Lesbian viewing and perversity

by Jennifer Montgomery

from Jump Cut, no. 37, July 1992, pp. 74-78
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1992, 2006

The Third Annual Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival, organized by Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard, brings together three practices that are under serious reconsideration: making films (as opposed to video), making experimental work, and being gay.

The practice of filmmaking outside of the industry has become prohibitively expensive and rarefied in the face of inflation, cuts in funding, and the advent of video, with the concomitant closure of labs and discontinuation of film stocks. However, as a result of the increased interest in semiotics and media studies, more and more young filmmakers are entering the field.

While the protean concept of the "experimental" film has in some respects expanded in recent years, it has not been exempt from the restrictive economic and political pressures of the Reagan era. Being an experimental filmmaker is not a financially viable option. The small portion of monies available to us are continually shrinking, and it is tempting to compromise sensibility and ethics in order to get a little piece of the pie. On the other hand, experimental film has a tremendously rich and complex history that is being further enriched by the current interest in theories of representation, and the urgency and activism of some filmmakers who are committed to fighting the conservative backlash in this country.

It is the intersection of the above aesthetic and economic concerns with lesbian and gay experience that make this film festival a provocative, often inspiring event While many people attended the films primarily because of their lesbian and gay content, the audience also represented experimental film fans whose sexualities run the whole gamut, and must have as much to do with emulsion as with flesh or gender. Recently lesbians and gays have created many fora for ourselves, and our voices have proliferated in the face of AIDS, censorship, and age-old repression. We have also responded to more positive forces at work amongst us, including new discourses on desire that have entered both cinematic and sexual practice. When suddenly presented with a veritable cornucopia of our own making, we are equally aware that our rights to expression are always already threatened and that our identities have been forged in perversity: in a learned knowledge and mapping of the excesses of heterosexual society.

"Perversity" is a difficult term insofar as it has often been used to strip us of our individual dignity. But like "queer," "dyke," "faggot," and "promiscuity," the way to empowerment seems to be to take these terms for our own. The times are perverse, as is our response: to speak loudly and even joyously of our own sexuality in the face of nullification.

In addition to enabling us to read the subtexts of what mainstream culture says it's doing, perversity makes us mindful of, and resistant to, the trade-offs involved in taking up either of the two positions culture has to offer: to speak from the margins, where the possibility of speech is always at risk, or to speak from the mainstream, where speech is always mitigated by the status quo.

There is perversity ingrained in the lesbian experience of mainstream viewing, and, by inference, in any lesbian filmmaking. People who have grown up performing excavations on the heterosexual hegemony to find the homosexual meaning embedded therein are inherently critical viewers. We work hard to get our money's worth in every Hollywood plot. Our pleasure has been to find ourselves where we are not supposed to exist. To find meaning, no less positive imagery, in baroque repression is the ultimate hermeneutic exercise, but it is also the ultimate paranoid experience. After all, what do hermeneutic practices and paranoia have in common? They find meaning everywhere.

This is where perversity lies: In trying to judge the quality of film that is not only about, but perhaps embraces lesbianism, we are often divided between wanting to support any efforts at self-representation in an impoverished lexicon vs. the critical faculties so finely honed in our history of looking for hidden messages in the movies. What do we feel when we are relieved of our duties as cinematic sleuths and told to just sit back and enjoy the sight of ourselves in broad daylight? When the movie industry's layers of denial are the structure in which we understand ourselves, many react with great ambivalence to women's films that dispense with the usual narrative gratifications and the aesthetics of big-budget film. Experimental film has traditionally been an underground haven for male homosexuality — witness such luminaries as Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger — and is a phenomenon directly related to the multi-million dollar underground film industry of gay porn.

The history of lesbian spectatorship lies even further underground, buried in total invisibility or in the distortions of a male-dominated field. So, I believe that the cultural baggage that lesbians bring to work by and about themselves makes experimental lesbian film controversial as much because it is "experimental" as because it is lesbian.

I went to this festival with the specific desire to see how lesbian relationships are played out in experimental film, and so I will focus on some of the films that gratified my desire. My list is by no means comprehensive. There were at least 22 films by women and even more that contained lesbian content, and I am only covering five.

