Out of the Celluloid Closet

Kyle Turner’s “The Queer Film Guide” is Required Reading

· Updated on October 4, 2023

Queer cinema has always been around. For all the folks calling for representation nowadays, there’s a wealth of history to be explored and discovered, if only we are willing to stop ignoring the past. Enter Kyle Turner’s The Queer Film Guide, an essential collection that establishes a queer cinematic language spanning a century. Its subtitle – 100 Great Movies That Tell LGBTQIA+ Stories – is something of a tease, with Turner going deeper than just a hundred and offering dozens upon dozens of additional works to dive into. To call it a perfect tome of queer representation would be a disservice, as nothing can ever truly be complete when it comes to the creation of a canon, but it is a perfect launch pad. 

I write this not just as a close friend of Kyle’s, but as a fan of his writing on queer cinema. Inside of his work, there’s a willingness to engage with these works, both neat and “problematic”, without ever betraying their histories, their nuances, and their unique perspectives, as well as a playfulness in presentation (that is greatly emphasized by Andy Warren’s lovely illustrations.)

In celebration of both The Queer Film Guide’s release and Pride Month being a time when we should dedicate ourselves to diving into our cinematic history, I hopped on a call with my friend and author Kyle Turner to discuss everything from his new book to the way audiences, performers, and creatives all engage with these images from our past.

For the entire decade I’ve known you, there’s always been this obsession with film and exploring the canon that already existed, as well as creating and defining ones that don’t exist. So to start things off: what sort of drew you to this fixation with queer cinema as both a lifestyle and profession, and what has that journey looked like over time? 

I’ve had a love of film for as long as I can remember, since I was four or five and my mother showed me Bringing Up Baby. I knew I wanted to be a film critic or write about film since I was in second grade, and I started to blog when I was 13. I loved movies, but I had a general knowledge and developed this impending anxiety around when I was 16 or 17 that I didn’t have any sort of specific area that I knew a lot about in depth. 

As I was becoming interested in sexuality and identity and whatnot, I was also coming to terms very slowly with my own role in that. I realized, “Oh, maybe queer film can be that niche that I can explore.” Film and writing have always been tools of self-discovery for me and as I was having conversations with one of my favorite professors in university (shout out to Margo Greenlaw), I realized that queer film was such a fertile ground to understand myself and all these different subjects about how we live and negotiate our desire in the world; how they can exist, both within these separate communal contexts and in relation to these broader power structures. 

That was really interesting to me, and I knew pretty early that that was something I wanted to explore and unpack in my writing. The journey has been really interesting because the things that I became fascinated with – in terms of performance, the construction of desire, and the construction of identity – have now become more “mainstream” or visible talking points. A lot of the source texts, writers, and resources that I was using at the time have been concentrated in a way, and then handed down to younger people in manners that are occasionally productive and helpful, but can sometimes be watered down to a point where those conversations feel a bit more flattened than I would like them to be. 

I have to negotiate with myself: “How can I still find new things about this subject matter that’s so interesting, that I am so passionate about, and hopefully add to the conversation or be productive in some way?

Kyle Turner

I know that I’ve had the privilege and benefit of being able to have a full-time job and also write at the same time, and that I was passionate enough about this work to explore all the nuances and gradations of what those topics can offer. Sometimes what they offer is not flattering, and as the discourse around queer film and representation has evolved over time, it’s interesting seeing talking points that were once interesting become almost oversaturated at some point. And so then I have to negotiate with myself: “How can I still find new things about this subject matter that’s so interesting, that I am so passionate about, and hopefully add to the conversation or be productive in some way?”

I hope that, with this book, I’m still continuing that journey, but my interest in queer cinema exists at a slightly different vantage point because I sought out these cultural objects and artifacts. My interest is in things that are slightly messier, and maybe even a bit more problematic and not as neat and ready-made as some people want them to be. That’s fine, and I understand that desire, but I hope this book is able to give visibility to things that are imperfect, because queer people are themselves imperfect and the journey towards understanding queerness is itself very flawed. These are pure examples of queer expression and that pureness is something I don’t think should be flattened or have its edges sanded off. 

Now that you’re getting into what you look for in queer cinema, what kind of work particularly speaks to you at this point in your life; something that you’d like to either see more of or have been particularly drawn to in recent years, whether it’s a contemporary work or something you discovered while diving into these histories? 

