Hunger/Stud

March 23, 2012

Attended a midnight premier of Hunger Games.

Granted, not my usual fare. Because I live it, I don’t usually “study” teen culture (save for my Fred work.) I was one of at most ten moms in a palace of 800+ teenage girls (and their occasional boy companions). It was a delight to engage with this committed, bookish bunch, who eagerly anticipated each move, and joyfully cheered on both girl-power and dreamy (if reality-TV-supported) romance.

Which brings to mind a more typical  film experience enjoyed at a more rational hour of that very same day. My colleague, Ming-Yuen Ma and I hosted Campbell X at our Media and Sexuality class, where we are currently teaching Jose Munoz’s Disindentifications about the experimental work of queers of color. Campbell had proven to be one of the real delights a few summers back during our collaborative production of The Owls, flying in from London and working wherever we needed her in support of director Cheryl Dunye’s vision and the work of queer of color cinema more generally. She is in town to premier her new film, Stud Life, at Outfest’s Fusion.

Campbell’s inspiring artist’s presentation made what may at first blush seem as surprising links to the Hunger Games. Most critically is her infectious and generous understanding of influences (from her mother to Ma Rainey,  Derek Jarman, Isaac Julien and Cheryl Dunye). Campbell explained that given that queer people of color have so few images and image-makers to fall back on, her hungry gaze makes over and good use of even the little bits that our culture provides us. And certainly the delight of the many girls of color at the theater (including my daughter) in the moral and physical strength of the female lead(s) in this film must count as one such minor inspiration (it even kinda passes the Bechdel Test). On the second hunger/stud connection, when I asked Campbell her thoughts on Disidentifications she admitted that her cultural work and research of the moment is mostly on the Internet these days, where she currently runs two websites of interest to queers of color. But don’t be fooled, her Radical Film Manifesto includes this advise:

  • Read books. Can’t afford them? Then borrow them/order them from the library.
  • Raid the classics – literature and films.
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To begin, I think Pariah is terrific. Dee Rees is a very talented writer and director whose grasp of her craft is exceptional for a young artist. She has made a moving character study in the melodramatic form where her vivid style is in service of character development and depth.

I believe that Pariah is the second film by and about African American lesbians to have a theatrical release. The first was Cheryl Dunye’s Watermelon Woman, which I produced in 1995 (Dunyes The Owls which I produced in 2011, has just started streaming on Netflix but did not have theatrical).

Now that there’s two, we can look to where black lesbian cinema has arrived fifteen years later. WMW occurs in the material world, and the world of film. It is all about ideological context: black lesbian feminist theory, politics, institutions, and movies. It is highly self-referential to ideas about representation and to expressions of lesbian, feminist and queer community and history. In this regard, it is much like many of its brother films of the “New Queer Cinema” (Poison, Swoon, The Living End, Young Soul Rebels). Meanwhile, Pariah is deeply even purely personal. Shot almost entirely in exquisite and often extreme close-ups, the surrounding world becomes barely visible, so much so that Pariah is the rare New York City film where the mean streets don’t become a character (take for example, those of Dees’ fellow NYUers Spike Lee and Martin Scorcese). In fact, Alike’s pursuit of freedom eventually leads her to leave New York, at the film’s end en route to California (and college) where the promise of intellectual (and political?) community beckons. For Alike, New York is only and always home: melodrama’s confining world of mother, family, and out-of-touch dogme. While Dees begins her film with a quotation from Audre Lorde, this is the only glimmer of several generations of black, feminist, lesbian history and culture that touches the film or her film’s lead. Even Alike’s inspiring poetry teacher inspires the young woman’s growth by demanding that her search be more internal: into her deepest, most honest, self and feelings. But like any (male) hero, Alike discovers from her journey that she’s ready for the road. Interestingly then, the WMW seems to envision the quest that Alike just might be lucky enough to go on at her film’s happy ending. In WMW, Cheryl spends her film’s journey traveling a uniquely black and lavender road (from “Sistah Sound” in Philly, to the “CLIT lesbian archives” in NY, to the private collections of a black film buff, and the uptight mansion of a white female early film director’s homophobic sister) so as to learn from a variety of her black/queer/female mentors, each wise in some of the history(ies) she needs to learn for an internal growth that promises to happen when her film ends: “I am a black lesbian filmmaker and I have a lot to say.”

Fifteen years later, Dees gets to begin from the very proud, private, political place that Dunye claims at her first film’s end, and that is the inspiring and exciting (if enragingly slow) circle of (black lesbian) legacy and sisterhood: from political to personal to political again. While other film traditions—and their fans, scholars, and makers—get larger bodies of work upon which to build sensibilities, trends, and movements, these artists must do so in an intimate, personal dialogue. And given its intimacy and clarity, maybe that’s not all bad. Here, a scene from The Owls (again including Audre Lorde) seems an apt conclusion. Carol (played by Cheryl Dunye) is having a conversation with Skye (Skyler Cooper). “Let me tell you about my generation and being happy. We had Audre Lorde.” “Who’s that?” “You don’t know who Audre Lorde is! She said: ‘I’m a black, lesbian, mother, poet, warrior out in the world doing my work. Are you doing yours?'” “What does that mean?” “It means are you out, fighting, working for justice?!” Skye says: “I’m just not political.” But Dees is: out in the world that is, doing her work in just the way that her generation will, in conversation with ours, by making powerful personal films.

Hooters at Fusion

March 5, 2011

Hooters, Anna Margarita Albelo’s documentary about the making of The Owls, will play this Sunday at 3 at Fusion, LA’s Queers of Color Film Festival.

