Super-8 films and the
aesthetics of intimacy

by Daryl Chin

from Jump Cut, no. 37, July 1992, pp. 78-81
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1992, 2006

Sexual politics is fraught with extreme problems. The issue concerns behavior that is indivisibly personal. That committing certain acts, certain forms of behavior, and certain intimacies can be subject to scrutiny, regulation, and legal surveillance is one of the paradoxes at the heart of human society. For this reason, feminists and gay activists have proclaimed the radicalization of a political agenda to be conjoined with the individualized perspectives of psychosexual prospects.

In recent years, there have been many attempts to establish aesthetic ventures based on aspects of personal politics. In the 1970s, the revival of feminism brought about a number of artistic endeavors that involved work by women. There were major film festivals, as well as film journals, film distributors, and film theoreticians. Though perhaps less publicized in terms of the popular press, these endeavors continue, creating a lively alternative film scene.

Right now, activity seems to be escalating in the area of lesbian and gay media. For example, within a six-month period in New York City in 1989, there were the New Festival of Lesbian and Gay Films, the Third Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival, a festival of lesbian and gay video work at Downtown Community Television, and How Do I Look?, a lesbian and gay media conference. As Amy Taubin noted in her review of the video selections of How Do I Look? in The Village Voice (October 17, 1989), there was remarkably little overlap in all these lesbian and gay events.

This means that there is, at present, an enormous variety and volume of self-defined gay media. The importance of self-definition is not to be overlooked. One of the issues in much of these works concerns honesty, the psychological and the social honesty to claim an identity as a gay person. This has been especially problematic for artists, given the intense social pressures involved in the commerce of art. The possibility of homophobia, of prejudicial exchanges, of condescension remains omnipresent for gay artists, particularly in terms of the commercial media. For this reason, many gay artists working in media have acceded to the importance of alternative media, with modes of production, access, and patterns of exhibition defined in ways that counter the commercial system. Impressively, within the last few years, this counter-cinema of gay activism has been able to generate its own cohesive alternative system.

The issue of intimacy is very important, because, as mentioned, the politics involved in gay liberation strike at areas considered most private. Our civilization has been based on the situation of the dichotomy of that which is socially acceptable to express and that which is socially imperative to repress.

The determination to acknowledge the unconscious was the ideological imperative in Surrealism. The continuity between Surrealism and sexual politics has been problematic. The expression of libidinous sexual desires, in the work of André Breton, Rene Magritte, Paul Delvaux, Man Ray, and Hans Bellmer, was a hallmark of Surrealism, but the definition was demarcated by the boundaries of the male perspective.

The ways in which the body can be apprehended and distorted provided Surrealism with one of its most consistent motifs. In the paintings of Delvaux, for example, there are the urban plazas and streetscapes, which often open out into deserts or beaches; street lamps might be on in broad daylight, and the people walking through these landscapes are women in lingerie or in the nude while the men are always clothed. The photo tableaux of Hans Bellmer, under the title of La Poupée, take sections of female mannequins, and place those simulated body parts in pictures of construction and destruction, often against backgrounds of domestic surfaces such as lace tablecloths, striped sheets, the corner of a room.

The ambiguity of this sexual imagery, its aggressive violence, has been one of the reasons for the power and humor in Surrealism. This is particularly true in the case of the filmmaker most associated with Surrealism, Luis Buñuel. Buñuel's career began with the image of the slicing of an eye, an extremely graphic depiction of the trauma of the body. Expressing that trauma, the trauma of repression and negation, provided Buñuel with the source of much of his provocation: the lovers grasping each other while wallowing in mud in L'AGE D'OR, the paraphernalia for feminine hygiene in DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, the tongue of the Devil enticing the saint in SIMNON OF THE DESERT, the bloodstain on the sheet in BELLE DE JOUR, the amputation of the leg in TRISTANA. The expression of l'amour fou, a primary focus for Surrealist art, was always within the confines of heterodox sexuality, with the scenario codified in terms of male desire and female objectification. (It's worth noting that the term "object of desire," so ubiquitous in radical psychology and film theory, became the title of Buñuel's last movie.)