I don’t think that what I look for in queer film has changed a great deal honestly; there are parts of me that sometimes look for things that are slightly swooning or more romantic, but I think I’ll always be drawn towards the things that are basically quite alienating and challenging and weird, and things that are perverse. I know that, now, those seem to be almost conflicting narratives – at least from my vantage point on the internet’s examples of queerness and queers being critical of villainy and characters that are problematic and messy and whatnot – and I get the sense that whenever these things come out, they tend to be rejected or marginalized in some way in favor of works that are more conventional, traditional, and digestible. 

That might just be that my sensibilities have always leaned a little more “outré”. My friend made a blanket that had every tweet in which I use the word “artifice”, so I am drawn to things that have a level of artificiality and spectacle about them, that have this sort of remove. I was talking with some friends recently about my love of Todd Haynes and that he is always working on top of genres as opposed to working with genres. In a “more earnest” sense, he’s always sort of experimenting with them and using them as this, not plastic wrap per se, but as this meta layer to explore other things about the way that generic conventions are inherently manipulative and how the cinematic form is used to evoke certain responses. That level of remove, that sort of “coldness”, for me has always been a way to access a pure, more honest, more authentic, feeling, because – say in the way in which queer people tend to have to perform for a dominant straight or white audience – there’s something identifiable in that layer of artificiality, for lack of a better word. 

Does your personal taste apply to how you approached the book itself, or did curating these works lead you to removing yourself from the equation a bit more? There are 100 titles (plus additional recommendations), which is obviously a lot, but it’s also only a small portion of queer cinema. Was there any particular approach that you felt necessary or any self imposed limitations to how you crafted this? Obviously there’s no such thing as a truly “definitive” canon, but does this also double as something of your own personal canon to some extent? 

The frame was pretty established from the start – when Smith Street Books approached me last year to do the book, for which I was extremely appreciative and grateful – in that it would be a chronological survey of 100 films and I was granted a solid amount of creative freedom as far as how to create that list. There were some suggestions that made sense to me as far as making it more accessible to audiences, but I was given a pretty solid amount of freedom to include things like Andy Warhol’s My Hustler, Wakefield Poole’s porn film Boys in the Sand, Seed of Chucky, and Jennifer’s Body. And then each film has a recommendation, sort of a wine pairing to go with it. 

One of the goals was that, if we were going to encourage people to buy this as a product, it had to be something that wasn’t just like every other listing you could Google about queer cinema. You can find a hundred different lists, and I think it was both an opportunity for me as a writer and Smith Street Books as a publisher to have a unique perspective. And I hope that what I brought was something a little more weird and more challenging, with things like Seed of Chucky or Glen or Glenda that don’t necessarily show up often. Those examples speak to the things that I’m interested in and the approach I want to take; I want it to be as inclusive as possible.

I note in the beginning of the book that I want this to be considered a queer film guide, as opposed to the queer film guide, because I am aware of the problem of canon-making and that it’s intentionally exclusive and hermetic. We saw that with the Sight & Sound list that BFI did. But the reality is that lists are helpful and really good for directing people in certain directions and resources. I’m hoping that this could be a jumping-off point for people to explore beyond the book; other directors, other actors, other styles, other genres, etc, etc. 

What was interesting and challenging about that was the nature of the blurb – where you have to explain what the movie is to the audience, why they should watch it, and also give your point of view on it – which was a fun challenge. Part of my point of view is that interest in “weird” or “esoteric” works that are a bit more confrontational, in a way, and I hope that, even if they aren’t to everyone’s sensibilities, that readers are willing to engage with them as queer art and queer creative expression. 

The way you are trying to lead people into a new way of seeing queer films and whetting people’s appetites sort of translates into the programming you’ve been doing since its release, conveniently leading into Pride Month. Maybe it’s because I’ve known you for years, and have seen you curate things for both friends and strangers, but how has your interest in curation and programming translated to this current book and the various screening series you’ve been organizing with New York cinemas? 

Oh my god, I love curating, it’s been one of my favorite things to do for a very long time. In the nascent age of Twitter, most of my presence there was just coming up with program ideas or coming up with essay ideas to link certain films together thematically, or stylistically, or whatever. I would just come up with titles because I love a good punny title. But whenever my friends and I do a movie night, first I pack a bunch of snacks – I have popcorn, candy, weed – and then I ask my friends to give me a vibe. Give me a word, give me an actor, give me a name, give me something you’re interested in, and I will pick. It’s silly, but fun. 

