Twenty years ago, on March 13, 1997, Frank Rich penned an op-ed, “Lesbian Lookout,” in support of the NEA, which was under threat. The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996), which I produced and acted in, and Yvonne Rainer’s MURDER and murder, were that year’s perennial NEA whipping boys.
When it comes to a fixation on lesbian sex, even Howard Stern is a poor second to Pete Hoekstra, a Representative from Michigan. Mr. Hoekstra seems to have a curious obsession with sampling alleged lesbian porn financed by the National Endowment for the Arts. In a January letter to the N.E.A.’s chairman, Jane Alexander, he describes how he executed his solemn duty to watch a movie called The Watermelon Woman after ‘reading a review . . . which stated that [it] had “the hottest dyke sex scene ever recorded on celluloid.”‘ (What paper is the Congressman reading?)
The Watermelon Woman has recently enjoyed a twentieth year remaster of our deteriorating print, and a twentieth anniversary re-release, commencing at last year’s Berlinale, moving on to MoMA, enjoying a week’s theatrical run at NY’s Metrograph, and now available for purchase. Supported by $31,500 in 1995 by the NEA, the last year the Endowment supported individual filmmakers, it has gone on to be a valued enough piece of American filmmaking that our remaster was supported by film culture stalwarts like the UCLA Film & TV Archive, Outfest, and the Toronto International Film Festival. It has remained valued for many things, including its art-world famous “Fae Richards Archive” of 82 images by Zoe Leonard re-enacting the life and contemporaries of our fake star, otherwise known as “the Watermelon Woman”; for its contributions to the sub-genre fake documentaries, of which I am also a scholar; for its place in history as the first African American lesbian feature film; and for its intelligent, disarming, honest depictions of the relations between owning and controlling imaging technologies and history, memory, and truth (also the focus of all of the #100hardtruths I pen).
It is true that some recent re-reviews have noted the political artfulness of the depiction of lesbian sex in the film, but everyone knows that salacious sex is not really the film’s primary preoccupation (Dunye’s more heady interests in identity, self-reflexivity, film history, experimental form, and the political power of archives have contributed to its ongoing attention by scholars, as was demonstrated in the recent academic conference that was part of its anniversary). We understood the #hardtruth that bigots used its lesbian sex scene as a smoke screen for their much more prurient commitments to censorship, racism, sexism, and homophobia.
There are many haunting truths to be told about our experiences twenty years ago associated to past efforts to defund the NEA. As is true for many real statements about fake things, I hope our place within a previous generation’s successful defense may be useful for those working today to hold off this administration’s sorry attempts. Some of what actually happened now plays as phony as the claims trotted out against us, but as many of the facts of our place within the history of the annals of the NEA reflect tactics, and players, that stay true to this day: speak truth to power; fight for the right for the least-seen to speak truth to power.
- For the most part, white men were our strongest champions as the Congress used our little picture for bigger aims. Frank Rich wrote on our behalf, and Alex Baldwin spoke for us on the steps of Capitol Hill. Having made a film about black women and lesbians’ lack of access to capital, media, and power, it still came as a shock that Cheryl never got to speak on her own behalf.
”We’re in the ‘no bullwhips, please’ phase of Federal funding for the arts,” Mr. Baldwin said after his two-day excursion here. ”I would love all art to be funded, for the Federal Government to spend $1 billion on the arts, and for the N.E.A. to be restored to what it was. ‘But the political facts of life are that funding anything that this Congress considers obscene will enable Dick Armey and the Republican leadership to dynamite the entire N.E.A.” (“Lobbyists Fight Cuts on Arts Day in Capital,” 1997)
- But in the end, a congressional bill to defund the NEA by $31,500—staged as political theater to shame our film, and other attempts of American self-expression—was voted down on the floor of congress due to the simple and true words of one of our strongest champions, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, from Texas. “Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, took up Dunye’s cause in the Congressional debate, informing House members that ‘I’ve seen the film, and I think Cheryl Dunye is doing a wonderful job. Can we just say we have a difference of opinion?'” (“Can ‘Community Standards’ Apply to ‘Watermelon Woman,‘” 1997).
