So many anniversaries, and so much fascination with the 90s! Looks like Watermelon Woman (Dunye, 1995) is going to be part of the posse of re-views too (slated for Framline 2012 retrospective, more soon). Given the spate of new films focusing upon the history of ACTUP/AIDS activism circa 1987 (United in Anger, Vito, How to Survive an Epidemic, We Were Here, Sex in an Epidemic) and a new-found fascination for the now old new queer cinema that was borne from AIDS’ sorrow, anger, and community, it is a pleasure to get to also see a new film, Still Around, that both looks at the legacy of AIDS, and reminds us that it is a living, breathing phenomenon of our now.

The film links fifteen original, diverse shorts that remind us—without the safety and nostalgia of distance—how AIDS activism (and NQC) linked a fierce, radical, experimental, and beautiful cultural production with sharp political commentary and profound personal expression.

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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.

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.