From September to December 2018, we are hosting a film season entitled Nazra, which explores queer Arab lives on film. Accompanying these screenings, we're delighted to welcome some brilliant specialist speakers — both in person and via Skype — to discuss the films in more detail and provide wider insight to the issues they raise.
‘Queer Arabs…are either liberated (and the United States and Europe are often the scene of this liberation) or can only have an irrational, pathological sexuality or queerness.’
- Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, 2007
Nazra / نظرة / Gaze:
1. to look steadily and intently, as with great curiosity, interest, pleasure, or wonder.
From September – December 2018, Eyes Wide Open Cinema is proud to present a season of compelling cinema focusing on queer Arab identities and experiences with films from Egypt, Israel/Occupied Palestine, Lebanon, and Iran. Over these four instalments, we shine a spotlight on work created by Arab filmmakers that explores the intricacies of race, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, and gender in ways that challenge a gaze that can often simplify, fetishise, or tokenise these complex experiences.
One of Eyes Wide Open Cinema’s main missions is to tell the untold stories of our queer communities. This is why we have titled the season Nazra (the Arabic term for ‘gaze’). Aside from having obvious parallels with our film strand’s name, it also reminds us of the importance of acknowledging the the ways in which we have been taught to conceive of those who are Arab and queer, and the importance of expanding these conceptions.
Over these four months, Nazra asks how are queer Arabs viewed both within and outside of the Arab world? What violence is being enacted when we gloss over the experiences of non-western queer communities? What stories are being told by Arab queer people in film, and why are we not seeing more of them? And what can we learn when we are not only glimpsing but fixing our gaze on the stories of people whose experiences are often pushed to the margins?
OR, BRUCE LA BRUCE: PUTTING THE ‘GAY’ BACK IN ‘PUNK’ AND THE ‘PUNK’ BACK IN ‘GAY’ SINCE 1985
The fictional Bruce LaBruce
Hustler White is the 3rd feature-length film by Bruce LaBruce, which follows 1993’s No Skin Off My Ass and Super 8½ which came out in 1994. It was co-directed with photographer Rick Castro and released in 1996 and features LaBruce in the role of Jurgen Anger. When it was released, the Sunday Mail called it “Disgusting, sick, filthy, pornographic, and scary” which of course LaBruce was delighted about and used this quote to promote the film. But apart from reactionary newspapers Hustler White was actually pretty well received. Reviewers picked up on its use of gay iconography, for instance: the way it deploys and subverts the visual vocabulary of Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, Douglas Sirk… Sight and Sound’s Jose Arroyo said: “Hustler White communicates roughly and honestly, through trash culture with a camp inflection, but with no less complexity.”
With the release of Hustler White in ‘96 and his autobiography, The Reluctant Pornographer, in ‘97, Bruce LaBruce secured his reputation as a leading young queer filmmaker and, as evidenced by his most recent film, The Misandrists (which was screened by Eyes Wide Open), 20 years later Bruce LaBruce is still making gleefully transgressive films that mock mainstream values and are wilfully anti-establishment.
Quite an impressive achievement – especially considering the fact that Bruce LaBruce began life as a fictional character.
He was invented by two young queer friends from Toronto in 1985. As they would later recall, Bruce LaBruce was a kind of idealisation – a figure that combined queer sexuality and punk rock and he was created in the pages of their zine as a kind of poster-child for a movement that didn’t yet exist: that movement was QUEERCORE.
Fifth Column and the birth of queercore
In the early 1980s, a band called Fifth Column was blowing up the Toronto music scene. Post-punk, mostly queer, and all female, the band would later get a kind of recognition (but if you ask me, not nearly enough) as one of the main inspirations behind Riot Grrrl, the famous grassroots feminist rock and zine scene that come to prominence in the 90s led by bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater Kinney, and Huggy Bear.
Fifth Column’s first album released in 1985 was entitled To Sir With Hate, their most famous track was “All Women Are Bitches”, and when asked by a TV presenter in 1982 if they were feminists, responded that they were in fact, “dykes from Transylvania”. The band was made up of a rotating cast but most regularly featured Caroline Azar, Beverley Breckenridge, and Gloria Jones – all young Toronto-based artists and filmmakers who supported each other, collaborated, and performed in each other’s films.
Jones had a shitty day job at a restaurant called Just Desserts where she worked with a gay guy named Bryan Bruce, who Caroline Azar described as “a wild crazy guy that had hair like John Sex.” (Apparently Henry Rollins of Black Flag and Ian Mackaye from Minor Threat and Fugazi met working at a Häagen-Dazs in Washington DC… Maybe there’s something about punk collaborations and desserts – there’s probably an essay in there somewhere!) Jones hit it off with Bruce (he was a filmmaker too) and when she turned up for Fifth Column’s gig supporting The Jesus and Mary Chain, she announced that the band were to have a male go-go dancer. Flipping the script on the usual male/female, band/go-go dancer dynamic, Bryan Bruce danced provocatively around the stage as Jones, Azar, and Breckenridge thrashed out hits like “Boy, Girl”, “Incident Prone”, and “The Fairview Mall Story”.
Jones and Bruce got closer and started collaborating. He recalls: “When G. B. Jones – or Gloria, at the time – and I became friends, we had an intense relationship. For six years, it was almost like lovers, but without sex. It was romantic and intense. She’s a brilliant artist. She mentored me, basically.”
They were both into punk music and style – something about the homoeroticism of sweaty, half-naked punk kids colliding with one another in the half-light of a basement club really got them off – but they also saw that, in spite of the rather queer roots of punk where androgyny, for instance, was affirmed – the punk scene had become more and more straight, male, and homophobic. They had no time for that. They also had no time for an increasingly commercial and mainstream gay lifestyle and aesthetic. As they would later write in a polemical piece that was typical of their style, entitled “Don’t Be Gay: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Fuck Punk Up the Ass”:
“The gay ‘movement’ as it exists now is a big farce, and we have nothing else to say about it, so we won’t say anything at all, except that, ironically, it fails most miserably where it should be the most progressive – in its sexual politics. Specifically, there is a segregation of the sexes where unity should exist, a veiled misogyny which privileges fag culture over dyke, and a fear of the expression of femininity which has lead to the gruesome phenomenon of the ‘straight-acting’ gay male.”
Inventing queercore and a zine revolution
Out of this resistance to homophobic punk culture and mainstream gay sexuality came their zine, JD’s. Named for Juvenile Delinquents, James Dean, or JD Salinger depending on who you ask, JD’s was charged, as they said with the task of “putting the gay back in punk and the punk back in gay”. The zine ran for six years, full of tell-all porno stories, comic strips, Sapphic illustrations, and photo-stories starring Bryan Bruce as Bruce LaBruce, a character they named “The Prince of the Homosexuals”.
Mixed in with this original content they pasted naked or revealing photos of ostensibly straight punk band members and porno cut out of magazines. JD’s also had a Top Ten hits of what they started calling “homo-core” that featured punk bands like Nip Drivers and Gay Cowboys in Bondage who weren’t actually gay but had tracks like “Quentin Crisp” and “Cowboys are Gay” (a band called Aryan Disgrace had one called “Faggot in the Family”).
If you’re aware of the punk scene and all of the amazing zines that came out of it – like Sniffin Glue – this kind of DIY mingling of material mightn’t seem that strange and it wasn’t: Jones and Bruce were emulating lots of punk zines. What makes their zine different is that they were obviously queer but, more importantly, they weren’t so much documenting a scene as actually inventing it. LaBruce remembers that
“We borrowed from The Situationists quite heavily -- this idea of creating a spectacle and propping it up in the media, even though it was fiction.”
There were hardly any punk bands at this time that were out and in the real world there certainly wasn’t any queer punk scene per se. But their readers thought there was: people started reading JD’s and believing that this amazing Homocore scene actually existed in Toronto. In Texas, Florida, California, queer kids were thinking “wow Toronto’s Homocore scene is awesome, I should totally start a Homocore zine.” And they did! JD’s was quickly followed by Larry Bob Roberts’ Holy Titclamps, Tom Jennings’ Homocore (in which the famous essay “what the fuck is Homocore?” appears), Vaginal Davis’ Fertile LaToya Jackson, and Donna Dresch’s Chainsaw.
