by Gabriel Gomez
Cut, no. 37, July 1992, pp. 82-87
WILD LIFE (1985) by John Goss offers a curious mix of the documentary and the fictional. The video artist investigates the lives of two gay, fifteen-year old Latinos named Carlos and Cesar. These young Mexican Americans are immigrants to the United States. Goss felt an affinity with their dislocation in Anglo American culture. He too felt like an outsider among the Asian American youth of his childhood. From these similarities an affinity develops between the subjects of this work and the author, an affinity well suited to an interview format ma documentary style. However the interaction between this adult artist, who has successfully integrated into Anglo-American culture, and two Chicano teenagers also incorporates resistance and even mutual suspicion. Goss foregrounds these tensions through juxtaposing documentary conventions and re-enactments exposed as fiction. He allows the teenagers to actively portray themselves through play, reconstructing their self-proclaimed "wild life."
Ultimately the object of investigation, these teenagers' "wild life," yields no detailed chronicle, as we might expect from a documentary work. Instead, under Goss' direction, a quasi-fictional narrative emerges about the young men's friendship and differences. The narrative reveals how both tradition and innovation affect this queer pair of immigrants' ideals of style and their communication. Strong personal relationships foster their secure identity. For these two young gay men, one cognizant of both their ethnicity and sexuality, and their strong sense of self-identity, which in turn enriches a diverse queer community.
The tape opens rather simply in a neutral studio space. Over the next forty minutes, interviews set in this studio give way to playful re-enactments, openly encouraged by John Goss, and move to staged events on the streets of Los Angeles. Props like toy telephones or chairs stand in for bus stop benches offer visual cues to fictional events, which inspire the "wild life" tableau Carlos and Cesar wish to portray. Goss, off-camera, questions first Cesar and then Carlos about themselves. The audience learns about their immigrant status, their ages, and their plans for the future. Goss has a specific interest in gay identity. He asks how long have they been out and how long they knew they were gay.
These crosscut interviews yield to a long take of Cesar and Carlos together. Here they expand on the factual information just revealed. Through play the two talk on toy telephones about meeting to attend a party together. Carlos waits at a make-believe bus stop. Then the fiction moves outside the studio to a real bus stop. The edited shift emphasizes a contrast between the conventions of documentary and its propensity for real locations, which here are used by two teenagers for play, that is, fiction. Carlos' subsequent fictional meeting with Cesar occurs on the streets. As the camera follows them, their voices-over explain their predicament. Carlos must change into his wild clothes outside because his mother finds his style too effeminate.
This development from the studio scene, with Goss prompting to the wild life drama, staged outside by Cesar and Carlos, defines the videotape's form. Outside, the two engage playfully in such varied activities as cruising for men, changing clothes, meeting friends, arguing, or just "hanging out." In the studio they face Goss' interrogation about their style, about clothes, language, and even their relationship to gay male and mainstream commercial imagery. For example, Carlos saves the receipts of his clothes and haircut expenses, party invitations, flyers, fashion ads, even telephone numbers written on cards and matchbook covers. These are the visible residue, shown to us, of Carlos' "wild life." Under Goss' questioning, commercial culture emerges as an important determinant of "wild style."
Personal issues like sexual practices and preferences, home life, and even skipping high school, also figure prominently in these interview segments. Conversations between Carlos, Cesar, and Goss, begun in this setting, often become voice-over explanations of the re-enactments. In this way the audience learns how the teenagers cope with the restrictions faced by underage queers — including the vagaries of public transportation — in the occasionally hostile, yet largely indifferent world of Los Angeles. The youths are connected to a wider queer culture of drag queens and nightlife, but they find true comfort in the similarities of their ethnic backgrounds. At the end Cesar is seen alone in the studio applying phosphorescent make-up . Carlos then recites a poem of love. Ultimately, their self-assured sense of style insures that indeed they are actively representing their own "wild life."
