I have been an ardent lover of film for longer than I can recall. Just emerged from toddler-dom, I would one week sit, enraptured, nestled between my parents, utterly mystified by The Lion King; the next week, I would be so spellbound by John Wayne’s bravado as a rogue riverboat captain in the forgotten Blood Alley that I would demand my mother help me construct a faux-riverboat in our TV room so I could be The Duke in all his nautical rescue glory. As an obtrusively precocious child, my unbound eagerness for fantastical things often placed me in a sort of delicate, awkward space. My feelings were hard to contain; my outrageous imagination was tricky to translate; my relations with girls and boys in prescribed social environments felt uncomfortable and distinctly forced. It was films that provided a recourse, a discursive realm all my own. Films provided a world in which it was completely reasonable that I would make my toys act out key moments from the Russian revolution, or that when I was bored, I would conjure up scripts and meta-dramas. Of course, at this nascent stage in my film fanaticism, I couldn’t grasp the nuances of mise-en-scène. But movies and my fecund imagination provided discursive building blocks that allowed me to start constructing my burgeoning selfhood.
Logically, then, it was cinema I turned to when my fantastically awkward adolescent ‘blossoming,’ became entwined with overpowering feelings of otherness. These were more than inklings, they were sensations—at once electrifying and devastatingly stomach-churning. The realisation of being queer, beginning to understand that my desires did not correlate to the heteronormative game plan that was had been trenchantly laid out for me (and also realising that on some occasions, my desires did fall within that construct, and the two things may exist contemporaneously, and having my manic, pubescent brain totally obliterated by that notion), was the source of outrageous anxiety. It was simultaneously euphoric, though, and these conflicting sensations were only translatable in the elocution of film.
Queer cinema glistened with the promise of discovery, of finding some sort of network or community or commiseration—and yet, what I unearthed was as dismaying as it was intriguing. As my parents sat downstairs unwittingly watching M*A*S*H* reruns I would furtively dart upstairs to watch The Truth About Jane (2000) on the Lifetime Channel, and despite my tingles of fascination and hope at every glimmer of queer coupling on screen, my desires were left unsatisfied. Each filmic excursion was riddled with tropes that I was predisposed to be wary of; I was thrust into a world of quasi-representation where everything was a technicolour pseudo-erogenous blur. They failed to capture some semblance of mirrored selfhood or of relatability that I was so craven for and had such a desperate paucity of in my “real world.”
These films were mired in a swamp of pitiable, heterosexual relationships that were martyred because of female queer epiphanies. Every five minutes some nameless band fronted by the harmonic spirit-daughter of Mazzy Starr and Sarah McLaughlin was there to croon metaphors about the celestial bodies as some women ruefully pondered her sexual existence. There seemed to be scarcely any room in moderately mainstream media for portrayals of queer women whose happiness and fulfillment did not come at the expense of a preexisting heterosexual bond. I will certainly never cease praising the particular virtues of Gia (1998), Better Than Chocolate (1999) and the monumentally campy But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), but while films like these were developmentally significant, they failed to provide the semblance of mirrored selfhood that I was craven for. There was no striking verisimilitude, no magic to what I witnessed.
Perhaps my dissatisfaction galvanised my transition into an utterly crucial phase: what I now designate my ‘queering the absence’ epoch. Perhaps it was because my overly abundant childhood imagination felt stultified by these drab queer films, or because the strange starkness of the films often exuded a sense of definable otherness that I assumed my family and friends would be able to literally smell on me. Whatever the cause, I found myself drawn to films that I could safely entrench a sort of queerness in. I recall, at the age of 13, fixedly watching the film Nell (1994), on a botched family vacation. Then, in one of the more important exegetical moments of the film and being overpowered by two sensations—first, that I was ferociously smitten with Natasha Richardson (which would explain why The Parent Trap (1998) had been such a strange family viewing experience for me years prior) and, second, that I could use any film that struck or impacted me as a safe place—just as movies had been a haven for my childhood eccentricities and imaginativeness, cinema could now benefit me in a new, more developmentally advanced wat. I could suture my own queerness into films and narratives in a way that suited my identity.
After much consternation in my viewing of queer-centric cinema, this new way seemed rejuvenating, and far more true to form of the spirit of ingenuity I possessed as a child. Moreover, at a time when what I felt most was anxiety or discombobulation, movies provided a refuge where I was directly in control of the narrative: I was in control of my emotions within the context of that narrative, and I did not have to cower at the prospect of being outed or confronted. What was most intriguing was that the films I sought were hardly dazzling examples of innovative or avant garde cinema—neither Raymond Bellour nor Teresa De Lauretis would scramble to write provocative treatises on these films. In fact, I actively sought out films with ludicrous plots, palpably saturated with pop-culture. I found such solace and imaginative potential in them because of their unconventional cinematic standards. Perhaps, in the true Sontagian spirit of camp, I was the most reassured and able to freely embellish my queer fictions in films that were steeped in the outlandish.
Like most meaningful comings-of-age in a woman’s adolescence, mine started with a Vin Diesel movie. The spring after the summer of Nell, with all the tumults of eighth-grade year coming to a head, I rented a copy of the original The Fast and the Furious (2000) and watched it roughly three to eight times a week for months (I regarded the Blockbuster return date as a more of a suggestion). The film provided the perfect escape: to female friends I could (not entirely meretriciously) claim affinities for Paul Walker; to male friends I further consecrated myself as the relatable chick who dug fast cars and flamboyantly masculine fight scenes; and for myself I allowed a queer subplot, in which Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez were making silent advances on each other. It was the ideal model for my queer sexuality in that it was both a subterfuge and an exploration vessel.