Recently I was hanging out with a friend and they said they wanted to watch “sexy girls doing bad things”. I love that! And so I curated a list of twenty movies, even though I knew we were only going to watch one. Among them was Onibaba, and we ended up watching that, but Repulsion and Lady Vengeance were both on the list as well. I love the process of finding connections between films and how film and spectatorship are inherently dialectical. The reason why I love movies is that they give me a way to connect to other people. I was a shy kid growing up and I hid behind my mother’s light whenever a new person would come in, but I think movies gave me access to finding a language to understand other people and connect to them. 

I love the process of finding connections between films and how film and spectatorship are inherently dialectical. The reason why I love movies is that they give me a way to connect to other people.

Kyle Turner

Even as I got older and became aware of the factory aspect and artificiality of film, they are often dealing with real human emotion, even if it’s through some sort of lens that defamiliarizes those emotions. I’m very interested in those human experiences and those political, social, aesthetic subjects and experiences. And I like that creating a list, or creating a program for people, shows you a wide array of how those similar and “universal” experiences are interpreted in unique and individual ways. 

You mention spectatorship, which brings up an interesting line of thought for me, because one of the screenings you’re doing this month is of Cruising and Knife+Heart. The latter especially is so much about how we watch and process and internalize (and even externalize) these images of both queer violence and queer romance, tying itself rather explicitly with the former. How intentional was your pairing of this double feature (with each other and in promotion of your book) and how has it been to experience (or re-experience, rather) these films that have (or haven’t) defined your queerness, with an audience who may or may not be familiar with these works? 

To answer the first question: yes, the Cruising and Knife+Heart double feature was intentional. Knife+Heart is pretty overtly in dialogue with, or in response to, Cruising. But even if they didn’t have that, even if it weren’t sort of etched into every frame, they are really good companion pieces to understanding how there’s a feedback loop between the desire that we experience and the way that we sublimate it into the different actions and interpersonal relationships that we have, or even the ways of expressing ourselves or find outlets with which to express ourselves. Which, then, if there is another audience or viewer or spectator to that, they internalize it and it shapes the way that they desire, and whatever action they take, or whatever expression or creation that they make, will then have the same sort of feedback loop over and over again. It’s a sort of Lacanian ouroboros of looking at someone looking at someone looking at someone looking at you. 

From “The Queer Film Guide LIVE!” event, photos by MTHR TRSA

And I love that. Maybe it goes back to my sense of self as a child of adoption, yada yada yada, and seeing the way in which I’m interpolated by other people and the way that other people perceive me and construct a version of myself, while I’ve always been fairly self-assured in who I am. But it’s always sort of, like, messy, or sort of mitigating who you are to yourself in the way in which you are perceived, and experiencing that dissonance and figuring out how to translate your own desires and experiences to other people. What I love about Knife+Heart and Cruising is that they make these explicit connections and how that is done in an almost industrialized way. Cruising very much makes the connection between the essence of white supremacy and the connection that gay, white people have with that, and the way that the pursuit of desire is like a slasher movie in that its intense and follows these particular tropes. Knife+Heart sort of takes that to its next logical step in suggesting that ultimately all desire is self-destruction. 

As for sharing these movies with audiences who aren’t familiar, it’s been really fun and exciting. I feel like being able to put on my programmer hat has truly been a dream come true, because, as we were talking earlier, I love curating programming just for my friends doing their movie nights. So I’m just excited at the opportunity to show movies to a new audience and let them take away from it whatever they want. I like that I’m able to show movies that people are not necessarily familiar with. They may be part of a queer canon, but they may also be deviations of that canon, or not the most famous ones. Or really famous ones but I’m trying to offer a new perspective like Mulholland Drive or Rope. I think the beauty of cinema is being able to cultivate a new understanding of not only the work but the world around you. 

To jump off that train of thought about Cruising and the connections you made to fascism, I’m actually interested in hearing about how you navigate films that people would consider to be “problematic”.

Hell yeah, we love a problematic fave. 

Absolutely. But we’re quite literally sitting here exploring a “problematic” text through a unique lens that I don’t think a lot of people talk about enough. When you look at all these great works within the canon of queer cinema, you find individuals who aren’t necessarily the expected perfect image of contemporary queerness or creating works that fit into a neat box. How do you, not necessarily reckon with that, but do you think it’s possible to ignore history when exploring works like this, or is the history necessary to how you explore and interpret said works? 

