Saturday, March 30, 2013

Movement in Art: the Art of Movement

On Thursday I visited the National Portrait Gallery for screenings of Dada films connected to the work of Man Ray, who has an exhibit at the NPG (not yet seen). A healthy queue had built up before the doors opened, and it ended up being quite a packed screening. Not surprising as: the films were shown on 16mm and had a live accompaniment by the quartet Collectress.

While I had seen some of the films (including Richter's Rhythmus 21 and Rhythmus 23 and Eggeling's Symphonie Diagonale), I had never seen them with musical accompaniment, let alone a live score. So, I was rather giddy with excitement. In truth, the first few films (see above) didn't seem to really benefit from the score. But things picked up with Moholy-Nagy's gorgeous Lichtspiel Schwarz-Weiss-Grau and Man Ray's La Retour a Raison, even if there were some problems with the projector. We held our breath as a long pause between films (during which the musicians gamely kept playing) was followed by some grinding noises and then.... Silence. Then.... the machine sputtered into life and voila: light and movement on-screen. Such drama.

The programme concluded with two delightfully witty pieces, Richter's Vormittagsspuk, with its dancing hats, and Clair's Entr'Acte. I had seen the former but in this showing was more aware of its use of gun imagery, perhaps a warning of the violence to come in Germany. The concluding film was one I have been keen to see and it didn't disappoint. Watching the assemblage of great and good of the Paris art scene prancing in slo-mo after a runaway hearse gave me a good laugh. If only there were captions to identify the artists!

The series continues with two more programmes to be announced. Here's hoping the later years bring some women filmmakers into focus.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Susan Hiller: Channels

I've been meaning to visit this exhibit since it opened last month, and making light of the snowy air and the rather remote location (I've never been on that side of Mile End Park before), I met up with a classmate to take in this latest show by the veteran artist.

Opening the door to the room, one is confronted with a bank of televisions, which I immediately wanted to approach, as though they played either a blue screen or grey static, there was a babble of voices coming out. But, other visitors were seated on a bench at the back of the room, and it seemed rude to block their view. So, I leaned against the adjacent wall and watched the changes on the screens. Eventually, the voices died down and there was just hum. I sat at the back and waited. After some time, everyone else departed and it was just my classmate and I, and so we debated the meaning of the work: the arrangement of televisions, the voices speaking of near death experiences, even the colours on the screens.

The pattern of the TVs reminded me of really bad 1970s wallpaper, and I wondered if the reference might be apt, as that time was when television seemed to come to the fore as a communication device and promise of a utopian future that never materialised. It's a difficult work to take apart, owing to the number of televisions and changing programming. At various times, many of them are in synch, displaying the waveform of a single voice. But, mostly, they are disparate channels, broadcasting many voices. Quite fascinating, but puzzling.

Channels runs through 14 April at Matt's Gallery.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

LLGFF: Gender Performance

Diane Torr and participants in Man for a Day
These three features are all concerned with gendered behaviour in disparate ways, reflecting Diane Torr's contention that gender is a performance.

Katarina Peters' Man for a Day presents Diane Torr's titular week-long workshop, staged in Berlin with participants cast by the director (this fact emerged in the Q&A), which rather changes how one views it. As drama it's brilliant, with clear narrative arcs as the women proceed through the stages of learning how to be men for a day. But, just before it gets to the big reveal and they take to the streets as men, it cuts to Torr and her daughter visiting Italy, and we never actually see how the women got on. Was this footage not sufficient dramatic? Were the men not able to pass? It's not clear.

What is quite interesting is how some of the participants react to their week-long "training" to be men (which involves stuffing cotton down their trousers, "owning" the floor with their steps, and projecting their voices into the ground). Susann, the beauty queen, takes to being a man so much, she continues in character afterward, even visiting a strip club with one of her new-found friends--and making out together "man on man". Hmmm. Peters acknowledged afterward that the strip club scene was staged, although Susann and chum requested the visit. Another woman, who works in politics, felt she was able to assert herself better and work smarter as a result of the workshop. So, it does seem that the workshops, dependent though they are on presenting very stereotyped masculine behaviour, do allow women to expand their behavioural options, as Torr suggests is her goal.

