In this weekly column, one writer will send another a new piece of writing about a film they have been watching and pondering over, in the hopes that this will prompt a connection—emotional, thematic, historical, or analytical—to a different film the other has been watching or is inspired to rewatch. This ongoing column will be in the spirit of many past Reverse Shot symposiums, in which writers found connections between seemingly disparate cinematic works, and it will also help us maintain personal connection among our writers and our readers at this uncertain moment.

But I’m a Cheerleader

When I was in my teens, I saw the ending of Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) before I had ever viewed the whole film: Natasha Lyonne as Megan in her creamsicle cheerleading costume, bravely and earnestly pronouncing her love for Graham (Clea DuVall) to the beat of a “5, 6, 7, 8” cheer; the opening chords of Tattle Tale’s “Glass Vase Cello Case” getting progressively louder.

I first found this perfect scene—which combines a declaration of love with a declaration of self—during one of my tears through the Internet, looking for a film to become my new private obsession. As for many, so much of my advent queerness was textured by cinema, but like a smaller demographic who came of age during the early years of YouTube, this was shaped by the delicious discovery of queer films uploaded in pieces and consumed in secret. The search terms “lesbian movie” and “best gay kisses” were never far from my fingertips, the results they yielded completely formative. Now, at 29, while thumbing through B. Ruby Rich’s New Queer Cinema on a Friday night—caught in the usual purgatory of whether I’ll finish my comps or quit my PhD altogether—I asked my partner if they wanted to revisit But I’m a Cheerleader together on Criterion Channel.

There’s so much to love about Babbit’s first feature. Its satirical approach to a story about 17-year-old Megan, whose Melissa Etheridge posters, disdain for kissing jocks, and boob-filled daydreams flag her as a burgeoning lesbian to her anxious, homophobic parents. With the (unhelpful) assistance of Megan’s popular peer-group, they send her off to an aesthetically farcical gay conversion facility called True Directions. Here, the staff can barely hang onto their performed straightness and the inmates can’t keep their hands off each other. The pink and blue pastel decor used to demarcate the young women and men are absurdly hyperbolic frames to so-called “therapy,” which mostly involves practicing antiquated gender roles (the girls clean floors and change diapers; the boys fix cars and chop wood). Step one of the program involves admitting homosexuality; step five escalates to playacting “heterosexual sex” dressed up in nude body suits decorated with Adam and Eve-style fig leaves.

The cameos are delightful: I had forgotten about young Michelle Williams as a mean cheerleader, Mink Stole as Megan’s neurotic mother, and Julie Delpy credited simply as “Lipstick Lesbian.” There’s also a certain nostalgic thrill to watching pre-Drag Race, pre-fracking RuPaul enjoy his role as an ‘ex-gay’ counsellor not-so-secretly thirsty for Rock, the son of True Directions founder Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty—equal turns ridiculous and terrifying). As a teen, I had a crush on many of the young characters in this movie, but I mostly wanted to be friends with them. Though I was far too uncool to sneak out during my youth, I lived vicariously through the scene in which Megan and her cohort covertly escape for a night on the town (facilitated by a couple of ex-ex-gays running a rainbow refuge for disowned baby queers). This might have been the first time I saw a gay bar onscreen, and I wanted so badly to go to one. Rewatching this scene now, I yearn for the experience in a different way: who knows when we’ll all be dancing to good music in a crowded space again.

I hadn’t seen this film in something like 15 years. Beyond the haptic tickle I had felt when Megan and Graham’s tension explodes into their first kiss, I mostly remembered the humor. However, as my partner mused during our viewing, But I’m a Cheerleader is “campy, but also scary.” It’s true, of course, and more recent versions of the conversion camp narrative (The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Boy Erased, I Am Michael) have explicitly leaned into the harm of conversion therapy as concept and practice. While humor is sparse in these later, more serious iterations, they’re still indebted to the absurdity of Babbit’s world—I actually find more power in her interpretation of camp as a durable political vehicle.

My affection for But I’m a Cheerleader is, in many ways, completely personal. Back in my teen years, I felt a pang of recognition in the film’s commitment to bigness and earnestness, its unapologetic use of a pop sensibility to realize a meaningful artistic vision. Now that I get to share my adult life with friends who also take pleasure in these qualities, watching But I’m a Cheerleader during quarantine makes me miss sitting huddled in discussion with them. Many of the films that have lingered with me most during this pandemic have been warm-hearted in particular ways. I should clarify: not indulgent or coddling films, but the sort that use their warmth to prompt critical reflection about creativity and mutual care—a rewatch of Six Feet Under; Varda by Agnès; Alice Wu’s The Half of It; Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman; and Lulu Wei’s recent documentary There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace. Towards the end of “Notes on Camp,” Sontag describes it as a “tender feeling,” writing that “Camp is generous…Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of ‘character.’” When my partner and I finished watching But I’m a Cheerleader, we let the credits roll longer than we usually do. —Katherine Connell

