Notes from the Homo, Underground

Jerry Tartaglia

Printed in MFJ No. 41 (Fall 2003) Lesbian and Gay Experimental Cinema/Stan Brakhage Remembrances


Old Stone to new building, old timber to new fires, Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth Which is already flesh, fur, and faeces, Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf. —East Coker, T.S. Eliot

Twenty five years ago in the pages of the Millennium Film Journal I posed the question to my readers, “is there a gay sensibility in avant garde film?” In the quarter century that followed, the evolution of gay cinema has been impacted by a series of transformations in the political, technological, artistic, social, and cultural arenas which were quite unimaginable in the mid 1970s. These transformations span the breadth of the social and creative landscape: the rise and demise of analog video; the e m e rgence of digital technology, new media, and the internet; the decimation of the Stonewall generation by the A.I.D.S. epidemic; the emergence of A.I.D.S. activism; the near-death experience of experimental film in the 80s and its rejuvenation through the evolution of community-based festivals and micro-cinemas. These and a multitude of other factors, including the emergence of Queer cultural and cinema studies, would require us to frame the question differently, if at all.

Today the questions are distilled to a point at which one cannot presuppose the essentialist formulations of gay identity nor the modernist assumptions which gave rise to the notion of avant-garde cinema. We might reform the questions in this way: “is there such a thing as avant-garde film?” or “is there actually a gay identity?” or even the ultimate post post-modern, twenty-first century question “is there any cultural value in exploring these ideas?” But these reformulations suffer from their own nostalgic blind spots. The simple fact is that in the mid 1970’s it was important for there to be a declaration in the arena of public discourse that the dominant critical viewpoint of what was then called ‘avantgarde film’ was not the only legitimate viewpoint. Formalist analysis did not offer any elucidation of the work of hundreds of filmmakers and other artists that came into being outside of that one particular creative vantage point. It may seem surprising to realize that Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures was rarely, if ever, discussed in writing as a cultural product of a Queer/gay man working in the New York underground film scene before, during, and after Stonewall. The result of that kind of critical silence caused a skewed perception of the work. An incomplete study ought never to be accepted as comprehensive. Conversely, students of Queer culture should be loath to claim that Smith’s films are only ABOUT Queerness. Such an analysis would be deficient, for it is obvious to any student of cinema, that these works of art exist on many levels of appreciation, analysis, and, (with apologies to Ms. Sontag) interpretation. My earlier study arose from the need to “out” the discourse, rather than the filmmakers. But today the task is more complex.

Cinema is very much a living art form that reflects the human condition. Cinema absorbs and transforms ideas and experiences. Cinema sometimes succeeds in and sometimes fails to inspire its viewers. Cinema can act as an agent of growth, change, and stimulation. Cinema is a vehicle of evolution of the spirit of the maker and a tool for growth of the viewer. However, these qualities exist as particularities of the individual human being who creates the work. For example, can Un Chant d’Amour ever be separated from the life of the person who created it? Of course not; it is informed by the life experiences of Jean Genet. In avant-garde/experimental/personal cinema, the relationship between the artist and the work is always present as an element in the process of analysis. The film artist cannot be amputated from her work in the way that a director of a Hollywood industrial film can be. The sensibility of the human being who made the film also informs the aesthetics upon which the film was constructed. When that human being has had to experience the discovery that their sexuality is different from others and that there is some social rejection as a result of that difference, the creative sensibility is affected. As I did twenty five years ago, I again quote Jonas Mekas, writing in his Movie Journal:

A thing that may scare an average viewer is that this cinema is treading on the very edge of perversity (sic). These artists are without inhibitions, sexual or any other kind…They all contain homosexual and lesbian elements. The homosexuality because of its existence outside the official moral conventions, has unleashed sensitivities and experiences which have been at the bottom of much great poetry since the beginning of humanity. (Mekas, Movie Journal, p.85)

In short, sexuality does make a difference and I reach back into the 1970’s to Jonas Mekas to remind us that this experimental or avant-garde Lesbian/Gay Cinema is intimately linked to the “Underground Film Movement” of America in the mid 20th Century. The technology has evolved. The number of artists in Queer Cinema has exponentially multiplied. The varieties of styles and creative experiments have grown enormously. The arenas for discourse and interchange have leapt off the printed page onto the net. Queer supplants “gay and lesbian” as an identifier. Yet the fundamental paradigm of this “Queer Experimental Cinema” remains fundamentally unchanged since the days of Jean Cocteau and Maya Deren, and therein is the source of much of the difficulty and joy which has distressed Queer filmmakers for these many years. Queer Cinema is formulated in a context that sometimes abrades the edges of The Underground Cinema.

