Grease. Say Anything. Titanic. The Notebook. At first glance the images in Queer Movie Stills look just like brightly colored renderings of iconic moments from popular cinema romances of the last four decades.
Yet a closer look reveals that the John Cusack look-alike holding a stereo is actually a pink-haired woman. The figures standing on the ship's prow are both female -- and “John Travolta” is a girl.
The work of San Francisco artist and fashion designer Crystal Vielula, this exuberant series that exhibited in the city’s Castro neighborhood earlier this year plays with popular culture’s quintessential romance scenes -- transforming them into queer love stories. “Because it’s hard to find representation of happy queer love in popular media,” Vielula says, “we need to create them in our own imaginations.”
The intent here, in Vielula's words, is “recreating the narrative and claiming it" -- "changing the world in the way that you would like to see it, rather than maybe how it is right now.” She was inspired to begin work on the series in 2017 by observing the chronic absence of positive representation of LGBTQ relationships, while she herself was in a happy lesbian partnership.
“We would always try to find movies to watch together -- like romantic comedies or anything that would be nice and fun to watch,” she says. Yet in movies like 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color, they saw only situations in which “the couple ends up breaking up because one of them ends up deciding they're straight again” -- or dies. Finding it “very strange not to be able to find any representations of a ‘happily ever after’” in popular visual culture that mirrored her own experience, Vielula went about creating them.
With their bright, saturated color palettes and poppy aesthetic, Vielula’s series intentionally reimagines these newly-queered scenes with an overwhelmingly “super positive” look and feel. Her figures also feature hyper-colorized, thoroughly unrealistic skin and hair tones, to signal an ideological departure from conventional media narratives of “white people in straight relationships,” as she puts it.
Without clear facial features, her reimagined film figures act as symbolic blank canvases ready to receive the viewer: “I wanted people to be able,” she says, “to imagine themselves in it -- not specific to race.” Her personal favorite in the series is the Dirty Dancing-inspired image, because of its representation of “an exciting romantic moment” -- and because “I've always loved that movie.”
Vielula is also the artist behind the much-Instagrammed queer pride murals in San Francisco’s Clarion Alley, with their joyous depictions of affectionate, animal-headed same-sex couples. She sees Queer Movie Stills as a continuation of that impulse towards positivity as both the message and the medium -- to highlight the very lack of it in conventional representations of queer love.
In this respect, Vielula says, her work is “not outright activist artwork” -- but “more a possibility for the future.” Framing things in this irresistibly irrepressible way, she hopes, will be the digestible. "Then," Vielula says, "people can really think about ‘Oh, why did I think that queer love actually wasn't real love?’ and ‘Why did I think it was fine that all movie romances were straight?’”
Asked whether she thinks positive LGBTQ representation in today’s popular culture has at least begun to progress beyond the scenes she refashions, Vielula is hopeful -- she’s a fan of Amazon’s Transparent, in particular -- but acknowledges there’s still a long way to go.
As for her Queer Movie Stills series, she hopes that for younger members of the LGBTQ community perhaps still finding their path forward, it might serve to “make them feel like they're part of a community of people that can have happy, romantic lives." And that, she adds, "the ‘romantic fairytale’ is possible for all people to experience in their lives.”
Crystal Vielula's 'Queer Movie Stills' was on display at Spike's Coffees and Teas (4117 19th Street) in San Francisco in January 2018.