What makes a queer film?

Joseph Coupe /
Jul 27, 2017 / Film & TV

Recently, the British Film Institute published their take on the “30 Best LGBT Films of All Time”, with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive being included further down the list, behind the likes of Brokeback Mountain and Carol – two films which have gone on to define the contemporary LGBT+ cinema scape.

Mulholland Drive’s inclusion was naturally met with some dubious controversy over whether or not the film can truly be classified as being explicitly LGBT+, with criticisms of Lynch identifying as a heterosexual director and arguments that the queer elements of the film are just that, elements. The criticisms are rocky, however, and seem hypocritical given that the aforementioned Brokeback Mountain was directed by Ang Lee, who identifies heterosexual, but seems to be exempt from the same backlash.

As far as we know, David Lynch does not identify as being a member of the LGBT+ community, but the integral crux of Mulholland Drive is that of the relationship between Naomi Watts’ Betty and Laura Elena Herring’s Rita. It’s clear that the homosexuality presented in the film very much makes up most of the emotional verve, but still it is denied the categorisation of being a ‘queer film’.

There is somewhat of a grey area surrounding the stipulation of ‘queer films’ and what must be achieved in order for this classification to exist. A film which has LGBT characters does not immediately quality it to be a queer film, and neither does the fact that the director may identify as homosexual. The central focus on homosexuality as a theme in Mulholland Drive is perhaps debatable, but the existence of LGBT+ elements qualifies it to be a queer film in only the most basic understanding of the term.

If we think about the queer cinema movement of the 90s, it may be more appropriate to consider the perspective as being more important than the content. For a long time, queer cinema existed exclusively underground and the depiction of complex LGBT+ characters was reserved for counter-culture artists like Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol and John Waters. The 80s were a tumultuous time and the gay artistic community found themselves under the heel of religious and political groups, but the community was not ready to be stamped on. The New Queer Cinema movement, as it’s it’s known, became a defining cri de coeur of anti-prejudice and expressionist art.

The 90’s were a time for queer artists to lash back at their treatment in the 80s and spill out into the mainstream. The likes of Bruce LaBruce, Gregg Araki, Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell formed a genre inspired by their perspective as gay men. Many of their films, despite not always being about the LGBT+ community, have a certain visual style which defines queer cinema as a movement and a genre. Stories told by queer people through a queer lens, rather than through heterosexual-tinted Hollwood glasses as with films like Mulholland Drive. The portrayal of same-sex relationships in MH is an integral part of the film, but it lacks the distinctive art style and dominant radical tone which LGBT+ cinema inherently offers, see Lilting, dir. Hong Khaou, for a tender modern day example.

However, increasingly there is a place for ‘queer films’ which break away from this potentially limited and conditioned definition – which relies on the basis of semantics. Sure, the queer film movement of the 90s was important in laying the groundwork for more representative cinema but some of the greatest LGBT+ films are ones which integrate characters into solid and captivating stories. It all goes back to sheer quality of filmmaking. If the film is able to resonate more widely, then the scope can expand beyond the LGBT+ community, like with Brokeback Mountain.

Ultimately though, a distinction has to be made somewhere as there is an underlying problem with calling every film with queer elements a ‘queer film’. The social and political movement of the 90s defines the genre perfectly as a space for LGBT+ artists to sell their own narratives in the ways that they wish to, in a way that heterosexual identifying directors and filmmakers can not, or should not do for them.

It’s becoming an increasingly popular topic of discussion as it becomes more apparent that the heterosexual filmmaking community have developed a desire to package LGBT+ relationships and sell them to audiences as blockbuster hits disguised as sensitive romantic tales. However, 2017 has been shaping up to be a fantastic year for queer cinema – with Call Me By Your Name and Anahita Ghazvinadeh’s debut They both garnering rave reviews for the upcoming season. It’s probably safe to say that neither will achieve the success that Mulholland Drive has managed to find, and will probably never reach a Top 30 list due to being so underground and arthouse – but as is the essence of true queer cinema.

Words by Joseph Coupe

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