Transgeneric Tendencies in New Queer Cinema – Matthew Sini


New Queer Cinema emerged in the 1990s as a movement of stylishly adventurous queer films that gained critical notability on the festival circuit. B. Ruby Rich coined the term ‘New Queer Cinema’ (NQC) in her article of the same name, claiming that although they do not share a ‘single aesthetic vocabulary or strategy or concern’ (2004a, 43), the films can be characterized by a common style that involves pastiche, irony and intertextuality. While Rich’s definition is justifiably loose given this was a movement that had no founding manifesto or singular ‘origin,’ it is widely supported. Nevertheless, queer film scholars Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin have pointed out that NQC is, among other things, also a metacinema in that it speaks to and about cinema and ‘simultaneously represents queer characters and concerns but also comments upon the form of those concerns’ (2006, 222). Despite this, many scholars have tended to link the movement’s aesthetic experimentation with the discourses and politics surrounding the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s[1]. Most work in this field has tended to emphasise the queer in New Queer Cinema rather than the cinema. While I do not dispute this position, it is also important to examine this cinematic movement cinematically as well as politically or thematically. Doing so provides a richer, well-rounded description of a moment in cinematic history which was relatively short, yet far-reaching in consequence.

This article seeks to offer a thorough examination of the metacinematic character of the movement, arguing that the primary way in which NQC films represent and comment on queer identities and issues is through a tendency towards ‘transgenre.’ Transgenre is an umbrella term used to group a variety of aesthetic techniques that comment on cinema, particularly American genre cinema. The trans- prefix does not signify an association with the queer concepts of transgender or transsexuality for the purposes of this article, however that is an avenue of exploration in the study of the relationship between queer identity and genre. It must also be noted that the aesthetic properties I characterize as transgenre are not necessarily limited to queer films. However, there is a discernible tendency for queer filmmakers to utilize these techniques and there are some striking instances of this in NQC. The reason for the prevalence of these transgeneric tendencies are no doubt specific to each filmmaker, film and contexts of production, yet it could also be linked to the queer filmmakers’ marginalization or positioning as queer.

In surveying NQC, Rich’s article introduces the term ‘homo pomo’ to describe more precisely the stylistic links between the films of the movement (2004a, 43). In all the films, claims Rich, there are elements of ‘appropriation and pastiche, irony, as well as a reworking of history with social constructionism very much in mind’ (2004a, 43). This is what she calls the ‘homo pomo’ style, a particularly queer strain of postmodernism that the films of NQC ardently take up and employ. As Michele Aaron points out, however, the ‘apolitical foundations postmodernism provides a relevant but often distracting context for the discussion of NQC’ (2004, 5). Aaron suggests that there is more to NQC than the ‘homo pomo’ style.

Jim Collins’ work on ‘genericity’ in 1990s American film is relevant to this discussion too, as he suggests that the genre texts of the late 1980s and early 1990s developed a ‘hyperconsciousness concerning not just narrative formulae, but the conditions of their own circulation and reception’ (1993, 248). It may be possible to characterize NQC as a consequent or parallel phenomenon, given the time period, but doing so requires one to view the films of NQC as genre texts. They are clearly not. Most films of NQC are constructed from genre texts, but they are not necessarily genre texts in themselves. It may be more gainful to look at them as transgenre texts.

What differentiates the transgeneric tendencies of NQC from tendencies in postmodern cinema in general is their consistent polemic deployment.  In this article I will examine the movement broadly, while also focusing on a few emblematic instances in the films of NQC, specifically Poison (Todd Haynes, 1991), My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991) and The Living End (Gregg Araki, 1992). My aim with this article is to argue that the transgenre films of NQC employ the codes and conventions of mainstream Hollywood genres in order to critique both the ideological implications of the genres as well as the notion of genre itself.

Allusion, Pastiche and Parody

As signaled by Rich and others, NQC engages with, challenges and deconstructs whole genres as well as specific examples of those genres. I prospose that it does this through a tendency towards transgenre. Before moving on to specific case studies, it is important to explicate three transgeneric techniques that are often used in NQC: allusion, intertextuality and referentiality.