Writing about this abundance of queercore zines in 1985, Dennis Cooper wrote:
“Mutually supportive for the most part but, individualistic in outlook and design, these zines share a hatred for political correctness, yuppification, and all things bourgeois, especially within gay culture.”
Out of this exciting and transgressive zine culture came out punk bands like Pansy Division and Tribe 8. Jon Ginoli of Pansy Division says:
“I formed Pansy Division, with Chris Freeman, because there were no other gay bands. As it turned out, a few others formed around the same time. At the second Pansy Division show, we were on a bill with Tribe 8 -- we hadn’t heard of them. I thought, Great, we have comrades!”
Queercore’s ends and afterlives
The queer punk scene that Jones and Bruce had invented in the pages of JD’s was now a reality, with zines and bands spread across North America together building a transgressive, anarchistic, and radically non-mainstream queer culture in music and print. But all was not well in Toronto.
In 1991 Bruce – who by then had renamed himself after the character that he and GB Jones had created – released his debut film called No Skin off My Ass. Shot in low-budget black and white, it’s best described as a “tender love story of a punk ex-hairdresser obsessed with a young, silent, baby-faced skinhead”. It features LaBruce as the hairdresser and GB as his sister. When it came out, it got quite a bit of attention: Kurt Cobain for one called it his favourite film. New Queer Cinema had also started to take off in the States and LaBruce was grouped together with some of the directors in Eyes Wide Open’s SNAP series and became pretty famous as a result.
However, many on the queercore scene felt that when it came down to it, LaBruce didn’t give GB Jones enough credit as his long-time collaborator: as well as acting in No Skin Off My Ass, for instance, she also co-wrote the script. There was a vicious backlash against him: led by Johnny Noxzema – widely regarded as the most toxic influence on the scene – he was roundly condemned. One diatribe ran:
“Mr LaBruce has made an art of appropriating the ideas of his female friends (now, understandably, ex-friends) and basking, alone, in the glory they bring him.”
Under the weight of this acrimonious split the queercore zine scene kind of fell apart: JD’s folded in 1991, and was quickly followed by Homocore, Holy Titclamps, and others that wound up operations in the early 90s.
But if Queercore was rather short-lived, that’s not to say its effect was negligible: apart from its construction of real-life and in-print communities for young alienated non-mainstream queer people and its palpable effect on riot grrrl, some commentators also credit the movement with the reclamation of the term “queer” as a site of radical resistance – or at least catalysing certain tendencies within the LGBT community. It’s also been the focus of lots of new works including a new documentary called Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution (2017) and a critical study by Curran Nault called Queercore: Queer Punk Media Subculture (2018). Kevin Hegge’s also directed an incredible documentary She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column (2012), which puts Fifth Column back on the map and which Kevin very kindly shared with me as I was putting together these notes. Dyke Dolls, Bum Boys, and everyone else who wants to know more about queercore should check them out!
by Diarmuid Hester
Desert Hearts debuted in September 1985 at the Telluride Film festival in Colorado, and was released in the UK May of 1986. Based on Jane Rule’s 1964 novel Desert of the Heart, director Donna Deitch and screenwriter Natalie Cooper offered audiences something which remains unusual, a feature film about a lesbian relationship that ends well. In many ways, Desert Hearts is the precursor to Carol: both are adapted from novels, both are set in the recent past, both handle the constellations of affect which circle lesbian relationships, and neither do so at the expense of their protagonists, or of their audience.
However, as the Eyes Wide Open programme states, Desert Hearts is probably the most conventional of the narratives presented in this autumn’s season, and one of the more conventional narratives preceding New Queer Cinema. Desert Hearts is a forerunner to this loose alliance – which was so termed by American film scholar B. Ruby Rich in 1992 – and it’s a film whose reception maps many of the issues at stake for lesbians and queer women in the years preceding, and including, what Rich identified as a turning point for sexually dissident cinema.
Desert Hearts has been met with simultaneous praise and criticism, and unsurprisingly this has come from lesbian and queer perspectives in particular. This is what I want to think about – rather than revealing plot or dialogue, I want to focus on how the film was received, and how its reception in the UK reflects a pre-existing split within lesbian politics during the mid-to-late 1980s.
The London Times described Desert Hearts as “a beautifully controlled drama about reaching out and taking chances, set in Reno during the late 1950s.” The Guardian summarised the movie (programmed as part of the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival) as a “non-exploitative lesbian love story.” In a longer interview with Deitch, The Sunday Times wrote that she “has tackled a woman’s subject that would be hard for a male to take on. Palatable, as opposed to porno, films about overt lesbian relationships are almost non-existent, so her film, from a novel by Jane Rule, is breaking new ground.”
These are some examples of more mainstream reception – not necessarily voices from ‘within’ the LGBT sphere – and that was half the point of Deitch’s film. The experience of watching Desert Hearts intentionally feels like that of a mainstream movie. Deitch wanted to make a big budget production slick enough for wide release and distribution; she personally raised funds for the film, mortgaging her house so that she could afford the rights to include songs from Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline. Desert Hearts was recently re-mastered by Criterion, and in many of the interviews with Deitch around its re-release, she’s emphasised that the film was meant to be a lesbian love story, but one which would be accessible to a wide audience, and universal in its appeal and messaging – a goal which is reflected in its reviews by more staid publications.
A different take came from London-based queer magazine Square Peg, a magazine for self-described “modern perverts.” Square Peg viewed the film through a more critical lens, focusing in on the fact that Deitch chose not to ask her actors whether they were lesbians or straight, a decision that Square Peg felt was a political failing – the anonymous author of the interview argues that casting lesbians to play lesbians is akin to casting people of colour to play people of colour – a political decision with some urgency. Deitch has repeatedly defended this decision, saying that she wanted the best actors for the roles, regardless of their orientation, and emphasising that it was difficult to get anyone to audition for the film, let alone out lesbians, especially amidst Hollywood’s prevailing homophobia, which was exacerbated the snowballing severity of the AIDS crisis, and crackdowns on non-normative culture by the Reagan administration and far right lobbies.
I think it’s fair to say that these same conditions of the film’s conceptualisation and production inflect its mood. In a 1990 roundup of recent “women’s cinema,” Theresa de Lauretis asked whether Desert Hearts (among others) could be truly considered an alternative film, and similar to Square Peg, noted that one of the film’s leads, Patricia Charbonneau, took pains during the press tour to appear with her husband and child, to establish a straight public persona which legitimised her turn as a sexually assured lesbian, highlighting that her rendering of this other was a role rather than her reality. Further compounding this sense of doubt, in her analysis of Desert Hearts, critic and film scholar Mandy Merck cites a review in monthly magazine New Socialist, which proposed that the film “wanted to have its cake and eat it…any challenge lesbianism might represent is underplayed.”
Of course it isn’t unusual for a film, and especially a film which focuses on a ‘minority lifestyle’ or ‘minority interests’ to open this kind of debate, but I want to propose that this split in opinion reflects conversations and arguments already prevalent within lesbian and lesbian feminist circles during the 1980s.
Desert Hearts was released during the middle of the Sex Wars, which refers to a loose grouping of events, debates, and concerns beginning at the end of the 1970s, but which picked up in the 1980s and lasted into the 1990s. The Sex Wars, briefly put, occurred around disagreements over whether pornography, sexual fetishism, butch/femme identification, domination and submission (amongst other practices) were inherently oppressive, and indicated a complicity with hetero patriarchal culture and society – for example, if you practice S/M roleplay, you’re selling out to the premise of a man’s world, to a desire for power and control. Conversely, women argued that these practices were crucial for fostering greater personal freedom and experimentation in terms of women’s – and lesbian – sexuality.
To be sure, Desert Hearts was less controversial than other films released around the same time – Sheila McLaughlin’s She Must Be Seeing Things proved galvanising when it was screened in London in 1988, on account of what the anti-porn camp saw as sexually exploitative tendencies – some cinema goers attempted to rip down the screen and stop the showing. But this is precisely the grounds on which The Guardian praised Deitch’s effort – a non-exploitative lesbian love story, by which they meant (or I assume they meant) one which gives more screen time to romance than sex, and one which is framed through a female gaze – insofar as a female gaze can be conflated with a female director. We can return as well to the Sunday Times’s brief synopsis: “a beautifully controlled drama about reaching out and taking chances, set in Reno during the late 1950s.” Nothing about this one line summary implies that the film is focused on lesbian relationships or sexuality.
