15 Years of Lesbian Cinema, or How I Came to Love Romantic Comedies
Cornell University media scholar Amy Villarejo introduces the Lesbian Looks evening on October 5, 2007 with a brief talk about the changing lesbian media landscape from the early 90s to 2007. »See flyer: “The Jaws of Time, the 1960s to the 1990s, Brokeback Style”
What I’m really here to do tonight is celebrate: 15 years of Lesbian Looks, and twice that many years of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer film culture in the US. Our oldest festivals – San Francisco and Pittsburgh (which I programmed in the 1990s) are 30 and 22, respectively. And still, over these years, we come together.
Ruby Rich, the diva of queer film criticism and my guru for thinking about festivals, lists some of the changes in the cultural and political landscape over the past ten or fifteen years: “the rise of a homophobic and right-wing Christian fundamentalist politics in the United States, the tightening of all zones of tolerance under a ‘national security state’ intent on militarizing civilian life, increased xenophobia masked as ignorance and indifference, generational differences within queer communities, chronically underexamined class and race differences, the impact of the Internet and digital technologies on live events, and the transformation of audiences brought about by niche marketing and increasing seduction of queer viewers into willing consumers serviced by commercial representational products.” (“The New Homosexual Film Festivals”)
And still we come together. In these intervals, in these spaces, in hundreds of movie theatres around the country: despite, or perhaps more because of the fraught political landscape we occupy, these festivals are also spaces of real engagement and inquiry, alternatives both to mainstream journalistic reductions of the world and to the loneliness of the Internet’s condensation of the world into variegated individual responses. What I want to do tonight is briefly to observe three trends in queer visual culture that strike me as I look backward over 15 years of Lesbian Looks, raising my virtual glass to Beverly in the meantime as we look forward to at least 15 more.
Trend #1. Lesbian filmmakers, especially women of color, continue to struggle to make feature-length work. Festivals such as this one end up mining the rich veins of work in what are often seen as what film critic Patty White calls “minor” genres and modes: the short film, documentary, low- or no-budget experimentation, low-fi animation, and so on.
This stuff is often the most vigorous, edgy, critical work around, but it also attests to the difficulty of winning competitions and grants and to finding funding for lesbian projects. South Asian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar, whose films Khush and Flesh and Paper appeared on the very first Lesbian Looks program in 1993, has just, now 15 years later, released her first feature, Nina’s Heavenly Delights, a sort of foodie romantic comedy, Glaswegian Iron Chef meets Bollywood.
Another Lesbian Looks alumna, Cheryl Dunye (who was once the darling of the African-American indie scene with her meta-cinematic film The Watermelon Woman) tanked in her feature debut, Stranger Inside, a gritty prison flick made for HBO.
The love for the romantic comedy I profess in my title has, then, to do with convincing producers that lesbian work can move into feature-length (and hence commercial) modes beyond the tried and true genres we have seen and, however tentatively, embraced. The commercial queer film has almost entirely been the domain of gay men, and it’s time to promote our filmmakers as capable of handling personnel and budgets at the scale of major productions while at the same time valuing the multiple modes and formats of lesbian film production. Television has made room for larger scale documentary work, and Lesbian Looks has celebrated some of the most important figures from our queer past through major films on longtime activists and partners Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, on lesbian herstory pioneer Joan Nestle, on cherished poet and survivor Audre Lorde, on the energetic and original singer-performer Alix Olson, and so on. But makers who have resisted the lure of Hollywood, such as the Greek-Australian Ana Kokkinos (whose wonderful coming-of-age film ONE OF MY FAVES Only the Brave was followed by her great gay feature Head On), have ended up (as have Rose Troche and others on The L Word) directing for television drama rather than making their own films. Makers who cut their teeth on indie productions can have broad impact: James Schamus, who produced those classics of the New Queer Cinema Tom Kalin’s Swoon and Todd Haynes’ Poison, went on, of course, to produce Brokeback Moutain. Says Schamus, “I make as many bad movies as a big studio. But when they make a bad movie they spend forty to sixty million telling everyone about it. When I make a bad one, it gets a round of applause at a film festival.”
Trend #2. As I’ve written about at length, it’s hard to know how the dual revolutions of trangender and digital will transform what we call or called “lesbian film.” One of the few women filmmakers acknowledged as belonging to the upsurge of the New Queer Cinema was Jennie Livingston, whose Paris is Burning converged with Judith Butler’s return to the language of performativity to understand gender not as given but as a construction emerging out of repeated performance. Where better to find gender and bodies constituted through performance than in the world of drag, a world where essence and appearance by definition upset one another in joyful spasms? More recently, as Judith Halberstam has made the practices of drag kings central to discussions of female masculinity (along with Leslie Feinberg’s consecration of the stone butch), it seems that genderqueer and trans makers are proposing new categories and therefore new lineages for queer film. One of my favorite radicals, German self-invention Rosa Von Praunheim (given name Holger Mischwitzsky!), may find that he paved the way for the transgender canon with Transsexual Menace and I Am My Own Woman, just as Harriet Dodge and Silas Howard of Tribe 8 fame have become cult stars of their own buddy/road movie flick shot entirely in digital video. At the same time as we old timers can run out to buy the two-disc collector’s edition of Desert Hearts or a new DVD edition of Personal Best, new digital cultures emerge from (to borrow a list from Leslie’s novel Drag King Dreams) “drag kings, tranny bois, transmen, butches, he-she’s, morphers, gender-benders, bi-genders, shape shifters, cross-dressers, Two-Spirits” and others. What we make of lesbian looks will depend upon what “lesbians” look like, how we call and see one another, both on film and off (and online and off, in spaces like Afterellen.com, Ourchart, and Popcorn Q), in the decade to come.
Trend #3. Finally, our lesbian looks will extend beyond the US, as DVDs and image culture travel every more quickly and immediately across the borders of the nation state. Nowhere more than here is one aware the border exerts its force most powerfully against people, not things, and that quick and metaphoric claims about border-crossing as a name for mobility in general are dangerous and produce their own violences. But it is also true that some of the most exciting queer film reaches us through networks of transnational distribution, networks largely made possible by these festivals and by new distribution platforms such as DVD. Ruby Rich got me excited about the films of Lucretia Martel (The Holy Girl and La Cienega), but I’d also cite as crucial a group of recent films about migration, exile, and displacement: the complicated film about an Iranian lesbian asylum-seeker Unveiled; the nostalgia travelogue Journey to Kafiristan; and Gypo, a film made according to the Dogme group’s “vow of chastity” (no added effects, hand-held camera, basic lighting, etc.). These, like gay films Wild Side, The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, and others are bold and courageous looks at the world our festivals confront, and these spaces of gathering and exploration are and will be crucial to imagining it as a world we might change. Hats off to Lesbian Looks on its birthday.