One of the most successful writer-directors of the New Queer Cinema, Todd Haynes was raised in California and studied semiotics and other aspects of cultural theory at Brown University, where he began to make short films. Haynes's work, like most New Queer Cinema, explores the cinematic representation of queer desires by foregrounding both history and film form.
The first Haynes film to garner widespread attention was Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), a 45-minute biopic that explored the life and death (from anorexia nervosa) of 1970s singer Karen Carpenter. Audaciously, Karen Carpenter's life is enacted in the film by Barbie dolls, and is intercut with documentary-like inserts that describe and explore the medical and social implications of anorexia. While the very premise of Superstar creates a campy tone, the film is far from facile or condescending. Instead, the film asks its viewers to consider the connections between the ideals of feminine beauty, celebrity, mental illness, and middle-class repression. Its unlicensed use of the Carpenters' music (and perhaps its unflattering portrait of Karen's family) led to a lawsuit, and the film remains very difficult to see.
Haynes's first feature-length film, Poison (1991), was one of the defining films of the New Queer Cinema movement. It recalls the audacity of Superstar, and was itself the center of considerable controversy. Poison interweaves three separate but related stories, each shot in a different cinematic style. The first, "Homo," is based on the writings of gay writer Jean Genet, and explores the violent sexuality of men in prison. The second, "Horror," is about a scientist who accidentally ingests a sex-hormone serum, and is filmed as a pastiche of 1950s monster movies. The third story, "Hero," is a pseudodocumentary about a young boy who shoots his father and miraculously flies away from the scene. Poison was publicly denounced by some members of Congress (it had received some funding from the National
Endowment for the Arts) even as it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
Haynes's next feature, Safe (1995), starred Julianne Moore as a woman suffering from a viral-like illness that may or may not be psychosomatic. Exploring issues of contamination, isolation, and the toxic atmosphere of everyday life, the film was both an AIDS allegory and a critique of American self-obsession. Velvet Goldmine (1998), another queer art-house hit, examined the 1970s "glam rock" phenomenon in relation to sexuality, celebrity, and style. In 2002, Haynes's Far from Heaven (2002) was nominated for several Oscars®, including Best Original Screenplay. The film invokes the visual style of a lush 1950s melodrama, but explores issues that were taboo for films of that era: interracial romance and repressed homosexuality. As with the best of his work, Far from Heaven explores the intersection of film form and film content, showing how the discourse of cinematic style can create, contain, or otherwise influence the representation of queer desire.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), Poison (1991), Dottie Gets Spanked (1993), Safe (1995), Velvet Goldmine (1998), Far from Heaven (2002)
Haynes, Todd. Far from Heaven, Safe, and Superstar: Three
Screenplays. New York: Grove Press, 2003. Naismith, Gaye. 'Tales from the Crypt: Contamination and Quarantine in Todd Haynes's Safe." In The Visible Woman: Imaging Technologies, Gender, and Science, edited by Paula A. Treichler, Lisa Cartwright, and Constance Penley, 360-388. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Saunders, Michael William. Imps of the Perverse: Gay Monsters in Film, 75-134. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998. Also includes an interview with Todd Haynes. Wyatt, Justin. Poison. London: Flicks Books, 1998.
Harry M. Benshoff
Greyson's Zero Patience (1993) and Cheryl Dunye's Watermelon Woman (1996).
New Queer Cinema has been called ''Homo Pomo,'' because the movement's films make use of postmodern styles and ideas (as does queer theory itself). In most of these films there is a focus on permeable formal boundaries—the crossing of styles and genres. New Queer Cinema often questions essentialist models of identity, and shows how the terms ''gay'' and ''lesbian'' are inadequate when trying to define actual human experience. New Queer Cinema simultaneously draws on minimalism and excess, appropriation and pastiche, the mixing of Hollywood and avant-garde, and even the mix of fictional and documentary style. For example, The Living End reappropriates the Hollywood buddy/road movie for HIV-positive queers, while Zero Patience is a ghost story musical about AIDS. Watermelon Woman is a mock documentary about an African American lesbian actress who played ''Mammy'' roles in 1930s Hollywood; the film is a witty interracial lesbian romance as well as a thoughtful meditation on queer visibility and historical erasure.
New Queer Cinema is not without its detractors. Some have accused the movement of recirculating negative stereotypes such as the queer psycho-killer. Although films like Swoon and The Living End attempt to show how social forces and sexual repression can and do cause violence, some filmgoers still saw them as reconfirming harmful stereotypes. New Queer Cinema has also been charged with elitism, since it is frequently engaged with issues of queer and postmodern theory. As such, New Queer Cinema can be rigorous and difficult both thematically and formally, and many queer spectators, like straight spectators, prefer ''feel good'' Hollywood-style movies with happy endings.
Todd Haynes on the set of Far From Heaven (2002). © focus features/courtesy everett collection. reproduced by permission.
Those ''feel good'' movies are also now being made by gay and lesbian independent filmmakers. For example, The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995), Beautiful Thing (1996), Edge of Seventeen (1998), and Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss (1998) draw upon the conventions of Hollywood narrative form and the genre of the romantic comedy, placing lesbian and gay lovers into previously heterosexual roles. Films such as Love! Valour! Compassion! (1997) and The Broken Hearts Club (2000) mix humor with a few tear-jerking moments, and represent predominantly upper-middle-class white male characters. Independent lesbian films remain fewer in number, although films like Better Than Chocolate (1999) and But I'm a Cheerleader (1999) have been hits on the film festival and art house circuits. Queers of color and transgendered people have also been the subjects of recent American independent features, in films such as Latin Boys Go to Hell (1997), Punks (2001), and the Oscar®-nominated films Before Night Falls (2000) and Boys Don't Cry.
Was this article helpful?