Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Or Oscar for Ms. Blanchett!

Perhaps getting ahead of myself. I headed into this preview screening at the BFI full of trepidation. Would Todd Haynes mess it up, overstylising his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1950s lesbian-themed novel, lavish on his box of cinematic tricks and miss the wood for the trees? Thanksfully,No. Haynes hits it out of the park, as we used to say, back in the old neighbourhood. That neighbourhood was slightly north of Manhattan, seen here in all its sepia-toned loveliness, a time when men wore hats and women like Cate Blanchett's Carol wore gloves. And what gloves! Those gloves, so artlessly left on the counter of Therese's (Rooney Mara) department store counter, prove so alluring that she sweeps them up, takes them home and eventually posts them to their owner who promptly reciprocates by phoning her on the shop floor and inviting her to lunch. As you do. And so it begins.

Their romance, teased out through home visits, car journeys to New Jersey and eventually a rather unexpected road trip to Chicago (!) brings the older, wealthier Carol into the orbit of the younger, breathlessly naive Therese, so green she doesn't know how to order at a restaurant, much less define her sexual identity. Blanchett's indefatigable tranche of meaningful looks, hair tosses and the occasional pat on the shoulder is a delight to watch. One envies Therese, for how can she resist?

Despite having read the book many years ago, I didn't recall many plot details and agonised over how the story would play out, as Carol is put through the wringer by her soon-to-be-ex-husband, who is keen to punish her for leaving him and uses their daughter as payback. Carol and Therese's relationship alters as the balance of power shifts, and it is also a lovely touch to see that Carol has an ex-lover who remains a loyal friend, so rare in mainstream films that isolate lesbian relationships. I was enthralled, my one gripe being the sex scenes seemed a bit porny, as seen through a male lens. Generally, though, the tone of the film is just right, not so in thrall to period detail that it forgets the characters or their very powerful emotions.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015


Finally, finally, finally I caught up with this film depicting the struggle of British women for the vote some 100 years ago, and by an accident of timing, on US Election Day of all days. I have been prepping by reading up on Sylvia Pankhurst, the radical activist branch of the famous family. Ironically, Sylvia does not appear in the film, and Emmeline's much vaunted appearance (courtesy of the venerable Meryl Streep) amounts to one striking speech and then a quick getaway.

A curious beast, this Suffragette. The lead character is a fictionalised launderess in Bethnal Green, played by Carey Mulligan, who is radicalised both by her grinding poverty and social inequities, as well as her associations with suffrage agitators, including Mrs. Pankhurst. Making a working-class woman the protagonist is to be applauded, but in fact, Mrs. Pankhurst was not at all interested in class struggle and specifically withdrew her WSPU organisation from the East End. It was her daughter Sylvia who was devoted to getting the East End involved in the struggle, who made common cause with the nascent Labour Party and who had a life-long intersectional political outlook. Her acknowledgement in Suffragette is limited to one comment by a male character that "Even Sylvia doesn't approve of the violence." No, she didn't, but she had a lot more to offer than that.

Well, what is in the film? Several real-life suffragettes, including the martyred Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), who flits in and out of the film, arriving in a prison scene and departing via her confrontation with the King's horse at the Derby. In between, we learn precisely nothing about her politics, her life, her reasoning. Nothing except that she hands Maud a book she has received from the suffragette/pharmacist Edith Ellyn (a delightfully arch Helena Bonham Carter), who I am intrigued to learn was a real person. Must read up on her.

While I got fired up watching the women venting their spleen by smashing shop windows in Oxford Street and blowing up pillar boxes, I felt there wasn't nearly enough depiction of this in the film, especially as it spends no time discussing their politics, perhaps reasoning that "votes for women" is self-explanatory. But, it isn't, as the split between the Pankhursts makes evident. Votes for which women? In the end, we are left with a dignified procession for Davison and a scrolling list of countries granting the right to women. The film feels very much like an exercise designed to be used as a teaching tool about equality. This may also explain the downplaying of the violence experienced by the protesters on the streets as well as in the prisons. There is only one depiction of force-feeding, suffered by Maud. While it is awful, it is nowhere near as harrowing as that shown in The Baader-Meinhof Complex, for example. Clearly, the filmmakers wanted that 12A rating.

