One of the consistent features of New Queer Cinema is that queerness is continually represented in terms of ‘movement’. Queerness is always ‘on the go’. The ability to move and a general resistance against standing still is a strong, identifiable trope in much queer cinema. Queer theory matriarch, Eve Sedgwick, wrote in Tendencies (1993) that ‘queer’ is movement, not only in the sense that it refers to a community, collective, or even a cinematic movement, but because it moves in the literal sense. Sedgwick writes: “The word ‘queer’ itself means across... The immemorial current that queer represents is antiseparatist as it is anti-assimilationist. Keenly, it is relational and strange”. Queer is about being in flux; it is about moving or passing across sexualities, genders, desires and practices. If queerness doesn’t move in step with the erratic beat of identity politics, perhaps it moves more literally across a landscape that sometimes has trouble anchoring the shifting, unstable ground upon which queerness often travels.
The ‘movability’ of queer is often expressed in queer cinema through the recurring motif of the road. The idea that queer moves across things is evocative because in some queer films, its subjects don’t inhabit any one specific place for too long. Instead, such characters keep moving across the landscape, forever passing through and between places, identities, things. For example, some of the most notable films of the New Queer Cinema were road movies about young, free-floating characters who hustle their way through life. In My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991), the main character Mike Waters (River Phoenix) is constantly asleep at the proverbial wheel of life. The search for family, love and his next ten-dollar bill takes Mike on a zig-zagging circuit between Portland, Seattle, Oregon, and in a heartbreakingly surreal twist, Italy. Postcards From America (Steve McLean, 1994) mapped out the bruised cartographies of David Wojnarowicz’s peripatetic life. Wojnarowicz’s interior journey into his troubled past drifted in and out of focus with his latter-day sojourns into a transformative American Heartland. The supposed romance of the American road trip is played out in The Living End (Gregg Araki, 1992) where two HIV+ men, John and Luke (or is that Jean and Luc?) embark on a fucked-up road trip to nowhere in particular. In one early scene, Luke is picked up by two psychotic lesbians while hitchhiking. He is asked where he’s headed. When he says “wherever”, he is met with a sarcastic response: “Oh my, a romantic drifter, a lonesome cowboy hitching across the country like Jack Kerouac. How romantic. Isn’t that just fucking romantic”.
But is it romantic? Anything but. The romance of queer cinema is better suited to the spate of queer rom-coms that include but are certainly not limited to such titles as Go Fish (Rose Troche, 1994), Jeffrey (Christopher Ashley, 1995), Trick (Jim Fall, 1999), Better than Chocolate (Anne Wheeler, 1999), Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss (Tommy O’Haver, 1998), and All Over the Guy (Julie Davis, 2001). In many road movies as in much literature, the road has represented a romanticised ideal as evidenced by The Living Ends satirical reference to Kerouac’s famous beat novel On the Road (1957). The road movie may have been queered by the above-mentioned films and others like them, but the road does not always have transformative effects. For My Own Private Idaho’s narcoleptic hustler Mike, the road is akin to an existential conveyor belt leading not to the promise of narrative closure, but to the unanswered and the unfound. Whether or not Mike’s journey is transformative remains open to interpretation.
The fact that the more interesting early examples of the New Queer Cinema were also road movies is certainly not accidental; if anything, the persistence of the road motif supports the idea that the queer characters of these films were restless identities that could not be anchored in any one space. But does the recurring idea that queer represents ‘movement’ still linger in more recent films? In this essay, I will examine two relatively recent films, Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999) and Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001). These films engage with similar ideas to do with ‘movement’ in that they feature trailer trash protagonists whose circumstances and subjectivities are informed by the act of moving across the landscape. Incidentally, both titles were produced by Christine Vachon’s Killer Films, an outfit noted for its ongoing engagement with queer ideas.
Boys Don’t Cry is an adaptation of the real-life story of Teena Brandon, a poor, white, queer, and born a woman, but who changed ‘her’ name to Brandon Teena and lived passing male in Nebraska. Brandon (Hilary Swank) was always on the run from the law because, of the petty crimes committed during ‘his’ short life. However, Brandon’s biggest ‘crime’ was the perceived crime he committed against sexual normativity. Brandon’s crime, moreover, was the crime of ‘performance’, the crime of passing male, when anatomy said otherwise. Certainly, this is not a crime, but to Brandon’s redneck friends, it was punishable by death. For this reason, Boys Don’t Cry engages with queerness in a complex manner because Brandon’s gender is performed, artificial, constructed. The film demonstrates – like many others which utilise transgender themes – that gender and sex are forever’ unstable, inauthentic and disruptive because they are not inherent or essential components of identity.