Allusion is the defining quality of transgenre, since transgenre is a dynamic process that holds no tangible generic conventions other than allusion to other generic conventions. In other words, allusion is its generic convention. This may not seem all that ‘new’ and certainly not exclusively ‘queer.’ As Noël Carroll suggests, many post-1970s Hollywood films incorporate techniques of allusion, memorializing and reworking past genres as well as engaging in ‘homages, and the recreation of “classic” scenes, shots, plot motifs, lines of dialogue, themes, gestures, and so forth from film history’ (1982, 52). What Carroll discerns as allusive cinema is frequently attempting to perform an awareness and implementation of what might be called ‘cine-literacy.’ As he suggests:

An aggressive polemic of film criticism, often called auteurism, correlated attitudes, moods, viewpoints, and expressive qualities with items in the putative canon. These associations became available to contemporary filmmakers, who were able to lay claim to them by alluding to the original films, filmmakers, styles, and genres to which certain associations or assignments were affixed in the emerging discourse about film history. Thus, Body Heat, a film based on references to film history, a film that tells us that for this very reason it is to be regarded as intelligent and knowing, a film that demands that the associations which accrued to its referents be attributed to it and that it be treated with the same degree of seriousness as they were. (1982, 52)

It is entirely feasible to view NQC as a perhaps more queerly inflected version of this sort of allusive cinema. As I contend, NQC is a metacinema, but what makes it different from something like the post-70s films that Carroll is discussing is the underlying attitude from which the allusion comes from. There are numerous references and ‘in-jokes’ for the cineliterate in NQC. For instance, the main characters in Gregg Araki’s The Living End are named Jon and Luke, an obvious homage to Jean-Luc Godard. In addition to this, as Rich also observes, the film restages ‘every pair-on-the-run movie that ever penetrated Araki’s consciousness’ (2004, 21). Similar instances of allusion or homage occur in Poison, with references to the work of Genet, Fassbinder, Sirk and even Roger Corman. Likewise prolific allusion recurs in My Own Private Idaho, Swoon (Tom Kalin, 1992), Edward II (Derek Jarman, 1991) and The Hours and the Times (Christopher Münch, 1991). Some of this allusion could be attributed to the same sort of sensibility that Carroll detects in many films beyond the classical era, but for the most part, NQC’s allusion is highly polemic. It may be that the films offer a sort of film history awareness, but they also allude to other films in order to critique the ideological assumptions that formulate some genre conventions. In other words, the kind of allusion that something like Body Heat (Lawrence Kadsan, 1981) engages in is more pastiche, while, for the most part, the generic play that goes on in NQC leans more towards the parodic.

Pastiche and parody are often used interchangeably, primarily because they are both examples of transgenres. Both of them are dynamic forms, or ‘genre on the move,’ and hence extremely transgeneric. Contemporary genre theorists such as Christine Gledhill (2000), John Frow (2005), Jason Mittell (2004) and Barry Langford (2005) have said that genre is always on the move, in a constant state of dynamic flux. These approaches have different foci—Frow reads genre as a textual situation or process of ‘structuring effects’ (2005, 10) that produce meaning, while Mittell’s definition sees genres as ‘cultural products’ (2004, 1) that change with and even shape media practices—but all of them agree that genres are subject to shifting boundaries and contradictions. The concept of transgenre is, in a way, the cinematic equivalent of these scholarly conclusions. It makes clear the contingency of particular genres and the idea of genre itself.

The parodic is a specific type of transgenre that the films of NQC often use, however it has often been mistaken for pastiche. The difference between them has been highlighted by Frederic Jameson, who diagnosed pastiche as a ‘symptom’ of the postmodern, that it was ‘like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives…pastiche is thus blank parody’ (1991, 17). Pastiche alludes to forms and genres for a variety of reasons, but many of those reasons are informed by nostalgia, reverence or homage. Also, as Richard Dyer suggests:

Perhaps parody is theoretically distinct from pastiche chiefly because it minds being inexorably implicated in that form which it seeks to distance itself and that is why it is so hysterical—so angry, so mocking, so unkind—about it. (Dyer, 2007, 47)

The sort of allusion that Carroll discusses would thus be characterized as pastiche in that it maintains a reverence for the quoted or referenced original. Parody, on the other hand, as Dyer suggests, is purposed towards critiquing whatever it alludes to.

Parody in one form or another has existed in Western culture since Ancient Greece, and theorising of it just as long. Aristotle’s Poetics is one of the earliest texts to use the word (parodia in Greek) in referring to an earlier writer, Hegemon (Dentith, 2000, 46-53). Since then, parody has come to be theorised in a number of ways. Literary theorist Linda Hutcheon, defines parody as ‘imitation characterized by ironic inversion’ (1985, 6), which does not necessarily require a comic mode, while Margaret A. Rose implies that humour is central to all forms of parody (1993, 46-53). Synthesising much of the work on parody, Simon Dentith offers a widely-drawn, yet acutely perceptive definition: ‘[parody is] any cultural practice which makes a relatively polemical allusive imitation of another cultural production or practice’ (2000, 37).