One of the most interesting films was also the only feature-length piece included in the festival: Chantal Akerman's LES RENDEZ-VOUS D'ANNA. This film may be a semi-autobiographical portrait: "Anna" is a filmmaker who travels from one European city to another presenting her work. She spends a great deal of time alone in hotel rooms placing unsuccessful calls to a mysterious woman in Italy. In one city she has a sexual encounter with a lonely blonde man. They do not connect, rather seem to speak past each other in an isolated void. In another city Anna meets up with her mother, and they spend the night together in a hotel room. Once her mother is in bed, Anna approaches the bed fully nude, and, lying close by her mother's side, relates to her the story of her love affair with a woman (presumably the one she keeps trying to reach in Italy). The mother lies very still throughout, and at the end tells her daughter she cannot imagine what being with another woman would be like. Afterward Anna curls her body around her mother, and we are left to catch our breaths after the overpowering intimacy and taboo of this incestuous coming-out scene.

Anna next arrives in Paris, where she lives, and is met there by a boyfriend. When they return to his room he becomes ill. It appears that it is her absences that have made him sick. Anna tries to care for him, driving out into a barren suburb late at night to buy aspirin and later covering his body with hers to warm his chills, but the whole scene is irremediably sad. Finally, Anna returns to her apartment, lies on her own bed, and listens to a string of lost voices on her answering machine, one of which is that of the woman she has been trying to reach in Italy.

The film is a painful, leisurely portrait of the loneliness experienced both in solitude and in the presence of people you love. Lesbian relationship here is about distance: the geographical distance between countries, the distance experienced over the telephone wires, the distance between the non-intersecting paths of two women's lives, and the generational distance between mother and daughter, for whom confronting the daughter's lesbianism is only one small step to bridge the gap of the years that separate them.

Chantal Akerman is famous for the elegant minimalism of her films: the uncluttered camera work and the stripped-down plot. The minimalism of Akerman's films is what enables us to see clearly the sexual economies at work, and thus is a good strategy for making a powerful lesbian film. None of Akerman's films are purely devoted to lesbian relationship; her characters have many modes of being: being with women, being with men, being alone, being on the road, etc. But it is the cleanness of Akerman's films that enables us to confront this multiplicity, and lesbianism as well, head-on, and that has made her, despite her own protestations, an intensely sought-after filmmaker in the lesbian film circuit.

Another kind of minimalism is at work in Lisa Laquier's MÜLL (German for trash). If we take away plot and leave only the sex scene, we can heap upon it all the campy details and narrativity we desire: love-making, after all, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. MÜLL features two nuns fucking on the spartan bed of a convent cell. Accompanied by an insistent musical crescendo, one nun is stripped of all but her wig, and the sex is raw and graphically shot. While she and the other nun go at it, the wig moves up and down on her head with a life of its own. The film ends when the two nuns come. Everybody gets what they want in MÜLL. Despite the fact that lesbian nuns is an old, old story, MÜLL is so dirty and unromantic (shot in super-8 with dingy lighting) that there's enough perversity for Catholics and non-Catholics alike to last until the Second Coming. The film has no masquerade of flowery sentiments, eternal love, or guilt behind which the libido might hide.

One of the frustrations of much lesbian film viewing is the endless soap opera of plot and foreplay that only sometimes lead to sexual gratification. MÜLL dispenses unapologetically with foreplay and dialogue. In view of the complaints that are leveled against mainstream and experimental work: that lesbians deserve more hot sex scenes, and that women deserve to get turned on by movies by and about themselves, it would seem that good pornography is what many lesbians want.

HOW TO KILL HER by Ana Maria Simo is a beautifully shot, black and white film about the obsession of one woman (played by Ela Troyano) for another woman who has spurned her. The film begins with a long, panoramic shot along Manhattan's East River. The camera finally comes to rest on the bedraggled Troyano, who is lying asleep on a park bench. An upbeat Latin song accompanies this scene, setting an ironic tone for the film. Troyano awakes and seems to take up where she left off before sleep, writing on a crumpled sheet of paper a list of various methods by which she might dispose of the woman who has not reciprocated her love. A voice-over narrator describes Troyano's murderous obsession, and we are told that it is exacerbated by the fact that she never slept with the object of her desire.

