When did queer cinema begin? What did it look like before the German New Wave breakthroughs of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Ulrike Ottinger, before the flashpoint of William Friedkin’s Cruising, before its efflorescence in the ’90s? The popular understanding of gay and lesbian film prior to Stonewall—that pivotal moment in 1969—is often one of censorship and subtext, of sad young men and Dietrich in a tuxedo. This survey aims to revise that conception dramatically and from a number of different perspectives, considering homophile auteurs in classical Hollywood, visionary grindhouse offerings, home movies, sapphic vampire pictures, underground camp stylings, and physique films alongside radical formal experiments and lavender touchstones like Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform. Charting a course from the late 19th century to the cusp of liberation, the Film Society’s pre-Stonewall program reveals the terrain of early queer cinema as far vaster and more varied than received histories might suggest.
Organized by Thomas Beard.
Exclusive media partner: The Village Voice. Community partners: NewFest, Pride NYC. Special thanks to Harry Guerro, Ed Halter, Jenni Olson, Jake Perlin, Bruce Posner, Janet Staiger, Anthology Film Archives, the Bob Mizer Foundation, the Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC), Harvard Film Archive, Istituto Luce Cinecittà, the Library of Congress, Milestone Films, the Murnau Foundation, the Museum of Modern Art, the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project for LGBT Moving Image Preservation, the Prelinger Archives, the Swedish Film Institute, and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.
Charting a course from the late 19th century to the cusp of liberation, the Film Society’s pre-Stonewall program reveals the terrain of early queer cinema as far vaster and more varied than received histories might suggest.
Opening Night · Introduction by filmmaker Su Friedrich and reception to follow on 4/22
Mädchen in Uniform, an enduring classic of lesbian cinema starring an all-female cast, is set against the backdrop of a school for the daughters of military officers, where a sensitive new arrival falls hopelessly in love with a charismatic teacher, eliciting the wrath of the pitiless headmistress.
Opening Night · Introduction by artist Nick Mauss · Pre-show reception open to all ticketholders
This program features three essential instances of early queer cinema: Fireworks, one of Kenneth Anger’s first movies; Un Chant d’amour, the only film by writer Jean Genet; and Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet, a richly imaginative allegory of aesthetic invention in which an artist journeys through the looking glass.
A lecture by film scholar Amy Villarejo
What visions of lesbian and gay life do films like Joseph Mawra’s Chained Girls, from 1965, offer to us today, and how do they fit into a retrospective survey of LGBTQ films from the past century? Combining clips from a variety of oddball and orphan sources, this presentation by Amy Villarejo looks into the recesses and margins of film history for hidden traces of our queer past.
Lured by unseen forces to an abandoned abbey, glamorous aristocrat Carmilla encounters the tomb of her ancestor and becomes possessed by the bloodthirsty spirit, haunting the grounds of her estate thereafter, seeming only to crave the flesh of the women she encounters. Drawing generously from the visual legacy of Cocteau, Blood and Roses proves to be a sapphic horror story of a particularly stylish sort.
Q&A with Pat Rocco
This group screening includes Boys Beware, a now-hilarious educational film about the dangers of predatory gay men; Passion in a Seaside Slum, a rarity featuring the swishy clowning of Taylor Mead; Pat Rocco’s Discovery, an encounter between two men shot on the sly at the theme park of the title; and Hold Me While I’m Naked, a stone-cold classic of underground cinema about a filmmaker who finds himself in a crisis when his lead actress quits.
Dickson Experimental Sound Film, the earliest work in the series, has long captivated queer artists and audiences alike with its scene of two men dancing while a third plays violin. Algie, the Miner, meanwhile, is a gay-cowboy movie made nearly a century before Brokeback Mountain. Anchoring the lineup is the rarely screened Vingarne, the first film to deal more or less explicitly with a gay relationship.
An Early Clue to the New Direction stars cult actress Joy Bang, poet Rene Ricard, and early gay-rights activist Prescott Townsend, who holds forth on his “snowflake theory” of human sexuality’s myriad varieties. Like Meyer’s film, Andy Warhol’s My Hustler is a kind of underground chamber play whose characters jockey for erotic attention.
