New Wave Queer Cinema

Queer Characters in the Movie "Weekend" (2011) and in the Television Series "Looking" (2014-2015)

Bachelor Thesis 2015 36 Pages

Film Science


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 What else is Queer?: A Look at Queer Characters in Non-Queer Television Shows and a Brief History on New Queer Cinema

3 New Wave Queer Cinema in the Example of Weekend and Looking
3.1 Weekend
3.2 Looking

4 Coming Out in Weekend and Looking
4.1 Weekend
4.2 Looking

5 Conclusion: The Contemporary State and the Future of Queer Cinema

Works Cited

1 Introduction

Released in 2011, Andrew Haigh’s movie Weekend (2011) garnered many positive reviews and recognition in the LGBT community. The movie has a Metacritic score of 81, based on eighteen critics, among them the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post (Metacritic.com).

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Scoring 81 in critic reviews and 8.5/10 in users, Weekend is an acclaimed independent feature of New Wave Queer Cinema

Teaming up with Michael Lannan, they both produced the HBO television series Looking (2014-2015; created by Lannan) which, unfortunately, has found an early ending, but also a dedicated following. Both projects can be described as dramas, but since they are gay-themed, another, more specific term, would be helpful to describe Weekend and Looking: New Wave Queer Cinema. Looking might be a television series, but it exhibits all the characteristics of New Wave Queer Cinema, which would make a limitation to only films unjustified to the show’s importance in the LGBT community.

New Wave Queer Cinema, as the name already suggests, derives from New Queer Cinema; a movement prevalent in the very late 1980s and the 1990s. What it tries to do is to portray its characters not in a comical light, like the gap between the two movements seems to suggest, but in an authentic and realistic light. What makes Looking furthermore special is that it is one of its kind. There are no other television shows that have featured gay main characters in a realistic setting before. There might be Queer as Folk (2000-2005) or Will & Grace (1998-2006), but neither can be described as New Wave Queer Cinema. However, still not being the norm in media or beyond, New Wave Queer Cinema tries to overlook that specific detail and tries to handle the stories it tells in a way that does not solely highlight the ‘queerness’, but tries to be about the people it talks about. But where there is ‘queer’, it is easy for a general audience to dismiss it: “There are two ways to dismiss a gay film: one is to say. ‘Oh, it’s just a gay film’; the other, to proclaim, ‘Oh, it’s a great film, it just happens to be gay’.” (Kalin 34). It seems that it will take much more time for people to realize that queer films, literature, and even lifestyle are nothing to frown upon and that they are here to stay.

This thesis will deal with the term New Queer Cinema, its history, and how the ‘new wave’ is different, as well as discussing where ‘queerness’ occurs in non-queer television shows. Furthermore, it will analyze New Wave Queer Cinema in the examples of Weekend and Looking with a look on film aesthetics and the issues that arise in their plots. Moreover, an analysis on the coming out stories of some of the characters in both Weekend and Looking will help to display the significance in bringing issues to the viewer in the form of New Wave Queer Cinema. Covering articles by scholars, critics and writers like B. Ruby Rich, James Morrison, Monica B. Pearl, and Helen Hok-Sze Leung, among others, a light will be shed on New Queer Cinema as well as New Wave Queer Cinema.

2 What else is Queer?: A Look at Queer Characters in Non-Queer Television Shows and a Brief History on New Queer Cinema

Co-producing the television series Looking and creating his own movie, Weekend, a few years prior to HBO green lighting the San Francisco based drama, Andrew Haigh was one of the first directors to introduce New Wave Queer Cinema to audiences. But before he helmed a new generation of gay-themed stories, scholars were concerned about the direction queer cinema would take.

James Morrison remembers in his article “Still New, Still Queer, Still Cinema” the negative feedback the movie Eating Out (2004) by Q. Allan Brocka received: “If this is what queer cinema amounts to, then one can only wish that it had stayed away […]” (Morrison 135,136), wishing that the next movement would tackle more pressing issues than just creating a “product line” of stereotypical, slick and superficial gay characters. It seems like all the awareness gay filmmakers tried to spread led to an unsatisfactory next step in queer cinema. The camp and comedy should have been left to wittier shows like Will & Grace (1998-2006) that still garners acknowledgement to this day in the LGBT community. One could compare Morrison’s confusion about how ‘queer’ is perceived by the general public to an episode of Roseanne (1988-1997) in which the titular character (Roseanne Barr) is planning a wedding for her homosexual ‘frenemy’, Leon Carp (Martin Mull), and his soon-to-be husband, Scott. In the episode “December Bride” (air date: December 12, 1995; Season 8, Episode 11), Roseanne pulls out all the stops to create the campiest and most stereotypical gay wedding. She, therefore, serves as a mirror to how some people might perceive the gay lifestyle, an overly flamboyant stigma that New Queer Cinema and also New Wave Queer Cinema try to shake. The episode itself marked a place in television history as the first time an American television series depicted same-sex marriage.