There is no denying that Deitch passes the Bechdel test, but what kind of representation does she effect, and who does it speak to – or for? If the pro-sex, or sex radical camp wanted a lesbian image that would challenge the lesbian feminist ideal that, as the joke goes, sex is two women in bed holding hands, they might be disappointed. While there is a particularly good sex scene toward the end of the film, those searching for uncomfortable and unpalatable images to challenge mainstream perceptions of what lesbians do would be left wanting. Meanwhile, the popular feminist monthly Spare Rib gave Desert Hearts a glowing assessment. “No one picture can fill the huge gap” left by the failures of writers and directors to accurately portray lesbian life, Spare Rib writes, “but nevertheless, Desert Hearts is true to its subject matter,” a judgement made partly in response to the film’s lack of sensationalism over its treatment of sex.
The film’s varied reception situates it amidst these debates, which can be reductively posed as pro- vs anti-assimilation into straight life, pro vs. anti-representation of porn and sex, and even queer vs. lesbian, a fissure emergent from the Sex Wars, and from the embrace of certain sexual practices and the politics amassed around them. It was for said reason that this introduction takes its title from a quote spoken early on in the film: “lots of iced tea and no deep thinking,” a reflection on life in the desert which could just as easily be used to describe the film if you were to approach it from the angle of a politicised sex radicalism, or critical film theory. In what is the only sustained academic analysis of the film’s release and reception, Jackie Stacie revealingly notes that while the film was popular with lesbian audiences, like the women at Spare Rib, lesbian academics were mostly silent – or in the case of Merck, brief, and excoriating.
But inasmuch as queer media like Square Peg criticised the film, lesbian academia ignored it, and the straight/feminist media seemed to praise it, Desert Hearts is something of a pre-cursor to New Queer Cinema, albeit one which sits uneasily within this categorisation. I want to end by thinking about this, because posing Desert Hearts along these lines is a useful way to complicate this moment of the Sex Wars, which has been historicised too reductively as a clean split between two ideologically discrete camps.
Writing in 1992, Rich described the characteristics of a New Queer Cinema as “renegotiating subjectivities, annexing whole genres, revising histories in their image” – all of which, arguably, Desert Hearts pushes towards. But so many of New Queer Cinema’s pet films differ drastically from Deitch’s forerunning effort, notably in their almost aggressive deployment of sexuality as central to both narrative and character development. Gregg Araki’s The Living End, Derek Jarman’s Edward II, Todd Haynes’s Poison, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho – Rich identified appropriation, pastiche and irony as consistent traits, but the middle finger directed at heteronormative society which was so central to queer politics and organising is certainly another. Romance, if a factor at all, is irreverent and/or fury driven, not sentimental and soul searching, a quality I would ascribe at least in part to the predominance of male filmmakers, and to New Queer Cinema’s position in the thick of the AIDS crisis.
And this is where Desert Hearts notably differs – it is, undoubtedly, a love story. Romance drives the plot, which, although centred on a coming out, never quite over-determines lesbianism as a conflict, whether social or psychological. These issues emerge, but are faced and resolved. In fact, the word lesbian is never used; ‘queer’ is said once, as an insult, but the character Vivian hits it down. So how do we pose the film as queer when it might not visibly read as such, especially along the markedly political lines early queer art and theory strived to uphold?
In spite of the ambivalence with which the film was received by some lesbians – a result, as I argue, of recent debates over how a lesbian representation should appear, and what it should imply – Desert Hearts offers its own contribution to the impending moment of queer cinema.
Rather than nihilism, Desert Hearts offers the possibility of romance, and lesbian romance at that, and this is what I want to retrieve in terms of reading the queer back into it. It offers romance without presuming a happily ever after. Without giving anything away, the film’s final scenes are remarkably open-ended. The story of its protagonists does not follow the prescriptive trajectory that a heterosexual narrative would, but nor does its lack of conclusion read as a tragedy, or a failure. It is satisfyingly left to our imagination, which to my mind is an undeniably queer trait. The film havers between these camps: pro vs. anti-sex, pro vs. anti-assimilation, queer vs. lesbian – complicating and reading them into and against each other. And its peculiar position amidst the Sex Wars – as both too much and not enough – confirms this ambivalence.
With this in mind, I want to end with a question, or a speculation, which is how to be both queer and a lesbian at the same time – not a dyke, but very specifically a queer lesbian, what this might look or feel like, what it might do in terms of exploding and renegotiating the specificity of these categories which are so inscribed into histories of the Sex Wars, and how this might help us to understand them better. Desert Hearts offers a starting point for thinking about whether this is possible – a film that’s both bound to lesbian representation but also a little bit queer, although perhaps not in the ways you might expect.
by Flora Dunster
On the eve of the release of God’s Own Country, Jacob Engelberg from Eyes Wide Open Cinema interviewed director Francis Lee in a post-screening Q&A at Duke’s at Komedia Picturehouse cinema.
Jacob Engelberg: Some people in this room might be surprised to know that this is your first feature film, your background was in acting and in 2010 you became a short filmmaker. Could you talk about that journey from in front of the camera to behind the camera and the journey from short filmmaking to feature filmmaking.
Francis Lee: I trained as an actor and I was an actor for twenty years but I wasn’t particularly good! I was just really lucky and worked but I was never very comfortable. I’d always wanted to write and direct but I’d never felt very confident writing anything down on paper. So I waited until I was really old and I couldn’t wait any longer, so I wrote some shorts and self-financed them over a very quick period of time and then I wrote and made this. So it’s been quite a quick journey and it’s been a bit of a baptism of fire.
The journey from shorts to features is a weird one…shorts are a totally different medium. It’s like writing a poem or a novel. I don’t think anything prepares you to get on set for a six week shoot at all.
JE: One of the first reactions I had when I saw the film was the realisation of how rare it is to see queer characters in rural settings. I appreciated that the film resisted the dichotomy we often see, with the city being depicted as the queer-friendly space and the rural depicted as the queer-antagonistic space. Instead, your film depicted something much more nuanced. Were you mindful of working against the grain in this kind of way?
FL: No. I just tell everything from a character point of view and I wanted to explore, first of all, the landscape. The landscape was the starting point for the film, that’s where I grew up, that’s where I now live, that’s where my Dad is a sheep farmer. I also wanted to explore, in very simple terms, what it feels like to fall in love for the first time and how hard that can be. How difficult it is to make yourself vulnerable to love and be loved.
I’m not a cinephile, I’ve not been to film school, I don’t have huge cinematic references so I wasn’t consciously working against anything. I was trying to be faithful to the world and those characters and the experience I’ve had of growing up in that community. I just didn’t think about that idea of needing to leave somewhere to be yourself, I wanted to explore what it was like to be yourself in the place where you’ve grown up.
JE: One of the reviews that I’m sure you’re quite bored of having quoted back to you is the review from The Scotsman, which called it “the first great film of the Brexit era”. Obviously the idea for the film and the production of it came before this Brexit vote, but there’s still a concerted effort to represent the xenophobia that Gheorghe faces in Yorkshire. What role did you see the representation of that xenophobia playing in the film, even if you didn’t intend for it to be considered in a “post-Brexit” context?
FL: I wrote it and I’m not sure if the referendum had been flagged up at that point – I don’t have any memory of it. If I had heard of it, I’d have just thought it was more Tory lies. When we were shooting it, it was the run up to the referendum. But it was only in the edit that I became very aware, like everyone else, of the referendum. There was the vote and me and the editor had done a cut of the film very similar to the final product and the next morning, after the results were announced, we watched the film diligently and afterwards there was this little silence and we both turned to each other and went, “I think we’ve made a period piece!”