Parody, or the parodic tendency, need not be humorous either, as Dentith later explains (2000, 37-38). The key concept is that of polemic allusion. Parody is both a genre and a challenge to genre, which is to say, it is a transgenre that in its transitiveness seeks to score rhetorical points. It is predicated on an understanding that it can and will perform any genre, that it is composed only of polemic allusion to other generic conventions. With this in mind, we should examine two of the most significant transgeneric and parodic strategies employed by NQC: referentiality and intertextuality.

As I characterise them, referentiality and intertextuality are two very similar transgeneric strategies that are nevertheless distinguished by the focus of their textual allusion; referentiality is extremely focused, honing in on a specific generic text, whilst intertextuality has a broader body of texts to draw from; either a genre or the notion of genre itself. I have used intertextuality here in the more general sense of the word, denoting textually allusive incidents in a particular text, but I also acknowledge the more precise, semiotic meaning of the word, as articulated by Julia Kristeva. For Kristeva, intertextuality is a key component of the development of semiotic structures, in that it is a process of ‘transposition of one (or several) sign-system(s) into another’ (1986, 111).

NQC is a metacinema, as mentioned earlier, but its intertextuality is not only drawn from cinematic language. To understand the transgeneric properties of some NQC films, particularly My Own Private Idaho and Poison, with their references to other texts ‘outside’ of the cinematic ‘sign-system’ (Idaho quotes Shakespearean plays, Poison liberally transposes parts of Jean Genet’s novels), both notions of intertextuality should be mobilised in a more wide-ranging study, however, for the scope of this article, I will focus primarily on intertextuality in the more general sense of the term.

Intertextuality in New Queer Cinema

Most of the films of NQC use the intertextual method of parodic allusion, but Gus Van Sant’s Idaho and Todd Haynes’ Poison are suffused with it. The predominant body of texts that Idaho parodically alludes to is the road movie genre. From the beginning, the iconography of the road movie is on display, as is the thematic function of the road in the genre. Idaho, focuses on Mike (River Phoenix) and Scott (Keanu Reeves), two hustlers in Portland who go on the road in search of Mike’s mother. In one early scene as Mike paces and saunters across the empty road in between a montage of landscape shots of the area surrounding the road, he describes the road: ‘It’s one kind of place. One of a kind.’ Mike is implying that the place where he finds himself, in the middle of nowhere, is his place. When he spies a rabbit bounding away from the asphalt in the roadside scrub, he calls after it: ‘Where do you think you’re running, man? We’re stuck here together, you shit!’ Curiously, Mike begins the film ‘stuck’ on the road, going nowhere, whereas in most examples of the road movie, the main characters see the road as a place to get ‘unstuck’ from wherever they come from, to find liberation through movement and the unfolding of the miles ahead. But the film ends much like it begins, with Mike alone on a road that cuts through a flat countryside below a blue sky blotched now and again with fluffy white clouds, with mountains in the distance. ‘This road will never end,’ he asserts, as well as suggesting he is a ‘connoisseur of roads.’ The transitive space of the road in the road movie is perhaps its most distinguishing feature and permits a depiction of transitive identities. Narratively the characters are often travelling away from or towards something. As Ina Rae Hark and Steven Cohan suggest, the road movie:

sets the liberation of the road against the oppression of hegemonic norms, road movies project American Western mythology onto the landscape traversed and bound by the nation’s highways…The 1969 ad campaign for Easy Rider exclaimed, ‘A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere,’ and this much-remembered sentiment condenses what is typically taken for granted as the ideological project of a road movie, regardless of what travel narrative it specifically recounts. (1997, 1)

This frames the road movie as a genre that is engaging with ambivalent notions of power, alienation and identity, as well as interrogating how orthodoxy can be escaped through the liberation of the road. This would seem to make the genre quite conducive to a queer appropriation devoid of irony, accommodating as the genre seems to be to those who are marginalised by oppressive  hegemonic norms. However, if we examine the genre and what it actually does with the marginalised, we see that most formulations of the road movie are complicit with a conservative worldview even if on some level they aim to unsettle that worldview.

Typically, road movie characters follow one of two possible narrative pathways. One option protagonists in road movies face is to crash and die somewhere on their journey, the second is to re-assimilate into society, or some kind of microcosmic version of it. As always, there are exceptions to this rule, a notable one being The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, 2004), but most of the exceptions to the rule are, like this one, films that came after the subversion and deconstruction of the queer and postmodern 1980s and 1990s.