Xan Brooks argues in Sight and Sound (2000), that Boys Don’t Cry “filters its true crime material through the prism of New Queer Cinema”. It is the film’s re-staging of an historically documented crime that invites comparisons to ‘true crime’ films like Badlands, In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967) and The Executioner’s Song (Lawrence Schiller, 1982) The key concerns of the New Queer Cinema are also evident in the more recent film Boys Don’t Cry because the New Queer films were perceived, at the time by B. Ruby Rich (1993), to be “doing something new, renegotiating subjectivities, annexing whole genres, revising histories in their image”. Although Boys Don’t Cry was made almost a decade after Rich wrote her famous essay on the New Queer Cinema, the film certainly engages with the key tenets of this cinematic trend, as identified by Rich. Despite its strengths, Boys Don’t Cry was attacked by some critics at the time of its release for presenting some inaccuracies and omissions. In this sense, history is quite literally revised. But surely a certain amount of revision must take place with any work based on a real-life event, because otherwise it would probably not translate on a cinematic level.
Like Boys Don’t Cry which examines Brandon Teena’s ‘crime of performance’, the cult musical comedy Hedwig and the Angry Inch explores the instability of gender and sexual categories, with a particular emphasis being placed on blurring the distinction between self and other. The character Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) is an identity divided. Hedwig’s sense of self-hood requires an understanding of his elusive other half. The metaphor of division begins in the film with quick allusions to the Berlin Wall, which was still intact, oppressively dividing East and West Germany. In a series of sung flashbacks, we discover that Hedwig’s life began in East Berlin as a boy named Hansel. Upon meeting an African American “Sugar Daddy” named Luther – who lures him with candy, marriage, and the promise of a better life in America – Hansel becomes Hedwig after a botched sex change operation which leaves him with an “angry inch” of flesh: a “Barbie doll crotch” to quote the film. Hedwig moves to a trailer park in Kansas City with Luther, and within a year Hedwig is dumped for a much younger American boy-toy. For Hedwig, living in a trailer park was “the lowest point in my life”. To make matters worse, it is during this low point that Hedwig watches the televised collapse of the Berlin Wall, realising that she could have left Berlin with her genitals and dignity intact, had she only waited a year. Like the road-trips of longing and desire employed by the protagonists of New Queer highlights My Own Private Idaho and Postcards from America, Hedwig’s journey is one wracked with disappointment and heartbreak. Like so many other queer misfits, Hedwig only embraces the thrill of the open road, because it inevitably leads to the stage.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not a road movie per se, but it features a character whose life extends across a vast geographic spread. Hedwig, you see, is on tour. This tour is not only about rock and roll. Hedwig is also on a philosophical tour to find her other half, a person who will compliment, complete, and render her whole. Recurring animations by artist Emily Hubley punctuate the film, depicting dual forms that become one through various acts of incorporation like spooning and being swallowed whole. The basis for Hedwig’s philosophy of sexual oneness derives from the origin myth detailed in Plato’s Symposium, which writer, director and actor Mitchell describes, in a 2001 interview with Cynthia Fuchs, as being about “the doppelganger and the ‘other half’, being someone or something that has information you don’t have”.
Like the film’s historic backdrop of the Berlin Wall, Hedwig is symbolic of division-she literally becomes the Berlin Wall. In the first musical number, Tear Me Down, Hedwig appears on stage, and begins her performance by proclaiming, “Don’t you know me Kansas City, I’m the new Berlin Wall”. Hedwig raises her arms, revealing a cape decorated by a picture of the Berlin Wall. Later in the song, Hedwig’s new husband and bandmate, Yitzhak (a male character played by Miriam Shor) sings:
Ladies and gentlemen
Hedwig is like that wall
Standing before you in a divide between East and West
Slavery and freedom
Man and woman
Top and bottom
And you can try and tear her down
As the “new Berlin Wall”, Hedwig symbolises the divisions between self and other, as well as numerous other binary oppositions to do with gender, sexuality, class, race and place. Boys Don’t Cry also represents social division through the metaphor of the wall. Many of the supporting characters in the film are referred to as “wall people”: bored kids who congregate against the wall at the Qwik Stop convenience store all night long. Based on a real-life subculture in Falls City, Nebraska, Peirce discovered that “wall people” generally hung out together in such locations because it was there that they could consume alcohol and get high on glue and aerosol cans, items often stolen from the convenience store. When bored of the wall, other forms of entertainment such as karaoke, bumper-skiing, and car chases. The focus on the “wall people” heightens the sense of small-town entrapment, while also contrasting Brandon’s ability to move from place to place. Of course, Brandon frequently moves around because he is on the run from the law. But it is in Falls City that he wants to settle, having fallen in love with Lana Tisdel (Chloë Sevigny). Lana is disaffected most of the time. Numb from alcohol and her soulless factory job, Lana lives with her alcoholic mother in her “stupid house”.
