Wednesday, March 31, 2010

LLGFF: Out of the Blue + Untouchable Girls

Still from The Topp Twins: Untouchable GirlsOut of the Blue (dir Alain Tasma)

The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls (dir Leanne Pooley)

Just to round off my rather patchy coverage of this year's festival, owing to unfortunate restrictions on time, etc., here are a couple of uplifting pieces, one drama, one doc.

Out of the Blue is a French drama about Marion, a woman who leaves her husband, sets up house and then meets an intriguing younger woman. But, the course of true love never runs smooth, owing to a jealous ex who can't let go and the brattiest teenager I have seen committed to film in a long time. Much melodrama and waving of arms ensues. Will Marion have the courage to commit to her new life?

The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, about New Zealand's yodelling lesbian sisters, is a well-made doc showing their lives through music and a series of unfortunate haircuts (well, they started out in the '70s) right up until a triumphant home-town show. I was aware of the Topps, having seen them at some US womyn's music festival years ago, but I had no idea how big they were in their homeland, even helping force through gay rights legislation. So, it's reassuring to see them getting their due. I'm not a big fan of yodelling, but I was impressed by their incredible repartee, honed since, well, birth.

Monday, March 29, 2010

LLGFF: Gender Variant

Still from Riot Acts: Flaunting Gender Deviance in Music PerformanceRiot Acts: Flaunting Gender Deviance in Music Performance (dir Madsen Minax)

The Last Summer of La Boyita (dir Julia Solomonoff)

Although the LLGFF lags a bit behind the times in remaining L and G, rather than expanding to LGBTQI (have I missed any acronyms???), there is an increasing number of transgender-related films in the programme, including these, the first a doc on gender-variant musicians in the USA (and one in Canada), the second a thoughtful Argentina-set drama.

While the musicians in Riot Acts are public performers, performing in bars, clubs and at festivals, they are also managing quite private situations, sometimes still transitioning or changing identity. Some are on testosterone, some are still getting to grips with changes in vocal range or quality, wondering how their efforts to synchronise their bodies and minds will affect their music. I was particularly impressed with the low-key dignity of Joe from Coyote Grace, an acoustic duo from Sonoma, CA. Joe had a particularly interesting story: he got together with his musical and life partner as a woman and then transitioned, meaning their personal and private lives had to go through a shift. They still play lesbian bars, causing him to reflect: "Why should that be a surprise? I love being here."

No such self-knowledge for Mario, the rural, teenaged farmhand in The Last Summer of La Boyita. Worked as hard as the horses by his brutish father, he finds a friend in Jorgelina, who visits with her father, the farm's owner, for a summer and discovers it isn't just her older sister who is going through the full range of growing pains, including developing breasts and menstruating. Unfortunately, for Mario, rural Argentina isn't the greatest place to be gender-variant, and the story is painful to watch as it plays out, unfolding slowly, with layers of meaning being unwrapped. It reminded me a bit of XXY, with the teenaged character showing far more poise and dignity than the adults. Perhaps there is a bit of a boom in such stories in Argentina.

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

LLGFF: Reclamation

Still from Christopher StrongLadies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (dir Lou Adler)

Christopher Strong (dir Dorothy Arzner)

I'm all for reclaiming lost films and assessing them in the light of modernity. Certainly, last night, having viewed these two, I am full of thoughts, some contradictory. It's also sobering to think how little has changed, in some ways, since these two films were shot and released.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains was presented under the auspices of Unskinny Bop and is obviously one of their favourites and cited by many bloggers as proto-Riot Grrrl, so I was looking forward to my first viewing of it. Odd I have never seen it, as though it had a small release in 1982, apparently it has gained most of its cult status from repeated cable viewings in the '80s. I did have access to cable TV in the '80s but never caught it. Too busy watching Radio 1990, I guess.

Well, what to say? There is so much right about this film, from its portrayal of disaffected teenaged girls from small towns seeking escape, to its portrayal of a cynical and manipulative music industry, to its hilarious depiction of British bands taking to the road for their big breakthrough US tours becoming disillusioned. (How many times does Paul Simonon ask: "When do we get to California?")

But, feminist? Proto-Riot Grrrl? I don't think so. Diane Lane's Corinne Burns sets off with her sister and cousin as The Stains to make it out of Charlestown, PA. Her only concern is getting out, not connecting with other girls or making a statement. At no point in the film does she really have any contact with her audience, other than insulting one woman in the front row of the band's first gig. While legions of girls follow The Stains and dress like them, taking up their mantra of "We Don't Put Out", this is portrayed as some kind of herd-like fashion statement, not any kind of empowerment.

Crucially, for me, there is no indication any of these Skunks forms her own band or moves from being a consumer of culture to a creator. This was the important message of both first-wave punk and Riot Grrrl: DIY. That doesn't happen in the film. And as for The Stains' supposed triumph, becoming a fluffy MTV band and losing all their rough edges and anger? How is that a triumph? I think the film works brilliantly as a satire of the power of media and is quite prescient of reality TV. (I also think Spinal Tap took some pointers from it.) But, I can't see much of a feminist message.