The road movie’s promises of liberation are very rarely kept, or at least they are very rarely sustained. We see this from its modern beginnings in Easy Rider. The campaign ad that Hark and Cohan are referencing can be read in a very different way after one has watched the film. Because Wyatt and Billy are both murdered (on the road), they never get the chance to finish their search for America. The man looking for America didn’t find it anywhere because he was killed before he had a chance to really try.

Likewise in Idaho, Mike’s search is aborted, disrupted, perhaps even killed by hegemonic forces of marriage and family. When Scott finds a wife in Italy while they are searching for Mike’s mother, Scott returns to the States. Mike is left alone in a foreign country and fails in his quest to find his mother. In the last scene, Mike falls into a narcoleptic sleep on the road, alone, and men in a truck strip him of his shoes and other personal belongings. Mike seemingly finds nothing but misfortune and loss on the road, whilst Scott finds a traditional marriage and future.

My Own Private Idaho subverts the limits of the road movie genre, and does this through the licence given to it by its transgeneric framing. Mike’s situation remains the same in that he does not ‘find’ something on the road as Scott does. The fantasy of the road movie genre is both fulfilled and subverted with each main character’s experience on the journey. The road movie’s promises of liberation and freedom are exposed and evaluated through the very generic conventions of which it is composed. Scott’s fulfilment of the road movie’s social inclusion option is shown as not only an acceptance of the society he previously shunned, but as an excessive, almost artificial shift in character. Scott becomes cold and dismissive of his former friends, which is most apparent at the end of the film when the Falstaffian father-figure, and benefactor for the hustlers, Bob Pigeon (William Richert) confronts him in the bar. Scott, clean-shaven, hair neat and tidy and dressed in a stylish suit (diametrically opposed to his previous dishevelled, scruffy appearance as well as Bob’s tattered rags) is shown with his back to Bob when Bob attempts to get his attention. The shot here is set up so that Scott is close up in the foreground, and the camera is angled downward from above so that Bob is shown over and behind Scott’s shoulder, and consequently made to look even smaller and further away than he is. Scott’s face in this scene is bathed in almost Satanic red light from the restaurant table’s lanterns. The use of the red light and its association with Satan here is quite camp and over the top, painting Scott as almost pure evil and remorseless, a change in character that is purposely cruel. Bob crawls toward Scott, pleading for Scott to recognise him. Scott does not, instead he rejects him. Immediately after this rejection scene, Bob dies.

Scott’s rejection of Bob is symbolic of his rejection of the liminal worlds of hustling and the road, which were only places he temporarily inhabited while on his quest to find a wife and marry her and to assume his place in patriarchy. But it is also pointedly and parodically melodramatic, especially when, in the very next scene, Bob dies, ostensibly of a ‘broken heart.’

Mike’s journey, on the other hand, does not end with either social inclusion or death. However, the scene toward the end of the film, where the funerals of Scott’s father and Bob are intercut with each other (Scott’s father’s funeral filmed with controlled static camera and slow panning shots; Bob’s funeral with erratic handheld camerawork and odd angles) seems to hint at Mike being part of a community that had centred around Bob. All of the hustlers and other people of clearly low social standing and value engage in a bacchic celebration, tossing chairs and jumping around Bob’s plain casket, all the while chanting the deceased’s name. Mike is included in this, so we could say that he has achieved some form of social inclusion. But this is not a result of his journey along the road, and in fact that social situation was the one that he wanted to leave in the first place to find his mother. Mike remains in the liminal state that is primarily symbolised through the road. Mike begins and ends the film on the road.

In Poison, the intertextuality is perhaps even more noticeable in that the generic conventions it apes in order to subvert are so prevalent and far-reaching. Todd Haynes’ Poison is three films in one. Or, more precisely, it is three narratives, three genres, three settings, and three sets of characters in one film.

Necessarily, narrative, setting and characters are considered whenever talking extensively about genre. Poison is edited in such a way that each of the three sections are spliced in with each other. We go from a scene in one section to a scene in another. None of these sections are narratively related, but they are stylistically related in that they each take a genre and play with it. For the scope of this article, I will focus solely on the ‘Horror’ portion of the film while noting that both the ‘Homo’ and ‘Hero’ segments of Poison are also heavily parodically allusive.

