This blog article was originally published in the University of Nottingham blog on 27 January 2015. The blog article has now been archived and cannot be accessed from the original weblink: http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/lgbthistorymonth/2015/01/27/archiving-queer-feelings-queer-representations-in-cinema/
When Susan Billingham and I were invited to curate films for this year’s LGBT history month, we were thrilled by the opportunity to share our favourite films with students and staff at the University of Nottingham, but we were also faced with the difficult challenge of what titles to choose from a vast sea of queer films. It is a worthwhile challenge. As those who are familiar with LGBT history may agree, what better way of public engagement could there be than watching films together?
The role of films in LGBT history has been well documented. American gay activist Vito Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet (1981), later adapted into a documentary film of the same title directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (1995), marked one of the earliest documentations of queer representations in Hollywood cinema. What amuses me about The Celluloid Closet is the insight about ‘hidden messages’ of seemingly heteronormative films to an LGBT audience. For example, it had never occurred to me that the Hitchcock film Rebecca (1940) might contain a ‘lesbian subtext’, concerning the ambiguous same-sex intimacy between the deceased Ms De Winter and the housekeeper Ms Danvers. In an era when homosexuality could not be publicly expressed in film and popular culture, queer feelings had to be articulated in an implicit and ambiguous manner; and queer audience had to learn to ‘decode’ texts in creative ways. Unsurprisingly, early Hollywood films often featured LGBT characters with tragic and disastrous endings. When Ms Danvers died in a fire, the lesson seemed clear: sexually perverse characters had to die in tragedy and heterosexual romance was destined to win. Another Hitchcock film Psycho (1960) portrays Norman Bates as a psychologically and sexually perverse character. The film seems to suggest that Bates’ psychological disorder may have been the result of his ambiguous sexuality – one that has not resolved the ‘Oedipus complex’ – a popular reference to homosexuality at that time. Obviously, representations of LGBT characters have never been ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’: latent heterosexual bias from scriptwriters, directors, producers, and actors/actresses combine to shape queer representations in specific ways – be they ‘sissy boys’ or ‘evil lesbian predators’. These examples from the history of queer cinema tell us that representations are never neutral. LGBT people must take up cameras and make their own films, as the ‘the new queer cinema’ movement in the 1990s testified.
The three films we have chosen for this year’s LGBT history month are the results of several rounds of discussions: the choice was difficult, as one had to take into consideration many factors: the availability of film DVDs with English subtitles, the access to film copyrights, along with considerations of popularity and geographic/cultural locations of the films. The three films represent three different styles: Ang Lee’s 2005 film Broke Back Mountain is one of the best known queer films in the West; it is enjoyed by queer and straight audience alike and marks the ‘mainstreaming’ of contemporary queer films. Hong Kong director Wong Karwai’s 1997 film Happy Together is a cult film. Characteristic of Wong’s cinematic style, the film is one of the stylistically sharp auteur films and it is an essential entry into any cinephile’s collection. British director Andrew Haigh’s 2001 film Weekend is not simply a nicely-made film with a beautiful love story; it has particular resonances with an audience from Nottingham. The film was made in Nottingham. An observant member of audience will probably recognise familiar scenes such as the Nottingham train station before its refurbishment, the Propaganda Bar at the Lace Market, the tram line at the Old Market Square, and the Tower Block in Lenton. As Weekend pushes Nottingham to the forefront of queer history and representations, it also offers an excellent opportunity to reflect on the relationship between locality, sexuality, identity, and queer politics.
We hope that you enjoy the films we have selected for the LGBT History Month. Showing and watching films is not only about remembering queer history and sharing queer feelings; it is also about identity and community building. Amid lights and shadows at the screening room, we might ponder: what kind of queer life, be it individual or collective, do we wish to pursue? What types of queer politics can we imagine for ourselves and for the communities?