Laden with male strippers, Liza Minnelli impersonators, pink decorations and glitter, a fight between Leon and Roseanne ensues.

Leon: Roseanne, what is all this?

Roseanne: It’s a gay wedding!

Leon: This isn’t a wedding. It’s a circus! You have somehow managed to pick ever gay stereotype and just roll them up into one gigantic, offensive […] ball of wrong!


Leon: […] the wedding is off.

Roseanne: Well, of course it’s a little off. It’s two guys, for God’s sake. (Williams 9:50)

All of his fears of marriage and ending up as a stereotype come together in Roseanne’s plans and reflect the fear Morrison seems to have about the direction the next wave of Queer Cinema could take. To his and many people’s relief, Eating Out was not the kind of movie that would herald the new generation of gay-themed films.

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Roseanne and Leon exchanging jabs in the episode “December Bride”, the first time same-sex marriage was shown on television (14:51)

The following dialogue between Leon and Roseanne diminishes the stereotypical thoughts Roseanne (who stands in for as the audience that might only think of the stereotypical gay man) has of the LGBT community:

Leon: I hate to shop. I am absolutely insensitive. I detest Barbra Streisand and, for God’s sake, I am a Republican.

Roseanne: But do you like having sex with men?

Leon: Well—

Roseanne: Gay! (Williams 16:51)

The mirror is taken down and the stereotype of the ‘glitter-loving’ homosexual is extenuated. Not all gay men are the same, not all gay men love to do ‘girly’ things and not all gay men are sensitive creatures. The only thing they have in common is that they are attracted to other gay men, which is something that should not matter to anybody else anyhow.

After an onslaught of gay-themed movies at the end of the eighties and almost all through the nineties during the New Queer Cinema era, a television show, that was not even targeted towards a gay audience specifically, took it upon itself with this episode to ‘educate’ the masses that all the stereotypes and clichés do not make a gay man gay, but who he loves. It is a little crudely delivered in the excerpts of the episode, but it drives the point home that all the glitter and impersonators are not what makes ‘a queer a queer’.

Another television show that does not have ‘gay-themed’ as a label stamped upon it and that still managed to carefully narrate a gay love story would be Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). Before discussing the lesbian relationship between Willow and Tara, the heroine herself can metaphorically be taken as being ‘gay’. As Milly Williamson argues “’Buffy-as-Slayer’ often stands in for ‘Buffy-as-Queer’” (Williamson 18). The famous scene that she is referring to is Buffy’s ‘coming out’ scene to her mother (“Becoming”, air date: May 12, 1998; Season 2, Episode 22) in which Joyce finds out that her daughter is the vampire slayer. One could already have a very familiar feeling that this coming out scene has more weight to it than at first glance. The mystery show always explained its horror elements as metaphors for growing up. Going one step further, watching the scene and exchanging the word ‘slayer’ for ‘gay’, a coming out moment can be constructed. A subtle way is created for the viewers to identify with the titular heroine on a deeper level.

A little less subtle in its ‘queerness’ is the story of Buffy’s sidekick Willow who falls in love with Tara, a fellow student at the University of Sunnydale. This thesis will not go into the depiction of lesbian relationships, but the relationship between Willow and Tara is worth noting as characters on a not specifically gay-oriented show. These two characters are treated naturally and realistically. There is no camp, there are no clichés or incongruous aspects to their relationship. Willow and Tara fall in love after meeting at a Wicca group based in UC Sunnydale. The connection is there, but the creators of the show decide to slowly progress the two women’s love story. The show still plays with metaphors in its usual way when both women, who dabble in magic, are doing spells together which could be taken as kissing or even love making. Even after they become a couple, their first on-screen kiss is not the main event of the episode or even incorporated into it just for the sake of letting all doubters know that these two young women are a couple. In the episode “The Body” (air date: February 27, 2001; Season 5, Episode 16) the kiss between Willow and Tara happens as they find out about Joyce’s untimely death and Tara tries to comfort her girlfriend who is slowly giving in to the grief. It is a passionate and encouraging kiss to help Willow find strength in a dire time like this. It is not a kiss to rake in viewers—any other show and network might have promoted the episode using this particular scene—it is not supposed to steal focus. It just is. It is showcased realistically in a realistic environment under realistic circumstances—and this might be one of the first New Wave Queer Cinema moments that happens to be in a show about a high school girl fighting monsters, and therefore just remains a ‘moment’; albeit a significant one.

