John Hibbert, Subject Advisor for Media and Film Studies
This year’s LGBT+ History Month focuses on the theme ‘Behind the Lens’, celebrating the contribution of LGBT+ people to film. I wanted to share some of the LGBT+ filmmakers whose work has had an impact on me, both as a film fan and as someone who spent an alarming proportion of time studying film.
Queer filmmakers have been active throughout the history of film. Looking back to the classical Hollywood era, George Cukor was a prolific director who won the Best Director Oscar for My Fair Lady. He also directed one of my favourite films of all time, the classic screwball comedy The Philadelphia Story starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart. A stellar cast and whip smart script are perfectly balanced, with Hepburn’s character bridling against the restrictions of gender roles.
The late 1980s saw the emergence of New Queer Cinema in the US. Emerging against the backdrop of activism in response to the AIDS crisis and within the context of the burgeoning of American independent cinema it included filmmakers such as Todd Haynes, Cheryl Dunye, Rose Troche, and Gus Van Sant (who features on our A Level Film Studies specification).
As a film student in the late 1990s New Queer Cinema was a film movement I returned to again and again. When I did my doctorate focusing on film genre and identity, I explored the work of a number of filmmakers who emerged from New Queer Cinema.
What I loved about these films was the way they explored and challenged our ideas around identity, whilst playing with the language of film itself. I particularly loved Todd Haynes’ glam rock film Velvet Goldmine, inspired by the career of David Bowie. It’s one of only two films I went to see more than once in the cinema. Haynes’ films with Julianne Moore are particularly affecting, with Far From Heaven reimagining the classic melodramas of Douglas Sirk, specifically All That Heaven Allows, to heart breaking effect.
The Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar is one of my favourite filmmakers of all time. I still remember watching his 1999 masterpiece All About My Mother for the first time as a second year undergraduate at a 9am screening, trying not to audibly sob in a crowded lecture theatre. His films are funny, playful and moving and explore a range of themes around gender, sexuality, and the significance of popular culture. Like the filmmakers associated with New Queer Cinema, Almodóvar has a postmodern approach, with his films often incorporating films within films or focusing on the idea of performance.
Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader was another film I loved, which I then found an excuse to study as part of my MA thesis. A sharp and comic subversion of the teen film with a visually distinctive aesthetic, it has become a cult classic and recently inspired the music video for Silk Chiffon by MUNA. It was released in 1999, a time that saw a revival of the teen film genre. But I’m a Cheerleader can be seen as a riposte to the way the mainstream teen films of the era marginalised or ignored queer characters. Set at a conversion therapy camp for gay teens, it’s interesting to contrast it with the similarly-themed The Miseducation of Cameron Post which came out in 2018. Directed by Desiree Akhavan and based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth, the realist style and dramatic tone contrasts strongly to the Day-Glo aesthetic and camp humour of But I’m a Cheerleader.
Babbit has gone on to have a prolific career directing in television, including the recent A League of Their Own series which brought queer characters to the fore. She also directed 18 episodes of Gilmore Girls, a TV series I have been rewatching on a loop for about fifteen years.
But I’m a Cheerleader’s cast included Clea DuVall who appeared in a number of classic teen films of the era including The Faculty and She’s All That. DuVall has gone on to become a director herself, her most recent film being the lesbian holiday romcom Happiest Season which came out in 2020. She also created and co-wrote and directed the recent TV series High School, based on the memoir by indie pop duo Tegan and Sara about their teenage years. As someone who grew up in the ‘90s I hugely enjoyed it and the soundtrack is a thing of a wonder (so much Smashing Pumpkins!).
The late ‘90s also saw the emergence of Kevin Williamson, the screenwriter behind the original Scream trilogy, Halloween:H20 and The Faculty (starring Clea DuVall!) all of which I loved. More importantly he also created Dawson’s Creek, which I was obsessed with to a degree I will not share here. The coming out narrative of the character Jack was a significant moment in LGBT+ representation at the time, and Dawson’s Creek was one of the first TV programmes to show a gay kiss on primetime television in America.
It's felt like there’s been increasing space for queer stories and queer filmmakers within mainstream film culture. The success of the gay teen romcom Love, Simon, directed by Greg Berlanti (who also wrote on my beloved Dawson’s Creek), and based on the YA novel by Becky Albertalli is one marker of this. An unabashedly mainstream romcom with a gay protagonist, which led to a TV spin-off on Disney+, it stands in contrast to the film culture at the turn of the century. In a similar vein I loved Netflix’s The Half of It, written and directed by Alice Wu. A sweet and funny queer retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac with a carefully drawn protagonist and beautifully constructed world.
This weekend I’m off to the cinema to watch Charlotte Well’s debut film Aftersun for the second time. A beautiful and heart breaking film (there will be tears) about a holiday taken by a girl and her father. It’s been described as ‘the rare coming-of-age movie about a queer kid who doesn’t yet understand that queerness’. The protagonist’s queer identity is only referenced subtly, but it adds another layer to what is an incredibly rich and affecting film.
Films from LGBT+ people have had a huge impact on me. They’ve shaped the way I think about identity and been central to my love of the study of film. And they’ve also provided countless hours of entertainment, films which have moved me or made me laugh. Or made me cry in a crowded lecture theatre.
I’m really pleased that updates to our A Level Media specification add set products with LGBT+ representations and creative personnel including Lil Nas X’s touching music video for Sun Goes Down. You can read more about the changes to our set products in my recent blog.
Do let me know which LGBT+ filmmakers (or other creative personnel) you want to celebrate in the comments below.
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John Hibbert has been Subject Advisor for Media and Film Studies since 2018. Prior to joining OCR John taught a range of media and film studies qualifications in secondary schools and was a head of department for eight years. Predictably, in his spare time he is a keen filmgoer, and in addition enjoys reading and miserable indie music.