The ‘Horror’ portion of Poison begins with a montage of a child’s hand playing with a toy doctor’s set, with plastic needles and stethoscope, as a voiceover, imitating the mellifluous tones of Vincent Price introduces us to the central character, Thomas Graves (Larry Maxwell):

‘Ever since he was a child, Thomas Graves had been hungry for knowledge. Hungry to discover all the secrets of the universe. Science, Man’s sacred quest for truth, was his first, and only, love. Years of hard work and research led him to the mysteries of the sex drive and its potential for the betterment of Mankind.’

This introductory scene tells us everything we need to know about Dr Graves before he accidentally transforms himself into a ‘monster,’ but it also parodies, through sound and image, the conventions of the horror genre.

One of the noticeable attributes of the brief montage that begins the ‘Horror’ section is its use of sound. The images in the montage have no accompanying diegetic sounds, but the voiceover and music signal to us immediately that we are dealing with the horror genre, or more accurately, a parodic version of the horror genre. As I mentioned earlier, the voiceover narration, as performed by Richard Hansen, imitates the vocal peculiarities of Vincent Price. As Harry Benshoff states in his article, ‘Vincent and Me: Imagining the Queer Male Diva,’ Price ‘…spoke deeply—and queerly—to an entire generation’ (2008, 149) and the bulk of this communication was through the horror genre.

Vincent Price could be said to be a horror icon, but, and this is argued in Benshoff’s article, he is also a camp icon. Though Benshoff gives a semi-autobiographical account of Price’s camp appeal, explicating what attracted him to those performances as a young gay man, he also examines Price’s demeanour and performance on their own terms. Price’s performances, especially in his horror film roles, are quite camp, even without a queer spectator. As Benshoff suggests,

horror, noir and all forms of blood-and-thunder melodrama best suited Price’s acting talents, which some have disparaged for being too mannered, too obviously performed…no matter what role he was playing, Price’s own persona as an educated aesthete always came through…mere method actors might disappear into their roles, but diva stars like Price impress all their characters with the force of their personality. (2008, 147-148)

Although difficult to translate into written words, anyone who has seen or heard Price’s performances would recognise that his vocality has a distinctive timbre, so distinctive that it is still often parodied and sent up in television shows such as The Simpsons (Matt Groening, 1989-present). Likewise, it is imitated in Poison over shots of the young Thomas Graves playing doctor. Another point of intersecting allusion here is that Vincent Price often collaborated with Roger Corman, a director of many B-grade horror films from which ‘Horror’ clearly takes much inspiration.

In addition to this, the use of music is of significance in the opening sequence, but also throughout the entire ‘Horror’ portion of Poison. Most horror film scores are constructed to add to narrative tension, usually by, what Timothy Scheurer explains as ‘…contrasts in volume and timbre and by compositional techniques that break with the conventions we associate with standard scoring topics and gestures in most genres’ (2008, 180). However, the one group of instruments that is ubiquitous in the scores of horror films, from Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931) through Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) to many examples of modern horror, is the strings. Strings are noticeably absent (or else significantly downgraded) in the score of ‘Horror. But the segment follows almost every convention of horror musical scoring, except that the instrumentation has been altered; instead of strings, the score of ‘Horror’ is predominantly woodwinds. Horror scores are characterised by breaking conventions of standard film scoring, but that breaking with convention itself becomes conventionalised within the horror genre. Instead of tense, stark strings over the beginning sequence, we hear droning woodwind bass below a bassoon-dominated motif. This combination, as Scheurer suggests, possesses the standard contrasts of volume, register and timbre that is associated with horror film scoring, and the effect is an intrusive score. It is not intrusive on an unsettling level, but intrusive in the sense that one notices it much more than music is usually noticed in film. It is also paradoxically ‘lush’ or fuller than most horror scores, and the droning, vibrato and ululation of the woodwinds, particularly the bassoon, lends the score an ornate, overwrought feel. But in doing so, it reveals that horror scores generally are fairly intrusive, but that we have just grown accustomed to them because we have absorbed the tropes and are not consciously aware of them as they occur. The instrumentation both performs the convention and in its enactment critiques the convention. Such a process is significantly parodic as it takes a particular aspect of the genre, performs that aspect in a skewed way and in that performance polemically alludes to its intertexts.