The history is an important context and something that I think is part of the DNA of any movie. I understand that everyone has their own line as to what they’re willing or interested in or are capable of engaging with and I respect that. I like pushing up against those boundaries personally, but I have my own limits. There are definitely things that are racist or homophobic that I do not like. Like Creep, that horror movie with Mark Duplass and how it uses gay panic as its underpinning technique and dramatic arc. Everyone has their own critical ethos, of course, but – and this is me personally – you can be homophobic and interesting, or not homophobic and kind of boring, but you can’t be homophobic and boring and not productive. And for certain things, it isn’t worth engaging with if it doesn’t have these internal contradictions that are really fun to untangle. 

Kyle Turner. From “The Queer Film Guide LIVE!” event, photos by MTHR TRSA

It’s important for me to acknowledge that, yes, Cruising is kind of “problematic”. It is homophobic, but in a way that I don’t think people recognize as homophobic. It’s homophobic not because it is rubbernecking at all these queers in a leather bar. It’s homophobic because it is equating the way that gays fetishize fascism with the ways that the United States fetishizes the police state. That’s the homophobic side. I think Friedkin is making an interesting and possibly useful analogy or metaphor for how the United States is reliant on the police state and on techniques of police brutality that ultimately destabilize its national identity, but I also admit that it is a messy and not great analogy. I would rather have a messy, more interesting analogy than something that’s really milquetoast and doesn’t have anything to say, or homophobic and has nothing to say. 

You don’t want empty provocation, you want provocation that has something to back it up with. If we look at just the current conversations around queer cinema that are happening, like just in the recent weeks with Gregg Araki whose films are coming back with a bang. Some people react to his work with disdain, like, “Oh it’s too much.” But, no, his anger has rhyme and reason! Or even with Kenneth Anger, who recently passed, where so many people wanted to discuss the way fascism played into his aesthetics without an ounce of nuance. Let me rephrase this into a question instead of a rant: what would you say to people who are hesitant about diving into certain works because of the perceived politics of the artist? 

If you don’t want to watch it, don’t watch it, but don’t say anything about it. You can say, like, “I don’t want to watch it because I’ve heard this,” and that’s okay. Don’t watch it, but don’t make a pronouncement about what the thing is. I don’t think that’s fair, I think it’s intellectually dishonest, you know? 

Since the interview is with you, I’m gonna go off: stop saying dumb things about queer movies you haven’t seen. It’s fine if you are aware of the history of the filmmaker and don’t want to engage, but if you don’t want to engage, then shut up, don’t talk about it. Don’t go on this rant about how no one should talk about these things because, unfortunately, whether we like it or not, the history of a lot of arts, cinema included, is filled with awful people. And I know that everyone has their limitations, and it is a problem with canon-making, and it is a problem with the access to resources and the way in which capital is granted to certain people and not others, and that there are systematic issues with regards to race, gender, class, ableism, queerness, and blah, blah, blah. But I think there are ways to ethically, and with integrity, talk about these things. 

I hope that what I brought was something a little more weird and more challenging, with things like Seed of Chucky or Glen or Glenda that don’t necessarily show up often.

Kyle Turner

I think it’s more productive to talk about how complicated work is, how it can be aesthetically moving and entrancing, but also have the worst politics. I don’t want to sound like I’m going off on cancel culture or anything – I don’t believe cancel culture is a real thing for the record – but I do think that sometimes people are babies. I think it is important to acknowledge the fact that Kenneth Anger’s white racist politics are influential! As a crucial figure in the history of cinema – not even queer cinema, but cinema in general – he excavated and dissected things that were already part of the culture. He’s taking these pieces of iconography that people already worship, he’s taking this occultism and mysticism – this way in which we worship these white movie stars – and he is merely saying it louder for the people in the back. Our obsession with Marlon Brando and James Dean is rooted in white supremacy, is rooted in, like, a fascist aesthetic, and he’s just saying it out loud. 

And so few filmmakers are willing to say that; the way that so much of mainstream and accessible gay and queer cinema is just white twinks that are waify or, at best, twunky, and look like those same idols that we put on our walls. I think that Kenneth Anger’s decision to articulate the “subtypes” of what worshiping those figures are is important because, otherwise, we’re just going to pretend, “Oh this is so beautiful, we have these twinks making love,” and, like, no, we’re worshiping a thing that is deeply ingrained in our society and in our culture and has taught us how and what to desire in queer cinema. 

I love when you start a discourse, so, you know what? Let’s do a lightning round: Kyle’s quibi thoughts on contemporary queer discourse. First up: age gaps.