Jonas Mekas, along with Ken and Flo Jacobs, was arrested for screening Flaming Creatures in 1964, and the obscenity case that followed would become a central episode of the New American Cinema. The film’s images, idiosyncratically framed and etherealized by the outdated stock they were shot on, feature the extravagantly costumed voluptuaries of the title as they dance, preen, and, most strikingly, take part in a pansexual mock orgy. Also showing is the unjustly overlooked Lupe by Jose Rodriguez-Soltero, a lushly lo-fi biopic of actress Lupe Vélez starring drag legend Mario Montez.
A young heiress travels to Florida to surprise her fiancé, a doctor who’s seasonally employed at a St. Petersburg hotel. Upon arrival, however, she becomes furious to discover many of the female guests lavishing attention on her husband-to-be, and in a moment of frustration she swallows a seed that transforms men into women and vice versa. What follows is an elaborate fantasy of gender variance that transcends the transvestite gags so common to the silent era.
In this program, two avant-garde works—Curtis Harrington’s A Fragment of Seeking and Willard Maas’s Geography of the Body—set the stage for one of the truly deep cuts of the pre-Stonewall series: The Case of Mr. Lynn, a fascinating document of the carnal at odds with the inner life. The reel is an actual filmed therapy session with a troubled young homophile, made in 1955 under the auspices of Penn State’s Psychological Cinema Register.
Henri Marsay, a rakish lothario, enjoys sex as something of a gamble and a sport. While participating alongside his friends in elaborate scenarios of erotic gamesmanship, he becomes increasingly preoccupied with his latest conquest, and grows distraught upon discovering a rival in her lesbian paramour.
An astonishingly sympathetic portrayal of cross-dressing and gender nonconformity, Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda? nominally resembles an educational reel, relating the stories of Glen, who struggles to tell his fiancée that he covets her angora sweaters, and a GI who undergoes reassignment surgery, but Wood conveys this narrative in a style bizarre beyond measure.
The Killing of Sister George stars Beryl Reid as an actress who plays a kindly nun in a popular British soap, a role altogether distinct from her off-screen persona: a fabulously brassy butch with a sadistic streak, whose life begins to unravel when plans are made to kill off her character. Making matters worse, one of the show’s producers has eyes for her much-younger girlfriend.
Lot in Sodom has often shared a double bill with Alla Nazimova and Charles Bryant’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, and the combination is fitting, as the latter is an equally homoerotic riff on scripture. In reference, no doubt, to the latter’s Aubrey Beardsley–inspired mise-en-scène and rumors of its exclusively gay casting, Kenneth Anger dubbed it “Nancy-Prancy-Pansy-Piffle and just too queer for words.
For Love Meetings, Pasolini traveled throughout Italy, from the factories to the beaches, and interviewed passersby about their attitudes toward sex. A charismatic interlocutor, he questions them, mic in hand, on a wide range of topics: the importance of sex in everyday life, prostitution, homosexuality, the legalization of divorce. Though a lesser-known entry in Pasolini’s filmography, it is endlessly compelling, both as a social artifact and a work of art.
Like Mauritz Stiller’s Vingarne, Dreyer’s film is drawn from Herman Bang’s 1902 novel Mikaël. Dreyer’s depiction of the love triangle between a famous artist, the protégé he pines for, and a penniless aristocrat is comparatively muted in its homoeroticism, yet it is no less powerful as a result. The picture speaks through its sumptuous decor, its subtle performances, and, perhaps most crucially, its compositions, expertly lensed by the influential cinematographer Karl Freund.
Jacqueline Audry’s Olivia (aka The Pit of Loneliness) is preceded by Mona’s Candle Light, an amateur short film shot at popular San Francisco bar Mona’s circa 1950. This screening offers a unique opportunity to consider a big-screen depiction of sapphic yearning alongside a rare, rediscovered lesbian home movie from the same moment.
Introduction by writer Michael Musto
Frank Simon’s debut The Queen takes in the sights and sounds of 1967’s Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant, where drag artists throughout the land descended upon Town Hall to vie for the title. Queens at Heart, meanwhile, provides a glimpse into the twilight world of ball culture, and centers upon probing interviews with four transwomen. Rounding out the lineup is Monte Hanson and Tony Gallo, a physique film by the prolific and pioneering gay pornographer Bob Mizer, which proves to be something of a beauty contest itself.