Essential to any analysis of this work is the question of collaboration and its attendant complications of authority, control, and power. Goss the video artist is heard asking questions but never seen. This convention commonly occurs in documentary film and video. For example, Jean Rouch develops a similar relation between himself and his subjects in the film JAGUAR.[open notes in new window] There two African men speak both the dialogue and the voice-over, which explains Rouch's images. Also like Rouch in JAGUAR, Goss questions and explains his interest in the subjects of his work. More important, and with greater direction than in JAGUAR, Goss interrogates the youths directly, asking questions like an interviewer. Despite Goss' "invisibility," WILD LIFE develops around him and his deployment of video technology. Like Rouch's JAGUAR, this work creates the event it documents.
"Wild life" as defined by Cesar and Carlos remains their own strategy for living. We as viewers only see a small fraction of this representation or fiction. Unable to grant consent as legal adults, the youth's more wild actions, if there are any, remain unseen. Goss participates in the representation of a "wild life" firmly entrenched in his role as a videomaker. However, his relation to his subjects grants them a safe space in which to define themselves and their relation to the document they inspire. This "enabling" aspect of the project gives the work greater credibility as an accurate representation. Carlos and Cesar do not participate in the tape as the object of an unknown curiosity. Instead the compromises between them and Goss establish visible fictions, which together represent their "wildlife."
Perhaps the best visualization of the relation between the video artist, his medium and his subjects is found in the metaphor of the title frame. The title WILD LIFE appears as a hole or a window and a frame. It masks yet intrigues the viewer at the beginning of the tape. The title serves as more than just an introduction and instigator of interest. Its form articulates the relation that will come into being between the artist, Goss, his subjects, Cesar and Carlos, and their self-described "wild life."
Video technology captures the images presented by these three. It also alters and obscures those images in its use of framing, editing, staging and most importantly here, in fomenting the actions seen. Video records a visual reality and then alters this vision. Individuals control the technology's use. More simply put, video can document the visual appearance, in this case of Cesar and Carlos. As such, it is a technology of representation wherein some aspects of that actuality remain, if only in a mythic sense. Goss does not alter the images rendered beyond using traditional conventions of lighting, framing, and editing. The frame is employed as the artist's primary means to compose and shape his subjects.
Carlos and Cesar become a conscious element in composing their own representation. The title's words, "wild life," serve as part of their self-styled image. The title acts as frame, focus, definition, and subject portrayal. The opening title frame literally shapes the subjects' habitat, a Los Angeles street, by the words in visual form. This very limited view hinders viewer's perception, and thus its style echoes a larger problem in the work. How can the youth's "reality" be found hidden in this urban jungle? Can this representation and the metaphorical understanding it offers of human "wild life" do more than mask or fetishize the tape's very young subjects? These boys underscore the difficulty of knowing and understanding something wild, something potentially tamed through the limiting means of video technology. They come into view semantically, metaphorically, and even visually as subjects seen through the screen of the words "wild life" and all its negative stereotypes. Goss and the two subjects join in this visual element at the works beginning in a sort of agreement.
The exchanges between Goss and the boys remain playful on both sides. At times Goss asks questions firmly related to his position in a gay male subculture, such as his questioning about the term "sister." The common term "sister" refers to the relation that exists between two gay men who generally do not engage in sexual relations with each other. They are often, though not necessarily, incompatible due to their preference for passive roles. In more recent times feminism's influence has made this kind of usage of female terms less acceptable. Addressing queer men as feminine is seen as an offensive extension of the devalued status accorded to women. The term "sister" extends from such perceived effeminacy; it knowingly plays on devalued feminine status as an element of camaraderie. Goss' insistence on exploring the term's meaning and his frank questioning about the feelings these two teenagers express in its usage belies his knowledge of this historical shift.
The youth's response to Goss' line of inquiry about "sister" affirm the term "sister" as a token of affection. For them, the term denotes a concrete relationship already seen by the viewer. "Sister" does not imply a put down of women for these two. Rather it is a term that describes a special specific relationship, special since only they themselves will define it, and they will oppose the views expressed by Goss. Their use of "sister" undoubtedly relates to the wider queer culture.