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Tara helps her girlfriend, Willow, through the grief in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (21:42)

New Queer Cinema, however, dealt with more issues than coming out and trying to depict realistic love to their audiences, one of which is AIDS. Cinema is often a mirror of the social and political situation and changes of its time and reflects the filmmaker’s views and opinions on the different matters. One argument that appears often when reading up on New Queer Cinema is that it is cinema made by AIDS (Aaron 23). Two main ideas come to play in this claim: disruption and time. As Monica B. Pearl writes in her article published in the book New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader:

Although New Queer Cinema is not always about the subject of AIDS – indeed, often the films that are included in the designation are not at all overtly about AIDS – it is a form and expression that emerges from the cataclysm of AIDS in the Western world. It is not only in film that AIDS inspired new forms of expression: this was true also in literature, in music, and in other visual arts besides cinema. AIDS disrupted individuals, communities, and the ways that things could be thought of or said or expressed. It was disruptive partly because it caused illness and death, and therefore aggravated loss among small groups of individuals in particular communities, but it was disruptive also because of the kind of illness it was – or, rather, the kind of virus that caused the illness and the way it took hold on the human body. (Aaron 24)

‘Disruptive’ meaning here that the virus was taken as a representation of such and was incorporated into the art in many different ways. One of these different ways were a “the lack of coherent narrative” (Aaron 24) and would represent the virus and its manifestation itself. HIV is a retrovirus which means that it does not infect the body a usual virus would and rather makes the body believe that it itself is the malicious entity which makes the body turn against itself. This disruptiveness is explained in movies like Zero Patience (1993) that retells the story of Gaeten Dugas, a flight attendant, who is believed to be responsible for the spread of AIDS. The movie brings him back from the dead to educate the misinformed—in musical form. Another example of disruption in an incoherent narrative manner, but in a more conventional approach, is jumps in time in form of flashbacks or unchronological storytelling. “Films were needed that represented this disrupted chronology […]” (Aaron 27) and also to show the senselessness the virus brought forth.

What New Queer Cinema also does is the “reassignment of blame and responsibility” (Aaron, 29). It tries to take away the finger-pointing and calling gay men reckless for spreading the virus. With ACT UP1 and AIDS activism, AIDS videos were created to educate not only the population but also the government. ACT UP, formed in the late 1980s, had the benefit to be established in a time when new video technology, such as camcorders, VCR or editing programs, was affordable. It gave activists the opportunity to document demonstrations and film the social changes that befell the communities in order to bring awareness to the cause.

Moreover, while New Queer Cinema and its films are about AIDS, it is never overtly about AIDS. New Queer Cinema looks at the effects it has and how the grief, the powerlessness, the confusion, the shame, the loss and pain can be represented and expressed artistically—which makes it less mainstream. “It is a way of controlling – not death […] – but history. It is a way of claiming control over time and events, as one might like to given the catastrophic outcome of the AIDS crisis.” (Aaron 31). New Queer Cinema accumulates AIDS movies that came from the AIDS crisis, however are not solely about AIDS, but the questions, desperation and disarray that came with it—the disruption in people’s lives and a representation of experience. The difficulty to pin-point its meaning, or, to find meaning in something that has none and to turn something that has no explanation into something graspable and visible could be seen as one component of New Queer Cinema (Williamson 69). Because of this aforementioned difficulty, New Queer Cinema tries to tell stories that reflect experiences of individuals that live with the virus. “We’re victims of the sexual revolution” (Araki 23:54), however, without playing the victim role, as the character Luke (Mike Dytri) states in Gregg Araki’s film The Living End (1992); a nice and fitting description of the AIDS-‘inspired’ New Queer Cinema.

On a broader scale, Alonso Duralde, writer and film critic, puts it as follows:

“Queer film […] acknowledges the fact that the paradigm of boy meets girl and they get married and they live happily ever after, doesn’t apply to everyone. And however it does that, and even if it’s a straight film, it sort of questions that notion. Certainly if it’s a film that deals with people of the same sex getting together or failing to get together—that makes it queer.” (Ades, Klainberg 3:01)

He gives a general idea of what makes Queer Cinema queer and compares it to the concept prevalent in romantic comedies: male falls in love with female, both go through ups and downs during the runtime of the movie and then (in most cases) get married or are headed to a committed relationship. In Queer Cinema, all this is “questioned” because the male-female love story that is told over and over again is not true for every viewer.