As for the subtextfest that is Christopher Strong, crikey. Dorothy Arzner and Katharine Hepburn. Need I say more? Well, yes. Made in 1933, this period piece set in London features Hepburn in marvellous outfits (including a jaw-dropping shiny moth costume, complete with antennae) taking to the skies as a pioneering aviator locked in a quite ludicrous romance with dull aristo Colin Clive. Can't see it myself. But, Arzner and screenwriter Zoe Akins work in some marvellous mixed messages. To wit, saintly married lady and mother Billie Burke utters the immortal line: "Marriage and children make almost any woman old-fashioned and intolerant." How the audience roared at that one. But, of course Hepburn's transgressive, trouser-wearing character cannot possibly get away with her behaviour and dies a fiery crash landing death. Arrgh.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

LLGFF: Eloise + And Then Came Lola

Still from EloiseAh, the perils of coupledom. If it's not the domineering mother putting the kibosh on a budding relationship, it's the ex worming her way back into the picture.

And Then Came Lola (dirs Megan Siler, Ellen Seidler) is a lesbian re-working of Run Lola, Run (Lola Rennt), relocated to San Francisco. But, instead of Lola running to save her partner from death, she needs to pick up some prints and deliver them to her girlfriend, who is meeting a client. So, not much drama there, except of the dyke variety--the client is the girlfriend's alluring ex. It's played for laughs, with Lola getting to grips with her flakiness, lack of responsibility and commitment-phobia. And being forced to make her haphazard journey across SF several times until she gets it right and actually "is there" for her partner. There are several running gags (pardon the pun), including a play on the title. But, I wouldn't want to spoil it for you.

No such fun and games for the star-crossed would-be lovers in Eloise (dir Jesus Garay), a beautifully crafted Catalan drama. Poor Asia lives a dreary life with her control freak mother, who actually times the amount of time the girl spends studying before tucking her into bed at night. Brrr. It's no wonder the girl looks with awe on confident, free-spirited art student Eloise and soon she is modelling for her and discovering more about herself. But, then the mother intervenes.... Brilliant performance by Ariadna Cabrol as Eloise, a dead ringer for Ani di Franco (see pic). But, there's no singing, just much scratching of charcoal pencils and longing glances, to excellent effect.
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

LLGFF: The Lost Women of Cinenova

Still from RosebudHaving attended last night's Cinenova programme at the LLGFF, I was surprised to be handed a sheet of paper, with many, many names on it. Names of filmmakers represented by Cinenova but who have now dropped off the radar. Names including Julie Dash, Joy Chamberlain and Jan Oxenberg. How can this be? How could these filmmakers become lost?

Well, partly this is down to the fact that Cinenova, which, as a distributor of work by women since 1991, has had no funding since 2001 and, hence, relies on volunteers.

But, I was also puzzled thinking about the work on show last night: except for Barbara Hammer, I could not recall any recent work by any of the filmmakers on show, including Cheryl Farthing and Annette Kennerley. Why was so much work produced by an array of UK lesbian filmmakers in the late '80s and early '90s, who then seemed to disappear from view? I put this to curator Naz Jamal, who suggested that many of the filmmakers chose to go on to do other things: they didn't necessarily want to pursue film as a career. But, I wondered if it was down to a lack of funding and other social changes since then. Fewer commissions from Channel 4? Lack of opportunities to go on to do features? Perhaps it parallels what I've noticed in punk: in their 30s women seemed to leave the music scene, only to emerge 20 years later. Perhaps these women will come back.

Speaker Helen de Witt commented on how surprised she was to see the style on show in the films, a far cry from the "boring, political" films remembered from that time. I remember it differently, as an exciting time full of style AND politics, of ACT UP, Queer Nation, Lesbian Avengers, and lots of exciting short experimental work coming across the pond from the UK to my then-domain of San Francisco, itself a hotbed of queer filmmaking. There was a lot to be angry about. Indeed, there still is, but filmmakers don't seem so interested in exploring that. We live in an era of rom-coms, with marriage and families taking centre-stage as topics for films.

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cafe Carbon

Gina and Kaffe of The Gluts at Cafe Carbon; photo by Val PhoenixCafe Oto

Another late night. You'd think I live in a metropolis or something. But, it is unusual. Anyway, just back from Cafe Carbon, a report-back from the much-maligned Copenhagen climate change conference, done in an arty style. To explain, it seems many, many artists made the trip to Copenhagen, either because they had commissions to tie in with the summit or because they wanted to do a bit of guerrilla activism/art. The Gluts appear to fall into the latter category.

A trio of Gina Birch, Hayley Newman and Kaffe Matthews, they have longstanding credentials in various artistic arenas. They are also self-proclaimed fans of climate change activists and tagged along on the activist train that ran from Brussels to Copenhagen, performing eco-friendly songs along the way and filming their activities. Cafe Carbon was their shindig and they showed their film and performed several food-themed songs, interspersed with various activists reporting on their own projects as well as exhorting the audience to be more active and less consumerist.