- The National Endowment for the Arts
- #148milliondollars, Paul Weston
- “Five Best Art World Protests Against Trump,” Ilana Novick
- www.neafunded.us, Tega Brain
- F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, Alexandra Juhasz and Jesse Lerner
- #100hardtruths-#fakenews: a primer on digital media literacy
February 2, 2017
I hope you will go see my short review of Julian Rosefeldt’s impressive, spectacular art show, “Manifesto” now online on the Brooklyn Rail. I conclude with my own (wo)manifesto, in homage of Zoe Leonard’s:
Every woman is entitled to her own ifesto: what we want when we are done with the putrid, immoral art of our time. And I want my (man)ifestos to be humble and maybe even cheap. I don’t want my (wo)manifestations(hu)manifestos to be corporate sponsored or sick with money! Actually, I need my (wo)manifestos to be exactly as big and expensive as is necessary to move people to think, feel, and act. I want these empowering words to be urgent to their place and time and alive within their own community. I want my (mac)ifestos to say who penned them and why. I want to know how words about art matter to their author and to me, and my friends, and to this country, and the world. I want my manifestos to help.
Sometimes things align, but mostly, really, it’s because they are already connected. Such is the case with the showing of Zoe Leonard’s compelling new body of work, “In the Wake,” currently showing at Hauser & Wirth and the cotemporaneous screening of The Watermelon Woman at the Museum of Modern Art: both in New York City, as am I, today.
“In the Wake,” Leonard’s compendium of three related works (sculptural and photographic) reflecting on the photo in/as/against the archive stretches the work she did on a linked set of questions over twenty years ago while making the Fae Richards Archive with myself (as co-producer and actor), Cheryl Dunye (as co-director) and a rowdy, talented, committed group of dykes, artists, and intellectuals from NYC and Philadelphia. That archive now sits and shows, in part, in the film I produced (with Barry Swimar), The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996), which is currently enjoying its twentieth year re-release of a beautifully remastered print. As a complementary part of its return, Cheryl Dunye, Marc Smolowitz and I have energized what we call WMW 3.0 art shows where curators of younger generations revisit the film, its photo archives and production ephemera, and mount art shows joining that work with new objects by contemporary artists who are engaging, with today’s urgency and concerns, with the central issues of The Watermelon Woman: the relations between photography and film, archives, memory, self- and community-expression, history, power, and legacy, particularly as experienced by lesbians, queers, people of color and women.
Traveling the world (again) with the film, living in close proximity with its (fake) archive, discussing it with new audiences and our team of WMW 3.0 curators (Erin Christovale, Vivian Crocket, Melonie Green, Melorra Green, Natasha Johnson and Dorothy Santos), and at a recent symposium at SF State, organized by Darius Bost and others, Black/Feminist/Lesbian/Queer/Trans* Cultural Production: A Symposium Honoring the 20th Anniversary of Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, I find myself in eerie alliance, or perhaps simply ongoing connection or even conversation (from afar), with Zoe’s discussion of her own current work about the past as “the opposite of archiving.”
Since I was in NY, while she was at the opening in LA, Cheryl took and shared with me cellphone photos of the now familial objects (from the fake archive in which my friends and I were first seen, twenty years ago) displayed at a Subtle Likeness and Memoirs of a Watermelon Woman (still showing at the One Archives). In NY, “In the Wake” finds Zoe Leonard also photographing photographs of her family’s partial, haunting, inconclusive archive of post-Holocaust snapshots, in the process turning them, as well, into luminous, reiterative, more-than-precious keys to history’s and family’s unfathomable and always unfindable truths.
The opposite of archiving for so many reasons and in so many ways, Leonard distorts the record with her highly visible photographic processes, multiplies away the value of the archive’s precious objects by replicating them and then showing them again and again, albeit differently, and transforms lowly family snapshots into high art through her refined aesthetic sensibility and masterful developing techniques, beautiful framing and exacting display, and placement in room after room of the toniest of townhouses on the Upper East Side.
The opposite of archiving for so many reasons. For, ordinary life can be and is made into art, not artifacts, sometimes by loving communities in the living of it, and sometimes by later communities in the lasting of it.
Archive’s opposite because the Fae Richards Archive was a carefully, lovingly researched and rendered fake, made by many, because we believed in the telling of the story of someone (Fae Richards, the Watermelon Woman) who must have been true but couldn’t benefit in her time from today’s most obvious, irresistible right and activity: living a life available to the photographic record and its lasting home in an archive.
The opposite of archiving because, thankfully, real people, our lived lives and luscious loves, our full-tilt embrace of experience in community and history and art, will never be fully available to any archive’s or the internet’s quest for total picture control. Rather, we enter ourselves into history and its many archives here again, and as Zoe does and has done before, by celebrating the photograph’s partial, artistic, personal hold on people, truth, and life.
