At a press conference for “Blue Is the Warmest Color” at the New York Film Festival, Abdellatif Kechiche was asked how he feels about the label “queer cinema,” and if there are films, particularly ones by lesbian filmmakers, that he sees as antecedents to his Palme d’Or-winning teen lesbian romance. His response was brief: he’s seen “Ben-Hur,” which has a bit of gay subtext. Beyond that he clearly isn’t really interested in the subject. One can argue over whether or not this apparent lack of interest in LGBT filmmakers and their work has an impact on “Blue Is the Warmest Color” itself, but Kechiche’s personal opinion rings out pretty clearly.
Yet that prize at Cannes makes the French director’s sexually explicit epic of intimacy the highest profile “queer” release of the year. Like “Brokeback Mountain” before it, his film is a major release about gay characters but without significant contributions by gay artists. Earlier this year I wrote about the queer canon, and whether it exists. In the context of “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” I wonder if the classics of queer cinema even register in the accepted canon of cinema at large. It seems as if the history of queer cinema still exists on the sidelines, seen by many as a self-contained thing.
Yet Kechiche’s film is hardly our only queer option as moviegoers, even right now. Three other films, currently in theaters, both push queer cinema forward and re-contextualize important gay artists of the past. By doing so, and joining a long tradition of both stylistic innovation and social commentary, these films are an excellent counterpoint to “Blue Is the Warmest Color” and are equally required viewing.
The best queer film currently in theaters is Stacie Passon’s “Concussion” (read my full review here). It’s like a contemporary lesbian adaptation of Luis Buñuel’s “Belle de Jour,” replacing the surrealism with a gray, untethered sensual landscape. In this way it draws from both “mainstream” art film as well as its particular queer forebears. There is a plural exchange of influences here, which allows for each of us to see something a little bit different. Its active interest in identity and adulthood stands in stark contrast with the often larger, but perhaps thinner themes of “Blue Is the Warmest Color.”
It also makes queer cultural history, alongside the arrival of marriage equality and the assimilation of queer families into American suburbia. Robin Weigert’s nuanced portrayal of Abby, a wife and mother who spends her afternoons as a sex worker in New York City, doesn’t allow for any sort of easy judgment. The film leaves a number of very important questions open, and this is a good thing. It refuses to close itself off into a rigid definition of family and relationships, which is not only refreshing but an intelligent look to the future.
Yet we still have that past to worry about, the work of queer artists that occasionally feel left out of the mainstream of cinematic history. Two other new films look to shed light on legends of gay culture, though in very different ways.
The more straightforward of the two is Jeffrey Schwarz’s “I Am Divine,” a biographical documentary about the influential drag performer and long-time collaborator of John Waters. Schwarz tries to tell the whole story of Divine, from his childhood in Baltimore to his breakout role in “Pink Flamingos” and the last triumph of “Hairspray.” What emerges along the way is the story of a hard-working icon, tirelessly trying to artistically innovate and reinvent himself. As a pioneer of drag and of gay cultural in general, the most effectively communicated element of the film is Divine’s influence both on his community and on the popular consciousness.
John Krokidas’s “Kill Your Darlings,” on the other hand, tries to illuminate a very specific moment. As a coming of age story it captures the Beat Generation, poised to break out and change America and its youth culture forever. Yet it is also a more intimate reading of a turning point in one gay life, the sexual awakening of Allen Ginsberg. His self-discovery, built from a quiet but sure-footed performance by Daniel Radcliffe, is perhaps the only optimistic glimpse into the future that the film has to offer. William Burroughs (Ben Foster) is characterized by his drug use, Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) by his drinking and his failed relationship with Edie Parker (Elizabeth Olsen). Ginsberg, on the other hand, heads towards positive identity and a liberated sexuality which, through his poetry, would help to liberate many future readers in turn.
The central murder plot of the film, however, looks further into the past. Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) and his tumultuous relationship with David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) are representatives of a closeted world, one that drove people mad. Juxtaposed to Ginsberg’s story, this particular reading of the early days of the Beat Generation places it at the crossroads of history. Carr is surrounded by the silence and the fear that once strangled poets before they got their chance to speak. Ginsberg, on the other hand, leaps forward.
Filmmakers are paying homage to queer cinema history as well as making it anew. “Blue Is the Warmest Color” is a big deal, of course. But these other narratives not only engage with queer characters on the surface, but participate in the larger current of queer history. Even if the films themselves may not all be as formally impressive, they emerge from a deeper, richer context. Krokidas even begins “Kill Your Darlings” with musical reference to Rainer Werner Fassbinder and his “Lili Marleen.”
The waters of queer cinema run deep, even if Kechiche doesn’t think it might be worth bothering to take a sip. Meanwhile, contemporary queer filmmakers are communicating with this rich history, and taking it to exciting new places. This continuity, from the poetry of the Beats to the raunchy charm of Divine, is a reservoir of creativity that makes for strong cinema. If it makes us rethink the way we conceive of sexuality today, great. If it inspires us to go back and reappraise the many, many classics of queer artists past, that’s even better. But first we need to actually watch the films. Don’t let “Blue Is the Warmest Color” take up all the space in your October for queer cinema.