Unfortunately, very extreme masculine behaviour can easily spill over into violence, as is shown in Taboo Yardies, Selena Blake's documentary on attitudes to the LGBT community in Jamaica. To say it's not very queer-friendly is an understatement: beatings, rapes and everyday abuse are commonplace, and most participants are shown disguised. Interestingly, Blake also interviews many diasporic Jamaicans in New York and finds that many have left Jamaica just to live openly without fear. They love the country, but hate the bigotry. Other Jamaicans who are able to travel also say they love visiting NYC, just so that they can be themselves. There is rather depressing footage of the then-PM of Jamaica, Bruce Golding, comparing the demands for LGBT rights legislation with demands for protection of--wait for it--incest and bestiality. That old trope. And there is truly heartbreaking footage of a disguised Jamaican lesbian describing how she self-harms and just wants to die, so desperate is her situation.

The comments by so-called "experts" are not so illuminating. The sexologists seem locked into very old-fashioned notions of gender, while another speaker makes a passing reference to "300 years of colonialism" as an explanation for why public displays of same-sex affection might enrage Jamaican men. But, this idea is never developed. Nobody can say from where exactly the taboo emerged, or why it remains so fixed, other than tradition and religious affiliation.

On the other side of the gender normative coin, She Male Snails is a curious Swedish art film directed by Ester Martin Bergsmark, in which two "Boy Hag Ladies" take a very long bath together, while one of them recollects how they met and what they mean to each other. This is interspersed with baffling vignettes which mostly take place in the woods and may suggest that true freedom is only found in an enchanted forest of the imagination. Or possibly not.

By the 60-minute mark, I was rather concerned that the protagonists, still bathing, might be getting wrinkled, while there was still no clear narrative or action developing. In the end, nothing much happened, except for a delightful closing scene in which a bunch of gender-queered folk welcomed a newcomer onto their island for a picnic. Why couldn't the rest of the film been like that?

Friday, March 22, 2013

LLGFF: Facing Mirrors

Still from Facing Mirrors
As Facing Mirrors opens, Eddie and a friend are in car that gets cut up in Teheran traffic. Rather than let it go, Eddie pursues the driver and gets stopped by police.

This has severe consequences, as Eddie is using his brother's licence and trying to escape his father's attempts to marry him off to a cousin. That he would get involved in a road rage incident in such circumstances shows his impetuous nature.

As Negar Azarbayjani's film progresses, it becomes clear that Eddie was lured back to Iran as he was in the process of transitioning in Germany. He needs to get back there to complete the process and start living his life. But, his very traditional father can only see him as Adineh, the daughter who needs to be married off to protect family honour. So, Eddie goes on the run with taxi driver Rana, who is driving in secret in order to support her son and get her husband out of jail.

The film cuts from Eddie's to Rana's story, as various family members interfere and many misunderstandings and conflicts ensue. Perhaps the point is to show how gender transgression continues to be proscribed in Iran (even while gender reassignment is allowed). The relationship between Eddie and Rana develops in interesting ways, but I found the attempt to position her as some kind of mother figure to the "difficult child" (there is little difference in age) quite problematic and infantilising. The problem isn't the transsexual. It's society's attitudes.

The shorts programme We Can Be Heroes (alas, not about David Bowie) offered a range of gender-queer shorts, among them the very stylish martial arts drama Lee, the amusing Australian doc Queen of the Desert and the German teen drama Who Am I Happy, which was only marred by the unfortunate inclusion of some god-awful Schlager. Surely, "Helden" would have been a better choice?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

LLGFF: Disunited in Anger

Caroline Azar in She Said Boom
You wait 25 years for a documentary on ACT UP and then two come along at once. Most curious. Viewing the more feted How to Survive a Plague, I had a distinct feeling of deja-vu. And well I might, because some footage, indeed entire scenes, is identical to that seen in United in Anger, which I viewed on DVD earlier in the week. It just goes to show the power of editing, because the two films, while focusing on the same time period (1987- ca 1996) and the same locale (the original ACT UP in New York), go off on radically divergent paths.

While United in Anger (dir Jim Hubbard) takes great pains to show the great width and breadth of actions ACT UP undertook and the emphasis on social justice many of its campaigners pursued, David France's How to Survive moves into the narrow stream of one faction of the group, the Treatment and Data Committee, and its quest to get drugs fast-tracked through the bureaucracy. But, drugs for whom?