Since the negative aspects of the term "queer" have been rejected so as to recuperate a former pejorative, so too the boys have reclaimed "sister" to describe their extraordinary friendship. When Goss tries to challenge their closed system of communication, he fails to rupture their conviction about the word's propriety. These two boys are clearly proud of their "sissy boy" ways. Undoubtedly, the negative connotation of "sister" reflects the larger society's views that equate gay with feminine. As the boy's friendship unfolds on the video screen we can see how positive the term "sister" can be. Goss discovers this in his questioning.
This friendship relation, at once visible and opaque, parallels the two boys' framing within the video. The opening sequences take place in the studio and use the conventions of an interview format. The boys are shot in close-up, one looking left, and the other right. Goss is only heard. Finally they appear together in the frame, seen from their knees up. This visual pairing accompanies their talking about the subject of the tape, their shared "wild life." They first define and introduce themselves separately. Only interaction, however, will reveal the limits, manner and form of their lifestyle. After this initial pairing, Cesar leaves the frame.
Carlos, now alone in the studio except for Goss' voice, prepares to meet his friend as they had arranged through a make-believe telephone call. The videotape jumps into the real location of the bus stop, as does Carlos, still alone. There Carlos' voice-over explains how he often waits for Cesar as we see an image of Carlos dancing to asynchronous music. The next shot reveals him alone in the studio again, talking about his knowledge of the L.A. bus system. Finally, back at the bus stop, with framing reminiscent of the initial pairing, Cesar enters from the right. The boys recognize each other with a kiss.
The visual inevitability of their union foregrounds the relation the two themselves describe. Such a form carries the videotape forward as the boys are continually seen separately in the studio with Goss' voice prodding them onward. Then they join, both in exterior locations and in studio shots, to reenact the events of their "wild life." Their visual separation, its minor visual suspense, and its ultimate payoff in their reunification give formal videographic shape to the boy's relation. We come to share their excitement in their moments of friendship. The narrative emphasis subtly subverts the primacy media places on sexual objectification. The boy's unity in the frame represents a bipolar ideal, at odds with the specularization of a single heroic phallic image. Suspense becomes built around their unity. These moments of unity are the site of the tape's most intense visual interest. The boy's mirror each other here but only after revealing differences specific to each individual. The myth of narcissus as an originating tale of self-love, which in mainstream social theory is often extrapolated to account for queer desire, is thereby destroyed.
Carlos and Cesar do not fall in love with an identical image, one crafted in an elaborate mix of suspense and idealization, one that ends in romance and marriage. Rather they form a friendship founded in diversity and in similarity and without explicit sexual gratification. The stereotype of raging queer libido is displaced by a pair of "sisters." The videotape echoes this displacement in its structure of individual shots, often close-ups taped in an interview format. These then lead into the boy's re-enacting joint activities, which expose the complexity of friendship and its recognition of similarities and differences. This recognition, in turn, generates mutual pleasures.
Despite this specificity much is left unspoken. This relationship appears sexless. A gay viewer would implicitly assume this term "sister." No explanation for those outside gay circles, those presumably unfamiliar with such a usage, corrects a possible misunderstanding . Goss asks questions about the friendship, yet does not mention sexual relations. Nor do the two boys volunteer to clarify. Any immediate correlation between sex and friendship is thereby avoided. There may be legal reasons for this, since the subjects are both minors.
The ambiguity, however, also permits gay audiences to recognize a close personal friendship without catering to common stereotypes where gay men are seen as coldly sexual predators. A bridge of understanding is crossed over a cultural divide. At the same time, this depiction does not expose or betray the special sense of a gay subculture to a wider, possibly hostile world. That world is permitted to infer whatever wild intentions it will. Cesar and Carlos are open about friendship and their sexuality. The details are not essential to their image. They are gay and friends. Any other information is superfluous.