July 13, 2015
After seeing Jason and Shirley (Stephen Winter, 2015) this weekend at Outfest, I am moved to respond here to Milestone Film & Video‘s recent and scathing critique of the film Jason and Shirley,” The Cruelty and Irresponsibility of Satire“ (re-printed on Indiewire on June 23 by Sydney Levine). In their take-down, the authors (who are distributors of many of Shirley Clarke’s films, and more critically the producers of “Project Shirley” an “ongoing commitment to learn everything about Clarke as a director, an artist and a person”) pillory Winter’s film for two main reasons: the “film’s inaccurate and simplistic portrayals of a brilliant filmmaker and her charismatic subject.” Here, I would like to express another reading of Jason and Shirley, a remarkable, complex and important film, while also addressing what I see as Milestone’s misplaced (if perhaps also sometimes true) ire and criticism. I also invite Milestone, and others who are devoted to Clarke’s work and legacy, to reconsider the important contribution this new film makes towards this worthy end.
Before I commence, let me express that I am not only one of these supporters of Shirley Clarke, but also a fan and a scholar of Milestone’s and Winter’s work (and also that of Sarah Schulman and Jack Waters, who co-wrote and star in Jason and Shirley). Perhaps most critically, I am a fan and scholar of Portrait of Jason, as well as the cinematic traditions in which it sits (documentary film, women’s and feminist cinema, queer film, and black queer cinema). For example, I joyously and with great appreciation went to the West Coast Restoration Premiere of Portrait of Jason where evidence of Milestone’s Amy Heller and Dennis Doros’ invaluable work on Project Shirley was applauded by an audience of cineastes, most of whom I’d warrant knew little of the work of Clarke or her masterpiece, Jason, given that this serious study of power, documentary, identity, and cruelty was made by a woman and featured a black gay man. I commend and support Milestone’s project of unearthing and sharing materials for scholars, teachers, and fans of Clarke, and also acknowledge and salute their under-sung role as distributors of avant-garde, experimental, and independent cinema, including the work of female film directors, like Clarke and others whose voices and vision would otherwise fall outside the scope of accessible media culture.
At the same time, I am also a supporter of Stephen Winter‘s work. I first became familiar with his brilliant and irreverent artistry when I saw his important and also under-sung contribution to independent queer cinema, Chocolate Babies (1997). As myself a scholar and maker of AIDS media, and the producer of The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye 1996), the first African-American lesbian feature film, I knew about the glaring and damaging under-representation of black queer Americans, about the obstacles to entry for films about and from this perspective, and perhaps as critically, the haunting burden for most artists in such a terrain to make and share “positive images” of their under-represented community. I learned from and supported Chocolate Babies (and The Watermelon Woman, for that matter), because these feature films, made with almost no institutional support and certainly less cultural sanction, dared to imagine that the lived experience of black queer Americans was complex, riddled with contradiction, full of delight, pain, community, love and loss, and was thus the perfect subject for serious, artful, complex cinema. Just as was true for Portrait of Jason (made by one of America’s great women filmmakers who also refused to bow to the “positive image paradigm”) and for her brave and creative documentary subject, Jason Holliday (née Aaron Payne).
I mark the similarities between these film oeuvres and the careers of their makers and the needs of their audiences because this post speaks most centrally as an attempt for reconciliation across what has currently been created as “camps” by the Milestone team. In a cinematic landscape where a small number of us make, support, appreciate and need serious artistry that represents the “marginal” experiences of our society from a sophisticated, complex, and nuanced perspective, a landscape where such work is under-funded, under-seen, and under-valued, it serves none of us well to use our very limited cultural resources against, rather than in support of each other, even if, and perhaps because our work dares to imagine life on the outskirts of American society as itself complicated, multiple, and sometimes in internal debate about the very values of the oppressed, marginal, radical, political and creative people who co-populate it (see my earlier post “Against Gamification,” in that case about the pitting of the the black-lesbian artistic sub-culture against itself in the name of a funding “game”).
Shirley and Jason is a complicated, sometimes messy, meditation on what I just described: the circulation of power, honesty, cruelty, love, debate, and creativity that defines artistic community and radical culture. Shirley and Jason also marks, honors, and challenges the role that cinematic evidence (in this case documentary) plays in the psychic, political, and cultural lives of culturally marginalized people, which is to say that as women, people of color, and queers until quite recently we had little to no access to records of our past struggles, ideas, daily practices, or visions of artistry because much too little was made, and what was made was almost never saved. This is one of the prime subjects of The Watermelon Woman, where we had to fake an archive of images of what was once true (the lives of African American lesbians) so that the main character, Cheryl, could learn and grow from her hidden, absent, but true legacy.
