Swoon at 20

February 4, 2012

I had the pleasure of attending the first in a series of screenings at the UCLA film archive that will be revisiting the original films of “the new queer cinema” as so heralded by B. Ruby Rich in 1992. We saw my dear friend Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992), and Sadie Benning’s Jollies (1990), with Tom, lead actor Craig Chester, and B. Ruby Rich in scintillating attendance.

I suppose that a happy but emotionally nuanced privilege of living into one’s middle age is to see the work of one’s friends and generation revisited, commemorated, celebrated, and memorialized (just last week I spoke at a similar event for The Watermelon Woman, 1996: a comer those few years later into this history, as Rich noted even then, because it took [black] lesbians just a little longer to move from video to film). For, it turns out that this year is not only the 20th anniversary of the (beginning of the male) NQC but also a sort of cultural watershed in relation to filmic revisits to AIDS activism of the same period (United in Anger, Sex in an Epidemic, We Were Here, How to Survive a Plague, Vito). Maybe distance makes us/AIDS activism/then seem safer, softened as it all seems by a rosy wash of loss, nostalgia, and the inevitable mellowing of age. I’ve certainly found it interesting, when on the road myself with such revisits, to find that contemporary audiences are not as open to returns that stay as defiant, angry, political, and anti-sentimental as our work was then. This may explain why United in Anger, a film that attempts to represent this period from the voice, analysis, and method of the time–from the point of of view of AIDS activists–is seeming the hardest to sell of the commemerative bunch, given directors Hubbard and Schulman’s commitment to not soft-peddling for the present (the film opens MOMA’s documentary fortnight in February, but has not had as easy a run of it in the A-level festival circuit).

Watching Kalin’s film these many years later (and Benning’s too) it is remarkable to see how dark, critical, theoretical, political and formally inventive is the work, ways of filmmaking that seem to have been largely absented from independent cinema in the past twenty years, arguably because of the evacuation of public funding from this sector. From where we sit today it seemed more incredible to see the funders of this film during its credits–the NEA (who also funded WMW in its last year of film funding), NYSCA–then what at the time seemed like the big conquest, its ultimate industrial home with Fine Line Features. On the long drive cross town to the screening, I was explaining to my friend that what made NQC queer to me was its home in a cultural millieu and friendship network that was inhabited by men and women (take the critical role of Christine Vachon in both Kalin and Haynes’ careers, for instance) who were equally inspired by a recent art school/liberal arts education in “critical theory” by way of a critique of gender and sexuality through feminism, and who happened to have to live our requisite moment of youthful exuberant artmaking during a plague that felled our remarkable friends and altered our lives. Ruby and Tom reiterated this vision of an uncompromising, challenging, art-like NQC from the stage. Films that were queer, as Ruby said last night, not so much because they were gay or lesbian but because they were inspired by AIDS, cheap rent, camcorders, and Reagan.

Advertisements

I had the opportunity to view screeners of two new AIDS documentaries: Sex in an Epidemic (Jean Carlomusto) and ACT UP New York Highlights: I (Jim Hubbard, Sarah Schulman, and James Wentzy), thanks to their distributor, Outcast Films.

While there is much to recommend each,  I am interested in focusing here on how the videos mine the AIDS activist video archive (something I’ve written about, and made videos on, elsewhere). Going against the grain of contemporary media’s fear of duration, the exposed (nothing cut-away to!) talking-head, and stylistic simplicity, ACT UP NY‘s filmmakers carefully arrange clips from the ACT UP Oral History’s hundreds of hours of oral history into two lengthy topical sections around which its diverse and erudite interviewees speak at length and with complexity. The documentary is decidedly upbeat, almost buoyant, as it focuses upon the historic (and still continuing) successes and triumphs of ACT UP: self-empowerment of gays and lesbians, re-defining healthcare politics and patients’ rights, forming strategic coalitions across outdated divides, respecting individual’s needs while framing them into larger political analyses, and most critically for me, mobilizing (and then re-mobilizing) representation. For the film reflexively re-produces (twenty years later, through its contemporary interviews that address the twenty-years past) the very AIDS activist project it tells: radicals need to document and archive their own stories so as to take power over meaning, politics, self (representation) and history.

Which is, of course, also the self-reflexive project of Sex in an Epidemic, which tells the history of the invention and ever  changing stakes of safer sex education and activism (much of it made in the form of video or its processes documented via video).  Jean Carlomusto, a doyenne of AIDS activist video, edits from (her) archival images of AIDS actions, testimonials, video actions, and completed (safer sex) videos to create a present-day history also self-reflexively focusing upon the power of self-representation for (safer sex) education and personal and community liberation. Interestingly, this documentary is more elegiac, relying, as it must on the archived testimonies of safer sex educators and activists who died of AIDS even as they fought for today’s successes (while the Oral History Project has the at least slightly more uplifting project of gathering testimony from those who lived, although of course, all of this is itself time-dependent, today’s alive are always tomorrow’s gone). This documentary takes the form of Carlomusto’s earliest activist work, often made by myself and others for GMHC’s cable access show, “Living With AIDS”: images we took (and saved) of our community (its activists and experts) and actions (unrecorded by dominant media), edited into radical accounts that educate in their time and then last for others (to be re-cycled in the name of remembering, honoring and learning).