The first time I saw a movie with lesbian characters I was agog. There wasn’t a lot of queer in Yorkshire, and the film – Bound, watched post-midnight with the volume low in my teenage bedroom – was a miracle. On the screen was a woman in a white vest with one of those barbed wire arm-tattoos. There was another woman in a slinky dress with excellent lipstick game. Barbed-wire tattoo was doing DIY, and lipstick was watching. They seemed to fancy each other (later confirmed). Given we didn’t have Internet at home in the ’90s and my town was very small, Bound was the only positive piece of queer input I’d had at that point. I didn’t consider there might be films with actual gay characters. Or if I did, the films seemed to exist very far away.
If I’d known then that 15 years later I’d be spending goofy amounts of money on tickets to BFI Flare, I’d have felt better about not having a spare video handy to tape Bound. Flare, London’s annual LGBTQI+ Film Festival, kicks off this week and runs until the 27th. It’s probably the most popular queer event of the year, showcasing the best LGBTQI+ films from around the world. The festival is inclusive and is as varied as the community it represents, which is rare; mainstream gay movies don’t have a great track record when it comes to diversity (think about the white-washing of last year’s Stonewall movie (which bombed) as an example), but what the rest of the year lacks, Flare makes up for. There are feature films and shorts, documentaries and panels and discussions. There are also discos and there is booze. The festival brings a really awesome atmosphere to the Southbank each year and is always rammed; the fact tickets sell out so quickly shows how popular and necessary it is.
Representation of minority characters in films – as in books – is still a charged subject. There are great organisations championing visibility, and there are more film makers and writers working to give minority groups a voice, but representation is still pretty shabby. In the same way queer bars are being wiped out across London (and everywhere else), the number of gay publishers producing books has dropped off over the past few years. Not to be a misery guts, but it’s true. On the upside though, we have Flare. And in the same way we have Flare, we have some great indie publishers who are pushing to make the book industry more diverse and make sure LGBTQI+ voices – and those of other minorities – are represented.
One such publisher is Arsenal Pulp Press. Based in Canada, Arsenal Pulp have an amazing list. In 2013 they brought us Julie Maroh’s comic Blue is the Warmest Color, which was adapted into a film of the same name. They publish The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers, a book of interviews with queer film masters such as Pedro Almodovar, John Waters, Gus Van Sant, and John Cameron Mitchell (who made Shortbus, one of my favourites).
They also publish an awesome series called Queer Film Classics, which has been widely acclaimed since its introduction in 2009:
“Each book offers a close reading of an underrated film, which restores that film to its significance within queer history. The kinds of queerness at issue in these accounts are as distinct as the films respective styles, and it is in their powerful elaboration of relation between the two that the books, and the series, break new critical ground.”
– Film Quarterly
Still ongoing, Queer Film Classics will cover twenty-one influential films made by LBBTQI+ people between 1950 and 2005. The series is written by queer scholars and critics and blends film theory with queer theory, history and analysis with personal thoughts on each film.
It’s basically ideal Flare reading, so if you’re going to the festival and fancy hanging around with a book and a beer between films, take a look the below. And if you’re not going to the festival but love queer films/history, then you’ll enjoy these books too!
From Strangers on a Train to Forbidden Love
One of the best things about the series is that it focuses on films that have perhaps been overlooked in other writings on LGBTQI+ cinema. Like most queers, I’ve made it my mission over the years to watch every non-straight film I could find (even the really shit ones). But Queer Cinema Classics offers up some super interesting ones I’ve never seen and am now eager to track down. That’s another good thing about the series; you don’t have to have seen the films to find the books fascinating (although equally, it’s really absorbing to read what the authors have to say about the ones you have seen). You also don’t need to be an expert in film theory, which I did worry about at first glance; I know next to nothing about the theory side of things, but although theory-heavy, every book is so well written and accessible that it didn’t really matter. I even learnt some stuff!
Each of the books follows a similar structure. There is a brief synopsis followed by several chapters’ worth of analysis that gives the film wider context, whether that be social or cinematic. The books give a view of queer life at the time of the film’s release, discussing attitudes towards queerness and the ways such attitudes contributed to and/or fuelled the film. There are some nerdy staples in each book too; the credits are listed, as is a discography and appendices with extras like interviews or archives. And there are film stills, photographs and posters that tie everything together nicely.
I don’t really have a bad thing to say about the books, and think they are absolutely worth a read if you’re even a bit interested in queer film. I’m still working my way through the series, but here are my favourites so far:
Given my intense obsession with lesbian pulp fiction, I am horrified I didn’t know Forbidden Love exists. The film, made in 1992, documents lesbian experience from the ’40s to the ’60s through the lens of lesbian pulp, and includes dramatisations with real-life interviews. It even features the very awesome Ann Bannon! In the book, professors Jean Bruce and Gerda Cammaer talk about the historical context of the film along with its critical reception.
Another film I’ve yet to see (but have heard a lot about), is Paris is Burning, a 1991 documentary about the black and Latino urban drag scene in 1980s New York. In the book, author Lucas Hilderbrand shows how the film captures the energy, wit and struggle inherent in the subculture, and contextualises the film within the history of drag. He writes about issues of race, gender, sexuality, and class and how these issues influenced the film. An unlikely hit when released, Paris is Burning is now considered one of the key films in the New Queer Cinema and Hildebrand’s book is a fascinating look at its impact.
I love this film (along with most of Almodóvar’s earlier stuff) so it was really enlightening to read Jose Quiroga’s analysis of it. Law of Desire is a homoerotic melodrama from 1987 about a gay film director, his trans sister, and his stalker. It’s not a shy film, which, even before reading the book I knew was pretty rare considering when it was released. Almodóvar as a director redefined the notion of a gay movie and Quiroga’s book shows us the enormous influence he has had on queer cinema. He also talks about the political and social context of the film, which makes for inspiring reading.
Fire, released in 1996, is the controversial story of Radha and Sita, the wives of two brothers who fall in love with each other. The film caused outrage when it was first released in India with protesters calling it obscene, tearing down posters and storming cinemas. The book delves deep into that controversy, as well as discussing the film’s attack on sexism in Hindu culture. Of all the books in the series I’ve read, this was the most angry-making but also one of the most encouraging.
I’ve seen Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train a handful of times and always thought it was just a little bit gay. Possibly because it was originally written by Patricia Highsmith, who was also a little bit gay and who I love due to aforementioned lesbian pulp obsession. The story was pure Hitchcock to begin with: two men meet on a train and plot a murder. With Hitchcock being Hitchcock, the film is full of subtext, which this book, written by Jonathan Goldberg, explores. The book delves into the underlying homoerotic energy of the film. It doesn’t assume the characters are gay but rather looks at the relationship between sexuality and murder, and further, at Hitchcock’s representations of male homosexuality. The book includes a section about the making of the film that’s super interesting too.
Altogether, there will be nineteen books in the Queer Cinema Classics series. You can see the full list on Arsenal Pulp Press’ website. The books are pocket-sized and look great together on a shelf, so if you’re into queer cinema, check them out!
And keep an eye on the blog next week, when we’ll be posting an interview with Steven Paul Davis, author of Out at the Movies.