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March 7, 2005

Films can make a difference, says critic B. Ruby Rich

By Jennifer McNulty

When film critic B. Ruby Rich goes to the movies, she’s not looking for big stars and Hollywood glitz. She’s looking for cutting-edge technique and a message that speaks to the times.

Photo: B. Ruby Rich

B. Ruby Rich is currently working on her next book, entitled “The Rise and Fall of New Queer Cinema.”

Photo: Jennifer McNulty

“I’m always looking for work that is exciting to me, that represents a new front in filmmaking,” said Rich, who joined the faculty last fall as an assistant professor of community studies.

“And I’m looking for films that make sense of a cultural moment.”

So forget Million Dollar Baby and think Tarnation, an autobiographical documentary made for less than $250 by Jonathan Caouette, who began chronicling his life at the age of 11. Caouette combined Super-8 home movies, snapshots, old answering machine messages, and early short films into a film that one writer called “part documentary, part narrative fiction, part home movie, and part acid trip.”

Rich, who writes about film for the Guardian of London, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Sight & Sound, the Village Voice, and other publications, has been on the jury of film festivals from Toronto to Havana, Sydney to Guadalajara. She has participated in the Sundance Film Festival since 1987, regularly attends Cannes, and is an expert on Latin American film and queer cinema.

The author of the 1998 book Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement and countless scholarly and popular articles about film, Rich is currently working on her next book, entitled “The Rise and Fall of New Queer Cinema,” which documents the emergence in the early 1990s of “amazing new films” by film makers including Todd Haynes, Sadie Benning, Derek Jarman, and Isaac Julien.

“Their films were unlike anything I’d ever seen before, with such a different style,” said Rich, who coined the phrase “new queer cinema” in a 1992 article in the Village Voice. “They were unapologetic, and they wanted their films to be for all audiences.”

Films like Poison, Go Fish, and High Art began showing up at film festivals and winning prizes, and careers were born. That powerful new wave of queer cinema came out of a decade of organizing around AIDS, when people turned their attention to culture and cinema, said Rich. But that momentum of the early '90s has been lost. What’s left constitutes the “worst nightmare” of those film pioneers, said Rich, referring to the “commodification and assimilation” of queer cinema evident in television shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Will and Grace.

“The 1990s were a much more hopeful political moment,” said Rich, who loves film’s “potential to make a difference.”

“I really do believe film is the literature of our time,” she said. “Ideas get played out on screen, and we identify with the characters we see. Film today is a secular religion. People’s experience of the world is often mediated through movies.”

To that end, when Rich watches mainstream Hollywood movies, it's for what they reveal about U.S. culture, and she monitors them with a critical eye for what they offer audiences. Last year, she was struck by the plethora of “revenge films,” including Mystic River, Kill Bill, and 21 Grams, and wrote a piece about the shortcomings of U.S. film in the post-9/11 era, when instead of revenge, filmmakers had an opportunity to focus on “regret.”

“Every once in a while, I get so fed up that I have to write something,” said Rich, adding that she thinks international cinema is becoming more important than ever as the United States becomes more xenophobic. Online DVD movie rental services like Netflix are “a dream come true” because they make watching movies “as easy as getting a book from the library” and expand the reach of low-budget, independent films and international cinema, she said.

Rich will teach Community Studies147, The Rise and Fall of the New Queer Cinema, this spring and looks forward to the arrival in September of the first students in the new community studies master’s program in social documentation. Having made her living through film since she was an undergraduate at Yale—when she sold popcorn at Film Society screenings to pay the rent--Rich is hopeful about the future of film. Just don’t get her started on the Oscars.

“My friends forced me to watch,” she said with a laugh. “I hated it, just like always.”

Here is a short list of recent movies that Rich recommends:

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Bad Education
Maria Full of Grace
Control Room
The Corporation
Gunner Palace
The Holy Girl (La Niña Santa)

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