Surrealism provided a basis for an alternative cine ma, and one founded on psychosexual imagery. In addition to Buñuel, another beneficiary of the patronage of collectors such as the Vicomte de Noailles, was Jean Cocteau, whose LE SANG D'UN POETE would provide inspiration for the U.S. avant-garde cinema, where the prominence of gay artists is undeniable.

The conjunction of a political idea with a personal sexuality has resulted in an alternative film practice and a politicized gay consciousness. This has been the occasion for much of the work in How Do I Look? as well as the recent Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival.

The accessibility of video and small-gauge film making has enabled many artists to work in the media with the ease of a pen, a typewriter, a home computer, fulfilling the ideal once expressed by Alexandre Astruc for the caméra-stylo.

I would like to concentrate on some of the super-8 films shown at the Third Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival, discussing how the filmmakers use the resources and the limitations of the small-gauge film to define a style, which, in turn, provides a formal correlative to very specific thematic concerns. These concerns are tied to ideas of intimacy, of private experience, and of introspection. Before I get into that, I'd like to discuss the difference between video and super-8 film, because, though there are similarities, there are many differences which account for technical and formal distinctions.

While it is true that both super-8 and video (in the recent development of camcorders and VHS home units) are easily accessible, highly flexible, and readily available, there are some rather obvious technical constraints that become important when aesthetic considerations come into play. Obviously, the look that is possible in video is vastly different from the look possible in super-8. In terms of the viewing conditions, the video image is the source of light, while in film the image is projected from behind the viewer. In super-8, the length of possible projection is limited. Super-8 was developed as a home media: it was assumed that the place for viewing would be a room in a residential dwelling. The super-8 projected image is necessarily softer than larger film gauges and the focus of super-8 projection, is restricted to close range. Most of the best work in super-8 takes these factors into account, and uses these factors to consolidate the specific viewpoint.

One of the most important features of super-8 in the past decade and a half was the development of a reasonable sound technology. Once that happened, the possibility for narrative and for commentary was established, and super-8 became a genuine alternative medium for many artists.

This can be seen in Peggy Ahwesh's MARTINA'S PLAYHOUSE. The film is an extended encounter with Martina, a little girl. The visual field of the film comprises the space of play: the interior of a room, with toys and children's books all around. Martina's forthright presence, her extroverted commentary, and her bantering with her mother, create the sense of "polymorphous perversity," the limited arena of uninhibited play. Yet this arena is necessarily enclosed by the limits of the scale of childhood. The circumscription of the visual space is entirely appropriate to the parameters of Martina's play space. MARTINA'S PLAYHOUSE is a bright and provocative film: the provocation comes from the uninhibited exuberance of Martina herself. The intense but softened colors of super-8 give the film a fantasy aura, which helps to accentuate the childlike intimacy of the film.

Provocation is important to Lisa Laquier's MÜLL. The film uses cluttered, cropped, often choppy imagery to tell this concealed story of convent life. The foreshortened focus that is part of the mechanics of super-8 is used as a way to indicate the claustrophobia of the nuns' habitat. The space of the film becomes a shallow theatrical space against which sexual rituals are played out.

Of the performance-oriented super-8 films, Robert Hilferty's LE CIRQUE DU SIDA is one of the most complex. A lament sung by Diamanda Galas accompanies rapidly edited images of the circus, in bursts of color and light. The precise flight of acrobats, the hustle-bustle of the clowns, and the exacting feats of the jugglers: these glimpses are joined in a piercing rhythm, so that the images seem to flare up suddenly, as the music creates a counterpoint emphasizing loss.

Jennifer Montgomery's HOME AVENUE is a straightforward "confessional" of sexual trauma. Here, the limited range of super-8 accentuates the sense of closeness to the subject. Stylistically, there is the counterpoint of the bright images of suburbia, and the quietly commanding statements made on the soundtrack. The telephoto traveling shots seem to flatten out the distances of the suburban landscape. This suggests the possibility of something hidden, traumas trapped within the placid surfaces. If the focus of MART!NA'S PLAYHOUSE suggested a landscape of uninhibited play, the focus of HOME AVENUE depicts a landscape of hidden terrors, of fearful ravages in childhood.