Referentiality in New Queer Cinema

Gregg Araki’s road movie maintains the episodic narrative structure characteristic of the genre, but unlike most examples of the genre, the two main characters are alone in their journey on the road. Katie Mills gives an insightful description of The Living End as a road movie in The Road Movie Book:

On the road, they [the two protagonists] never encounter another person; all the shots show the couple alone in the car, in their hotel rooms, or standing outside their parked car. Their trip never takes them through the stock Western topography that symbolizes awesome eternity, like Monument Valley, but reveals only a postmodern wasteland of fast-food joints and ominous highway overpasses. The road segments are more like disjointed episodes of aimless cruising…twisted here into nihilistic revelry. (1997, 311)

The episodes while on the road only concern the two main characters, Luke (Mike Dytri) and Jon (Craig Gilmore), and their developing relationship. The outcasts here (outcasts because they are both HIV positive) are detached from society, but come to revel in that detachment. By the end of the film, Jon and Luke do not achieve (nor do they desire) readmission to a social order and nor are they shown to have died. Most road movies deal with the outcast and its interaction with society, however The Living End is about two outcasts’ interaction with each other.

For the most part, The Living End’s deployment of referentiality is much more polemically parodic than its intertextuality. Referentiality, as foreshadowed earlier in this article, is a form of transgeneric operation that imitates specific instances of genre texts. Its transgeneric nature is predicated on the assumption that the particular text chosen to allude to is representative of the genre. Doing this allows an exposure of the problematic ideologies of particular genres as well as pointed subversion.

The intertextual techniques in The Living End, while present, are not as crucial to the transgeneric nature of the film as they may have been in My Own Private Idaho because outside of the presence of a journey in an automobile and a vaguely picaresque narrative structure, it does not reference the genre in general. Most, but not all, of The Living End’s parodic allusion is specific, targeted and referential.

Perhaps the most significant referent is Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991). A particular moment of unambiguous referentiality to Thelma and Louise is in an early scene of The Living End when Luke, hitches a ride with Daisy (Mary Woronov) and Fern (Johanna Went). It is a scene reminiscent of when Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) pick up the hitchhiker, J.D (Brad Pitt). The Daisy and Fern characters correspond to the Thelma and Louise characters respectively, with Fern as the assertive, irascible driver and Daisy as the flirtatious passenger, who turns in her seat and flirts with the hitchhiker, just as Thelma does to J.D.

Outside of the similar ‘hitchhiker scenario,’ there are some visual cues that display The Living End’s referentiality to Thelma and Louise. Daisy calls Luke a ‘lonesome cowboy’ which is a reference to J.D, the Brad Pitt character dressed like a cowboy (but perhaps it is simultaneously a reference to the Andy Warhol film, Lonesome Cowboys (1968), given that the actress playing Daisy, Mary Woronov, started her career in Warhol’s Factory). Both Fern and Louise—in their respective films—are wearing similar shaped and coloured sunglasses, and both wear scarves on their heads. In addition to this, particular angles and shots are almost identical; however, this may be more to do with the limitations of shooting in and around a moving car than pure parodic impulse on Araki’s part. Also, both pairs of women wield guns, and both pairs of women get property stolen from them by the male hitchhiker they pick up (Thelma and Louise, their money; Fern and Daisy, their car and gun).

The fact that this particular scene occurs early in The Living End seems to indicate that the film is fully conscious of its similarity to Thelma and Louise particularly, and the myriad films of the road movie genre in general. However, the case may legitimately be mounted that Thelma and Louise, like The Living End, is also subverting generic codes and form because it redeploys traditionally male genres (the Western and the road movie) in order to subvert the patriarchal orthodoxy that endorses and generates those genres. There is a major difference between Thelma and Louise and The Living End, however, and that is not only that Araki is a queer director and Scott is a heterosexual director, or that one is a road movie with queers and the other is a road movie with women. The major difference is in how they approach the road movie genre itself. In short, directorial strategies suggest that Scott ‘believes’ in the road movie—and hence the hegemonic forces that give its formal structure such popularity and appeal—much more than Araki does. Thelma and Louise is a road movie, albeit a slight reformulation of it, but Araki’s film is a parodic road movie. Thelma and Louise may be ‘commenting on’ past examples of the road movie (and hence the Western) in making the two leads female, however, aesthetically the film’s comment does not extend further to challenge the genre itself as it does in The Living End.

Thomas Schatz suggests that the more one sees genre films, the more one ‘tends to negotiate the genre less by its individual films than by its deep structure, those rules and conventions which render this film a Western and that film a musical’ (1981, 18). If one is to attempt a deconstruction of genre, this ‘deep structure’ is what one must focus on. But the ‘deep structure’ survives, very much intact in Thelma and Louise. Scott’s film does not operate by conducting a parodic assault on the genre; it operates like most other examples of the road movie genre. The Living End, as an example of the polemic transgenre that constituted much of the New Queer Cinema, is comparatively much more deconstructive of the road movie genre.

