Jen Rainin’s documentary about famed lesbian magazine Curve is a welcome snapshot of queer lit history, in all the publication’s ups and downs.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Reeling Chicago International LGBTQ+ Film Festival.)
That Ahead of the Curve exists is itself a triumph. Jen Rainin’s new documentary, tracking the history of lesbian magazine Curve from its launch in San Francisco in 1990 to a possible foreclosure, is as tender as it is insightful. We accompany Rainin’s parter and Curve founder, Franco Stevens, as they process the magazine’s possible end, opening up a space to meditate on the importance of connection to queer women. This documentary is about more than just one publication; it explores the tide cycles of how queers connect and relate to each other.
Travelling from their struggles not just building the ship, but keeping it afloat, Ahead of the Curve deftly shows how some obstacles remain in place, but more importantly how so much change has been made. Back in the 1990s, when Curve began as Deneuve magazine, femme-focused queer publications were virtually nonexistent. But as word-of-mouth spread amongst queer women across the United States, Curve caught fire and became the publication of record for queer femmes in the gay ‘90s and beyond.
You can feel the palpable sense of pride in everyone interviewed — editors, photographers, celebrities, writers — as they reflect on those early days at the magazine, scrambling to make a fledgling queer magazine work.
And to be fair, they have much to be proud of: as an early third-wave feminist publication, Curve was already looking towards issues of intersectionality that the culture still grapples with today, striving to include BIPOC and disabled women’s voices.
Rainin demonstrates Curve’s continued engagement with the queer community through its contemporary grapplings with how best to accommodate trans readers and voices. Stevens clearly put tremendous thought into specifically labeling the magazine as a ‘Lesbian’ publication. But sentiments around identity labels have changed over time, requiring constant adaptation over the years. As a magazine, Curve welcomed trans men and women into its ranks as writers and models, when others were slow to do so.
Through these conversations, Rainin puts us right in the thick of unpacking delicate ideas of what it means to be a woman in Trump’s America. It’s not an easy conversation, but it’s a necessary one, and Rainin handles it with respectful care, albeit some workmanlike adherence to the standard documentary formula.
When Curve first began, no one could have dreamed that its history would contain such import for the queer community in 2020. Over its history, it has weathered decades of discrimination, a costly lawsuit from powerful French frenemy Catherine Deneuve, a passing of torches, and a changing media landscape.
Ahead of the Curve ends where a lot of magazine publications are today: wondering how to adapt to an increasingly all-digital readership. But as with Rainin and Franco’s work, the history of Curve is the history of queers finding each other, of making community across great distances. The Internet is no different.
Franco started out wanting to give queer community “the gift of connection,” to show queer people that “there’s a culture worth joining.” Ahead of the Curve shows the achievement of that dream: a magazine that serves as a place where queer femmes can feel seen. Ahead of the Curve is destined to become one of those documentaries queer people can turn to in order to remember where we’ve been and how we’ve arrived here together.