The Criterion collection is not the most inclusive of lists. The majority of films introduced into the canon belong to cisgender and heterosexual filmmakers. While the lack of representation reflects cinema as a whole, and Criterion tends to lean towards an era not known for acceptance, it’s still a disappointing fact. Regardless of this, there are a handful of gay filmmakers whose works have been given the Criterion seal of approval, a trusted sign of the contributions they have made, not only to the art of filmmaking, but to the gay cinematic community as a whole.
Mysterious Object at Noon (2000)
Weerasethakul, affectionally known by his fans as “Joe”, is an experimental filmmaker whose interest in the unconventional makes his feature-length debut, Mysterious Object at Noon, a must-watch from Criterion’s archive. Taking the concept of exquisite corpse (a surreal method by which art is assembled based on chance), Weerasethakul combines documentary filmmaking with art-house style, pushing the boundaries of cinema and successfully creating a patchwork story from various interviewees across Thailand.
Though Weerasethakul’s debut does not explicitly address sexuality, the theme is often explored across his work, alongside various subjects such as nature, Western perceptions of Asia, and dreams. His passion for looking beyond the expectations of the mainstream is undoubtedly influenced by his homosexuality. “For me, the word queer means anything’s possible,” Weerasethakul explained in an interview, allying himself immediately with the concept of queer cinema.
Multiple Maniacs (1970), Female Trouble (1974)
An anarchic cult director with a wicked sense of humour, John Waters rose to fame in the 1970s with a series of controversial dark comedies often starring iconic drag queen and Waters’ childhood friend, Divine. Obsessed with sexploitation films and high-brow art films alike, Waters destroyed the boundaries of censorship, deploying ridiculously exaggerated characters in extreme situations; one infamous example of the director’s shock humour can be found in the 1972 film Pink Flamingos, which ends with Divine eating dog faeces, a pillar of both abject art and unforgivable gross-out comedy.
A later move towards the mainstream for Waters didn’t kill his fame, nor his popularity with the cult community. The beautifully camp 1988 comedy Hairspray was a turning point for the previously X-rated director, simultaneously introducing Divine in the child-friendly role of Edna Turnblad. Regardless, it is Waters’ earlier work that has received the Criterion treatment. Both Multiple Maniacs and Female Trouble are poor-taste, low-budget cult movies, and form an ideal start when exploring the director’s filmography – if you’ve got the stomach for it.
Here is a director who needs no introduction. Todd Haynes immediately became film twitter’s darling on release of the 2015 lesbian juggernaut Carol, a bold and elegant foray into the world of forbidden queer love in 1950s America. Perhaps unfairly, the rest of Haynes’ filmography often goes under the radar in comparison; gay classics such as Velvet Goldmine, Poison and Far From Heaven cemented Haynes as a pioneer of New Queer Cinema long before Cate Blanchett’s seductive glance captured the hearts of women everywhere.
Safe, Haynes’ only criterion release thus far (ridiculous, I know), is a character study set in 1980s suburban America, and forms an extended analogy for the AIDs crisis, depicting a largely unknown threat abhorred by a discriminatory Reaganist society. Carol White (Julianne Moore) suffers from “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity”, and experiences various symptoms supposedly caused by interaction with chemicals found in everyday products. Her relationships are distant, and doctors have given up on her. Almost as a last resort, Carol moves to a New Age retreat designed to help people like her – but this supposed haven is led by a man who could well be more dangerous to Carol than the illness she is trying to cure.
Desert Hearts (1985)
Deitch may be the only woman on this list, but her achievements run parallel to those of her male peers. Her piece de resistance, Desert Hearts, was the first lesbian love story to show romantic relationships between women in a positive light – a rarity even in today’s cinematic landscape. Born in 1945, Deitch started off as a documentary filmmaker, before directing her first fictional feature, a drama which would shape her legacy, and inspire the countless lesbian filmmakers that followed. Set in 1950s Nevada, Desert Hearts tells the story of a sexually repressed professor who begins an affair with a casino worker after finally divorcing her husband. A sensitive and nuanced portrayal of sexual awakening belies any quibbles one may have with technical quality to produce a cult lesbian classic.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)
Two academy awards, five BATFAs, two Golden Globes and nine Goya awards later, Pedro Almodóvar is one of the most internationally renowned Spanish filmmakers of all time. Amongst his impressive array of awards, the director-producer-writer-actor has additionally received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, was President of the Jury for the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, and has been awarded the French Legion of Honour for his contributions to the arts. Simply put, he’s a pretty damn important guy.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that Criterion has chosen to include two of his films amongst their lineup: First, his earliest commercial success, the black comedy-drama Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and second, his only love story, in the form of romantic horror mashup Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! While film aficionados may be more familiar with his later work, the inclusion of two lesser known titles amongst his collection provides ample encouragement to properly explore the extent of Almodóvar’s talents in 2k digital restoration.
