a grainy group of well-dressed queer people
Paris is Burning. Courtesy Gene Siskel Film Center

If there’s one thing artsy homos love, it’s Letterboxd. It’s probably the most popular social networking site for culture gays—well, maybe after Twitter. The site expedites answers to important questions like: “What kinds of culture interests you?” “Which streaming services can you access?” “Do you know how to torrent?” and “If you ran a meme account, what would your general vibe be?” Goodreads is for straight people and YA tenderqueers; gays who fuck use Letterboxd. That’s what makes the Pioneers of Queer Cinema series at Gene Siskel Film Center this month a true event “for the culture”: it’s a broad survey of movies made by queers, for queers that offers at least one tasty morsel for every kind of Letterboxd gay. (People who don’t fit that description might enjoy stuff, too—I just don’t know any.)

All the headliners are treasure map films—which is to say, it’s easy to follow directions to find them, or they take you to a familiar point about queerness. Many are currently streaming—or have, in some recent past: The Watermelon Woman (Showtime); The Living End (Criterion); Parting Glances (Tubi); Blackstar: An Autobiography of a Close Friend (Vimeo); and Paris Is Burning (HBO). There are films to remind you of the ways queerness is Complicated™ (Coming Out Under Fire, Nitrate Kisses, Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives), Harvey Milk died for our sins (The Times of Harvey Milk), and women can be homos, too (Desert Hearts, also streaming on HBO). Whatever curiosity or affirmation you need from a feature film, the Film Center has it programmed, and it’s always a treat to see gay movies in a room full of people who share some common language of experience.

But where this programming really shines is the openers. The Pioneers of Queer Cinema series is presented in partnership with the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which holds the largest public collection of moving images by LGBTQ+ makers in the world. Almost every film opens with a short or two by landmark filmmakers selected from the vaults—many of which have never been digitized. So if, say, you needed another excuse to see Gregg Araki’s AIDs-era road crime romance The Living End (big “if”—everyone should experience the director’s acid-candy storytelling on the big screen!), you should jump at the chance to experience it in tandem with If Every Girl Had a Diary and Oblivion. 

The former is an early short by multimedia artist and Le Tigre cofounder Sadie Benning, who uses a lo-fi, confessional style to capture the anger and frustration of being a twentysomething subject to sexism and homophobia in 1990. And the latter is a late-60s silent movie that makes poetry of an erotic experience by splicing and collaging moments: figure studies, lights, gardens, and things. Presented before The Living End, the films lay out some of the emotional stakes for Araki’s characters, drawing not only on a collective sense of queer outrage but also connecting the characters’ desires to a lineage of the beautiful and sublime that’s queer right down to the storytelling approach.

All of the shorts are chosen to accent themes in the feature while emphasizing that much of what makes queer filmmaking “queer” isn’t just the subject matter—it’s approach. The series is a who’s who of the biggest dykes and faggots subverting cinematic expectations, with selections from luminaries such as Kenneth Anger (of Lucifer Rising and Hollywood Babylon fame); Mike Kuchar (an acclaimed schlock master who they’ve selected a most not schlock-y short by); and Todd Haynes (perhaps best known for Carol, but real heads know him for Velvet Goldmine or even Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story—which, by the way, has been restored but is still being strangled by rights issues. Tragic!). But there’s some real hidden treasure, too, like Always On Sunday, a 1962 film by the Gay Girls Riding Club, a drag troop who would make elaborate spoofs of camp favorites like All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. In fact, the programming includes a number of shorts across eras that explore gender subversion and transness, which is refreshing at a cultural moment when trans people are being systematically threatened. The selections underscore how much trans history is out there—and how effectively it’s already been hidden or denied.

Pioneers of Queer Cinema
Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State; through 9/4
General admission $12; students and youth $7; Film Center members $6; current students and faculty of the School of the Art Institute, and staff of the Art Institute $5

If there are any criticisms to be made of the Pioneers of Queer Cinema series, it’s that the programming is a bit polite. John Waters may be so well known as to be passé, but there’s a notable lack of him—or anything that rivals his talent for dada debauchery. Rape isn’t funny, they say, and as a rape survivor, I know this to be true. And yet? Divine being raped by a lobster in Multiple Maniacs is downright hilarious, and I do not want to have to pretend otherwise, for reasons that should be obvious. To me, this kind of tension—and eschewing respectability in a world that does not respect us—is the crux of queerness. To that end, where’s the BDSM? The absolute schlock? The trans men? Their absence is notable—though maybe that’s not the Film Center’s problem to fix. To me, this oversight only begs for more frequent and robust queer film programming.

The Pioneers of Queer cinema lineup is great for queer culture newbies as much as seasoned snobs practically running micro cinemas. Oh, the furtive debates and robust Letterboxd updates I anticipate! Now tell me: Do you hate movies, or do you like to fuck?