The film's heart is clearly with the downtrodden women suffering degradation and belittlement at the hands of violent husbands (Anne-Marie Duff's Violet bears the brunt of this depiction) and sexual harassing bosses (Maud's intervention in this regard is curiously underplayed). It could have been much, much more.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Unidentified Photo Object

Nothing spooky to report today, other than this Halloween emoji. Even that is a castoff from the emoji I couldn't get to work in Twitter.

Anyway, enough about my digital incompetence. I have had two rather underwhelming gallery visits recently, not for the subject matter but for the presentation. Galleries in Shoreditch seem to think that presenting photographs without captions or with minimalist captions is somehow doing the art a favour. I disagree.

Last week I saw the Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism exhibit at Autograph ABP, touring the cool, white space at Rivington Place in quick time, partly because the accompanying information was so utterly inadequate. Photo after photo was captioned with a location and a date, but no information on the subject. Who were those young people slouching against a wall in Hackney? Those two girls at a rally? No idea. In some cases the identifing info could be quite important, as Shelton shot both anti-racist and far right participants. One should not get confused as to who was who!

Moreover, what information was given in the captions was annoyingly shabby. "Jimmy Percy" was some kind of singer, apparently, who performed at the famous RAR gig at Victoria Park in 1978. It wouldn't take more than a quick web search to work out this character was actually Jimmy Pursey. Similarly, "Dennis Bovel" is actually Dennis Bovell, not only a musician but also producer of some renown. I met him some years back at a Slits gig and told him how great the production is on The Slits' Cut. I'm sure there were other slip-ups I missed, but mis-spellings in exhibits is a bugbear of mine and spoils the viewing. If it's important enough to go in a gallery, the text should be given as much attention as the artwork.

At least there were captions in that exhibit. When I stopped by After the Fall: Berlin 1990/2000 at Red Gallery a couple of weeks ago, I found three walls of photos with no captions at all. What the heck? Who were all those people, I wondered. What were their squats called? What was their relationship to techno? as an introductory text opined. I found it a most frustrating experience and did not linger long. Context matters.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015


Volcano Castle; photo: Val Phoenix
No gold was found, but I did enjoy my day trip to sunny Folkestone at the weekend. My companion Helga and I attempted to find the elusive Creative Quarter mentioned in guides to the town, only to get lost and request assistance at the library. We were directed back up the hill and then saw the giant Creative Quarter sign flapping in the breeze. Sadly, the Quarter is in need of a bit of a spark, if the many empty if attractive properties for let in the Old High Street are anything to go by. Helga and I attempted to come up with some nifty business ideas, including our screenplay-in-the-window wheeze (£50 per page was my pitch). Such a lovely town. It needs some visitor love.

I was terribly motivated to find some of the gold bars left from last year's Biennale project, Folkestone Digs, and so we arrived on the Sunny Sands Beach equipped with trowel and colander. Our digging for gold proved fruitless, but Helga did leave behind her post-modern creation Volcano Castle for the sea to reclaim. I handled the documentation for the piece, as well as contributing the essential final touch, the shells. Some of my best work, I think.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The End of Summer

Dewy flowers; photo: Val Phoenix
Well, if this rain is anything to go by, summer seems to have departed. Before it breathed its last, it shone on my screening at Wotever DIY Film Festival last week. I have had a stressful time of it recently and wasn't fully alive to the joys of the day, but it was great to meet some enthusiastic filmgoers and see work by my fellow retrospective-ees, Barrelstout and Krissy Mahan. I think they both have more of the camp in them than me, although my next projected film is highly camp. Perhaps I have been saving it up. But, I think their work responds more to pop culture than I ever have. I seem to dredge up rather obscure elements for my films. I don't fully understand them myself!