In effect, it ends up being the split that devastated the group, between what came to be characterised as the angry HIV-positive white boys and everyone else. I must say that after viewing How to Survive, I felt curiously unmoved. After seeing United in Anger, I felt a great sense of pride: it was a struggle I participated in, albeit across the country in San Francisco, and I felt I had tapped into my activist heritage seeing the archive footage and hearing people describe their reasons for being there and what it meant to them. By contrast How to Survive seemed highly clinical (in both senses of the word) and a bit smug: "We did this", said its small band of protagonists at the end. Neither film really acknowledges the grassroots nature of ACT UP. It was never centralised, but each chapter had its own methods, issues and strategies, which came together brilliantly at the VIth International Conference on AIDS in San Francisco in 1990 (an episode skipped in United and reduced to a conference speech in How to Survive). It laid the groundwork for many other activist movements, including Queer Nation and to some extent Riot Grrrl, as well.

Activism seems to be having a cinematic revival at this festival, and I wonder if that means the community is awaking from its long slumber. I had two more excursions into reminiscence, with the documentaries Lesbiana and She Said Boom. The first is Myriam Fougere's recollection of lesbian separatist culture in the 1970s and 80s: women's land, womyn's festivals, etc. I wondered if there would be arguments afterward in the Q & A but everyone seemed quite respectful and impressed by the film, which featured recent interviews with women Fougere had first met 25 years ago on her travels as an artist along the Eastern Seaboard of North America. So, there was a lot of material from her hometown of Quebec, as well as New York and the southern states. Women's land still exists, but it seems to have become retirement communities for the Second Wave. I don't know whether to be pleased or depressed.

But, to end on a high note, She Said Boom. Swoon. Kevin Hegge has done a fine job of memorialising Toronto's foremost queer punk feminist band, Fifth Column, who emerged alongside the advent of homocore (a movement named by band member GB Jones). I had no idea what a turbulent history the band had, with members coming and going and a prickly relationship between core members Jones and singer Caroline Azar (a marriage proposal was mooted and rejected at some point. Ouch.).

These days, Hegge revealed, the former members of the band don't speak. But their attempts to ally feminist politics with cinematic and artistic points of view, while positioning themselves in the punk scene take some beating. I do believe this day at the festival pretty much covered my twenties.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

LLGFF: Monstrous Passions

Still from Mosquita y Mari
It's often said that teenaged girls experience emotions in such heightened form as to effect complete transformations in their personalities: little angels turn into hormonal monsters. Or so they say.

Well, taking that notion a bit too literally is Bradley Rust Gray, whose Jack and Diane features two would-be lovers who periodically turn into befanged, beclawed monsters and attack each other. Each stage of the couple's relationship features interludes of menacing hairy ectoplash=budding love. Despite this, I found it funny, engaging and offbeat. But, take away the horror element (which is only a clumsily executed metaphor), and it's not nearly so quirky or standout. Still, it certainly beats The Exploding Girl, by the same writer/director, which I found excruciating. Oh, and Kylie Minogue plays a tattooed dyke cougar type who locks lips with the Jack character. Cue "oohs" and "ahs" from the star-struck festival audience.

Not nearly so dramatic, but a bit more dramatically satisfying is Mosquita y Mari, Aurora Guerrero's delightful SoCal Latina growing pains drama in which two girls from opposite sides of the street try to find a middle road for their relationship. Faced with wildly differing expectations of their futures, Yolanda and Mari use their study time to bond, plot their futures and try to work through their growing intimacy, which finds them experiencing emotions they can't quite express to each other. While foregrounding the girls' relationship, Guerrero is also adept at outlining the family pressures that surround them: the struggle of Mari's mother to pay rent and the hopes Yolanda's family are pinning on her academic prowess. A real find.

Meanwhile back in London, Madrid and Berlin, Andrea Esteban and Paula Alamillo are less concerned with lesbian passions than lesbian definitions in Born Naked, jumping from city to city and chatting to their friends and circles about..... Well, that's where I am slightly lost, because I never figured out what this documentary was about: two 20-something lesbians from Madrid? Or their friends and contemporaries? Or an overview of the queer scene in three European cities? Or was it meant to be a more theoretical consideration of what it means to be queer today?