The title WILD LIFE requires closer examination at this juncture. In the video the term emerges as one adopted by the teenagers to describe their own lives. Yet the tide encourages other connotations. According to dominant culture, the lives on view may indeed appear "wild." Another meaning of this term, one that describes natural fauna, crosses this more explicitly moral meaning to give this term an added edge. From the new point of Anglo-American, heterosexual culture, gay, Latino, and teenage are triply "other." These gay Chicano teenagers have very little opportunity to represent themselves to the larger, more powerful world. Their choice of the term "wild life" to present themselves implies the larger world's view and norms and probable censure. Yet the dominant culture's meanings are subverted in the process of how these two subjects practice their sexuality. Michel Foucault described social control over sexuality in the following way:
These teenagers are underage. As a result their sexuality falls within the domain of the law, or it reverts to the prerogatives of the family, who remain unseen. In the family, and in wider society, taboos keep a check on their behavior, as when Carlos changes clothes on the street. Censorship describes the dearth of any representation that might approximate their view of themselves. Thus Cesar proudly maintains a photo collection of without any explicit gay male sexuality. The boy's deliberate recognition of barriers to sexual practice and awareness of dress and its effects on gender and social propriety show a clear recognition of the boundaries they face in self-expression. More important, their desire to break these strictures aligns their proclaiming themselves in a "wild life."
They display this knowledge in their reactions to the process of being videotaped. When Carlos awaits Cesar at the bus stop, he dances alone in public space. Clearly he is aware of the camera. The staging of this event promulgates the idea that he would do this normally while waiting for his friend. In this regard, the friend's kiss of recognition becomes not just as act of recognition, but a sign of defiance against dominant heterosexist culture. As in Rouch's work on three African men, this video instigates actions. The kiss signifies recognition and defiance and it becomes a sign of close friendship within the context of the work. Does the act of video taping play any role in its occurrence?
Tensions between the portrayal of actual events and staged ones permeate this work. In another instance, Goss' voice specifically calls for an argument. The teenagers together in frame in the studio respond in an obviously feigned manner. Their voices carry over into the street, where a more realistic argument proceeds. There, a prominent framing device, using this location's railroad lines, shapes the image. Following the laws of perspective, the tracks recede in the distance forming a triangle. In the course of the argument, Cesar and Carlos cross over these lines, separating, then joining within the triangle. Finally the dispute resolves in synch sound images. They join arm in arm from within the triangular perspective delimited by the rail lines.
Reenactments question video technology's ability to record actual events and also to instigate them. We have no clear evidence, indeed no way of knowing whether or not these two boys are play-acting solely for the camera. Carlos can be dancing for himself, passersby, the video maker or the presumed audience.
Goss foments a fight in the studio. He asks the youths to get angry the way they often do, implying that he knows their disputes. Yet when Goss cuts to an argument outdoors, suddenly the words are lost. The clear if unenthusiastic argument of the studio becomes replaced by an angry, confusing, silent series of actions. Now the audience remains ignorant of what caused this "unstaged" argument Is this how the boys wish to portray themselves or are they concerned with some other issue? They respond to Goss' video surveillance in their own fashion. The videotape records these two events. The editing obscures the nature of the arguments by crossing from the studio to the street. In the street the camera utilizes perspective in an outdoor location to compose the shot to emphasize the strength of friendship.
Nature defines the place of "wild life" in the L.A. streets in opposition to culture. In its hegemonic social construction, nature often becomes associated with people of color. They have traditionally been referred to lacking the "complexity" of Western European civilization. As a consequence of the faulty logic of this perception, they are considered more in time with the natural world. Kobena Mercer and Isaac Julien refer to the strength of such historical influences that have affected the representation of black male sexuality:
Mercer and Julien refer to a British context, yet similar influences shape how Mexican Americans, especially in the southwestern lands taken from Mexico, have been represented by U.S. "Anglos." Issues of power, authority, domination, and exploitation litter this historical context. Further complications emerge in considering the mestizo heritage of Mexico. Mixed ancestry ties the contemporary Chicano to Native Americans, a group often referred to even today as noble savages. Consequently the boys in Goss' tape inherit a peculiar status in the eyes of dominant U.S. culture, one seen as more natural. In a sense the boys live an indigenous "wild life" of Hispanic L.A., natives of the streets in an urban jungle.
As Goss and the boys present a lifestyle which finds itself on the wrong side of the laws, taboos, and strictures of dominant Anglo culture, the tape reveals the neo-imperialist relation this culture establishes with these subjects. Their wildness encodes itself in opposition to this dominant culture. Can these two proponents of a subculture function within such a framework to create an identity that resists hegemonic control? They have the status of a triple "other." Yet they playfully recreate their natural habitat much as television documentaries recreate the scientifically deduced forms of actual wildlife.
