Throughout the month of October, Metrograph, the relatively new art-house-flavored theater on New York’s Lower East Side, is screening movies made in the 1990s that are queer in one way or another. The offerings range from highly political films and documentaries that address the pressing issues that gay Americans faced during the decade to mainstream Hollywood films that helped normalize the lives of gay people to mainstream audiences. The survey is titled “Queer 90s” with 29 films screening and includes Derek Jarman’s 1993 film Blue, the last he would make before dying of AIDS–related complications, three of Sadie Benning’s shorts, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), Celluloid Closet (1995), which looks at the AIDS activist Vito Russo’s research of queerness throughout the history of movie making, and more mainstream gems, like Basic Instinct (1992) and Cruel Intentions (1999).
The series kicks off tonight with a screening of Todd Haynes’s Poison (1991), which will be introduced by Christine Vachon, one of the film’s producers, who most recently produced Haynes’s 2015 Oscar-nominated film Carol. Another thing to look forward to, taking place on Wednesday, October 12, is an introduction by, and Q&A with, director Tom Kalin and Hilton Als, who co-wrote the script for Swoon (1992). I spoke with the team behind the series, Jacob Perlin, Metrograph’s director of programming, and Michael Lieberman, its head of publicity, to find out more about the series.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
ARTnews: How did you come up with the idea for the “Queer 90s” film series?
Michael Lieberman: It was something that I’d been thinking about for a long time, just as somebody who came of age in the ’90s, watched a lot of these films in the ’90s, and was trying to figure out a way to reconcile all the different pieces that were there. They don’t all necessarily talk to each other or communicate with each other as works, but they all came out at the same time and I feel like that decade acted as a bridge. We attempt to treat this whole series as an anthology of different voices in a period of time that was tumultuous. It was a transition period from the beginnings of queer civil rights to the present day.
Jacob Perlin: I’ve always been interested in a type of programming that’s simultaneously film history and social history. It’s only years later where trends are more evident and you can see the great cultural impact that these films had collectively, even if they weren’t exactly in dialogue with each other at the time.
Lieberman: The ’90s are also a thing right now. There are a lot of films in there that we like that aren’t necessarily important cultural milestones but were a part of that landscape that I feel are equally important.
Perlin: And films that define the way culture was looking at these issues at the time. That’s how a film like Basic Instinct fits in. It was very much a part of the cultural conversation.
Lieberman: There were talks about boycotting that film by gay and lesbian groups in the ’90s.
Perlin: If you’re attempting to examine the way homosexuality was depicted in American cinema in that decade, you include a film like Basic Instinct. It’s just part of the cultural climate of that period, both the film being made and the reaction against it and its popularity, everything. It fills out the picture.
I noticed that you included a lot of art-slanted films in the series, like Derek Jarman’s Blue. What was the reasoning behind that?
Lieberman: When we were discussing this, Blue was always at the top of the list. This was a film made by a man dying of AIDS. He had lost his sense of sight at the time, so he could no longer direct films. If you see the film, it’s the color, the Yves Klein blue with dialogue over it. That film is one of the great films of all time because it’s made out of the absolute need to express yourself. … [The films] all served a collective purpose, which is representation of a queer voice.
How did you go about choosing the list?
Lieberman: Well, we had a very large list.
Perlin: But it’s not going to be a hundred film series; it’s going to be a month-long series, so how do you do it. One thing is that none of the filmmakers are represented by more than one title.
Lieberman: We also narrowed things down thematically. We couldn’t show five of the same types of films. We wanted to make sure that every type of gay film was represented and the major artists were all there. But I do think it gives people a big enough picture of what the landscape was like. It could have been a 200-film series.
What kind of role did the producers and production companies play in creating this cultural landscape that you talked about earlier?
Perlin: A vast majority of these films were independently produced and independently distributed, in some cases by the filmmakers themselves, or by very small companies that were the only companies that were willing to take chances on films like this. What you’re seeing is that it was a period of time where the distributors were small companies and individuals and played a real role in getting these films out.
Lieberman: You can talk about Zeitgeist Films putting out Poison.
Perlin: Poison is the perfect example.
Lieberman: On top of that Poison was hugely controversial. Jesse Helms denounced it on the Senate floor, which is an insane thing to think about now.
Do you think these films and going to the movies acted as a form of community for queer people?
Lieberman: I think that cinema is a meeting place. I think that for a lot of queer people in the ’90s going to a movie about a sympathetic queer character by a queer filmmaker is in a way a place where you can be—where you can see something like yourself, in an environment that’s constructed closer to the world you live in. When I heard that something way playing in the art theater in my hometown about a gay character, I’d see every single one of these films. You would also hear about things in a different way, in magazines, in newspapers and wait for it to come for you. Eventually, you’d find it and it’d be an event. This was something you were anticipating.