A bit of back story on the two protagonists would have gone a long way to establishing some identification in my mind. Who are they? Why are they living abroad? What is their connection? It looks great, features loads of people and a plethora of locations, and I spotted several familiar faces, but I really am not sure what the film is meant to say.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

LLGFF: Lives of Artists

Still from Salome
It took a few days, but I have finally assembled the constituent parts of what could be called a Salome trilogy: Salome (1923), Lives of Artists (1972), and Salomania (2009). Mind you, I saw them all ass- backward and woefully ignorant of their lineage, but I got there in the end, and what a puzzling journey it was.

Firstly, Salome, Alla Nazimova's wildly camp, stagey and rather extraordinary take on Wilde's play. Verity Susman's live and very contemporary (at one point, she busted out some dance beats and I bopped along, if my neighbours didn't) score jarred in places, but I quite enjoyed the use of blue light onscreen, as well as reading between the lines of what is rumoured to be an all-queer production.

Coming next chronologically is Yvonne Rainer's Lives of Artists, which is many things, but also contains a solo inspired by Nazimova's film. The film's construction is dense and confusing, containing rehearsals, narrated photos, what appears to be a love triangle and at the very end a kind of photo film, inspired by Pabst's Pandora's Box. Rainer appears to be a very process-oriented director, which can be lost at a remove of 40 years. I actually saw this film in the Atrium of the BFI a few years ago, but I think the sound was turned down, and I had no idea what was going on.

So, to Salomania, which I have already reviewed from its showing at the SLG recently. Now the scenes between Wu Tsang and Rainer make a bit more sense, though I am still baffled as to how these rehearsal scenes fit with other bits of the film.

Speaking of baffling feminist film, what to say about Chantal Akerman's La Captive, also screened in retrospective at the LLGFF? Based on Proust, the film peers into a claustrophobic and tightly controlled relationship between Simon and Ariane, which is as dysfunctional as they come. He is voyeuristic, suspicious and can only express sexual desire through dry-humping her sleeping body! After 85 minutes of watching this expressionless, passionless pair, I wanted to throw myself in the ocean that called to Ariane....

Sunday, March 17, 2013

27th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival opening night

Divine in Pink Flamingos
Yes, Yes, I am late getting to this. I did attend opening night, but other things intervened before I could report back. I have now seen a handful of films onscreen and on DVD and thoughts are percolating.

But, back to opening night. I Am Divine promised glamour and drag and certainly delivered onscreen, but I was surprised how few attendees followed suit: I only spotted one bouffant, thankfully not blocking my view. Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as trash diva Divine, provided the subject for Jeffrey Schwarz's documentary, which was crisply delivered in a plethora of archive footage and interviews. Having only a passing knowledge of Divine, I learned much about his life and working relationship with John Waters, the two growing up six doors apart in Baltimore.

My only complaint was that the clips of the films were so brief that one couldn't really form a judgement on either their quality or of Divine's performances, and as the narrative arc was about his desire to be seen as a serious actor, that would have been appreciated. But, as a document of 1970s underground US and queer cinema, it was a delight.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Totally Girl Powered

I do love an anniversary and yesterday, in addition to being International Women's Day, was also the 20th anniversary of an eventful day in my life. See my new film for a full explanation.
13/3 edit Doing some housekeeping, so this video is offline for the moment.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013


Ahead of International Women's Day on Friday, Female:Pressure has been in touch with the results of its research into gender representation at music festivals. A group of women electronic music producers and performers, Female:Pressure is concerned at the lack of opportunities for female talent to be heard.

To quote their statement:

"The members of the female:pressure network operate within a seemingly progressive electronic music scene and its subcultures. However, when compared with other artistic domains such as literature, we find that women are notoriously under-represented in the realms of contemporary music production and performance. The female:pressure group would therefore like to invite you to take a look at the facts and make the mechanisms of this specific market more transparent. We have looked into statistics regarding festival line-ups, record label releases and the appearance of women in several top 100 lists. The results are shocking and disheartening, even for us deeply involved in the scene. Most festivals – whether financed through public funds or not – clearly do not place any value on ensuring an appropriate ratio of female artists, or diversity in general."

You can find out more info at the addresses below. The statement concludes:

"Let's be frank – enough is enough. female.pressure believes there is no justification for more male-dominated music events. We need – and paying audiences deserve – invigorating and entertaining diversity!"

female:pressure worldwide