In his case, one might say that Winter was lucky, he had footage of Jason, an out black gay man, due to the perspicacity of Clarke and Holiday. Portrait of Jason is the first and continues to be one of the only films, in cinema’s history, to document as central the “struggles, ideas, daily practices and visions of artistry” of a black gay man. But anyone who loves this documentary as do I, as does Milestone film, and does Winter and his entire team, realizes that Portrait of Jason is nothing like a simple documentary record of anything. Using this film “footage” as a starting point for cultural recovery, community empowerment, or even the “truth” of African-American gay male experience or history pre-Stonewall is basically an impossibility given that, in my interpretation at least, a “truthful” rendering of any of these subjects was never the intent of this brilliant film or its equally brilliant filmmaker. Rather, Shirley Clarke intellectually and creatively wrangles with Jason for control over the power of cinema to save any of us: emotionally, historically, creatively. She asks us to consider whether documentary truth is possible, and she chooses Jason Holliday as her worthy interlocutor, subject, and collaborator, given how well he struggles at, and sometimes succeeds, at never giving her this “truth,” perhaps not his to give, and certainly not hers to take. In this way, not a salvage project, or even a portrait per se, I see Jason (and Jason) as the cinema’s finest study and criticism of the ethics, possibility, and veracity of documentary power as it is connected to its ongoing interest in “truth,” especially as embodied by disenfranchised subjects, doubly disempowered as they must be by the documentary project itself.
The film, radically for its time, and for documentary more generally, is made from the position that many of us share—we the usual documentary-subject: the weak, the woman, the other. As a rare, empowered, powerful woman behind her documentary camera and film (Clarke is one of a tiny handful of women who directed cinema before the movements for social justice of the late 60s and early 70s began a slow, but still unfulfilled sea-change), Clarke asks us to see (by hearing) the brutality, love, empathy, and control that organizes the documentary encounter. With clarity, bravery, calculation, and intelligence she plays the role of the one who needs to know and show and own another; with clarity, bravery, calculation and intelligence she leaves in her voice and other cinematic indications of her hand and her control. She is strong enough to show us the brutality of this desire to know, and save, through cinema (usually masked as it is as a project of sentimental salvation). Of course, she comes to this encounter both empowered by her brilliant mind, inestimable film chops, and also economic privilege, while also saddled by her gender and ethnicity in 1960s America. She controls the camera, the image, the editing, and the organizing vision of the encounter that follows. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, she chooses as her collaborator an almost-equal (who is lower than a white, Jewish woman in the 1960s America? not many, but certainly a black gay man might be). But Jason Holliday is no dupe. No chump. No simple documentary subject. Like every subject of the documentary camera before him (we women, and queers, and people of color, we ethnics and natives; all we others) he has his wits, his self, and his performance to empower him and he is better at this then most in his position. He can and does dodge, dazzle, hide, reveal, provoke, wow, and fall apart, it seems, at will (although Clarke’s overt and thematic use of drugs and alcohol to phase him becomes part of the film’s dark current of abuse). For those of us who study and admire this work not solely as the rare depiction it is of black gay life, one artistic and powerful women’s drive and vision, avant-garde New York in the sixties, cross-racial and cross-gender interaction and community within bohemian counter-culture, but also as one of cinema’s outstanding studies of the power and cruelty of documentary cinema itself, I suggest Winter and his collaborative team weren’t so much “lucky” to have this as his sole piece of documentary evidence, as perhaps provoked, or perplexed, or maybe just aroused albeit in pain (Aaron Payne).
And here’s where Milestone’s critique should indeed simply become a celebration or at least a more serious consideration. Winter et. al., continue Clarke’s radical, seminal documentary project by “re-imagining” the shooting of her radical, experimental film from the point of view Jason. Not a documentary, never needing to stand up to documentary’s ethical or truth imperatives, their “re-imagination” of one of documentary cinema’s great studies of power and privilege does so from the vantage of Clarke’s strong, beautiful, imaginative contender who by definition had less power in the constituent and complex dynamic that ever unrolls between documentary filmmaker and subject. Given that no documentary subject, even one as mighty as Jason, can ultimately usurp the documentary-maker, who cuts the final film, who organizes its every frame, one place for the empowerment of the structurally disenfranchised is in fiction filmmaking. And here, Winter’s vision both soars and digs very low (as did the original Jason). In musical numbers and other dream sequences we are offered Jason’s interiority (always invisible to the documentary-maker, to our chagrin). Here Winter, and the magnificent, talented, sensitive Waters, playing Jason, show us Jason’s version and vision of the unleashing of brutal, if always loving and self-aware power (so much like Shirley’s) as we see his encounters with one of the white women for whom he whored, one of the white boys whom he loved, with his Mother who loved him, and his dealer who takes painful control of him. We see his unadulterated talent and crushingly unrealized desires. We see how race, sexuality, drugs, and self-loathing hamper Jason. We see the world from the position of the empowered, suffering, loving, living outsider.