There are flashbacks to a coy scene between the two women, Troyano playing the piano and the other woman turning her back on both Troyano and the camera when she takes off her shirt. Troyano moves from her park bench to her therapist's office, where the voice over of the therapist further describes Troyano's condition. While listening to Troyano, the therapist impatiently consult two watches, one on each wrist, an ironic gesture that suggests the futility of "curing" this sexual obsession. Finally, Troyano ends up back on the street, returning to the waterfront — a dangerous place she knows she should avoid. It is night, and she is leaning heavily on a cane and limping, harassed by every man she encounters along the way. Troyano seem determined to follow her own self-destructive course of (in)action.

HOW TO KILL HER could be seen as a romanticization of obsession, given the allure of both the star and the Manhattan skyline. It's certainly no morality tale of the dangers of obsessive behavior. If it were we would get to see the violent results of Troyano's destructive path, the evidence being, perhaps, someone's corpse floating up on the East River. But there's no resolution here: life could go on in this vein indefinitely. Perhaps the ironic tone of HOW TO KILL HER is an admission of the impossibility of showing the full complexity of personal suffering within the given narratives of conflict and resolution.

The film's portrait of lesbian love gone awry also flies in the face of the politically correct pressure on lesbians to represent ourselves in a positive light, to give lesbianism a good name. It is a scary proposition to display an excesses of lesbian sexuality to a public who has traditionally seen us an only capable of narcissistic excess, in the event that our "condition" is allowed to metastasize long enough to be seen at all. Finally, the unresolved nature of obsession in this film could be read as the return of the repressed: lesbianism itself a symptom that won't go away, and that refuses the reductive interpretations of a culture fixated on medical categorization. Progressing through the psychosexual quagmire of lesbian identity may mean avoiding any of the resolutions that The Movies have thus far had to offer.

Catherine Saalfield's INFIDEL is deeply invested in the issues of the lesbian look and desire. The central characters of INFIDEL are a black woman who was once a fashion model and her lover, a white woman. The white woman is played by the filmmaker and her sister. Actually, whether Saalfield and her sister are supposed to be a unified character is up for grabs: Saalfield is heard instructing her sister on how to play the role (i.e. how to be a lesbian), and there are moments when the two appear on screen at once.

The black woman recounts some of her experiences of racism in the modeling industry. The problems of body image and ethnicity are brought up not only by the black woman but a host of other women, all white, who talk about modeling, their looks, and appear nude or clothed looking at themselves and sometimes touching one another.

The clearest voice in the film is that of a woman with a large, wine-colored birthmark on her face, who discusses her family's attempt to get rid of it and the lore of birthmarks. TV and magazine imagery of models of all races are interspersed throughout. The lesbian relationship, and the entire film, in fact, takes place in a series of dorm room interiors. Consequently, while the issues under discussion are disturbing and the characters evidently in some conflict with themselves, an air of privilege, safety, and leisure pervades the film. Everyone spends a great deal of time looking at themselves, at each other, and looking at themselves looking at the camera. Sometimes their looks are pained and unresolved, such as when the black woman regards herself in the minor, draws in blue grease pencil eyes where her own brown eyes are reflected, and then turns over the mirror to reveal a collection of disturbed, child-like scribbles of idealized ladies. But, by and large, the looks exchanged are more about girlish self-consciousness and a benign narcissism.

The split subject, the complexities of women desiring and criticizing each other, exoticism, and racism are all factors that diffuse our vision. In INFIDEL the problems of the specular gaze are subsumed in the pleasures of lesbian looking. I think that Saalfield intended the black woman's story of escape from the modeling industry to be the central theme of her film, and a metaphor for all women's self reclamation. There are moments when the black woman's identity overflows the bounds of metaphor and she occupies a strong position in the film. In one section she is seen lounging on her bed watching a Phil Donahue show about modeling. While an emaciated black woman, the most celebrated model of the day, parades down the runway, and Donahue and a male fashion designer discuss the problem of how to disguise big butts, the woman viewing languorously devours spaghetti with her hands. The camera moves up her body caressingly, like an ad for Levis 501 jeans. Here the subject's sensual existence and her autonomy from TV's oppressive emanations are complete.