It is not a purposeful torment, but it is an oftentimes unenviable position to be in. Certain “avant-garde” film programmers will not show “Queer” work because it is not dealing with issues of “pure cinema.” Queer film festivals will refuse to show work made by Lesbian/Gay artists if the work does not “address a queer issue.” These distorted valuations come about because of the confluence and confusion of meanings and expectations that are associated with this “Other Cinema.” Perhaps it is the moniker that is problematic.

The naming of Avant Garde Cinema, like the naming of cats, is a difficult matter. It is a task best left to the flaming arena of Frameworks, where the nuances of distinction between film and digital media can be weighed against such appellations as “experimental” and “avant garde.” It would make more sense to name this cinema as one would name a cat, i.e., with three different names: one for daily use (when discussing work among friends)—”experimental cinema”; one for more particular dignified use (when writing about work in serious film journals)— ”avant-garde cinema”; and one that belongs only to the work itself, as unique and individual as the filmmakers themselves.

This elusive, seemingly unnamable Cinema is just that way for a very good reason. It has existed since the first movie film frame was created in the 19th Century and it appears in every era. It might best be identified by what it is not rather than by what it is supposed to achieve. It is a Cinema that stands in contradistinction to the mainstream production of Moving Image Media. It was and is an alternative, and oftentimes, an underground artform. The temptation, however, has been to try to describe experimental cinema in terms of GENRE, which will pretty much place the aesthetic battle lines somewhere between us and Hollywood. After all, Hollywood produces narrative fiction, while Queer experimental cinema encompasses a variety of forms, including home movies, activist videos, underground films, personal diaries, film/video essays, cinepoems, and narrative fiction. This is a comfortable and profitable position to take. It offends no one. It allows for Hollywood to indulge its mediocrity. It is respectful of the right to choose one’s own artform. It is sufficiently radical to fit into the paradigm of 21st Century assimilationist sexual politics.

Unfortunately, the Genre model of Queer Experimental Cinema is responsible for a number of serious problems, film festivals among them. The late James Broughton attributed to Peter Kubelka the term “festival kitsch” and it accurately targets the pitfalls of these annual sales conventions, which have become the obsession of every Underground, Transgressive, and Hollywood wannabe. Lesbian/gay/bisexual/queer/transgender film festivals have now become the primary venue for this work. They suffer from the same flaws as all film festivals. The Opening Night star-fucking party takes place after the overhyped Feature Film (usually preceded by a “short”) persuades its audience that narrative cinema can include US. The quest to find and/or to create “positive” lesbian and gay images in movies is driven by a need to be validated on the silver screen, as if life itself is only made real by its representation in movies. It is a form of assimilationism: the delusional belief that Queers are just like everybody else. That is the first problem with festivals: they are rooted in assimilationist politics but they target a specialized audience.

The “kitsch” issue is another. Festival programmers have the task of filling the theater with as many paid ticket holders on as many nights of the event as possible. This requires the creation of “programs” which consist either of single feature length films, or groups of short works clustered around a theme or common element. Thus we end up with seventy minutes of “Boys’ Shorts,” “Maps of the Queer Body,” and my personal favorite, “Experimental Excursions.” The first two programs might include works that straddle narrative style, documentary technique, and personal confession but lack the charm of even the most morbid offering from Mel Gibson. The latter program is usually called “experimental” because the programmers do not know where else to put these films and since they have no direct knowledge of the art of making cinema, they are unable to distinguish between fortuitous accidents and genuine inventive technique. Seen within a program of short films, a weak but pretentious work may appear to be provocative, intriguing, amusing, or otherwise engaging. In fact, it is merely kitsch, which usually rises to the lowest level of market appeal. The festival system creates stars and their attendant flash-in-the-pan comets, and it glorifies what is novel while encouraging the consumerist throwaway mentality in art.

This is all the result of thinking about experimental cinema as GENRE.

There is another possibility, however. To begin to truly appreciate the scope of the ongoing evolution of Queer Cinema, we need to examine the social context in which the work is created, as well as the relationship between the artist and the artform. While this approach might be disconcerting to those who view cinema as if it were only a phenomenon of personal expression, the convergence of homosex, cinema, technology, and political struggle demands a more expansive analytic vision. You may convince yourself that your queer sexuality is your personal business and that a more encompassing political/social vision is just not your personal choice, and that the formulae for success apply equally to everyone and, by golly, queers aren’t any different from other people, and there’s a place for everyone at the bountiful table of greed. You may convince yourself of that, yes, but do not speak to me of it, for it is an affront to the Dead.