It’s a great film about indie filmmaking, queer identity, community, and controversy, lesbian murder, and identifying:

I’ll be driving to Palm Springs this afternoon to attend their festival with my son. The Film Collaborative has been doing a great job with our distribution (the film is being released by First Run Features in March). And thanks to them we’ve been accepted to a swanky straight fest, who knew? Gay film festivals feel like the one bright spot in the moribund “indie” scene: providing dependable and supportive venues,  audiences, and markets for queer film. It’s truly always a pleasure and a privilege to have this well-oiled machine at ones service. A negative effect to this phenomenon, its flip side, is that “quality” or serious gay films have a harder time finding audiences, venues and markets outside the gay ghetto (really more like a resort, what with our high end and international festivals and tony corporate sponsorship). Queer film that may be about lesbian/queer life, but also, in our case about cinema (the documentary/fiction divide, the work of Patricia Highsmith), or more generic issues like aging and political generations, will most likely never be seen by interested and implicated if straight cineastes. Of course, the same goes for black cinema. For instance, by far the best review of the film so far,  by Danielle Riendeau, came out recently on AfterEllen. While we well attend to our niche audiences, as a devoted film community we have put little in place to speak to other potentially interested parties. Cheryl Dunye is lucky in that her films have been followed by academia, allowing her work to cross into this realm: but there, it’s usually attended to by the to-be-expected woman’s, black, queer studies scene rather than say the academic avant-garde.

In any case, it will be fun to see who comes out for the film (in the Berlin Q and A, I actually asked the straight-appearing and surprisingly male audience their thoughts on attending  lesbian film, which led to this interesting conversation).

Another Launch: The Owls

December 20, 2010

My recent film The Owls (directed by Cheryl Dunye, for whom I also produced The Watermelon Woman) is being released in March by First Run Features. It’s already on Amazon and will be coming forth on sundry digital platforms as well! Please support queer indie cinema (or digital).

Bechdel’s Bechdel (1997)

November 17, 2010

I have been following Alex Vesy’s “Bechdel Test Canon” at Feminist Music Geek. The Bechdel Test  seems to be going as viral as any lesbian thing ever could. I recently heard about it on NPR.

“The Bechdel Test, sometimes called the Mo Movie Measure or Bechdel Rule is a simple test which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.”

bechdel-2
(This is a pdf of Alison Bechdel’s 1997 strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” can’t seem to get it on to the screen, sorry)

Couldn’t help but think about how I had passed the test years ago (as a producer of The Watermelon Woman, described in this comic that I’ve had on the bulletin board in my office since it was published in 1997, and which also mentions Alex Sichel’s 1997,  All Over Me and Disney’s 1997,  Hercules.)

I recently showed my latest Bechdel effort (Cheryl Dunye’s The Owls, 2010, which I produced collectively with the Owls Parliament, sixty or so queers who were moved to collectively make micro-cinema about our lives, community, and cinema). While the Bechdel Test is useful in reminding us how poorly we are served by mainstream media, it is always critical to include in the conversation the critical, community-sustaining, off-the-radar efforts within (post)identity-based counter-cultural (cinema) communities that have at their very hearts and souls an internalized Bechdel Rule which moved the makers to speak and make film in the first place and which move our micro-audiences to see and respond to us (like Bechdel above). The Owls only features women (save the cameos of three of our favorite gay male actors and one female character who presents gender-ambiguously) who talk and talk (in scripted narrative, improved narrative, and documentary talking heads, both in and of character) about everything but men: aging, murder, alcoholism, monogomy, children, violence, self-hatred,  the role of butch and trans in the lesbian community, the nature of queer community, the death of new queer cinema, the history of lesbian representation, AIDS and black queer activism, etc. 

I have been tourıng Istanbul, wındıng down on wındıng roads from the jam-packed Vısıble Evıdence conference (on documentary). I can’t do justıce to the many strong panels I saw: testıment to the solıdıfıcatıon of documentary as a fully fledged fıeld (I helped start the conference as a graduate student and I remember we dıd so because the few people always talkıng on documentary at larger fılm conferences thought we mıght be able to buıld a more serious and sustained dialogue if we could learn from each other).

Instead, I’ll focus on two great YouTube papers, and one meaty conversation held in the halls. I Learned much from Jason Mıddleton‘s thoughts on the reactıon vıdeo

He links this tawdry “new” YouTube staple to the classıc dupe function of comedy, the quıckly re-stablızed gotcha of Candid Camera, and the body genres of pornography, horror, and melodrama (as coıned by Linda Williams).

While 2Girls1Cup, as well as the Scary Maze Game cycle work just as he says, my students’ work on Twılıght reactıon videos leads me to believe that while ridicule always holds the heart of the ımpulse, ıdentıfıcatıon can at times also be alarmıngly present.

Meanwhıle, UC Berkeleys grad student, Jen Malkowski’s, paper on Neda made a sımılar move, linking “new” forms of viral vıdeo to older norms and conventıons of narrative cinema. She argued that Neda went vıral because its images echoed the standards of narrative renderıngs of death (multiple camera angles, close ups, beautıful female lead) allowıng for familiarity and dıstance to create acceptability, popularıty, drama, and iconicity. At both panels I suggested that our dısbelıef of all things YouTube also contributes to cement the narrativization of realıty ımages that was at the heart of both modes of popular realıty images.

Fınally, Vısıble Evıdence has always made a place for documentarians (and theorist/pratıoners), allowıng for the rare and gıvıng possıbılıty for ıntellectual conversations about productıon. I partıcularly enjoyed discussion about documentary ethıcs ın lıght of medıa’s new mobılıty, that were engendered by a serıes of panels led by Sam Gregory from Wıtness and were artfully exemplıfıed by Pratap Rughanı.