In keeping with the theme of films unfairly labeled ‘dude-centric,’ I then diverted my filmic fixation to another Michelle Rodriguez movie, Resident Evil (2003). If ever Bette Davis had been an irreverent, ballsy and vaguely queer fierce sex symbol to a generation before me, Milla Jovovich was that for me, as she and the subtly ferocious and ferociously queer Rodriguez brutalised the undead in the bowels of the Umbrella Corporation. Jovovich emerged as this sort of husky-voiced messiah, enigmatic and savage, of my sexual awakening. And so I scoured her filmography, an activity which caught a lot of guff. But it was guff I was willing to endure—she was quirky, she was brash, she was caricatured and she was embedded in stories that provided my imagination ample material.
Jovovich catalysed a trend I would build upon as my understanding of my sexuality matured and love of cinema matured. Particular actresses, more than individual films became the focal points of both my cinematic pursuits and my queer desires and imaginations. It was something other than voyeurism or naïve infatuation—it was a yearning that coupled with intrigue and a genuine desire to cultivate appreciation for films regardless of their critical reception. This appreciation was inextricably bound to a fondness and unexplainable attraction and connection to certain actresses. Entranced by Rachel Weisz, Winona Ryder and Nicole Kidman, I saw even their categorically clunky films more times than was reasonable. Through this dedicated fandom, I grew to understand and appreciate the variations of cinematic aesthetics, the nuances of style, what made a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ film and, more interestingly, what salvageable qualities existed in the ‘bad’ ones. And as my critical eye and palette developed—my comprehension and acceptance of my own sexuality became less dependent on queering the absence and more on articulating my actual desires in the real world.
Most crucially, this period of actress-loves and stabilising my sense of self created a silent language with my mother, who I felt closest to and most petrified to divulge to. When we watched films together there was an unuttered truce—which may sound superfluously poetic, but we’ve never dared discussed it to this day—in which we could forge some understanding about my sexuality that otherwise would have been unachievable. My mother and I could laugh and find sentimentality in the comforting repeatability of favorite lines, and create comprehension over the chasm that existed between us, in which the things about myself I felt I could not say (and which she perhaps infinite perspicacity knew) were safely conveyed in our mutual love of the films. She understood, and I felt joyously safe, in endlessly and ritualistically watching Rachel Weisz in The Mummy (1999) and idolising Weisz’s Evelyn in her adorably intrepid perfection, and this was how we would speak, how we could relate. Films provided us a language of connection.
Peculiarly, or maybe appropriately, my return to what I had once deemed the gallows of queer cinema came after watching Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). Haunted by the paralysing awe of the performances and the subliminally palpable connection between Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, I decided that I wanted some sort of migration back to a definitively queer text. I wanted to use my understanding of film and style and theories to untangle the films I once rebuked. I started with But I’m a Cheerleader—writing fastidiously about camp, about the crucial process of identity-forging in the eccentricities of certain films. I became devoted to resuscitating the queer canon I had scorned. And then, as I matured in my sexuality and self-assuredness as well as in my writing and cinematic sensibilities, something quite terrific happened to mainstream cinema.
Queer cinema, which was still the subjugated child in the grand scheme of film generations, was allowed to evolve and become a gorgeous (if flawed) creature. Exquisitely relentless pictures like Stranger Inside (2001) and Pariah (2011) could coexist with the aching and disquietingly choreographed Kyss Myg (2011) and the poignantly hilarious Appropriate Behavior (2014)—stylistically and thematically, queer cinema began to crack its limbs and clamber towards some sort of meaningful presence. Consecrating queer films not just as entities unto themselves, but as generically significant events—a piece like Peter Strickland’s sublimely surreal Dukes of Burgundy (2014), indeed, is testament to the evolution and permutation of queer sensibilities into a much broader landscape of filmmaking. And even though the issue of escaping cis-white monopolisation in filmic representation prevails, diversity in queer cinema has taken tremendous strides. Moreover, Carol (2015) happened, which is a really really big deal.
All this is not to say that I have abnegated my tendency to ‘queer the absence’. That tendency is an inextricable part of my love of cinema, and my articulation and understanding of myself. It has allowed me to be a rabid fan of The Walking Dead (because Carol, Michonne and Andrea have been some of the best damn subversively queer characters in recent memory) and it has allowed me to keep that feeling of connection to my mother and my friends in a way that’s fundamental to who I am. Furthermore, I have continued to revisit vexing films like Loving Annabelle (2006) and Imagine Me & You (2005) with a nostalgic appreciation for their value, buried beneath the more flummoxing tropes.
In a recent class on transnational feminisms, a discussion of queer theory led to the question of why it was necessary even to have a queer theory separate from feminist theory. Aside from issues of poststructuralism and identity politics, the culture’s need for queer theory is utterly like my need to queer the absence, to find a place for myself in other people’s narratives. It is a distinct elocution, a realm in which the self can flourish both separate from and as part of a world of structure and limitations.
Eva Phillips is a US-based writer, currently completing her Master’s Degree in English Literature.