All episodes that end in the street began in the studio as play. Goss sanctions and encourages a "natural" element of childhood. As seen in the staged and real arguments discussed above, play and actuality become blurred in the enactments, both in the natural settings and in the studio.
Also, the two boys use wild clothes to set themselves apart from their families. Censure at home keeps Carlos from dressing as he pleases, so he changes in the street in a semi-secluded doorway. Their voice-over narration underscores the implicit prohibition against this. In one instance, recalled by Cesar, a surveillance video camera had tracked Carlos changing his clothes in public. Dressing becomes a sexual act because of the possibility of surveillance and disapproval. As a gay teenager, Carlos finds himself relegated to the street to express his sexuality. This space becomes the natural space for a Latino youth who faces restrictions at home and at best indifference in public. It is in this place that the boys wander, cruising men, living and demonstrating their gay life. In a sense they "play" at being gay, "play" at breaking the rules. In so doing, they cast a subversive glance at the aesthetic ideas of reenactment, for it depends on recreated nature as a vehicle for expressing truth. The forms and rituals of their lives are clearly formed in culture. Their play with culture's rules shows their resistance to its demands.
Staging the reenactments requires improvisation. Carlos and Cesar are co-instigators along with Goss and are not simply instructed by Goss. The boys empower themselves in these video events, since they events register to a great degree the boy's desires to shape self-presentation. Their words shape the course of the project Video technology does not simply record or frame them. The project crosses over into fiction and fantasy at their instigation. When they describe what they do and where they go, the video magically follows them there. Words become visual reality. A park is described and suddenly, through editing, the boys appear there and the camera follows them. "Wild life" ensues. As in the bus stop scene, the argument sections, and the park setting, Carlos and Cesar direct the mise-en-scene. Their words become wishes that in turn become video reality. Hence the encoding of the practices that define their "wild life" achieves a new dimension that helps them fight against censure and indifference. Their fantasy identifies an ideal opposed to a disapproving hegemonic order. Cesar and Carlos have found co-conspirators in Goss and ultimately in any viewer who happens to come along.
The clothes changing incident also plays against surveillance. The surveillance video camera, which followed the boys before, is duplicated in the instrument Goss employs. In this later instance, not only is the artist attentive, but also the viewer's, Goss' and the boys' complicity in the creation of a cinematic spectacle is compounded by the act's transgressiveness. The boys are underage, and we are witnessing an actual even which has a potential consequence in social reality. Whereas nakedness might be simply a matter of convenience for the boy, we cannot ascertain this in the context of what's seen on the videotape or even in the ritual created around the event. The boy's showing of self has clear sexual connotations.
The breaking of a public and private morality is centered in this disputed wild style. And that wild style is a public issue not only in the boys' clothes themselves, but also in the process of changing into them. These two boys are aware of dominant culture's prohibitions. They transgress its codes to express themselves as oppositional and further as self-defined. They know the rules and the possibility of surveillance. Their self-presentation hinges on the sexuality expressed in the act.
Dick Hebdige's Subcultures clarifies how performing such an act and recording it functions as defiance. The act responds to a hegemonic order in the subculture responds to a stricture that belies its presence. In this sense, identity emerges from contrary acts that separate and delineate a distinct subculture identity. The process of committing the act to videotape is commented on in this vein by themselves. They recognize the prurient interest that a society, which normally has no place for them, might betray in its prohibitions. Why forbid such behavior if it is of no interest? Contrary to this reading, one could also point out that indifference can be the gravest form of censorship. The sweets of L.A. can be safe for these boys since control over them is hegemonic, not total. Their various responses take into account power's vagaries.
A significant source the boys use to create an identity which is still not fully socially accepted are images of gay men (another subcultural product) and men as sexual objects which these two Chicanos find and keep. The images serve not only for eroticization but also as ideals. For gay men the possibility of seeing an image of a man as a sexual object exists simultaneously with the capability of identifying with another man. Numerous shades of distinction arise from the very nature of such images. Here the images reflect a white gay world, a world where not all are as comfortable in their identity as are these two boys. Problematic identification and objectification occurs across racial lines. Additionally, the messages of these images embody contradictions about seeing men as sexual objects. The boy's relation to the images they see and collect remains fraught with ambiguities.