As Mills suggests, The Living End ‘engages fans of this genre [the road movie], but also deviates from our expectations in significant ways’ and shows us not how the road movie rogues ‘break the law…but how the film breaks the laws of stories about outlaws’ (1997, 307). The Living End simultaneously disrupts the normal generic expectations we might have when we sit down to watch a road movie. Conventional road movie iconography is almost nonexistent. We are aware of the road, and there are claustrophobic scenes shot from within Jon’s car. Contrast the shots in Jon’s car to earlier in the film, which reference Thelma and Louise, and the car shots in Thelma and Louise itself. The filming in and around the car is freer, more spacious, aided by the fact that the automobiles in those instances are top-down convertibles. Jon’s car is a small sedan, and almost all the shots while driving are taken from within the cramped space of the car. Most of the camerawork involving the moving car in Thelma and Louise is either by a car-mounted rig or from another camera mounted on another vehicle off-screen.

The topography of The Living End is also quite different, if not purposely contrary to the Western motifs, wide landscape shots of Monument Valley-like vistas that are featured in Thelma and Louise. In Araki’s film, there are not even many shots of the car travelling along the road. The only sense of movement along the road that we get is from the passing lights and blurred buildings through the windows of Jon’s cramped car. When the two protagonists stop for food, sleep, rest, or sex, we see only fast food joints and hotels or deserted rest stops, not any sort of aesthetically pleasing landscape, but what Mills calls a ‘postmodern wasteland’ (1997, 311). The Living End employs what might be called a contra-iconography, in that it signals through its premise and through an opening scene which employs the traditional iconography of the genre (filtered through a parody of Thelma and Louise) that this is indeed a road movie, but from that point on it refuses to continue the generic trend. That first car, stolen from the Thelma and Louise cognates (Daisy and Fern), quite literally ‘breaks down,’ and leads to the first meeting of Jon and Luke. When all is said and done, The Living End is not a road movie, but a transgeneric critique of the road movie.

I would now like to return briefly to My Own Private Idaho and what I think is the most significant instance of referentiality in the film. It is concluding scene of the film, where Mike is alone on a road that cuts through a flat countryside below a blue sky, mountains in the distance. ‘This road will never end,’ he states, as well as suggesting he is a ‘connoisseur of roads.’ He then falls onto the asphalt in one of his narcoleptic fits and what follows is some very strong referential allusion to Easy Rider. What happens at the end of each film is quite different (the protagonists of Easy Rider are gunned down; in Idaho Mike has a narcoleptic fit and is robbed), but there are certainly very distinctive visual echoes in Idaho of Easy Rider. For instance, Billy and Wyatt in Easy Rider are both murdered by two men, one wearing a white cowboy hat, in a green pickup truck. Likewise, in Idaho, two men, one in a white cowboy hat, pull over alongside the narcoleptic Mike in their green pickup truck and steal his shoes and his wallet, leaving him for dead on the side of the road. In addition to this, My Own Private Idaho’s second last shot is reminiscent of the last shot in Easy Rider, a crane shot that ascends away from the road and the lifeless body of Wyatt. But, Idaho persists past this crane shot. There is no transition to the credits just yet; the camera stops and holds the shot long enough for another car to come along, and a man, whose identity is indeterminate (Lang 2002, 257), emerges from it, puts Mike in and continues driving on down the road. The very next shot is one of a house. It is similar to the structure that crashes down onto the road earlier in the film, when Mike orgasms while getting blown by a john. The house seems empty and abandoned, but it is now reconstituted.

In ending the film this way, Van Sant caps off a film full of transgeneric allusion, making metacinematic comments on the nature of the road movie genre and what it tends to do with the outsider characters.