“They are queer – indeed more than a little strange – because they unsettle current notions of history and politics while going against conventional paradigms of filmmaking.” (Aaron 166), Helen Hok-Sze Leung writes in her article. Again, like with Duralde’s statement, Leung describes queer as “strange”, as something unfamiliar to the conventional landscape of film, something that feels off-beat and out-of-place to some viewers. All the plots and filmmaking techniques that prevail in queer films, such as the unreliability in history and characters, or the nonlinearity in regards to chronology, are not something that one would see in mainstream cinema, but that have become accustomed in queer film. This has become a way for New Queer Cinema to reflect, project and express their ‘strangeness’ onto the big screen.

3 New Wave Queer Cinema in the Example of Weekend and Looking

What makes New Wave Queer Cinema ‘new wave’ and how does it differ from New Queer Cinema? On one hand, it goes a step further. Not in the sense of going deeper into the issues that came up during the New Queer Cinema era, but a step into the future. New Wave Queer Cinema does not allot much runtime to AIDS or coming out. The characters of the new wave movement already have come out or do not need to be educated in HIV prevention.

Rather, a light is shed on the characters themselves and how they live in today’s world and what their relationship is with the close friends that surround them. It goes more into the direction of ‘a male that happens to be gay’ rather than ‘a gay story for the gay male’. It is still queer in the sense that it is, unfortunately, not the norm in mainstream media, but it tells its stories in a more realistic and more careful way that is void of campy jokes and stereotype-laden clichés.

In the next two sub-chapters, Andrew Haigh’s movie Weekend and the show Looking are discussed under the term New Wave Queer Cinema.

3.1 Weekend

Weekend, a British production written and directed by Andrew Haigh, follows Russell (Tom Cullen) and depicts the things that happen in his life over a weekend. From the production value alone, it seems like a slickly produced independent low budget feature. Everything is naturally kept. There are no outrageous color palettes in the cinematography of the movie. Even looking at the sound it is evident that there is no score but only cleverly placed sound effects of the environment that gives the movie a very natural touch. The mostly calm hand-held camera shots give the viewer the feeling of really being allowed to have a glimpse at Russell’s life. It is the story of the mundane without flashy colors or flashbacks or chronologically out-of-order told stories. The images live by showing the audience big spaces, be it the pool area, the high rise buildings with the evening sky or the bus stop and the streets and trees around it; or by stepping close to the film’s players in order to create intimacy.

We follow Russell to a gay club where he meets Glen (Chris New) and who he has a hook-up with the same night. The two young men feel an attraction for each other that goes beyond sex and fall in love. The movie feels like a glance into the lives of these two people that have just met. They go to work, meet their friends, wake up together in bed and spend a big chunk of the day in it. There are no graphic or overly dramatic scenes to remind the viewer that this is a movie. It does not try to be a documentary; however, it does try to give the audience an once-over into the life of this particular gay man, as realistically as possible. Therein lies the importance of New Wave Queer Cinema: it tries to depict today’s life of homosexuals without spending too much time to educate the masses.

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Russell (Tom Cullen) in New Wave Queer Cinema aesthetics (21:47)

Something that must be noted between the Russell and Glen relationship is the comparison that can be drawn to New Queer Cinema and New Wave Queer Cinema. What seems evident is that Glen embodies the ideas of New Queer Cinema whereas Russell leans more toward being a stand-in for New Wave Queer Cinema. Looking at Glen’s behavior and his view-point on gay and straight culture, he leans more towards the niche thinking that there is a big cleft between the two orientations. He wants to be provocative, to have a voice and to argue his stance.

Russell, however, seems to not concern himself with that kind of thinking. He just lives his life and does not go knocking on doors with his sexual orientation the way Glen does. Another interesting concept that is incorporated in Haigh’s movie is the application of the two characters’ way of retelling their sexual experiences. Both document their encounters, however in different ways: Glen interviews the men he had sex with the morning after with a voice recorder while Russell writes about his experiences in his journal. Two very different approaches to the same idea: while Glen’s method seems more abrasive, as he actually interviews the men, Russell’s seems a lot more personal. He sits down and journals on his own with nobody else in the room. He brings his private thoughts to paper (or in his case, types them into his laptop), what he thinks the hookup might have meant or what he personally perceived during his encounters with the different men he has been with. Glen’s approach is not personal. He wants the men he has slept with to share their experience with him, rather than him reflecting on it, and tries to ignite a conversation with the consequence that he is maybe relying too much on what others think of him. All of his recordings are part of an art project he is working on which strips away the dimension of anonymity that Russell’s journal has. Again, this showcases the abrasiveness of Glen’s concept and his nature. However, this abrasiveness could bring a sense of untruthfulness of the other party that Glen might interview. Either they do not want to be recorded or they could lie. Russell’s approach works more like a diary and his inner thoughts and opinion on the hookup. He has to tell the truth because these are his deep and inner thoughts.


1 ACT UP: AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power


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Title: New Wave Queer Cinema