But most of the film strays from this woman's personal power, and subsumes her in the voracious desires of the white lesbian behind the camera. The black woman is surrounded by the pleasures and desires of white women in a white environment. The harem-like ambiance overwhelms and trivializes the very issues that INFIDEL purports to address. The sexual attentions that the white women shower on themselves and the black woman are truly seductive. But if this is what it means for lesbians to reclaim visual pleasure, then I'm not sure I'm ready for pleasure yet. INFIDEL could have been really powerful if Saalfield had not mitigated the film's sexual pleasures with the false consciousness of a racial issue that isn't given the attention it deserves.

I want to end by saying that the 3rd New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival had a specific intricacy for me because I was a participant as well as a spectator. Not only was my own film HOME AVENUE screened, I appeared in Peggy Ahwesh's film MARTINA'S PLAYHOUSE. The concerns I've addressed here about how lesbians see themselves in experimental film were literalized when I actually did see myself in the movies. While my own film is not about a lesbian relationship (it is an autobiographical account of a rape), Ahwesh's film is.

MARTINA'S PLAYHOUSE is introduced by the star Martina, a five year-old who stares at the camera and spells her name out loud. Thereafter, the film is divided into three parts that are intercut with each other. One part involves Martina at age three with her mother Diane, enacting a variety of role reversal games, each one taking turns at playing a baby and a mother. Another part is hand-processed imagery of flowers, with a voice over reciting theory from Bataille and Lacan about desire, lack, and the genital sexuality of flowers. Sometimes the voice is that of a woman, sometimes a man, and sometimes the child Martina, stumbling through the dense text with prompting from Ahwesh. There are "talking flowers" in one scene, snapdragons whose petal jaws are manipulated by a human hand.

The third pan is a scene between myself and Ahwesh, me in front of the camera, her behind it. Like Martina and Diane, I am playing a game: I am trying to seduce the filmmaker. I am also venting my frustration with the camera that she has positioned between us. At one point I scream, but since it is, after all, a movie, I tell Ahwesh I didn't feel comfortable with it (implying that I might try again later and get it better, more authentic). I tell her of my fantasy of getting down on my hands and knees and begging her to sleep with me. The camera and the audience there implied are both the reason for my being there at all and the prophylaxis Ahwesh uses to maintain her neutrality. At one point I contemplate using the microphone as a sex toy, an act that would adapt a no-win situation to my own sexual needs.

Ahwesh juxtaposes the mother-daughter games with a scene of lesbian seduction in such a way that the two kinds of relationship slide over onto one another. At one point Diane plays at being baby. Diane-the-baby is hungry and tearful, and demands milk when Martina-the-mother tries to satisfy her by reading her a story. Martina then offers her "child" her breasts, and Diane suckles one nipple, then the other (according to Martina's fantasy of lactation, one nipple offers milk, the other juice). Like Anna's coming out scene with her mother in Akerman's film, this scene in MARINA'S PLAYHOUSE challenges our notion of the proper boundaries between mother and daughter. On the other hand, while there is freedom in play and pleasure between women, the implication in Ahwesh's film is that the formation of feminine sex roles in the mother-daughter bond will haunt our relations with women until our dying day.

However, from day one there is also a third term: it is the fact of representation and, in cinema, the camera's gaze. Martina at age three is as aware of the camera's presence, albeit a benevolent one, as any adult, and her relation to it is more overflowing with meaning than any one theory can encompass. While Ahwesh employs theory, it, like the other pans of the film, has a discrete place, a world of its own (in this case, the world of flowers), and she leaves her viewers to figure out for themselves their relation to theory, and theory's relation to the rest of the film.

All of the films I have mentioned provide visions of lesbian relationship that elude the limits of mainstream narrative convention. Whether or not we choose to accept these visions is our prerogative: that we have a prerogative is the most important point, and one I believe that is the operating principle of the Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival.