Bad times make great art: The AIDS crisis and the New Queer Cinema

The movement's complex protagonists were confrontational, in-your-face gay men and women who didn't want to behave

Published February 11, 2017 8:30PM (EST)

"Swoon"   (Fine Line Features)
"Swoon" (Fine Line Features)

On election night a murmur started just as the last gasp faded, “Well at least we can expect some great art.” At first the sentiment was a fatalistic one-off, a brave face, a shy hope that something good would come from the dark days forecast for the Trump presidency. It didn’t take long before the statement took on a predictive tone. Before too long a waft of desperation was detectable, eventually, shrill fiat.

The art of protest is provocative, no question. It’s often brave, usually fierce, sometimes compelling and occasionally inspirational. But is the appeal of the books, films, poetry, painting, television and sculpture produced in response to tyranny, oligarchic pomposity or a fetishistic prioritization of the bottom line universal or simply reactive? How durable is the art birthed from protest? The following is the third in a series of essays for Salon exploring the question, do bad times inspire great art?

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We are living in a dangerous age, one where lives and art are under attack. It is an age where self-expression and rebellion are now more important than ever. I haven’t felt, or seen, the kind of anger and rage and despair since the 1980s — those heady days of ACT UP during the onset of the AIDS crisis. And let’s acknowledge, that despite medical advances, AIDS is still a crisis!

One of the positive things that emerged from the AIDS epidemic was that it mobilized a group of activists who attacked the epidemic head-on with grassroots efforts that fomented change in the way the disease was viewed, funded and treated worldwide. Their efforts were brilliantly chronicled in David France’s inspiring Oscar-nominated documentary, “How to Survive a Plague.” France recently published a book version that provides an even more involved and moving history on the subject. I encourage any budding activist to buy and read it and take its messages and examples to heart.

I didn’t join ACT UP back in the day, as I was only 13 when AIDS was first announced in an article in The New York Times. But in the years that followed, I did see all the films about LGBT life that came out. Dubbed the “New Queer Cinema” by critic B. Ruby Rich, these films included the late Bill Sherwood’s “Parting Glances,” Todd Verow’s “Frisk,” Todd Haynes’ “Poison,” Tom Kalin’s “Swoon,” Gregg Araki’s “The Living End,” Cheryl Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman,” Jennie Livingston’s “Paris Is Burning” and Rose Troche’s “Go Fish.”

These films were exciting and daring independent productions that presented LGBT characters in authentic (and not always positive) ways. I identified with and appreciated the complex protagonists of these films. They were not stereotypes or marginalized queer characters. They were confrontational, in-your-face fags and dykes who often just didn’t give a fuck. I still become excited watching them and reveling in their anarchic spirit.

One of my New Queer Cinema heroes, Todd Verow, acknowledged the danger for artists who describe themselves as political. “You become a propagandist or you are just preaching to the converted. As a politician or activist, you are trying to make change happen. [As] an artist, your job is to express something about yourself in the world in the time in which you live."

He added, "It becomes dangerous when you try to make a political point as an artist. Art and politics are two different things. The personal is political, but you can’t be personal and be a politician.” It is, therefore, up to the viewer, who decides if a film is a work of art, to determine if it is political.

Paris Is Burning
"Paris Is Burning," 1990

New Queer Cinema depicted what it was like to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual. The cinematic movement gave rise to a multitude of voices that were being heard for the first time. These filmmakers were inspiring each other — and audiences — and worked independently on their own terms. Their films were ingratiating because their characters were unashamed and full of attitude, a by-product of their time (the post-punk era). The gay serial killer in “Frisk,” the gay killers in “Swoon,” the HIV-positive lovers on a crime spree in “The Living End” all channeled gay rage. Their sensibilities were born out of the anger and anxiety of the AIDS crisis and a Republican government that was unresponsive to it and the community.

“You know how you feel terrified and bombarded and overwhelmed by Trump?" asked Tom Kalin, director the New Queer Cinema classic “Swoon,” which presents the Nathan Leopold-Richard Loeb “thrill-kill” case. "That’s how we all felt all the time during the AIDS epidemic.”

Kalin, who was a member of ACT UP and Gran Fury during their heyday in the '80s and '90s, noted, “There was a [persistent] trauma and feeling freaked out. We were scared to fucking death! In my primary experience going through it, I did not have a catharsis about the AIDS crisis for 15 years.

Kalin continued, “What caused that mass movement? The answer is not the most transcendent: It was self-interest. We were terrified of losing our lives, and for our health. The movement in the U.S. now, we are striking for a greater goal: We’re scared shitless about contraception, health care and being able to marry the one we love.”

The energy Kalin and his cast and crew had to make the pioneering film in 1992, an artsy postmodern period piece that depicted gay murderers, is infectious. What worked so well about “Swoon” is that it is an allegory. Although set in the 1920s, the film had contemporary relevance when it was released. The negative attitudes toward homosexuality depicted in the film were not dissimilar to how it was for queer folks when the film was made and released.

"Poison," 1991

Kalin likened “Swoon” (which he said was “influenced by crimes that have symbolic, metaphoric, and dare I say, romantic meaning”) to “Bonnie and Clyde,” another film made during an age of despair. As is true about “Swoon,” Kalin said, “‘Bonnie and Clyde’ asked you to identify with the characters. It’s set in the 1930s; but it’s about the 1960s. And the 1960s audience understood it was about counterculture, and there were hints of bisexuality."

Added Kalin: "I was consciously influenced by that. I set ‘Swoon’ in the 1920s and made it look like a Calvin Klein ad. Beyond the cathartic romantic narrative, the characters understood their crime as having a symbolic, anti-social component. The inability for [Leopold and Loeb in ‘Swoon’] to have a relationship made them retaliate against the life they were supposed to have.”

“Horror,” one of the segments of Todd Haynes’ 1991 New Queer Cinema classic “Poison,” takes a similar allegorical approach, with the fear of the 1950s standing in for the fear of AIDS in the 1990s. But Haynes’ masterpiece “Safe” in 1995 really speaks truth to power about the AIDS crisis. In that film, Julianne Moore plays a homemaker who starts suffering from an unknown environmental illness. Her condition is metaphor for AIDS and the film speaks volumes about the lack of treatment and options available to people who were suffering. Observed Kalin: “‘Safe’ wouldn’t have been possible to make without the AIDS crisis.”

For Kalin, cinematic movements like the New Queer Cinema or the great Hollywood movies of the 1970s, or even the French New Wave, “seem impossibly pure and uncorrupted periods for film.” But part of that allure is because we are looking back on it. In 1992 when he made “Swoon,” Kalin was focused on reappropriating film noir because “no one pathologized heterosexuals fucking and killing,” as he put it.

He was less concerned — but certainly not unaware — of how “Swoon” functioned politically. He was inspired by his anger about AIDS and the Bowers v. Hardwick case that led to the 1986 Supreme Court decision upholding the criminalization of gay sex. But he also wanted to make a work of art that had his personal stamp on it.

And audiences had personal reactions. At the time “Swoon” and the other New Queer Cinema films were released, they were made and consumed collectively. Seeing these films in theaters created a buzz. It also inspired direct engagement, even if reactions varied from individual to individual. There was still a sense of camaraderie and community about moviegoing in the 1990s, when these films reflected queer life from the silver screen.

Another film that shocked and seduced me in 1995 was Todd Verow’s edgy adaptation of Dennis Cooper’s novel, “Frisk,” about a gay serial killer. I vividly recall staggering out of the theater, feeling as if I had just seen something totally illicit. Like Kalin’s “Swoon,” Verow’s “Frisk” is uncompromising and unapologetic and features gay characters who behave very badly. At the time, it seemed perfectly appropriate and liberating for the era.