This, for me, came from when I gave up acting and didn’t have any money I got a job. I was working with a guy who’d come to this country from Romania and we became really good friends. He’d come to this country like lots and lots of other people for better opportunities, to earn more money for him and his wife. I was really shocked by his personal experience of coming to this country but I was really taken aback by how he coped with it, physically and emotionally. That’s really the starting point of where Gheorghe came from. I always knew I wanted him to be an outsider and once I became friends with this guy and started to research Romania, when I realised that the landscape in Transylvania is very similar to Yorkshire and the farming there is quite similar, it all seemed to fit.
The xenophobia…I guess I was using it to show that change within Johnny. That idea that you’re frightened of the unknown and therefore you’re rude about it or you put it down, you’re antagonistic towards it. But once you actually get to know the person it’s a very different story.
JE: You touched on the farming aspect and your initial desire being to represent the landscape. One of the things that struck me is the role that animals play in the film. Some of the most tender and visceral moments had to do with animals – I’m thinking in particular the skinning of the dead lamb and its skin being repurposed as a coat for the second lamb. Animals get quite a bit of screen time in God’s Own Country so I was wondering what function you felt they served in the film.
FL: I grew up in this place and it was very isolated and so my best friends were animals. I hung out a lot with them and so they were always very present in my life. I think in the film, they represent the farming, dealing with the livestock and the birth-life-death cycle. I wanted to show that Johnny was actually not just a two-dimensional grumpy, northern, difficult, inarticulate knob so it was fitting that he would have his tender moments with animals, that that’s where he would show his compassion and care.
I love the idea that Gheorghe comes and he’s very maternal – he gets off on caring for people. I love the idea that by skinning the lamb and therefore giving life to the abandoned lamb acted as a lovely little – I don’t want to say metaphor but – metaphor for what what he was doing with Johnny.
JE: And he was actually doing that?
FL: Yeah. I never wanted a stunt double or a hand double because I wanted them to do the work and as a viewer I love immersive cinema. So if I ever watched this film and saw a close up of a hand and it wasn’t one of those boys’, I’d go, “Oh, that’s not them”.
So I sent them to work on farms for weeks and weeks and they did really long shifts from 6am to 7pm and they learnt to do everything. It had a brilliant effect because of my obsession with landscape, how landscape forms who you are emotionally and physically. When they were working on the farms they complained about how cold and wet it was and they started to become hunched over. So it affected them physically and emotionally and they carried that through into their characters, which I think really worked.
JE: I’m gonna finish on a bit more of a silly question which is where you found those incredible jumpers ‘cause I spent the film just admiring the knitwear!
FL: So the poor costume designer is Sian Jenkins who’s brilliant. I love rules about things so all the departments had rules and one of the rules for the costume department was she could only buy clothes for the family who live in the farm from the area where they would actually have access to, which meant two shops in Keighley. Johnny, Martin and Deirdre were all kit out from these two shops in Keighley. Then she said to me, “What about Gheorghe”, and I went, “OK, he’s from somewhere else so you can go to another shop for him”.
But when I first met Alec [Secăreanu] in Bucharest he was wearing a heavy-knit jumper. When he came for the recall in London he was wearing the jumper again and it just felt so right. So when we cast it I said, “Sian, we have to find the jumper and it’s the only bit of red we can use in the film so make it very special”. Don’t tell anyone this but I think it’s from somewhere like Primark; it’s synthetic, it’s not even wool! And there were three of them!
Over 2017, we screened a range of films exploring a rich variety of queer experiences worldwide. In order to maintain transparency with our audiences, we have chosen to publish the following statistical information about representation in our programme and audience.
Intersectional programming is always an ongoing process and we can always do better. In the final section, we address how we endeavour to redress the discrepancies that arose.
Over the year, we screened 18 feature-length films and 35 short films.
Of these films 42% of the directors were male, 39% were nonbinary, and 16% were female.
In this programme, 45% of directors were people of colour.
46% of our programme was British, 31% was American, and 23% were produced in other parts of the world.
- We increased our mean average audience size from 77 (in 2016) to 106 admissions.
- The mean average age was 33.
- 27% of attendees were under-25 and 10% were over-65.
- 47% were women, 28% were men, and 15% were not women or men.
- 74% were white.
- 78% fell under the LGBQ/queer umbrella, with 33% identifying as lesbian or gay, 27% identifying in a way other than lesbian, gay, bisexual, or straight, and 18% identifying as bisexual. 13% identified as straight/heterosexual.
- 19% had a disability.
In findings above, there are both things to celebrate and areas where we can improve. In our programming to come, we will endeavour to:
- Increase the amount of films directed by women.
- Increase the amount of foreign-language/non-Anglo-American films.
- Increase representation of disabled queer people, asexual and aromantic people, intersex people.
Elsewhere, we also endeavour to:
- Provide free and heavily-reduced ticket prices for those who cannot afford our regular ticket prices.
- Ensure that as many screenings as possible are closed-captioned (subtitled) and have British Sign Language interpretation.
Brighton Pride 2017 might be over but queer culture doesn't end at pride! So, we at Eyes Wide Open Cinema created a playlist that celebrates queer voices and queer classics. We've tried to make it as eclectic as possible and hope to have included some gems for you to discover (and revisit!). Here’s a bit more about some of our favourites on the list:
“Stand on The Word (Larry Levan Mix)” – Joubert Singers
This is probably my favourite mix from one of the fathers of dance music. It’s important for us to remember that Larry Levan (a black and gay innovator) helped craft the sounds we’ve heard all over top 40 the past couple of decades. He found a discarded gospel recording and chopped/screwed it over a beat that turned a gay club night into Saturday Mass. He transformed dancing at a gay club into a spiritual experience where every queer person can worship and celebrate their existence. AND the song still knocks.
“Shim el Yasmine” & “Tayef” – Mashrou’ Leila
Mashrou’ Leila are a Lebanese alternative rock band that are amassing a following for music that deals with themes of same-sex love and society (rare topics in Arabic music). In the tender ‘Shim el Yasmine’ (Smell the Jasmine), the singer laments wanting to introduce his male lover to his family but being forced to end the relationship instead. ‘Tayef’ (Ghost) deals with the story of a shuttered gay club. In the song, the band sings of Abu Nawas to remind their listener of their Arab history of same-sex love. They raise a flag of pride and revolution made from shrouds that belong to dead queer Arabs and tell those listening to stay the course and fight. Mashrou’ Leila’s music shares the experiences of non-western queer people who we often hear about and not from. It shows us the diversity of queer experiences and goes to the heart of pride. The fight is still going and we’ll stay pushing. “
“Prove It On Me” - Ma Rainey
They said I do it, ain't nobody caught me.
Sure got to prove it on me.
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men.
Ma Rainey, alongside other queer American blues innovators including Bessie Smith, are never given their due credit as the queer icons and envelope-pushers they were. Yes children, Ms Rainey was singing all about attraction to women in the 1920s long before Katy Perry kissed a girl. So pour yourself a glass of bourbon, lie back on your couch, and let yourself become engulfed by the queerest of the blues.
“Dyke March 2001” - Le Tigre
Who would’ve thought that a dance track made up of sampled interviews with people on a protest could be such a banger? The pop-electronica style twinned with repeated mantras from women on a dyke march gives the affective experience of being on the best protest ever. It takes me back to some of the first protests I ever attended, how bloody emotional it is to come together with friends and strangers in the name of a cause. The chants of “We recruit!” always send a shiver down my spine; the gleeful joy that comes from telling hetero society that you’re doing exactly what they feared you were.
Give it a play and let us know what your favourite songs are!
From September - December 2017 Eyes Wide Open Cinema is incredibly proud to be teaming up with the University of Sussex's Centre for the Study of Sexual Dissidence and Centre for American Studies, to bring you a season of pioneering American queer cinema at Fabrica Gallery. This has been supported by Film Hub South East with National Lottery funds distributed by the BFI Film Audience Network.
In 1992, legendary film critic B. Ruby Rich coined the term "New Queer Cinema" to discuss what she saw as an emergent cinematic trend.
"The NQC embodied an evolution in thinking. It reinterpreted the link between personal and the political envisioned by feminism, restaged the defiant activism pioneered at Stonewall, and recoded aesthetics to link the independent feature movement with the avant-garde and start afresh..