Who cares? Oh god, um – 

No elaboration. You said “who cares”, so next: straight actors playing gay.

Who fucking cares? 

Is –

No, wait! Who cares! Also, the issue is employment opportunity, not essentialism. Like if you wanted to create a discourse or a conversation around having more queer people have access to opportunities within the creative industry, you should have gone with that. It shouldn’t have been about this binary representation of gay people playing gay characters because I think that is reductive, especially if there’s a rhetoric around “we’re just born this way.” Pick a lane! We’re either born this way or queerness is a culturally distinctive identifier that deserves as much employment opportunity as the next person. It can’t be both. 

Is gay comedy bad? 

Oh my god. 

Okay, no, no. Shameless bait over. To jump back to performance and artifice though, I’m interested in how that translates to something near and dear to my heart that was recently a part of your event: having drag performers reinterpret the work. For your book launch party that Ethan Fuirst and June Buck put together for you, you had an event that brought to life the films you wrote about through a new lens. I’d love to hear about what it was like to have this event – which featured drag performances and readings, drawing from both screen and text – and what it means to you and what you think about discovering and sharing new ways to engage with and share our histories and our stories.

I feel very emotional about it because it was really magical and beautiful. And I feel so honored and special and grateful and thankful that they put together such a fantastic show. There were incredible performances by Ella Fartzgerald who did Watermelon Woman, Miss Malice who did The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Amygdala who did Scorpio Rising, Klondyke who did Moonlight, Miss Ma’amshe who did Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Sweaty Eddie who did But I’m A Cheerleader, and The Illustrious Pearl who did Farewell, My Concubine. It was really exciting to be able to watch people interpret queer film and to create another piece of art out of it. 

From “The Queer Film Guide LIVE!” event, photos by MTHR TRSA

It felt like continuing a lineage of queer artistic expression and I felt so special just as a spectator, as an audience member, to be a part of that – it was so wonderful and I don’t think I could have asked for anything else. To see people embody these works, to share them with another audience and sort of distill them in their purest form and encourage other people to be involved in this queer film community and explore those films for themselves and interact with them in a different way beyond the immediacy of the performance but with the films themselves. It is really beyond my wildest dreams and I’m incredibly grateful to Ethan and June. It was this glittering, incredible evening, like a shooting star and every memory is like trying to grab onto its tail as it leaves a trail in the sky. 

Were the performers familiar with the work prior to the event, or did they sort of get assigned to watch and create something from there?

The performers actually picked their own movies. And I talked to them all a little bit after, and sent them thank you messages too. It was really cool to be able to talk to people like Miss Malice, who did this incredible performance for Bitter Tears where she lip syncs “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by The Platters, and she already, in her repertoire as a drag queen, does Violet from Bound. She seemed really excited to be doing this, and a bunch of the other performers said that they were interested in film and seemed very excited to share the movies they picked with this audience and be able to present their own perspective about those movies in an embodied and performed way. 

That sort of interest and willingness to explore queer cinema and make it your own feels essential to why you wrote this book. What do you want your readers to get out of it? 

I really hope that people find this book and they are inspired to share it with people. Not the book, but what’s within it. To share it with their friends and loved ones and chosen family and whatnot, and that they are continuing a lineage of queer expression. Whether that manifests as having a movie night with your friends, or whether it manifests as picking up a camera and being like, “I just watched The Duke of Burgundy and I want to make my own movie about a weird but extremely normal dom/sub relationship that just has communication issues.” 

From “The Queer Film Guide LIVE!” event, photos by MTHR TRSA

One part of the impetus for writing it, beyond being approached to do so, was that I think there is an expectation of things to sort of come out perfectly for these examples that we have of queerness. The queer experience encompasses so much and so many different things and so many different points of view that we don’t necessarily have the same kind of aesthetic rubric for what we consider to be “good”. This makes a lot of the newer products that are trying to pander to this nonexistent rubric fail on those terms. The hope is that people will be able to create a rubric for themselves so that they can judge what is aesthetically or narratively or politically good for themselves and find inspiration in that and use that as an ethos around, not only how they want to view queer cinema or cinema more broadly, but how they want to engage with queerness itself. 

What has been so valuable to me about exploring queer film is the connections that it’s brought me to other people, and, whether we have the same taste or not, it has nonetheless ushered and facilitated conversation about what’s going on in the queer community, within queer politics, and within our own queer world. ♦

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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