For example, in one scene, a billboard advertising The Advocate shows a pair of men, both white, one behind the other, hugging. A contrast is set up between the ideal gay couple and the one below, and this contrast reveals several striking issues around the possibility of representing gay relations. The two white persons are adult, whereas the boys must act more circumspectly. Their sexuality is strictly delimited because of their age and their ethnicity. This sense of limit surfaces in their discussion about of the suitability of "wild" clothes for Carlos. The billboard also embodies a visual ideal as opposed to the actual presence of Carlos and Cesar on the streets. The boys are subject to the hegemonic power which the state and society exercise there, including the recently increasing threat of gay bashing. To kiss or change quickly is quite different from standing in embrace, an act which considerably increases the possibility of censure.
The billboard is high, far above any casual disagreement. It also uses faceless bodies. Images which objectify male bodies because faces or other features are cropped off do not absolutely preclude identification. With a long tradition in gay subcultures, masks, disguises, and hidden identities have always been available as a gay response to the structures of dominant society. The billboard's image without a face recalls this history. By contrast, Carlos and Cesar present themselves openly cognizant of the position they occupy whether in the studio or the street. To themselves, to the video maker and to the audience, they are identified as gay. In terms of this billboard, they appear to remain indifferent to this visual ideal. Instead the viewer sees, through them, an alternative.
However, such commercial imagery does inform these two boys' images of themselves. As he explains the printed elements he has collected from his "wild life," Cesar betrays a great interest in just such imagery. In a studio interview, the framing shields all of Carlos but his torso, arms and his mouth, similar to The Advocate billboard. At a table, he reveals ads, invitations, receipts, and telephone numbers, all bits of their lifestyle. The framing employed here invites comparison between Carlos and the billboard. Like the models of The Advocate ad, he is in a studio free of immediate social reactions. In response, Cesar exposes documents and images that are important to his identity. They attest to his lifestyle because of their connection to his clothes, hair, gay friends and parties, as well as visual ideals. It is within images that Carlos finds a sexual and fashion message. In response to Goss' questioning, he reveals an interest in both the sexuality and the clothing depicted. From these images, emulation may proceed.
However, the tape establishes no clear connection outside of the actual possession and presentation of these images. Precisely how this material affects the "wild life" style remains obscure. Only the videomaker's choice of composition and Carlos' interest betray a causal link between visual ideals and self-image.
Cesar actively creates his image in another sequence. In partial darkness he covers his face with fluorescent paints. Out of darkness emerge both a clarification and an obfuscation of his visage. This is his own style. It simultaneously reveals and obscures. The video screen becomes the space where this occurs. Likewise, Carlos receives time in the tape to recite a poem that describes his view on love and friendship. These sequences echo the opening interviews in that the boys' identities are presented separately.
Here at the end, Goss does not intrude. There is no unifying composition to emphasize the boys' relationship. Rather, identity as an individual act is foregrounded. From this a friendship can arise and with it a style, a "wild life". The artist's studio is a safe space, where Goss gives these two an opportunity to act out for a wider audience the minutiae of themselves. It is an imperfect process where possibility and actuality coexist.
Goss in his work has doubled the prurient interest dominant society might express in such activities. In the process he dissolves total indifference. His collaboration with these boys records and deepens the boys' identity as friends, as gay Latino teenagers. Making the videotape permits their identity to reveal its sources in the traditions of gay, Hispanic, and youth cultures. Ambiguity, playfulness, and a simple respect for their own nature permit Carlos and Cesar to transcend norms of representation. The boys emerge as themselves, resistant to the definition of the societies that touch them and finally resistant to the process of making art itself.
1. See Ellis, Jack, The Documentary Idea (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989), which points out the elements used in my comparison.
2. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Vol. I. An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1980), p. 85.
3. Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer, 'True Confessions," Screen 10:8