Sunday, July 15, 2007

Questions in Queer film history

This week the class focused on several questions. To explore the question "Is this film Gay?" we examined the British film The Leather Boys from 1963. Considering the question of "Who are we?", we looked into the LGBT documentary movement of the 70's. The two screened in class were Tongues Untied and Word is Out. By the late 80's and 90's, the question had become "Where did we come from?" and filmmakers began excavating stories from the lives of queer man and women who had lived gay history in earlier times, and bring their stories to the screen, reasserting a lost history. The film Tiny and Ruby: Hell Drivin Women and Forbidden Love tell the story of lesbians coming out in the early Femme/Butch movement. Finally we end with the experimental films Loads and No Skin Off My Ass by underground filmmakers committed to remaining non-commercial.

The Leather Boys (1963) Sidney Furie

A truly gorgeous film in black and white that ignited a nostalgic yearning from one ex-biker in class. It's a very innocent film- by our current standards these "Bad Boys" seem outright sweet. If you Google the film, most descriptions focus on the troubled hetero marriage as the central theme, but if you look at it through the queer eyes, you see the true struggle is of the young protagonist between his wife and his very obviously gay biker friend. I really liked this film, after readjusting my modern sensibilities to an early 60's mindset.

Next up is Tongues Untied the 1989 documentary about gay black men which landed it's director, Marlon Riggs, right smack in the middle of the debate on public funding of PBS.
I remember seeing the movie on PBS at the time. It's rhythmic, confrontational, shocking language bespeaks Rigg's intense anger and frustration. In his essay, "Black Macho Revisited" Riggs describes the untenable position that black gay men find themselves in:
Hence: Blacks are inferior because they are not white. Black gays are unnatural because they are not straight. Majority representation of both affirm the view that blackness and gayness constitute a fundamental rupture in the order of things, that our very existence is an affront to nature and humanity.
I think the film is amazing. Some people in our class had very strong negative reactions to it. It features close- ups of mouths spewing every hated epitaph Marlon has ever been subjected to the years in an effort to confront and disarm the viewer. However, for those who have been victim to the very same verbal assaults, it's not so easy to hear again. Cinema can elicit strong reactions in us, that in turn leads, hopefully, to healing.

Word is Out (1978) Rob Epstein
I didn't get to actually see this film, so I'll post what I found on the net as an introduction:
I remember when "Word Is Out" came out in 1978. Acquaintances kept stopping me on the street to ask if I'd seen 'the movie.' As if there were no other. As soon as I saw it, I started asking people the same question.
It wasn't until I saw this film that I realized my whole life I had been trying to relate to straight romances, conflicts, comedies, and life experiences in general on the screen. When the film was done I wanted to see it all over again—immediately—to memorize the people and their stories. Every one of them said something that spoke to me very directly and strongly. I cannot explain or express my feelings after I watched, for the first time in my life, gay people—honestly and beautifully—tell what it's like to live in this country. I finally knew I belonged to a culture. I didn't feel as though I had to hide. I was not sick. I was not alone. My story is not an anomaly. It is impossible to count the number of lives this film has changed by publicizing positive images of gay Americans for the first time ever. For thousands of people—gay and straight—it broke down stereotypes. It makes gay people identifiable even for those buried in the heartland of homophobic America because it's really about the universality of love and discovering who we really are. Everyone should see this movie.
If I can find it in a video store, I'll have something to more. Suffice it to say that these 2 films address the question of "Who are we right now?" Filmmakers striving to assert their presence in the world. Out, Loud and Proud. According to our instructor, this is a first step in the journey of any group that has been denied their right to existence in the media. Up until this time we have seen that LGBT portrayals were controlled by the Hayes code and that those characters had to be tortured, shameful and meet an untimely end. With it's abolishment in 1978 and replacement by the current ratings system, and with the rise of film festivals and funding grants, LGBT filmmakers could finally begin to find their voices and put forth positive and full portrayals of their lives on film.

After a time, LGBT films moved in the direction of searching out and recording the lives of those who came before them, exploring the question "Where did we come from?"
The Canadian documentary Forbidden Love (1992) is a gnarled attempt to explore the popularity of pulp lesbian novels of the 50's and relate it to the personal stories of women coming to terms with their sexuality in those same years. The movie is super sweet and doesn't work for me. If it addressed about one or the other of these ideas, it could be an important film, but trying to mesh the two result s in failure of both.

A more successful attempt is Tiny and Ruby: Hell Drivin Women (1986) which allows Tiny Davis and Rene Phalen to tell their stories of adventure, music and love in the swing era. I loved this film! Tiny was truly a wild woman and a kick ass trumpet player who played with the best of 'em. These women were pretty fearless: their record is named "Hot Licks" by the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Strong women with great senses of humor and infectious laughs. Not only does the film illustrate their story (they met in the 40's and have been together ever since) but it also vividly paints the era of swing bands with great archival footage and Tiny's own recordings. Great film!

Stay tuned for more movies....
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Thursday, July 5, 2007

Fassbinder's Fox

Well unfortunately I'm at home tonight rather than in class view Tongues Untied, a shocking and very important film which I saw a few years ago on PBS. I got a violent headache around 4:00 and had to go home. I feel better now so I'll write a little about our film from Tuesday, Ranier Werner Fassbinder's Fox and His Friends.

Fassbinder died at the age of 38 in 1982 of an overdose of cocaine and sleeping pills. In his short and blazingly prolific life he over 40 films. He was, by all accounts, a complete asshole, grossly over indulgent on every level, reckless-- and a complete genius. Fox and His Friends (Faustrecht der Freiheit) was made in 1975 and Fassbinder himself stars as the films protagonist.

This film is amazing. You can read a lot about it online, as his truly "gay" film, although he himself said all his films were essentially gay because they all were made by a gay man. Fox is a out of luck carny who wins the lottery and as a result, falls into the company of, a group of blood sucking upper class jerks. As he tries desperately to win the love of one of them, they use him up and suck him dry.

The story is classic really, a nobody who tries to fit in where he is out of place, but the genius of Fassbinder, to me, is that he takes this story about class struggle and places in an entirely gay world. This takes the focus, the central struggle out of the issue of being gay in a straight world and thus surreptitiously causes the viewer to view this world, in 1975, as completely everyday, as it should be viewed. Even with loads of full frontal male nudity, it all seems just a backdrop to the heart wrenching story of this young man's downward spiral.

The debate in class was "is this a gay movie?" and the answer is definitely yes! but in a completely different way than what you are used to seeing. The central struggle has nothing to do with the fact that the protagonist is gay, because he lives in a world where there are absolutely no issues with anyone being gay. This is a highly unusual POV even today. The characters are all typical Fassbinder, harsh and alienating, and there is no happy ending. But this is pure Fassbinder and what he has achieved here is nothing but genius.

I love this movie- the acting, the cinematography, the script. It's not perfect, but like it's characters, the imperfections are what make it so human.

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