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The 1990s stands as the decade when a lot of New Queer Cinema directors got their start. LGBT movies slowly started making their way into mainstream cinema, the biggest titles being a mix of camp (To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newman, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Birdcage) to serious dramas (Boys Don’t Cry, Philadelphia) – the unifying aspect being the calibre of actor involved.

The kickoff of the 90s for me, however, is a pair of documentaries that shed light on marginalized groups within the LGBT community. Paris Is Burning (1990, above), a now classic and constantly referenced foray into ball culture in NYC and the black and latino folks that participate in it, sets the standard of a time capsule doc as well as one that’s frequently used as a tool for empowerment and change. While the ending is undoubtedly devastating, the energy and physicality of the balls is unmatched – both have an unmoored power that elevate the film beyond mere sociological study, and its legacy is a testament to its quality. On the flipside, Silverlake Life: The View from Here (1993) takes on the form of a video diary chronicling the toll AIDS takes on the body. It’s painfully intimate – shot by Tom Joslin, until he could no longer continue – but also a testament to the endurance of human bonds. Outside of a viewing in a documentary course in college and a friend’s referencing of it, I was unfamiliar, but it’s definitely worth seeking out.

The two New Queer Cinema directors that stand out the most, with debuts that really made a splash in the beginning of the decade, are Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki. Haynes would later go on to find mainstream success with films like Far From Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015), while Araki would go on to to find some indie success with movies like Mysterious Skin (2005) and Kaboom (2010). But back in the early 90s, their films were a little less polished, a little more gritty, but absolutely of interest when it comes to looking at a director’s beginnings. Poison (1991, above) is a personal favorite, Haynes’ inspiration coming from the French author Jean Genet, a triptych of queer stories – traversing the suburbs, prison, and a science lab – that is never less than engaging and fascinating, almost academic in its construction but consistently entertaining in its resignification. Araki’s The Living End (1992) is a road movie, with two characters at the center who are both gay and HIV positive. Mixing dark comedy with a Godard inflected aesthetic, the youthful anarchy depicted onscreen is gleeful and uninhibited. An “irresponsible movie” indeed, Mr. Araki.

Derek Jarman –  director, stage designer, diarist, artist, gardener, and author. Blue (1993) – his twelfth and final film, consisting entirely of a single shot, with him and his favorite actors narrating his life and vision. Truly one of a kind – Jarman’s words are striking and the saturated blue screen is mesmerizing. I saw it at MoMA a few years back and was captivated and moved.

Another noteworthy gay documentary to come out of the 90s is Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s The Celluloid Closet (1995), based on Vito Russo’s book of the same name. Investigating gay representation in film from the beginning of the medium, Lily Tomlin narrates as the study incorporates talking head interviews (among those featured are Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon, and Whoopi Goldberg) and clips from past motion pictures. Effortlessly entertaining, but also always critical in its thorough research.

Transposing his punk style to Santa Monica Boulevard, Canadian provocateur Bruce LaBruce followed up his early 90s features No Skin Off My Ass (1993) and Super 8½ (1994) with 1996’s Hustler White, co-written by Rick Castro. Featuring real male hustlers and with a plot clearly mirroring Sunset Boulevard, Hustler White engages in John Waters-like perversity (yes, there is an amputee sex scene) with an absurd, realist bent. Darkly comedic and briskly paced, the film’s fashion has also inspired for decades to come (I, for one, love a man in a midriff). MoMA hosted a retrospective of his work back in 2015, around the time his last movie, Gerontophilia (2013), was being released here stateside – duly appreciated.

Queer romantic representation doesn’t get more realistic than Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together (above) – brutally honest but somehow simultaneously loving (shot by WKW regular Christopher Doyle), the narrative follows two young Chinese men who go to Argentina as Hong Kong is being handed over to China from Great Britain. A film about moving, making peace, and moving on, the two central performances by Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung are GOAT status. Hard to shake, but easy to keep close, I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen (35mm) at Metrograph when they ran it last fall as part of their Queer 90s series. Unforgettable.

Rounding out my appreciation for 90s queer cinema would be: Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996), which I wrote about for an article on queer black cinema for black history month, and Jamie Babbit’s RuPaul-starring campy fun, But I’m A Cheerleader (1999) (hello crush on Dante Basco finally queerly realized). The 90s were a treasure trove of solid LGBT representation in movies, and this is just skimming the surface.

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