we've always had our suspicions about that homosocial world and here's a story that allows us to make those suspicions explicit, tactile, romantic, and tragic. I think it's a film that's different in scope and focus than what came before, different in terms of where it's coming from and where it's going to. I expect, speaking now on opening weekend, that Brokeback will go into a much broader and wider release than the [queer] films that came before it.
Speaking of genre, you've suggested in the past that queer genre movies (i.e. horror flick Hellbent) siphon viewers away from more challenging films like the recent Mysterious Skin and Tarnation. Why, then, doesBrokebackwork as a genre flick?
Brokeback isn't just a western with a gay twist. This is a film that wraps genre around queerness and not the other way around. Brokebacknot only queers the western but it also queers the entire [Wyoming] landscape. In that sense Brokeback has raised the bar for subsequent films in terms of its platform, production budget, casting, and in terms of what's possible for a gay love tragedy. Brokeback offers the potential of thinking in much bigger terms than people have felt was possible. I think the film permits a wildly expansive imaginary to sneak back in at a time when all the GLBT issues are being parsed so narrowly and bitterly. We're in the midst of an endless gay marriage debate, for instance, and it's hard to imagine anything that could be more acceptable to conservatives. Every time any issue arises in national political discourse it seems to get bloodied. The great thing about culture is that you don't need a vote. You can get films [like Brokeback] into theatres without a filibuster.
Many film critics seem to dismiss the film by noting other ostensibly "queer westerns"—notably, Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys. What do you think about that?
I have been astonished by this. Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys was hardly a queer western—it was a Warhol film. Something made 40 years ago in a completely different context with a completely different aim and style is hardly a reason to slam the door shut. I've been fascinated by the whole media swirl around Brokeback and the obsession with how the film is going to do and how will affect everyone's careers. I'm beginning think this obsession is a kind of homophobic hysteria taking root, a sort of will he or won't he, does he or doesn't he, is he or isn't he kind of mania that's descended on this film. I can't remember when I've seen anything like it.
The narrative of Brokeback is set in 1963, six years before the Stonewall riots and the advent of modern queer identity politics. Given the pre-Stonewall narrative, what does it mean for viewers of this film to use Brokeback as an intervention into contemporary debates like gay marriage?
That's a really good question. You have to remember that whenever we go into the past—whenever anyone writes a historical novel or makes a period film—we're always in a sense engaging in some argument about the present. It's impossible to be off base in laying any interpretation on the story. On the other hand, you're right, it was a different time. Here is something from the files of the Mattachine Society [an early gay rights organization] from 1963, the same year as in Brokeback.
"Forman was but one voice of many crying out from the nation's hinterland, alerted to the Mattachine Society by word of mouth . . . 'While it is not clear whether Forman ever made it to San Francisco, he did send . . . at least one more letter that indicates he marshaled his resources to make such a move. On 24 March 1963, he wrote that his contact at the placement agency in San Francisco "stated he could place me anytime . . . [so] I think I'll be able to make it by Summer." He imagined that upon his arrival in San Francisco, "it sure will be wonderful to be able to . . . be among friends. I have nothing here [in Kentucky]. No friends, no one to talk to." . . . Dreams of moving to San Francisco, whether or not they were ever realized, were familiar to . . . the Mattachine Society who regularly heard stories of how bad things were in other parts of the country." [From Martin Meeker's Behind the Mask of Respectability: Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and Male Homophile Practice 1950s-1960s].
In a roundabout way that's my answer to your question. The Mattachine Society did exist then—it was contacted by gay men suffering in isolated places throughout the country and was a beacon of hope for people who knew enough to know about it. Both the Daughters of Bilitis for women and the Mattachine Society were very aware of this brokeback kind of story.
When asked about the state of queer cinema in May 2004, you answered, "It's over. It's a niche market. It's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. It's the worst nightmare of every gay activist from the 1970s and 1980s who said, 'If you don't watch out, you're going to end up with "lifestyle, lifestyle lifestyle".' There's nothing formality-breaking going on there." With movies like Brokeback, is NQC still dead?
The movement of that moment is over, but this has been an exciting year for queer cinema. It turns out that all the energy hasn't gone into television. A lot of it has. I'm working on a volume titled The Rise and Fall of the New Queer Cinema and every time I think I'm rounding it all up, it's not over. Queer cinema keeps rising up from the grave that I keep consigning it to, so I suppose I better stop making statements like that. It may just be different phases. I will say, Brokeback is something very different. It's not by a queer director. It's not coming out of a queer community. It is, however, imagining a rural queer paradise. I don't know if that's been imagined since Walt Whitman first started sowing the seeds of such ideas way back when.
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