What made the New Queer Cinema possible?...Four elements converged to result in the NQC: the arrival of AIDS, Reagan, camcorders, and cheap rent. Plus the emergence of "queer" as a concept and a community. Outrage and opportunity merged into a historic artistic response to insufferable political repression: that simple, yes, and that complex."
- B. Ruby Rich, 2013
Over the four instalments of our season Snap, we will explore a selection of films that preceded, existed within, and were influenced by the trend that Rich observed.
We begin with Desert Hearts (1985), Donna Deitch's tale of forbidden desire on Nevada’s desert planes borne out of the director's desire to create a story about love between women that "was mainstream, not in the context of the women's community or The Village".
Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied (1989) is a powerful and poetic vindication of black gay men, who, in this experimental semi-documentary, confront the racism, homophobia and social marginalisation they face.
The early short films of Cheryl Dunye (1991-1994) are criminally underseen DIY gems exploring '90s lesbian subcultures, their politics and their humour, and the realities of life at the intersection of black, queer and female.
Bruce LaBruce and Rick Castro's Hustler White (1996) is an explicit, playful, and electrifying portrait of hustlers on West Hollywood's Santa Monica Boulevard, a vibrant exploration of weird and wonderful queer lives existing gleefully on society's margins.
In 2017, as we look across the pond, we see a situation of immense political repression under the Trump administration, compared by some with the Reagan administration Rich cites as galvanising New Queer Cinema. What does the Trump moment mean for queer culture and queer survival? What happens when we snap beneath the weight of injustice and marginalisation? What can we learn when we revisit the queer film pioneers that not only told queer stories, but snapped the cinematic apparatus itself in telling them?
"A snap can be what happens when you are unwilling to meet the conditions for being with others...Queer as snap: the moment you realize what you do not have to be. Snapping can be necessary for being, which means for some, to be requires snapping, snapping not as a singular event, but as what you have to keep doing to keep being."
- Sara Ahmed, Snap! Feminist Moments, Feminist Movements
"Snap out of it", a queerphobic parent might say.
"She just snapped!", a cis man might say of a trans woman finally confronting his transphobia.
"Don't mess with a snap diva!", Tongues Untied warns us.
With the help of the University of Sussex's Centre for the Study of Sexual Dissidence and Centre for American Studies, we will begin to ask what these films tell us about queer creativity, queer resistance, queer responses to the American project. The cinematic snap and the social snap.
This is a time in which "LGBT" cinematic representation is more visible than ever in mainstream spaces, particularly in American film. But might we pause and reflect on the what these inclusions have excluded in their very emergence? Might we listen to our queer creative predecessors and their responses to the cinematic mainstream?
Might we snap at the realisation that queer liberation is yet to occur?
For the fifth year running, Trans Pride Brighton, My Genderation and Eyes Wide Open Cinema have teamed up to curate a selection of short film exploring a variety of trans lives and experiences worldwide. This eclectic selection, featuring both fact and fiction film, is a testament to the heterogeneity of trans lives and a celebration of resilience in the face of oppression.
The programme will be screened first on Friday 21 July at Duke's at Komedia - tickets are available here.
Our second screening of the programme will be on Monday 31 July at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill - tickets are available here.
Directors: Juliet Jacques and Ker Walwork. UK 2016. 10 mins.
A meditation on the biology of sex and gender, shot on 16mm celluloid film and narrated by Rebecca Root.
MajestyGirls: The Lady Keteva
Director: Veronica Robinson. USA 2015. 9mins.
At the wise age of 59, a transgender woman reflects on her struggles growing up in one of the roughest projects in Miami.
Director: Calí Dos Anjos. Brazil 2017. 10 mins.
This enchanting documentary, which uses both real life footage and animation, explores the lives of a selection of trans people in Brazil.
Director: Rowyn Mottershead. UK 2017. 9 mins.
A group of transgender young adults to explore their identity and reflect on their transitions.
Skeleton In A Beret
Director: Mabz Beet. UK 2017. 7 mins.
Two trans people talk about how they have actively used video games as part of how they explore not just their gender, but their skills, self-confidence, and self-expression.
Director: Anne-Marie O’Connor. UK 2016. 14 mins.
When Kate discovers that her mum is gravely ill, a fact that her stepfather had been keeping from her, she reflects back on their relationship, from her pre-transition childhood to the present day.
Directors: Fox Fisher and Owl (Ugla Stefanía). Iceland 2017 . 7 mins.
A trans girl in a remote farm in Iceland finds out that she has more in common with a farmhand from England than she originally thought.
Director: Kai Tillman. Cuba 2016. 7 mins.
A child living in a small Cuban town creates a secret world to explore their developing identity.
Director: Mike Paulucci. USA 2016. 10 mins.
A Chicago teenager decides to reveal their true identity during a spoken word performance.
With a bit of a mind flip, you’re in to the time-slip. A dislocation in the flow of linear time, the time-slip is a liminal imaginary which allows different moments in time to be experienced at once. In it, we anticipate the past and remember the future; we experience supposedly discrete temporal points with a radical simultaneity. . .
One of the ways in which bisexuality can often be erased or delegitimised is by locating it elsewhen: thrown back into the past or flung far in the future. The popularly invoked ‘bisexuality’ of the ancient Greeks for instance, like the originary bisexuality of the Freudian developmental narrative, imbues the foundational Western civilization with a definitional bisexuality which nevertheless serves as a marker of just how different they were. The futural bisexuality of much science fiction tends to present it as a utopian sexuality from a more advanced and enlightened time. Both moves function as othering fantasies: two somewhat conflicting figurations which are held simultaneously in order to remove bisexuality from the present, to place it anywhere but temporally here; as the ancient foundation of Western culture or as its polymorphous future, but nevertheless resolutely other to the now.
This is one of the many cultural dynamics we might see being played with in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The ‘futuristic’ alien bisexuality which corrupts/liberates Brad and Janet is not from the film’s future, but rather from film past. As (among other things) a genre-blending, gender-bending, glam musical, sci-fi/horror pastiche the film resists easy and stable categorisation. But, as it lovingly constructs a rich collage of textual and visual references and allusions to rearticulate visions of the future from cinema’s past, Rocky Horror finds a radically bisexual future within a denigrated past of the B-movie.
. . . I’m about 11, at some sort of family wedding. Lots of aunts, uncles and older cousins. They’ve been drinking. The wedding DJ starts playing a song which gets all of them to the dance floor, laughing. It’s just a jump to the left. They’re all horribly out of time. And then a step to the right. And all going in different directions. With your hands on your hips. Where do they all know this from? You bring your knees in tight. Whatever it is, it looks awful. It’s a pelvic thrust. This is driving me insane. It’s naff; embarrassing . . .
Rocky Horror is undoubtedly naff, but this naffness operates within a long tradition of camp in queer communities. As a form of weaponised nostalgia, camp reaches back into the past, loving the cast-off and disparaged, fetishising forgotten objects, as both a survival mechanism and an act of resistance. As a community language which redeploys the past to make the present bearable, camp provides a way of coping with and critiquing a heteronormative culture.
Although camp is usually associated particularly with gay men, as a set of strategies it overlaps significantly with the ‘ironic authenticity’ which some bi scholars have suggested can characterise the formation of bisexual group identities. Due to consistent erasure from both gay and straight spaces, such identities, it is claimed, demonstrate
an acting out of the self which is conscious of its own status as performance – but no less real for all that. Such an identity is ‘on the edge’ of authenticity and of artificiality. It’s an identity which inhabits discourses (heterosexuality, homosexuality) where it is not recognized.*
Rocky Horror’s campness, and in particular its ironising of marriage and other social conventions, seems to operate according to a similar logic.
. . . between the ages of about 10-15 there are two main reasons, barring illness, that I’m granted afternoons off school. One is to attend rehearsals at a theatre where I am a member of the company for a time. The other is to attend funerals, usually for people I don’t know, where I’m paid £5-£10 to serve on the altar at the Catholic church. A childhood thick with the scents of incense and dry ice – both eliciting a similar illicit thrill. Costumes and smoke; the richness of ritual . . .