Among the projects highlighted was Emily James and co.'s forthcoming doc on UK climate change activists, including a visit to Copenhagen during which one filmmaker was arrested by Danish police on suspicion of being a terrorist. John Jordan also showed footage of his Bike Bloc action.

The Gluts lightened things up with their menu of songs, all on a theme of food. This included booty-shaking dance moves, "upcycled" outfits and many lyric changes from familiar songs. The capper was guest performer Helen McCookerybook's "Baked Alaska", performed on a ukulele Gina Birch bought for her. The uke revolution continues. The Gluts have an album's worth of material recorded, but I have no word on a release.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

LLGFF: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister

Premiere of 24th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival; photo by Val PhoenixIt's rare I venture out to Leicester Square, which is often swarming with drunken louts and aggressive touts. Or, as happened last night, with screaming girls awaiting the arrival of Robert Pattinson for some premiere.

Making a sharp detour to Odeon West End, I attended the premiere of the BBC production of The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, for the opening night of the 24th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Full of swaggering dandies and extravagant haircuts. And that was just the audience. The film, starring Maxine Peake as the titular character, an extraordinary 19th century Yorkshire noblewoman, is great bawdy fun, full of heaving bosoms and a bit of bodice ripping. Quite racy for the BBC. Can't imagine what Outraged in Tunbridge Wells will make of it, when it airs on BBC2 later in the year.

But, of course, on these occasions, it's all about the people-watching, both at the screening and the after-party. Spotted: Sarah Waters, Charlotte Cooper, and The Raincoats. But, the real action was in the Ladies toilets at the Odeon, where Maxine Peake and other cast members repaired after the film. Simultaneously fixing her make-up and signing autographs, Ms. Peake tutted that she still can't get used to seeing herself on the big screen. Meanwhile, her co-stars patiently waited in the queue. Finding myself between Miss Walker and Miss Belcombe, I shook hands with them both and complimented them on a job well done.

It's not often a character's hesitant declaration: "But, I-I-I don't want to marry" is greeted with cheers. Jane Austen's characters turned finding a husband into a sport and congratulated themselves on this achievement, but for Lister's circle, remaining unmarried was the happy ending.
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Monday, March 15, 2010

Into the Archive

As I have been delving into my archive of interviews (the results to appear on Odd Girl Out and some day in more concrete form), I have experienced a full spectrum of emotions, from admiration to despair. From "Wow! I can't believe she said that!" to "Oh, My God, that tape hiss is appalling!".

Generally, it runs along the lines of good substance, terrible style. I haven't always been able to afford good quality tape, and though my trusty Sony Walkman (date of birth: 1986) is still holding up well, the recordings aren't always vintage. I am planning on investing in a good digital recorder, but have yet to find anything affordable that records in stereo. Suggestions welcome.

But, it is a long-long-LONG-term project. Today, I am in 1993, visiting London for a week (ah, what a life-changing trip that was) and meeting Tanya Donelly, Thalia Zedek and Bikini Kill on tour. The Walkman was behaving well, but perhaps running a bit slowly, as Kathleen Hanna sounds a bit chirpier than usual. Thankfully, that can be easily fixed with a tweak of the Speed Tune.

Not so the 1996 interview with Ellyott Dragon, which popped into the tape player, ran for five seconds and then stopped. Snapped tape. Now WTF do I do? Any further suggestions welcome. Surely, history cannot be erased by a flimsy tape. Can it?

Monday, March 08, 2010

IWD on Film

Being of the non-televisual persuasion, I had to wait until I awoke this morning and checked online to see who won at the 82nd Oscars and to learn that, yes, the Academy finally deemed a woman worthy of the best director award. I'm sure it's a very happy International Women's Day for Kathryn Bigelow. The film I was really rooting for, though, was Precious (from the novel, blah, blah), which did succeed in a couple of categories, including a well-deserved win for Mo'Nique. Hurrah.

These successes cannot disguise the continued under-representation for women behind the camera, and so it's a good time to mention that the Bird's Eye View Festival continues in London this week, with a Susanne Bier masterclass today and screenings of films by Kim Longinotto, Jessica Hausner and Cherien Dabis later in the week.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Friday Night Drama

I've been meaning to write about Anat Ben-David's performance at Dirty Cop Friday, but got rather distracted by some drama that happened beforehand, namely a collision involving my bus. Quite an emotional scene, as the car that rear-ended the stationary bus was totalled and one of the car's occupants required medical treatment and a trip in an ambulance.

With shaking knees and jangled nerves, I made my way to DCF to meet a friend and then was whisked off to Optical to do a live interview with Anat Ben-David, the results of which are now on Optical's Featured Sets. Not my most focussed or incisive questioning, but, what the heck.

Below is also some live video of the night. I think she was a bit annoyed with the audience reaction, repeatedly chastising everyone for being too cool. Now I have attended numerous gigs over the years and London is the worst for being stand-back-arms-folded-impress-me attitudinal, but I really thought this group was out to have fun and just wasn't familiar with her work. Oh, well. A bit of confrontation spices up a night. And I made it back home without any further traumas.