Early in the last century, social philosophers began the ongoing critique of the deepening injustices against individual liberty that were prompted by the ascendancy of media corporations and their attendant impact on democratic structures. By the end of the last century the media monopolies had cemented relationships with Government, that are both alarming and dangerous. It has now grown far beyond what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer identified when they wrote about the “Culture Industry” in the 1940’s. We now live in a global media fantasy— a spectacle of unrestrained distortion. It is no longer a question of impartiality in journalism; it is now about the power of media conglomerates like AOL Time Warner which owns Atlantic Records, CNN, HBO, Turner Classic Movies, Sports Illustrated, Time Warner Cable, Entertainment Weekly, Book of the Month, Warner Brothers, Cinemax, Castle Rock Entertainment, New Line Cinema, and dozens of other entities. Conglomerates like this design and control the information, the entertainment, and the representations of the opposition.

The moving image entertainment spectacle is now so intricately intertwined with the money and power interests of this culture that it is inconceivable to imagine any rebellion against this universal order. Why bother, after all; it is a dystopia in which the dissenter is an anomaly. Indeed, the representation of dissent has become a legitimate image in the Show. The effectiveness of Political Art has been tempered by the Spectacle’s power to continually absorb and mollify criticism. If you say that it is racist, media products will instantly appear that address racial “concerns.” Claim that it lacks the moral backbone to deal with A.I.D.S. and you will see a plethora of informational programs. Do you identify sexism? Whoosh—like magic, women will appear as reporters on the screen. Not enough ethnic representation? Globalization remedies that problem. Are you saying that the media spectacle is homophobic? No—here are all of these amusing/touching/inspiring lesbian and gay characters.

But these representations of queer life are being marketed as part of a larger package. The “Big Show” is selling consumerism—media consumerism—and whether the color of the money is green or lavender does not matter. The rules of the marketplace apply. Like all products of the culture industry, these positive images are the result of an artificially-created need: the need to belong to the heterocentric culture. The fulfillment of that “need” successfully ensures the eradication of the quest to reclaim Queer Culture. It reinforces the usurpation of Queer Culture by the mainstream. The audience is the customer, and the customer must always be given what he or she wants. The mainstream population wants to belong not to dissent. So any queer media “product” that actually challenges the normalcy of the mainstream doesn’t get into the Show. And lastly, works of art are merely commodities (we have Warhol to thank for this one). Last year’s films and videos are outmoded. The past has nothing to say. Market the present/Devalue the past.

So here we are with our ten and twenty minute videos, and in some cases, celluloid films, trying to speak our little truths in the face of a monster that has more heads than Hydra. It sometimes seems overwhelming. Hydra, you may recall, was one of the mythic multi-headed monsters slain by Hercules. If you cut off one of the heads, two more would grow in its place. The monster, the Spectacle, the Big Show, has a way of regenerating after any assault, absorbing criticism, and is infinitely adaptable.

But Queer Experimental Cinema has its own inherent strengths. We CAN bring about change, but it will require a rediscovery and reaffirmation of the essential differences between straight and Queer in order to recreate the paradigm in which Queer Experimental Cinema is created and exhibited.

Exhibitors of Queer Cinema should adopt a new policy: all work is accepted and shown. All of it. Period. If a filmmaker has exerted the energy in the past year to produce something, then it should be shown. The idea that programmers have the right to exclude works of Queer expression is, well, frankly outrageous. A culture of equality is built upon respect for one another and from that comes a genuine attempt to understand one another. Under the present system of the Festival Exclusion Committees, many voices are silenced so that a small, elite number can be seen and heard.

In addition, the idea that only new work is worthy of being exhibited should be put on the rubbish heap along with other consumerist fantasies. The present and the past are inextricably linked. Those who deny our connections with the past will produce only novelty. Killing and devouring the ancestors is a hetero-cultural nightmare which we need not accept as part of the Queer paradigm.

Lastly, the pursuit of profit has created a no-win situation for Cinema. Profit relies upon the creation of false needs in media consumers, the exclusion of the many for the sake of the few, and by the inflated valuation of the promises that are held out by novelty.

Queer Cinema Is. We exist—as others have existed before us. We honor our past, and create the future. And when the MediaHydra extends the illusionary offer to us that we will ride with it to the stars, and there attain the wealth and fame that is part of the American Dream, if only we would just focus our films a little more, and steady the camera a bit. We resist. We keep shooting, we continue to work in Super 8, we blend “pornography” and cinema, we genderfuck, we use optical printers and FCP, we defy the Order in whatever way we choose, because it is OUR Cinema, and we are the portal to the light and the love which their big movies cannot know.