When homophobes attack ‘gay marriage’ as a parodic distortion of ‘real’ marriage, they are unwittingly pointing to queer community strategies centuries old. When, in Rocky Horror, Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) leads Rocky to a previously concealed chamber to the cheers and confetti of the assembled ‘unconventional conventionists’ we might, for instance, be reminded of the Molly Houses of 18th century London. In these early precursors to queer bars and camp subcultures men would meet in secret, cross-dress, call each other by female names, stage elaborate ‘marriages’ to each other and retire to the ‘chapel’, or back-room, for illegal sodomy.
When excluded from community structures such as the Family and the Church, queers of all kinds have often developed our own rituals, our own communities and spaces. Rocky Horror plays out these actions onscreen even as audiences use it as the focal point for the same social function. Developing elaborate traditions around midnight screenings of the films, with live shows and audience participation, people have built new rituals around the film’s own queering of them.
. . . I’m about 14; not yet out. There is a summer showcase at the performing arts school I attend (I’m going to grow up to be a serious actor). Dancing boys. Jock-straps. Lycra. Me, the onlooker in the dressing room corner, learning the lines of their legs and arse. Some of the older ones are performing songs from Rocky Horror this year. One of them is wearing the gold pants. Perhaps I need to reassess my resistance to watching the film . . .
Of course, like any ritual these can become ossified, their meanings lost or substituted. A vital liberation from strict codes and conventions through the articulation of new camp rituals can itself become restrictive if that script remains static, if the unconventional just becomes convention. There is a danger that the Rocky Horror of the midnight screenings and audience participation becomes a space for the acceptable acting out of illicit desire within a contained and controlled space, rather than a fundamental threat to those forces of containment.
. . .“Jeremy Vine looks like he’s enjoying that a bit too much”. A lesson from my mother in 2002: the limit to acceptable pleasure is marked by fishnets. Men in tights can be fund-raising-funny, as long as they don’t enjoy wearing them. The BBC newsreaders doing songs from Rocky Horror is a highlight of this year’s Children in Need. I don’t think I’ve seen Michael Buerk below the waist before but when he steps out from behind the desk in fishnets and heels it’s very funny, among other more alarming things . . .
Likewise, the version of Rocky Horror which finds its way into straight wedding discos and the BBC news team might well represent a de-fanging of its more radical impulses. But even then, the film shows that the boundaries between these spaces are permeable, and reveals the queerness which inhabits the very establishment discourses which otherwise reject it.
The ‘traditional’ wedding which opens the film, in Denton, ‘The Home of Happiness’, and which initially seems to serve as symbol for the social and sexual mores which will later be brought into question ‘Over at the Frankenstein Place’, has in fact already been infiltrated by the Transylvanians. Tim Curry plays the minister – becloaked and with his back to the camera, just as he will appear as Frank during the Time Warp. Riff Raff, Magenta and Columbia are likewise present in the church. Thus, the ‘straight’ weddings which queer versions later ‘parody’ are themselves already brought into question by the radical bisexuality which already inhabits them.
. . . my parents have finally gone to bed, only just in time. I close the door to the front room, plug the television back in, and turn the sound right down. The screen goes black, and then those lips appear. Nothing can ever be the same.
by Dr Joseph Ronan
*Bi Academic Intervention. 1997. The Bisexual Imaginary: Representation, Identity, and Desire. London: Cassell. p.11.
Please note that this text contains spoilers, discussion of racism, a photograph of real public shaming, and a screenshot depicting nudity.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder was one of the 20th’s Century’s most important queer filmmakers. While much of his work explores expressly queer themes such as the main character of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) who falls deeply in love with another woman, or the highly homoerotic Jean Genet adaptation Querelle (1982), Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats The Soul can be seen to explore queer themes, styles, and messages that lurk more subtly within its frames.
The term “queer” has many different definitions; its meaning has changed over time and continues to evolve. When we think about relationships, desires, or expressions that diverge from the norm, we rightfully tend to think about people who are not heterosexual, those who are transgender, and those who are intersex. The protagonists of Ali do not fall within any of these categories, yet they importantly embody a certain kind of forbidden desire, one regulated by norms of age and race.
The twenty-year age gap between Emmi and Ali is a significant one which serves as a source of much tension throughout the film. Historically, however, the aspect of their relationship that has a greater legacy of persecution is its interracial nature. Emmi is a white German woman and a citizen, Ali is a Moroccan man in the precarious position of Gastarbeiter (the term for migrant workers who came to West Germany in the ‘60s and ‘70s).
Cross-cultural or cross-racial relationships have been forbidden or looked down upon in many different social contexts throughout history. Focusing on German history, it is important to remember that Ali takes place only a few decades after an era of punitive Nazi rule. Within Nazism’s implementation of authoritarianism and genocide, the regime also introduced the concept of Rassenschande - literally, racial shame - into German law. These laws, which came into effect in 1935, forbade relationships between “Aryans” and “non-Aryans”. Discovery of interracial relationships would warrant punishment varying from arrest and public shaming to concentration camp detainment and death.
The German context of Ali is significant in part because of the cultural residue left behind by the country’s Nazi legacy. While Rassenschande was no longer a commonplace term and its laws no longer in effect, societal unease around interracial relationships endured. In Ali, it is the underhand comments of Emmi’s colleagues or the shopkeeper who refuses to understand Ali’s requests that speak to a kind of racism that, while less explicit, is no less pernicious. After Emmi and Ali get married, they travel to Munich’s Osteria Italiana, where Emmi comments, “This is where Hitler used to eat.” We are reminded of the weight of history and reflect upon the sheer audacity of the interracial couple’s presence in a space that once signified leisure for one of the most prominent proponents of a racist ideology.
Yet Fassbinder’s story does not simply depict Ali and Emmi as righteous lovers beset by a racist society. One of Ali’s successes is its representation of the complex minutiae of interracial relationships. When first confronted with the everyday racism Ali faces, Emmi is incredulous. Yet her strident proclamations in the face of discrimination that “this is her husband” are met with a knowing fatigue on the part of Ali. He understands this ground well and is too inured to everyday racism to be surprised.
Emmi’s ignorance of certain aspects of Ali’s racialised lived experience also creates rifts between the two of them. When Emmi’s friends visit, they comment on Ali’s cleanliness and the size of his muscles. Emmi invites them both to touch him and when the three surround Ali and begin to grope him, he walks away. When Emmi’s friend asks, “What’s eating him?”, Emmi responds “He has his moods. It’s his foreign mentality.” Here Emmi’s failure to realise how objectifying these actions are, the way they reduce Ali to a mysterious and exotic foreign body, speaks to her own naïveté. Further, her explanation that his behaviour is rooted in a “foreign mentality” shows the way in which even within the context of an interracial relationship, racist assumptions persist.
Yet white Germans are not the only people for whom this interracial relationship causes concern. The Arab women who work in the bar Ali frequents show a pointed disdain for Emmi and her relationship with Ali. Yet it is important to discuss this differently as these fears come from a different context and locus of power. These women’s fears around interracial relationships are rooted in the perceived threat of whiteness, a threat ossified through generations of European colonial occupation and everyday marginalisation in West Germany.
When Ali cheats on Emmi with one of these bartenders, this not only provides an escape from Emmi’s microaggressions, but also an opportunity to eat couscous, a dish that Emmi refuses to make for him. The couscous serves as an important signifier of Ali’s Moroccan culture, an aspect of his identity that Emmi repudiates. In the apartment of the bartender Ali is reunited with this dish and he proceeds to make love with a woman who is able to empathise with his diaspora experience in a way that Emmi cannot.
The complex ways in which social and cultural pressures shape a forbidden love like Emmi and Ali’s overlap greatly with the concerns of “queer”. To engage in queer analysis is to ask how and why a society regiments our genders and desires. There is important shared ground between those who find themselves attracted to others of the same gender and those who find themselves attracted to others of a different racial group. Fassbinder occupied both of these spaces.
In Ali, Fassbinder not only told a story of forbidden love but also directed his own partner El Hedi ben Salem in the role of Ali. The two met in a gay bathhouse in Paris three years prior and Salem moved to Berlin with his sons to live with Fassbinder. Their relationship was tumultuous and ended a year after Ali was released. Salem then allegedly stabbed a group of people in Berlin before being extradited to France and committing suicide in prison. The tragic ending to Salem’s life was not known to Fassbinder until five years later, moving Fassbinder to dedicate his last film Querelle to Salem.
