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Orson Welles and the New Queer Cinema


At the LA Review of Books, John Thomason draws a surprising but undeniable parallel between the films of Orson Welles and New Queer Cinema, especially Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine. Thomason suggests that both Welles and the New Queer directors sought to achieve in their work an alienation “borne of an excess of pleasure rather than displeasure: the pleasures of camp, of genre, of hysterical performance.” Here’s a snippet from Thomason’s excellent essay:

Roughly a quarter century ago, films united under the loose banner of the New Queer Cinema sought, like today’s gay dramas, to portray queer identities and sexualities that had been rigorously excluded by Hollywood throughout its history. However, rather than promoting the “positive images” of LGBT characters to which multiplex viewers have very recently become accustomed, the New Queer filmmakers frequently depicted social outcasts who mainstream audiences might consider perverse, deviant, or otherwise unsavory. They also eschewed the highbrow aspirations and conventions to which Hollywood typically attaches prestige. This was not just a matter of necessity — these were low budget, independent productions — it was an ethos. B. Ruby Rich, the critic and academic who first coined the term “New Queer Cinema” in 1992, wrote that the films were united by some measure of “appropriation and pastiche, irony […] these works are irreverent, energetic, alternately minimalist and excessive.” For examples on this spectrum we might look to Derek Jarman’s Edward II (1991), an adaptation of Marlowe peppered with gleeful anachronisms; Gregg Araki’s outlaw road movie The Living End (1992), which upends the genre with AIDS-era malaise; and Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992), a true crime story that strays from docudrama realism to riff on Hitchcock.

These films’ embrace of appropriation, pastiche, lowbrow genre conventions, and tonal heterogeneity — the way they wear their cinephilia on their sleeves even as they subvert the very foundations of Hollywood filmmaking — is of course not without precedent. For an unlikely comrade we might look to none other than Orson Welles, who, after the success of Citizen Kane (1941), spent the rest of his career cobbling together financing for sensational genre films (The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, Mr. Arkadin) and irreverent literary adaptations (The Trial, Chimes at Midnight). Note the proximity of film scholar James Morrison’s description of the late Welles to Rich’s description of the New Queer Cinema: Welles “combined low budgets with virtuoso technique” and “reconstructed genres pieced together with impromptu ingenuity and various shades of burlesque and seriousness, parody and pastiche.” Beyond these affinities of form, genre, and circumstance, a queer undercurrent in Welles’s oeuvre can often be detected at the level of character: From Joseph Cotten’s Jedediah Leland in Citizen Kane, to Mercedes McCambridge’s gang leader in Touch of Evil, to Anthony Perkins’s hyper-repressed Joseph K. in The Trial, to virtually all the male performances in Chimes at Midnight, Welles eschewed the rigid heteronormativity that Hollywood so relentlessly enforced, though admittedly this was far from his central narrative or thematic concern.

Image: still from My Own Private Idaho.