New Queer Cinema was characterised by a tendency towards ‘talking back’ to American cinema and the ideological foundations that buttressed it. Whether its target of generic subversion was road movies or horror movies or any other film genre or indeed an individual genre film, the transgeneric tendencies of this highly metacinematic film movement offer a deft, ironic critique of many issues, some of which I have endeavoured to illuminate. Though this article has dealt primarily with the films of Araki, Haynes and Van Sant, there are also comparable instances of this sort of polemic allusion in the films of Tom Kalin, Derek Jarman, Rose Troche and Bruce La Bruce. It must also be noted that while these transgeneric tendencies were significant aspects of NQC, this kind of queer cinema predated the early 1990s. Filmmakers such as Andy Warhol, Jack Smith and John Waters were major influences on many of the filmmakers of NQC and they too employed a variety of similar techniques. Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys and Waters’ Polyester (1981) parody the Western and the melodrama respectively. Throughout the history of queer cinema, there seems to be an ambivalent relationship to genre. Certain genres have historically been popular with queer audiences, yet they are simultaneously aped and sent-up by queer filmmakers. This sensibility finds new energy in NQC because of the AIDS crisis, which lends any expression of queer identity or textuality a polemic tone. When discussing NQC, it is difficult not to discuss films outside of the movement because each film is richly intertextual. Rich did this in her article where she examined the movement, as have most film scholars who have studied NQC. Whether it was indeed a movement or what Rich later called a ‘moment’ (2004b) or even just a stylistic trend, NQC was extremely transgeneric. It engaged with, challenged and deconstructed whole genres, as well as specific examples of those genres.

New Queer films are, for the most part, parodic critiques of genre films and film genres. They imitate and play with the tropes, conventions and film language of a vast host of popular genres only to reveal and question the validity of the assumptions that contribute to the production and popularity of those genres.


Aaron, Michele (ed). 2004. New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Arroyo, Jose. 1993. “Death, Desire and Identity: The Political Unconscious of ‘New Queer Cinema’”, in Bristow, Joseph and Wilson, Angelia R. (eds). Activating Theory: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Politics. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Benshoff, Harry M. 2008. “Vincent Price and Me: Imagining the Queer Male Diva.” Camera Obscura 23.1: 146-50.

Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. 2006. Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.

Carroll, Noël. 1982. “The Future of Allusion: Hollywood in the Seventies (and Beyond).” October 20: 51-81.

Collins, Jim.1993. “Genericity in the Nineties: Eclectic Irony and the New Sincerity” in Film Theory Goes to the Movies. Collins, Radner, Collins, eds. London: Routledge.

Dentith, Simon. 2000. Parody. London: Routledge.

Dyer, Richard. 2007. Pastiche. New York: Routledge.

Frow, John. 2005. Genre. London: Routledge.

Gledhill, Christine.2000. “Rethinking Genre” in Gledhill, Christine and Williams, Linda (eds). Reinventing Film Studies. London: Arnold Publishers.

Hark, Ina Rae, and Steven Cohan, editors. 1997. The Road Movie Book. London: Routledge.

Hutcheon, Linda. 1985. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. New York: Metheun.

Jameson, Frederic. 1991. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kristeva, Julia (in Moi, Toril, ed) 1986.The Kristeva Reader. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lang, Robert. Masculine Interests: Homoerotics in Hollywood Films. 2002. New York: Columbia University Press.

Langford, Barry. 2005. Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Mills, Katie. 2004. “The Living End as an AIDS Road Film” in Hark, Ina Rae and Steven Cohan, editors. 1997. The Road Movie Book. London: Routledge.

Mittell, Jason. 2004. Genre and Television: from Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture. New York: Routledge.

Pearl, Monica B. 2004. “AIDS and New Queer Cinema”, in Aaron, Michele (ed). New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Rich, B. Ruby. 2004 a. ‘New Queer Cinema’ in Aaron, Michele (ed). New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Rich, B Ruby. 2004 b. ‘Queer and Present Danger.’ (accessed May 2010).

Rose, Margaret A. 1993. Parody: Ancient, Modern and Post-modern. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schatz, Thomas.1981.Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. New York, N.Y.: Random House,

Scheurer, Timothy E. 2008.Music and Mythmaking in Film: Genre and the Role of the Composer. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.


Body Heat. Directed by Lawrence Kadsan. 1981.

Easy Rider. Directed by Dennis Hopper. 1969.

Edward II. Directed by Derek Jarman. 1991.

Frankenstein. Directed by James Whale. 1931.

Lonesome Cowboys. Directed by Andy Warhol. 1968.

My Own Private Idaho. Directed by Gus Van Sant. 1991.

Poison. Directed by Todd Haynes. 1991.

Polyester. Directed by John Waters. 1981.

Psycho. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. 1960.

Swoon. Directed by Tom Kalin. 1992.

The Hours and the Times. Directed by Christopher Münch. 1991.

The Living End. Directed by Gregg Araki. 1992.

Thelma and Louise. Directed by Ridley Scott. 1991.

The Motorcycle Diaries. Directed by Walter Salles. 2004.

The Simpsons. Created by Matt Groening. 1989-present.

[1] Jose Arroyo (1993) was one of the first scholars to take this position. More recently, Monica B. Pearl (2004) and Michele Aaron (2004) have worked with this premise.