What continues to be moving to this day is the way in which Ali captures the love between Fassbinder and Salem as filmmaker and muse. The knowledge of the relationship between the two allows for the forbidden love storyline to take on further meaning, one that can be transposed to the queer relationship outside of the picture. The issues of societal racism are augmented similarly when recognising Salem’s experience as a new arrival to West Germany. Yet further, in the thoughtless prejudices Emmi shows Ali within an intimate setting, one might see Fassbinder himself working through the issues of love across racial lines.
The loving and gentle way in which Fassbinder shoots Salem evinces the humanity in his desire. Within a European artistic tradition that often represented nonwhite men as oversexed, perverse “Other”s, Ali serves as a loving corrective. Unlike Emmi’s friends who fetishise and grab at Ali as the phantasmic object of their desire, Fassbinder takes a step back to admire the man he desired in the expansive beauty and complexity of what makes him human.
by Jacob Engelberg
Kenneth Anger is an American underground and experimental filmmaker. The artist has been most well known for being amongst a generation that helped define and liberate the experimental underground movements of the 1960s American avant-garde. Through his conceptual and visionary approach to cinema, Anger has now been regarded as one of film’s most influential figures.
Anger’s first experience in filmmaking occurred when he was just ten years old. The young artist started by making short films, but it was not until many years later that he would produce his signature film Fireworks (1947) where he would finally gain recognition as an established filmmaker. In these early years, Anger had begun developing an interest in the interpretation of dreams and the subconscious mind; he developed a technique portraying these themes in his work, calling it “dream logic”. The dream logic is one behind the interpretation of dreams, exploring how our unconscious mind could be read and understood in reality. In Fireworks, one can see the young artist portraying his own subconscious mind during a dream sequence, projecting through the dreamscape an array of violent, and at times homoerotic, desires. The relationships established in the film would be a signature trait that Anger would carry on developing throughout his career. Not only was the artist one of the first openly gay filmmakers, his films were some of the first alongside Gregory Markopoulos’s Christmas U.S.A (1949) and Jean Genet’s Un Chant D'amour (1950) to explicitly address same-sex desire in cinema.
Anger’s films, like many other queer filmmaker’s works, were repeatedly censored and Anger himself was charged with obscenity several times when the works were screened. It was only later in Anger’s career that his accomplishments as a queer artist filmmaker were recognised, and as his relationships grew within the film community, the young filmmaker finally found himself established within the American experimental underground scene. Like many other experimental filmmakers, including Jonas Mekas, Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and Gregory Markopoulos, joining the underground scene was a way to oppose the dominant aesthetic of Hollywood filmmaking. As a response, groups of artists came together and offered an alternative from mainstream cinema, and with this Anger’s experimentation and creativity developed only further.
Anger continued to explore the unconscious throughout his later works and as his artistic imagination and creative inspiration grew, the filmmaker became greatly interested in the occult. Like the surrealists of the 1940s, filmmakers such as Maya Deren were already creating works that were heavily inspired by occultism through the use of symbolism and esoteric frameworks. Anger’s approach, however, was directed more towards the philosophy of Thelema, founded by English occultist Aleister Crowley. Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) was Anger’s first film that captivated major elements of the artist’s interest in Thelema itself. The film was a surrealist work of art featuring many mythological figures, personifying pagan gods including Isis, Osiris, and Pan. The continuation of these traits, however, would again be found in his later films, specifically Lucifer Rising (1972), a film which lends itself to the world of mythology and mysticism, the very foundations and signature style that would historically become known as Anger’s very own.
by Eliott Mussi, Artist/Filmmaker
“She's lived for 400 years and hardly aged a day; but, because this is England, everyone pretends not to notice.”
As viewers, we cannot help but notice her. Orlando has milky skin, flame-red hair and almost alien-like features. And then there’s that gaze – direct, playful, two beams of light from another century. Tilda Swinton has the look of someone dropping in from another world, appropriate for a character who switches seamlessly between genders, inhabiting both with ease.
The film is based on Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name, originally published in 1928. Married to Leonard Woolf for almost thirty years (until her death in 1942), Virginia Woolf was a key figure in the Bloomsbury Group, known for their liberal views on sexuality. At the time of writing Orlando, Virginia was in the midst of a decade-long relationship with fellow Bloomsbury-ite Vita Sackville-West.
The ‘effect of Vita on Virginia’ according to Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicolson, ‘is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her’. Vita and Virginia remained close friends long after their sexual relationship had ended. What we are gifted with is a wild and fantastical novel, and its corresponding film, updated and remixed for the end of the 20th century.
What makes Orlando a queer film? Of course, Orlando enjoys romantic and sexual relationships with both men and women, and the character transitions gender midway through the film. Yet we can’t honestly call Orlando a bisexual or trans narrative. Rather, it is queer in its exploration of form, its chronological playfulness, its bold flirtation with its viewers.
Of course, there are also the queer cameos. The iconic Quentin Crisp drags up admirably to play an elderly Queen Elizabeth I, who commands Orlando, a young noble, to stay forever young – leading our protagonist to move as seamlessly between centuries and genders as they do lovers. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo, gay pop icon Jimmy Somerville hovers above our Orlando as a skinhead angel. Replete with tacky golden wreath, wings and toga, he looks like he’s been outfitted from a costume shop, injecting the film with a knowing campy silliness.
Camp, androgynous, garish and proud – we hope you love meeting Orlando.
- Kate Wood & Catherine O’Sullivan
Please note that this text contains spoilers.
Here is River Phoenix; stranded, shuffling, sleepy-eyed. Take note of his smooth, high forehead and his sweet boyish chin. Watch as he hollers and swaggers. This show of unfazed machismo cannot hide the fact that he’s as defenceless and vulnerable as the rabbit who lopes away from the road in fright. This boy is named Mike and he doesn’t know where he is or why he’s there. Clouds roil overhead in the purpling sky. The highway stretches onwards. This American landscape is blank and hostile.
Remember this location. We’ll be back.
Now watch as Mike is suddenly betrayed by his own body. Convulsing and twitching, he slowly drops to the ground. He is a narcoleptic, a character trait which informs the rhythm of his surrounding film. Mike’s attacks come upon him suddenly and he regularly wakes up in a new and disorientating place. This lends an unusual structure to the movie, which smash cuts it way through different locations, time periods, tones.
But first, the opening credits.
Most people now automatically associate the words My Own Private Idaho with the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s. Yet what does that title really mean? The phrase is never once said within the movie.
The colourful title cards slotted throughout the film tell us that that stretch of highway we encounter at the beginning of the film, the one as familiar as a ‘fucked-up face’, is located in Idaho. The phrase itself has its origin in a song by the B-52s, a band, let’s not forget, in which four of the five founding members identified as gay or bisexual.
If you don’t pay any attention to the lyrics, one’s “own private Idaho” sounds like it could mean an idealised space, a self-made mental sanctuary. Pay attention to the lyrics though, and the song reveals something much more insidious.
You're livin' in your own Private Idaho, Idaho
You're out of control, the rivers that roll
You fell into the water and down to Idaho
Get out of that state
Get out of the state you're in
Your own private Idaho is an unhealthy mental state. It’s a paranoiac frame of mind. It’s one we shouldn’t linger in for too long.
Poor Mike is returned to that stretch of highway again and again.
“I've been on this road before.”
We’re back on that same road. It’s halfway through the film and this time Mike is not alone. Scott (Keanu Reeves) is with him, attempting to kickstart his motorcycle and only half listening as Mike continues:
“This is my road. Looks like a fucked-up face.Like it's saying, 'Have a nice day" or something. See what I mean, Scott?”
Scott doesn’t see, or he doesn’t want to see. He continues this refusal into the next scene, perhaps the most pivotal in the film. It is the scene where the two boys sit in front of a crackling fire, the location where Mike admits he’s in love with Scott.