Looking forward to September, I anticipate eagerly publication of Carol Morley's 7 Miles Out, which is billed as fiction but seems to be autobiographical, if the publicity notes are anything to go by. Anyone who's seen her doc, The Alcohol Years, knows she is not averse to putting her eventful life under the microscope, which makes me wonder why it's a work of fiction. Why not just write some memoirs? Legal reasons? Well, she is doing some readings so perhaps this will all be revealed. I had not realised that Carol's life and mine had overlapped until she commented after the Wotever screening that she had met someone who appears in one of my films. "I knew her when I was 14", she said, and I burst out laughing as I suddenly realised the connection. "Six degrees", she added. A small world indeed, especially if it involves underground music and rebellious women.

So long, summer. Wish I'd got in more blackberries, but I ate all of the ones I picked without freezing any at all.

As a memento of the season, here are some flowers I shot recently. No idea what they are, though.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

One Third of a Retrospective

Next month festivalgoers will have the chance to honour my illustrious film-making career as I receive a retrospective (!) at Wotever DIY Film Festival. Four of my films will be shown, alongside those of Barrelstout (Bev Zalcock and Sara Chambers) and Krissy Mahan on 22 August in London.

It's a curious state of affairs to be part of a three-way retrospective, but I welcome the chance to get screened in a queer setting, and to discuss DIY film-making with the other practitioners. Bev and Sara I know well, but Krissy is flying in for the occasion. Should be good stuff. I believe I will be showing: Totally Girl Powered, In Bloom, War with Love and the world premiere of The Woman from the Future.

My only concern is we are on opposite the networking session, and I'll want to get some nibbles!

Monday, June 22, 2015

ACT UP 25 memories

SF Pride 1990; photo: L.A.
While I am a great one for marking anniversaries, I almost let slip a very big one: the 25th anniversary of ACT UP protests at the Sixth International Conference on AIDS. Not that I forgot about the actions. They were my coming of age as an activist. I only joined ACT UP in the weeks leading up to the protests and was a very nervous legal observer at some of the demos during that week in June. But, I decided to put my body on the line, as it were, and join in the Women's Day Action, which was June 22, 1990, 25 years ago today.

I wrote a bit about this time in my recently completed MRes dissertation, which I quote below.

Coming out in 1989 was not about exercising personal freedom, and it certainly was not about donning the cloak of respectability to be like everyone else, join the military or get married. It meant joining a community under siege. Once I came out, I knew I had a responsibility to this community, and I was quick to join direct action groups ACT UP and then Queer Nation, seeking to do my bit. I do not think this Generation Y (or whatever they are called) necessarily has this raison d’être. As Jose Muñoz writes in Disidentifications, “The social is both a stage and a battlefield” (Muñoz 1999, p. 199). Every day we need to pick our battles carefully. And ACT UP exemplified this in its tactics. Many members of ACT UP made it their business to get arrested. One of my comrades, Peggy Sue (she described the moniker as her nom de guerre), was quite keen on it, turning her arrests into a kind of performance art. She had mastered the art of yelling as she was dragged away and was known to enjoy the process, ticking off her arrests with pride.
I was not so keen. As my particular battlefield, I chose a big one, getting arrested at the Sixth International Conference on AIDS in June, 1990. It was the women-only day, and I sat down with several hundred others at the intersection of Sixth and Market streets, thereby “blocking a public thoroughfare”, as the charge sheet described it. My friend L. was meant to stay on the side-lines and hold my glasses, but when I arrived at the jail with scores of other detainees, a police officer drew my attention to someone waving to me from an adjoining paddock, my spectacles in her hand. L. told me later she could not refrain from joining in when she saw us being arrested. My glasses were unharmed, and I was grateful to see clearly once more. During our stay in jail, we held an activist fashion show, women parading down an imaginary catwalk, hands still cuffed behind their backs. Availablism in action.
True to form, San Francisco has been marking the anniversary in fine style, with events at old haunts such as The Women's Building and Cafe Flore. I wish I'd known well in advance. But, I like to think I have joined in the reunion in spirit, if not in person.

Two days after that demo was my first Pride march, which I attended in my Women ACT UP t-shirt, protest turning to celebration, as various marches flowed into one another and we experienced the mix of emotions that comes with the cycle of life and death.