The Long Day Closes (1992)
The youngest of ten in a working-class Liverpudlian family, Terence Davies is living proof that film is more than just the playground of the middle classes. As it stands, Davies has been referred to by the BFI as “Britain’s greatest living director”, a deserved moniker after almost four decades of critically acclaimed work. Dedication and love of art are essential to this visionary director’s mindset. Despite working steadily since the 1980s, he has only made seven narrative feature films thus far, choosing only to work on projects he is truly inspired by. This passion certainly pays off – through his sparse but eloquent filmography, Davies has created an authentic chronicle of working-class British life. Separating the personal from the artistic doesn’t seem to be within Davies’ interests; his films often emphasise characters who are trapped in harsh situations not dissimilar to his own upbringing, and it is this touch of honesty that edges each work into the realm of the masterpiece. This can certainly be said for The Long Day Closes, a family drama set in 1950s Liverpool which centres the familiar space where Davies himself grew up, and an experience now available to be enjoyed with full Criterion quality.
Weekend (2011), 45 Years (2015)
Andrew Haigh’s name is making the rounds once more with his latest work Lean on Pete – hailed by many as one of the best films of 2018 so far – but it isn’t the western tearjerker that has earned him the Criterion treatment. Haigh has been a regular on the LGBTQ+ film circuit since the beginning of his career, with his micro-budget first feature Greek Pete debuting at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (now known as BFI Flare). It is his 2011 romantic drama Weekend, however, that cemented his place within queer cinema. Telling the story of a passionate love taking place over just two days, Weekend is a delicate and humanistic take on the everyday lives of gay people, and Haigh’s methodology reflects this, from the choice to film on the streets of Nottingham, to his willingness to allow his actors departure from the script.
On the other end of the spectrum is 45 Years. While Weekend explores the ignition of new love, 45 Years is focused on the monotony of marriage, and the trauma that occurs once this monotony is disrupted. Despite their differences, then, these oppositional films are treated with the same sensitivity and overwhelming attention to human emotion, marking Haigh’s remarkable talent regardless of the story he chooses to tell.
A Room With a View (1985), Howards End (1992)
The rhapsodic dialogue of Call Me By Your Name can be at least partially attributed to one James Ivory, a man who, at the age of 90, shows little sign of faltering in his art. Just last year, Ivory became the oldest ever recipient of both the Academy Award and the BAFTA for his efforts on Luca Guadagnino’s love letter to the ephemeral summer romance. Ivory’s own romantic life has proved a much different affair; his lifelong partnership with producer Ismail Merchant has been documented as the longest in indie cinema history, and their joint venture Merchant Ivory Productions had produced 40 films at the time of Merchant’s death in 2005.
With a filmography boasting some of the greatest performances of recent times, Ivory’s work is renowned for being classically eloquent, often relying on traditionally beautiful settings, genteel characters, and middle-class worlds, quite literally taken from the pages of a book. Two of his literary adaptations, Howard’s End and A Room with a View, have been selected for the Criterion treatment, allowing viewers to indulge in a spot of fantastic period drama – a perfect double feature for any fan of class romance.
A leading campaigner against Clause 28, a beloved director of radical avant-garde film, and a post-modern gardener known for his cottage by the sea, Derek Jarman’s impact on the world was as varied and incredible as the man himself. First known as a set designer, Jarman moved on to direct his own films in 1976, beginning with the controversial historical thriller Sebastiane. He followed this with Jubilee two years later. Described as “Britain’s only decent punk film”, the cult classic plucks Elizabeth I from the comfort of the 16th century and throws her into the anarchic London of the 1970s, a scene of complete social and economic decay. It is this disjointed, highly aestheticised piece that Criterion has chosen to represent Jarman within their collection, and as a mischievous nod to non-conformity, there is no better choice.
Jarman’s most important work, however, cannot be found on a roll of film. In December 1986, Jarman was diagnosed as H.I.V positive, and the public nature of this discussion would be vitally important to the survival of an entire community suffering under the oppression of a government determined to ignore their needs. Jarman was committed to raising awareness of the AIDs epidemic and fundraising for the cause, determined to “demystify” the areas of his life that wider society could not always understand. Outspoken, proud, and exceptionally talented, Jarman is one of thousands who paved the way for the rights of LGBT people, and for that, we will be forever grateful.
This article was originally intended to be an LGBT directors list, but on closer inspection of the criterion collection, there appear to be no out transgender or bisexual directors at this moment in time. If anyone knows of any, please let us know via twitter/email!