“Frisk” is one of those “unfilmable novels,” tricky to adapt because of the book’s graphic sexual violence. Moreover, Verow’s experimental style does not necessarily treat the source material with reverence. But the film excited me for all these reasons. It’s shocking and disturbing — people rioted the San Francisco premiere — and it portrays a dangerous aspect of gay male sexuality that was heightened by the fear of AIDS.

Verow recalled creating his breakthrough film: “The film fits into New Queer Cinema because it is experimental. It takes risks. The characters I cared about in ‘Frisk’ were the victims. They didn't want to be ‘safe’ — even if that meant they would most certainly die. To me, that was what the age of AIDS was all about.”

Added Verow: “At the time, it was really scary. I came of age at the beginning of AIDS. No one knew what caused it, or how you got it. And if you got it, you were going to die a horrible death. What do you do? Hide away or embrace it and say, ‘If I’m going to die, I’m going to die?’ So, if I’m not going to live, I’m going to make stuff before I die. That’s why I became so prolific. I wanted to make films before I kicked the bucket.”

Go Fish
"Go Fish," 1994

Verow’s coping mechanism for the crisis was his urgency to create work. This was a means for putting his creative energy somewhere. He explained, “If you’re not a politician and you’re an artist, you have to express something personal. There was urgency to make work, get it out there and show it to people, and encourage everyone to do stuff because everyone around us were getting sick and dying.”

For Verow, whose film contains striking episodes of sadomasochism, the image that most sticks out for him as emblematic of the AIDS crisis is that of artist David Wojnarowicz with his mouth sewn shut. Verow said, “That’s a very personal, very simple, very extreme image that sends a very strong message very clearly.”

If many of the films of New Queer Cinema — Ira Sach’s “The Delta” or Christopher Münch’s “The Hours and the Times” — were more personal or allegorical than extreme, one of the few films actually about AIDS from the era is Gregg Araki’s breakthrough feature, “The Living End.” The film depicts two HIV-positive guys (Craig Gilmore and Mike Dytri) embarking on a road trip and crime spree. It was made “guerrilla style” for $20,000 and shot in a style that was influenced by the French New Wave.

When I interviewed Gilmore about the film a few years back, I learned that the openly gay actor had appeared in the film because a former lover had died of AIDS. (Gilmore tested negative.) He further explained that identifying as an openly gay actor back then was a double-edged sword: liberating for living one’s truth but it also pigeonholed him, too, and he ended up changing careers.

But having the courage to make “The Living End” or other New Queer Cinema films or to be an out actor at that time when being openly gay was “career suicide” was political and powerful. It influenced an entire generation of queer youth in a positive way.

What is most inspiring about these scrappy films is that were created by artists and actors out of crisis. These filmmakers had to make these films because no one else was making them. They were trying to express themselves sexually, creatively and politically. Their work went beyond simply representing a segment of the LGBT community that was under siege.

These kinds of artistic collaborations reflect the attitudes of a community that were being oppressed and suppressed by politicians. Recall that in 1990, the National Endowment for the Arts denied funding to feminist and queer performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes; and they won a Supreme Court case that contested this. The same situation could arise again now.

New Queer Cinema ended in 2000 as LGBT culture and issues became more mainstream. These filmmakers had by then become successful and their later works were being viewed by wider audiences. Their art shaped queer identity and was embraced by a community that mobilized and became stronger, more powerful as a result. They raised their voices, created representation and left it up to viewers to determine what to do next.

Today’s filmmakers have considerably more resources available to them than the New Queer Cinema pioneers did 30 years ago. Artists today can and should fuel their anger into creating great, lasting works of art. We as artists and audiences can’t be complacent — or comfortable. That is not what art is about in any era. It’s about fearlessness. It’s about being confrontational. It is what motivated the creators, consumers and characters in New Queer Cinema. And it needs to happen now.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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