Carl George's DHPG MON AMOUR is a deeply affecting account of a couple living with AIDS. The affliction of one of the partners is a source of great resolve. The usage of the experimental drug DHPG has become a daily ritual, part of the same daily routine of grocery shopping, cooking, watching television. Integrating the treatment into their lives, these two men show the courage with which many are now facing their lives. The commentary was recorded some time after the filming; the commentary details, without histrionics and without self-pity, the changes that occur over the course of the disease. The film is spare, lacking in adornment, unaffected, and this simplicity is, ultimately, the source of the film's power.

Jim Hubbard has been working in super-8, often with film that he develops himself. His aesthetic functions in part on that complete involvement. ELEGY IN THE STREETS is a lyrical assemblage centering on the AIDS crisis. There are reminiscences of a friend who died of AIDS, of demonstrations, and of activities by ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). ELEGY IN THE STREETS suggests the consolidation of the gay movement through the agency of this health crisis. Without spelling out the points in an obvious way, the film weaves disparate strands from the public to the personal to mesh into a picture of one aspect of current gay politics.

This sampling of the super-8 films that were included in the recent Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival was unfailingly interesting. The most effective films (MARTINA'S PLAYHOUSE, HOME AVENUE, DHPG MON AMOUR, ELEGY IN THE STREETS) dispensed with the usual trappings of "art" in order to convey events with urgency and acuity. In such cases, the films were works of advocacy, and the forcefulness of the films had much to do with the success of that advocacy.

This brings me to another point when dealing with "alternative" cinema in any way, the critic is often placed in the position of advocacy as well. To write on gay culture at this time is to take a political position. Prior to the severe onslaught of AIDS in the gay community, there were a number of contradictory positions in terms of gay cinema. For those with an interest in narrative cinema, there was the attempt to discern gay iconography within the cracks and crevices of the standard commercial cinema. But the lack of recognition for alternative viewpoints within the commercial cinema has meant that little narrative work in the movies has dealt with the issues that are now so urgently present for the gay community. Nevertheless, the history of "alternative" cinema has been founded on the assumption that alternative points of view have validity in terms of representation. When dealing with works of advocacy, the critical viewpoint on the films must coincide with a political point of view. Quite frankly: is one sympathetic to a film about "progressive" childhood expressions of sexuality? Is one sympathetic to a film about the trauma of sexual molestation? Is one sympathetic to a film about living with "experimental" treatments for AIDS?

The incredible proliferation of gay media in the past few years has been the result of the increased politicization of the gay community in response to the AIDS crisis. For this mason, much of the work has been in easily accessible formats, such as video or super-8. And it would be unfair to judge this work in terms of aesthetics that did not take into account the intended effectiveness of the works. Do these films communicate the specific sociocultural messages that their creators intended? Do these films convey the essential aesthetic for which their creators were aiming? In short, do these films speak a truth?

At a symposium sponsored by The Museum of Modern Art in 1980, the late Arthur Bell asked four Hollywood producers about the progressive depiction of gay life, as opposed to the distorted and homophobic treatment in CRUISING. David Brown, probably the most seasoned Hollywood producer on the panel, answered firmly and decisively. He said that if CRUISING were a flop, that would be that. But if CRUISING were a hit and there were evidence that the mass audience wanted to see gay men depicted as psychopathic killers, then there would be more movies with gay men as psychopathic killers. Hollywood is a market mentality, and the only morality in Hollywood is whether the product will sell. Brown did not try to pretend to a political or an aesthetic point of view: it was strictly a matter of economics. There were options, and gay activists could attempt to influence public opinion, dissuading viewers from going to the movie, but, if people wanted to go, that would be the message of the movie. But "the bottom line" was operative, and that was the only arbiter of Hollywood's depiction of gay life.

At this time, there is an importance to empowerment, to self-assertion, to identification. The proliferation of gay media right now is an indication of the urgency of gay representation. There should be no delusion that this task of representation may still occur in circumstances which are defined in terms of "the bottom line," for the representation of gay reality is still a political act. In terms of the super-8 films, the sparseness, the unadorned directness, the simplicity of means, are the way of creating statements speaking right at the heart of current gay life. And these statements are necessarily intimate, as befits the situation of being gay.

The films at the Third Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival state the truth of gay politics: one must be true to oneself before one can confront the world honestly, forthrightly, and without shame. In the best of the super-8 films, this statement finds a formal correlative, combining to create unusually affecting and effective works.