It is at the Qwik Stop that Brandon and Lana first speak. Lana is high the whole time, wandering around aimlessly until Brandon walks her home. The “wall people” of Boys Don’t Cry are alienated from and by the smallness of the town in which they live. They are attracted to the location of the wall for no other reason than it is one of the few places where they can go for fun. When Brandon arrives in town, he represents freedom and potential escape for the numerous young women he meets. Apart from the obvious signifier of the cowboy hat, Brandon adopts a very exaggerated cowboy-style masculinity that is assertive and fearless, while simultaneously sensitive and romantic. Brandon may as well have modelled himself on John Wayne. One of Brandon’s killers, Tom (Brandon Sexton III), sees through Brandon’s cowboy act, claiming he rode into Falls City on a “pussy-whipped faggot horse”.
At the beginning of the film, a young girl at a roller-skating rink says to Brandon, “You don’t seem like you’re from around here”. Brandon asks her where she thinks he might be from, to which she replies, “Some place beautiful”. From all appearances, Brandon comes from a place that is not small, a place of opportunity, a place where dreams come true. He represents all that is free, exotic and beautiful. Even Lana’s mother refers to Brandon as “a little movie star”. Unsurprising because his masculinity is modelled on the exaggerated masculinity of the movie star cowboy trope. Boys Don’t Cry updates some of the themes often found in the Western genre, partly because Brandon inhabits the American West: “a place of renewal and reinvention, a land where pioneers could throw off the shackles of the past and live the life they always dreamed of” (Xan Brooks). As a man, Brandon is a blend of the cowboy and frontiersman archetypes because such characters are about performing and passing. The cowboy performs an exaggerated masculinity through dress and behaviour. The cowboy passes in the sense that he is associated with movement; passing through the landscape is the key activity of the cowboy. For Brandon, this passing is about movement between places as much as it is about passing as a man.
Even though Brandon presented a movie star cowboy image from “some place beautiful”, he had only come from neighbouring Nebraskan city, Lincoln: a place where Brandon had repeatedly been in trouble with either its homophobic thugs or the strong arm of the law. In contrast, Falls City coffered Brandon a sense of acceptance with his newfound friends. Ultimately, this acceptance is only unconditional for Lana. The attack which culminates in Brandon’s tragic death was the result of the very thing he was trying to escape in Lincoln.
To an extent, the road functions in Boys Don’t Cry as a site of escape; a means of being able to drift throughout life. Like Hedwig’s ‘touring’ subjectivity, Brandon’s journey is about longing and searching. Specifically, he is looking for acceptance, community and love. But Brandon’s search for these things almost always comes about after escaping from troubling situations. One of the contradictions of the road is that on the one hand, it signifies freedom and escape because it brings an ongoing sense of self-transformation. On the other hand, the road offers a sense of alienation and danger because it can trap the subject in an ongoing cycle of transformation. In other words, Brandon’s idea of transforming his circumstances or identity always leads him into the same dangerous situations. He may be able to transform his circumstances, but they always bring him to another similar crisis point.
In Boys Don’t Cry, one form of escapism and fun is driving recklessly across what is known, quote ironically, as the “dustless highway”. Quoting from the film’s official website, coproducer Eva Kolodner remarks: “The dustless highway is a real place in Falls City where the kids go; it’s a stretch of highway where, if you turn off the main road, this huge cloud of dust rolls up behind you, hides you and you just disappear. Shooting in Texas we really got that experience of driving into the stirred-up dust. It’s like driving into a dream, and that’s exactly what the experience of going to Falls City was like for Brandon”.
The experience of “driving into the stirred-up dust” and “driving into a dream” is at the heart(land) of much queer cinema. The stirred-up dust is the reminder of someone’s passing; it is the temporal evidence of movement within the landscape and quite possibly of movement within those identities who pass through it. But what or whose dream is being entered here? Is it the American dream? If it is, this version of the American dream is one connected to a longing and desire to be somewhere that is forever held at arms’ length: a place where the dust never settles, and the dream remains alive.
Essay for Film Journal, a now defunct online magazine of film criticism and scholarship.
Published by Film Journal, issue 5 in 2003.