The Love Eterne

Thank you for this, Katherine! A queer person of a slightly younger age, I hadn’t seen But I’m a Cheerleader before your prompting, and while watching it and rereading your piece, I gravitated towards your idea about warm-hearted films, ones that derive their power from the considerable care and attention given to their aesthetic and characters. Through these past few months, I’ve increasingly turned to such films as a measure of sustenance and comfort in the solitude of quarantine. And no force has been more significant to me in that regard than Hong Kong cinema, an industry that, from the 1960s to the 1990s, produced a stream of classics and criminally underseen films made by some of the greatest craftspeople to ever work in the medium. I find something so essentially soothing in these films (which also extend to, among others, Johnnie To’s 21st-century films), a community of filmmakers riffing and innovating on the genres in vogue at the time, executing them with supreme assurance and with a genuine sense of romance, dynamism, and humor. Indeed, much of my love stems from a longing for a past culture that I could never access, whether Hong Kong or ancient China (though I hasten to add that my heritage is Taiwanese).

Still, even in such an environment, standouts exist, and most of all I thought once more about one of the best films I’ve seen during quarantine, Li Han-hsiang’s The Love Eterne (1963). A widely regarded Shaw Brothers classic and box-office sensation that remains sadly unknown in the West, it is one of the most beautifully queer films I’ve ever seen, all the more remarkable because of the means by which it forcefully and immediately it arrives at this point. Belonging to the Huangmei opera tradition, which the studio specialized in before turning to the wuxia and kung fu films that it is better known for today, it is a melodrama of the highest order, based on the seminal Chinese folktale “The Butterfly Lovers.”

Appropriately, its narrative is nigh archetypal: Ying-tai (Betty Loh Ti), a young woman living in Jin-dynasty China (sometime during the first century AD), wants to defy the conservative gendered expectations set for her and persuades her parents to let her study at a college in Hangzhou while dressed as a man. On the journey, she strikes up a deep friendship and “brotherhood” with Shan-bo, a young man attending the same college who displays an unusual sympathy for the social standing of women. Over the next three years, their friendship grows and Ying-tai falls in love with her sworn brother, while Shan-bo remains oblivious to Ying-tai’s actual gender. After she is abruptly summoned home and later forced into an arranged engagement to a wealthy merchant, The Love Eterne deals with the impossibility of Ying-tai and Shan-bo’s love, achievable only via their deaths and reunion in the afterlife.

The divide is explicitly created along class lines—Shan-bo is very clearly from a more rural background—and by filial will, as much of the conflict comes from Ying-tai’s decision to pledge her hand in marriage by proxy to Shan-bo; nevertheless, the queer overtones are all too plain to see. For one, there is Ying-tai’s cross-dressing, which lasts through the film’s first half, up through an extended farewell during which she uses a variety of natural and ritualistic metaphors to attempt to clue her friend into her true identity. And indeed, while he shows no sense of attraction during their brotherhood, Shan-bo is extremely quick to profess his love and race off to meet his lover.

Yet The Love Eterne’s most radical and dizzying gambit is that Shan-bo is played by the actress Ivy Ling Po, who spends the entire film playing a male role. This fact is never acknowledged in the diegesis of the film, and within the narrative the romance is meant to be taken as explicitly heterosexual. But Li’s method of “disguising” both Ling’s and Loh’s gender belongs to the proud Chinese cinematic tradition of just tying up the women’s hair and putting them in men’s clothing, which can be seen from Come Drink with Me to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and which hides very little to these modern eyes.

In many ways, that feels like the exact point. Li foregrounds this and numerous other artifices: the film was shot on the elaborate but blatantly artificial Shaw Brothers sets, and, in keeping with the Huangmei tradition, the musical nature of the film is almost exclusively singing with no dancing, using only hand gestures to convey what, in a Western musical, would be expressed by the body. By making it so clear that Shan-bo is played by a woman every time he appears onscreen, speaks, and, above all, sings in a light soprano, the film highlights the kind of relationship that almost couldn’t be conceived of in its depicted, or, generally, in cinema of this period. This method of subversion appears throughout: there’s a totally adorable subplot between the two lovers’ servants—Ying-tai’s is a woman who also cross-dresses during the first half, Shan-bo’s is a man and played by a male actor—who form their own deep friendship, and seem to enter into a relationship by the end of the film. And in a few of the scenes with the other students, a significant portion of them appear to be played by women as well.

That pantomime you rightly found in But I’m a Cheerleader feels key to The Love Eterne’s inherent queerness. Melodrama is nothing if not performative, and the last third of the film is like an extended series of anguishes set to tearful song. And, as always, nature intervenes in the end, both allowing Ying-tai to enter Shan-bo’s tomb and sealing her in. From the grave, two butterflies ascend into the clouds, and before they metamorphize into the lovers, they fly under an enormous rainbow in the heavens. What could be queerer than that? —Ryan Swen

Reverse Shot is a publication of Museum of the Moving Image. Join us at the Museum for our weekly virtual Reverse Shot Happy Hour, every Friday at 5:00 p.m.