Based on the novel by Violette Leduc, Therese and Isabelle begins with a woman visiting the empty school grounds of her youth, in which she recalls a budding sapphic tryst with a free-spirited classmate. Complementing this masterly softcore effort is No Help Needed, a rare fragment of vintage lesbian pornography from the personal collection of filmmaker and queer film programmer Jenni Olson.
Gregory J. Markopoulos’s modern restaging of the Hippolytus myth is paired with important early works by his protégés Tom Chomont and Robert Beavers, both of which, in their own distinct ways, plumb the depths of the erotic imagination through complex superimposition and pulsing montage.
One of Bergman’s most enigmatic works is the story of an actress who suddenly falls mute and retreats to the countryside with her nurse to convalesce. Aided by Sven Nykvist’s evocative camerawork and artful punctuations in the sound design, an air of violent eroticism prevails throughout. Persona, one of the great movies about the precarious nature of identity, shudders with neurotic life.
Introduction by writer Hilton Als
Portrait of Jason is an extended interview with its eponymous subject: a gay African-American man and a brilliant raconteur. When asked by Clarke early on what he does for a living, he succinctly responds, giggling: “I hustle... I’m a stone whore, and I’m not ashamed of it.” This might be the ultimate film about hustling and being hustled.
Though best known for avant-garde works like The Seashell and the Clergyman and The Smiling Madame Beudet, lesbian filmmaker Germaine Dulac also made a number of features, like the beguiling and little-shown Princess Mandane. This loose adaptation of Pierre Benoît’s novel Forgetfulness was Dulac’s final commercial production and features one of the most explicitly sapphic moments in her cinema.
“Overflowing with gothic atmosphere, Reflections in a Golden Eye circles around the stoic, marble-mouthed Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando). He silently pines for a mysterious young soldier (Robert Forster, in his first major role) who has secrets of his own, like a penchant for naked horseback riding and a peculiar fixation with the negligee of the Major’s wife, Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor).
Introduction by filmmaker Tom Kalin on 4/24
Hitchcock’s first color film, which plays out as a single continuous shot, accomplished by the use of hidden cuts, is a work very much about what we see, and what we don’t. With the on-screen depiction of homosexuality verboten in the 1940s, queer actors Farley Granger and John Dall gamely maneuver through a scenario that, even by the standards of a Hitchcock film, is drenched in innuendo.
In a scheme to help her embezzling bookkeeper father escape Marseilles for London, young Sylvia (Katharine Hepburn) cuts her hair, dons a fedora, and changes her name to Sylvester. En route, they encounter a “gentleman adventurer” (Cary Grant, at his most louche) and together the trio starts grifting. Condemned by the Legion of Decency, Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett is a gender-bending picaresque tale in which the terms of erotic identification are constantly, cleverly evolving, for the cast and audience alike.
John Kerr and Deborah Kerr reprised their roles from Robert Anderson’s popular Broadway play Tea and Sympathy for Vincente Minnelli’s screen adaptation, a sensitive consideration of virulent homophobia at a boarding school, delineated here in a resplendent color palette by cinematographer John Alton.
Shot in the wake of 1957’s Wolfenden Report, a hotly debated government study that recommended the decriminalization of same-sex relations in Britain, Victim is a supremely artful message film. Taking the shape of a detective story, it concerns a closeted barrister (Dirk Bogarde) who becomes embroiled in a blackmailing scheme targeting gay men, prompting him to take on the extortionists despite the cost to his marriage and promising career.
A brawny busboy (Sal Mineo) spends his downtime as a peeping tom with a penchant for making obscene phone calls to his co-worker Norah (Juliet Prowse), who also finds admirers in the club’s tough-talking lesbian manager (Elaine Stritch) and a cop dedicated to the assiduous study of sexual deviancy (Jan Murray). Set amid the smut shops and porno theaters of old Times Square, Joseph Cates’s cult classic is a wonderfully seedy tale of obsessive desire and urban alienation.
Though officially closeted, as a lesbian filmmaker in the classical Hollywood era Dorothy Arzner was a unique figure. The Wild Party, Paramount’s first sound movie, stars the original “It” girl Clara Bow as a student at a women’s college who is “the life of the party and HOW!” Though the plot is driven by the vicissitudes of her blossoming romance with a young anthropology professor, modern audiences are likely to be just as intrigued by the film’s account of female friendship, and the sapphic subtext of the homosocial milieu.
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