It almost hurts to watch Mike squirm this confession of love out of himself, to see the physical effort it takes. He begins by circling around the issue, hinting and feinting and then backing off, willing his companion to take the lead. It isn’t until Scott’s quiet, assured statement that he only has sex with men for money and that “two guys can't love each other” that Mike’s reserve cracks and he lets his honest feelings out, halting yet definite.
“Well, I - I don't know. I mean -I mean, for me… I could love someone even if I... you know, wasn't paid for it. I love you and…. you don't pay me.”
Throughout this exchange, Scott is looking directly at Mike, while Mike stares down into the fire. Watch River Phoenix’s body as he twists it in on himself, wrapping hand around knee, drawing himself up close and small. It’s worth remembering that this exquisite scene was improvised almost entirely by Phoenix. On the page, his character was initially written as straight. Phoenix wanted to complicate it. How queer.
At the film’s close, we are, of course, back on that same stretch of road. It isn’t a scene of redemption or of reunion. For many queer people, our lives cannot be conceived of as linear. Many of the usual milestones of normal society are meaningless, or mislabelled, or simply fall out of chronology. After all he has been through, Mike has ended up right back where he started from.
Before we are truly finished, however, a final title-card: Have a nice day.
The phrase rings obviously hollow. The world can be brutal to beautiful boys with smooth, high foreheads, especially those with queer confessions to make. But watch River Phoenix, one final time. He is beautiful. And this, more than perhaps any other factor, is why we return, helplessly, to My Own Private Idaho.
- by Catherine O'Sullivan
I perhaps came across the cinema of Gregg Araki a little too late. As a child and young adolescent, the worlds that teenagers inhabited fascinated me. In the ‘90s to 2000s era in popular culture, I looked to the reflections of teenagers on-screen aspirationally. These appeared to me like worlds of sex, drug-taking, and frivolity. In American teen cinema including the movies Thirteen, I Know What You Did Last Summer, the Scary Movie, and American Pie franchises, there lay something that captivated me. Teenagers seemed to be living on a plane of freedom and continual journeys of experimentation into the unknown. As a sheltered child who longed to already be experiencing this dangerous independence, these films appeared to me as a conduit to ephemerally live out such a life through fantasy.
Similarly, through popular music, and particularly the medium of the music video, I could try out a range of different teenage personas that I would maybe one day inhabit. I practised my 'Like I Love You' Justin Timberlake in front of the mirror, with his teasing eyes and grey hoodie. Or perhaps I would be more like Nelly and find myself in a dilemma with my very own Kelly Rowland, our mutual adoration taking us out dancing into the streets. Or perhaps I would find myself in Christina Aguilera’s dirrty club. Would I be a well-oiled man in the background? Would I burst through the hallways with the dominance of Redman? Or would I be Christina herself, writhing on the floor with my red thong at the forefront of everyone’s mind?
Unsurprisingly, my actual teenage years were much less exciting than any of these fantasies. Where I’d hoped to find a space of romance, sex and abandon, I instead found myself to be a closeted bisexual who was engrossed in school work, who maybe kissed a girl at a party but never got beneath anyone’s clothes, and whose only real engagement with drugs was smoking weed in my friend’s shed every Friday night while listening to Laura Marling songs.
It wasn’t until my early 20s that I discovered the cinema of Gregg Araki - a brand of predominantly “teen” cinema that was like nothing I’d ever seen before. His films featured aliens, the apocalypse, and Los Angeles. Soundtracks reverberating with the exclamatory brashness of postpunk and the sensual pulse of shoegaze. Brutal violence, cults, and surprise attacks. Valley girls and stoners. Made-up Californian teenage vernacular peppered with creative vulgarities. Boredom, apathy, and recklessness. Chain-smoking and drinking. Teen suicide. Young cinephiles who make films. And finally – importantly – characters who desire people of more than one gender.
As I began to explore Araki’s cinema further, I found that bisexuality emerged again and again, from his first 1987 low-budget feature Three Bewildered People In The Night to his high-budget and star-studded 2014 film White Bird In A Blizzard. What continued to interest me about Araki’s cinema was the way in which he repeatedly articulated bisexuality within a cultural context in which bisexuality is usually erased. Normally when characters are depicted as having relationships with people of more than one gender, this is presented as a journey towards their true identity. The teenage girl who kisses another girl but then later in a film has a relationship with a man is read as a “straight girl experimenting”. The married man whose affair with another man is discovered, is revealed to have been gay and closeted all along. In Araki’s cinema however, potentials beyond the heterosexual-homosexual binary are opened up, in ways that challenge the dominant assertion that individuals must be either straight or gay.
Araki himself has hinted towards this aspect of his cinema saying in 1999 ‘polymorphous sexuality is interesting to me’, in 2005 ‘my movies are always about outsiders and amorphous sexuality’ and in 2011, ‘my earlier movies are sort of about that idea of sexuality [being] flexible and not black and white.’ Araki also described his 1995 film The Doom Generation as having ‘a bisexual edge’ and his tagline for his 2010 feature Kaboom was ‘a bisexual Twin Peaks in college’.
Araki is someone who has described his sexuality in many different ways over the last twenty years, sometimes identifying as gay and sometimes eschewing labels of sexual identity altogether. Despite being one of the key figures of the New Queer Cinema movement, Araki’s relationship to queer communities has been a fraught one. In the early ‘90s the director faced accusations of presenting negative images of queerness and in the mid-’90s, Araki had his legitimacy questioned over his relationships with women. In reaction to Araki attending the Sundance Film Festival with then-girlfriend Kathleen Robertson, the actor who plays Lucifer in the film we’re about to watch, one journalist accused him of ‘straining the GLBT community’s acceptance of the auteur as a ‘serious filmmaker’ of gay-themed films.’ This journalist obviously doesn’t see the irony of using an acronym that contains the letter B to make his point.
However I would posit that rather than straining relationships with queer communities, Araki’s cinema does something quite different. Instead, I believe that his films open up possibilities of what queer can mean, who is considered queer, and what queer cinema can be. Too often is the term queer cinema synonymous with cinema about young, gay, white, cis men. In Araki’s foregrounding of bisexuality, an important representational shift is made that destabilises normative homosexuality’s dominance in queer culture.
Studies in the UK and US have found that bisexual people make up the largest sexual demographic group in queer communities, yet their lives, desires, and particularities of experience are so often elided in both queer and mainstream culture. In Stonewall’s 2010 report on television representation, they found that LGB characters accounted for only 4.5% of all programming, with bisexuals making up just 1% of that 4.5%. That's bisexual characters making up just 0.045% of all television programming.
This is important because the images we see on screen have a profound effect on real lives. In a world in which bisexuals are regularly told that their sexualities do not exist, that they are going through a phase, or cannot be part of queer communities, isolation is commonplace. In research conducted by London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine earlier this year, it was found that bisexual men experience the highest prevalence of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide attempts in British LGB communities. Similarly, a 2010 study in the US found that bisexual women face the highest prevalence of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in LGB communities. A 2011 report by Stonewall found that bisexual asylum seekers are the sexual demographic least likely to obtain asylum on the grounds of sexual persecution in their home country. These are just a handful of data that pertain to the lived and structural realities that bisexual people face.
Here cinema may feel like a superficial area to return to, but I believe cinema’s immense cultural influence is something with considerate ramifications, especially for marginalised groups. Cultural theorist bell hooks reminds us that ‘whether we like it or not, cinema assumes a pedagogical role in the lives of many people...no matter how sophisticated our strategies of critique and intervention [might be], [viewers are] usually seduced, at least for a time, by the images we see on the screen.’
Araki’s feat in repeatedly bringing bisexual lives to film in ways that are cool, awkward, sexy, lonely, confused, assured, reckless, and cautious, is something to be marked. Nowhere is the film that I wish I had discovered as a teenager. While teeming with the same mythologised conceptions of adolescence that I never managed to personally realise, it is a loud, fast-paced, visceral, and, if you’re attentive to it, profoundly touching film. It’s the world of Dark, Mel, and Lucifer. Kriss, Kozy, Cowboy, and Egg. Shad, Lilith, Zero and Zoe. This world is pleasurable and violent, funny and upsetting, profound and superficial, but, importantly, it is a world in which bisexual desire is permitted to unfurl.
by Jacob Engelberg