Milestone condemns Winter for a “lack of integrity” in his depiction of Shirley Clarke, as well as a lack of “understanding of humanity, and love for cinema.” They call him out for not researching properly, not interviewing living participants of the original film shoot, not being kind to Shirley or her daughter Wendy (herself a brilliant and under-sung Los Angeles artist whose work plays a central role in the history of feminist, activist video; her amazing “Love Tapes” are a must-see for all interested in video art). I imagine these criticisms might all be true, especially if you knew and loved Shirley; especially if you are invested in finding, making, and sharing documentary evidence of Clarke’s career and life. Shirley and Jason is not particularly kind to Clarke (but I never thought the original was either, as I’ve indicated above). And it’s not so nice to Jason either. Neither films are a kindness project: “truth,” pain, power, love … sure.
However, I hope I have established that such criticisms are incidental to the mightier and divergent aims of Shirley and Jason: to unflinchingly account for the pain, beauty and power of being forced to take the role of the (documentary) victim regardless of ones beauty, strength, creativity or intellect. The “genuine” “inner truth” represented in this complex and masterful fiction film does not revolve around the accuracy of the “facts” of Shirley and Jason’s lives and works (although I do hope Winter will correct some of the inter-titles which Milestone has established as incorrect, most critically to my mind, that Clarke’s lover and collaborator Carl Lee died of AIDS not a heroine overdose). Instead Winter and his teams’ film should be appreciated for its subtle, painful, knowing and loving incantation of a state we all can identify with at times, the state of Jason.
I use my contribution to the debate to invite Heller, Doros, and all fans, friends, and lovers of Clarke (and experimental documentary) to receive this contemporary theatrical fiction film, Jason and Shirley, as a new and necessary contribution to a conversation about women’s artistic possibility, documentary ethics and power, and their relations to cinematic form and style, from the point of black gay men who are our allies. In their “pretending to know what happened,” Winter et. al. do create “their own ‘Shirley Clarke,’ ‘Carl Lee,’ and ‘Jason Holliday'” (as did the “real” Shirley, Carl and Jason so many years before!) as Milestone censures. But rather than seeing this as a disrespectful and dishonest creation, I ask viewers to attempt to understand the profound integrity of these new portraits and how they assist us in a worthy project allowed by the best of cinema: less one of facts and more one of feelings, less one of honesty and more one of the uses and abuses of honesty, in the name of art, that have both hindered and set free the Jason in us all.
October 23, 2009
Last Friday night, I attended a screening of nearly twenty-year old AIDS activist videos (the scenes of my youth; the research topic of my juvenalia) which were part of the ACT UP NY: Activism, Art and the AIDS Crisis Show at the Harvard Art Museum. My friends Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard’s ACT UP Oral History Project took up teems of monitors in the main gallery space, unrolling uncountable hours of testimony to community, counter-cultural outrage, loss, and art-making. It was overwhelming. An impressive configuration for their massive media archive.
At the screening, I was pleased to see the humor, joy, and sexual delight in the videos on display, as well as the way that we spoke in every genre (documentary, music video, art film, advertisement, cable access) we already knew (and some we invented) because we were compelled to be heard.
Mostly, I was moved by the role of feminism in our work and movement. How we brought self-health, community-based, and pro-sex theories and organizing to gay men, and how they shared with us their cultural capital, camp, and joy in sexual defiance. It was so clear from the work on display that AIDS activist video led to queer cinema in large part because, through the movement, women and gay men stretched our lives, causes, and love to demand new ways of living and working together and fresh modes of representation complex enough to hold our radical unions. For example, I was pleased to see my old friend, Zoe Leonard there (she was representing Fierce Pussy). We worked on The Watermelon Woman together literally making the move from AIDS to queer cinema, as did Maria Magenti, Rose Troche, Alisa Lebow, Ellen Spiro, Carol Leigh and so many others.