Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Queer British Art 1861-1967

The unwieldy title contains a wealth of meaning and significance--a major exhibit at Tate Britain with an LGBT subject? A rainbow flag (RIP Gilbert Baker) flying over the venerable house of art on the banks of the Thames? Gluck gazing out defiantly from the hoardings and pamphlets? Wowzers. There is something already contradictory in this exhibit using the word queer in such an august institution.

For what is "queer art"? Art made by self-identified LGBT people? Art made by people who had same-sex leanings? Art with overtones of same-sex desire? I am really not sure having spent some hours in this exhibit, with wildly varying representations. It proceeds from changes in the law that affected gay men--sodomy being the important definition for the law, if not for the queer population. So, we are already looking at parameters that may or may not be relevant to the artists and the contemporary viewer.

But, the art seems to have been included based on what the curator Clare Barlow decided was relevant. Rarely did I look at a work and think, "That's quite good" or "That's terrible". I was looking at the biographical information in the captions to see who the sitter in the painting was or what the "queer" relevance was. It's a very different way of looking at art from the usual. As it happened, some of the works were quite compelling, though I was rather unimpressed with Duncan Grant's several contributions. Sorry, Bloomsbury crowd.

Actually, the best known artists were the least interesting in this context--we've seen Hockney, Bacon and Cahun many times before. They are acknowledged for both their artistic achievements and queerness. It is the lesser known artists who captured my attention, many of them women: Evelyn De Morgan, the duo known as Michael Field and so forth. I found myself asking a question I have posed many times since I began writing about women and culture decades ago: "Why have I never heard of her?" Well, there are many reasons--being written out of history, working in secret or cloaking gender to avoid condemnation.

But, there were some happy surprises. Who knew Kenneth Halliwell was a talented artist? His library books with Joe Orton occupy a case and draw giggles but Halliwell also has a large collage on a wall and it is very impressive. The caption tells the story--shown in 1957, the exhibition was a failure. The story of his life, sadly.

There is some effort at social context--captions question the power relations between white artists and black sitters and between servants and masters who painted them. 

But, given the historical backdrop of this whole exhibit, one of legal and social repression, the art is surprisingly lively and joyful. It is also quite multifaceted--portraits, jewellery and even some artifacts are shown. Is the door of Oscar Wilde's prison cell really art? Or is it a memorial to martyrdom?

I shall finish with the mysterious Sammy who was part of a group of women who explored drag in the early twentieth century. Her photo hangs on a wall in the exhibit but very little is stated about her or her circle. I want to know more about these women.





Monday, April 03, 2017

Flare: Heartland

Two very different films set in the American southwest show the limits set on queer behaviour.

The very powerful documentaryl Southwest of Salem outlines the appalling treatment of four women in San Antonio, Texas convicted of child rape in the 1990s, in part because of a religious panic and in part because of anti-lesbian sentiment: "They think this is what gay people do," one of them explains. "No, it's not." Over a number of years the women discuss their lives and we get to know them through their testimony and that of family members and supporters. Eventually, their case comes to the attention of an advocacy group and the wheels of justice begin to move ever so slowly. But, one is forced to reckon with the tremendous power of hearsay, bigotry, and misogyny that allowed the case to proceed in the first place. Sobering.

Not so with the drama Heartland, set in Oklahoma, as a local girl returns home after the death of her partner to find her hometown and family unchanged and unmoved. Having an affair with her brother's girlfriend does not exactly endear her to her mother, who refuses to even acknowledge the death of her girlfriend. The set-up is fantastic but the film falls apart in the third act with ridiculous over-acting and melodramatic music underscoring the emotion. Oh, dear. Why not just let it flow? I found myself only really rooting for the unfortunate interloping girlfriend rather than the annoying family. She had a lucky escape.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Flare: Tales of the City

As I have perused the Flare titles available as online screeners, I couldn't help but notice how many originate in San Francisco, a city dear to my heart as I lived there for a significant time in the 1990s. Much of what I knew is gone now, so I have heard, but I always sit up when I see SF locations in a film.

Naturally, I was intrigued to see a documentary on writer Armistead Maupin, he of Tales of the City fame, directed by Jennifer Kroot. The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin is a fine encapsulation of his extraordinary life, from growing up with "good blood" in the south, to serving in Vietnam, meeting Nixon in the White House, and of course his eventual arrival in SF, coming out and becoming a famous writer. Not that it is told in chronological order. Rather, themes emerge, signposted by some nifty animation, and famous talking heads such as Amy Tan, Sir Ian McKellen and Laura Linney chime in with their thoughts. One of my own thoughts was how extraordinarily privileged a life Maupin has led: not everybody gets invited to do half the things he has. But in the end even he is racked with insecurities and a need to find his own "logical family", as opposed to the biological one from which he felt so alienated. The city has certainly given him that, as well as inspiration for his books. It was a pleasure to view.

Not so much with Snapshot, which could have been a very suspenseful queer take-off on Hitchcock, but ended up being more extended sex scenes interrupted by some plot. I was quite creeped out in the first 15 minutes as photographer Charlie stumbles in on a couple having sex before a terrible murder takes place and she realises she has some photographic evidence. But clearly director Shine Louise Houston is more interested in the sexual shenanigans of voyeur Charlie and her new squeeze Danny than actually unravelling the mystery, which kind of evaporates half-way through. What a disappointment. But, even here sun-dappled San Francisco looks lovey. Nice setting, shame about the story.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Flare: Our Love Story

Films featuring love at first sight are common currency and Flare had its share. One drama I found quite enjoyable was Our Love Story, a Korean film featuring a mature art student who finds love in a junkyard. Definitely a meet-cute. The story that follows features copious late-night drinking, a clueless parent and curiously vague supporting characters, but the two leads are impressive, especially Sang-lee Hee in the thankless part of the endearingly dorky artist, Yoon-ju. Not so keen on the non-ending.

I was much less impressed by Below Her Mouth, a Canadian film starring a supposed super model. Nice cheek bones. Shame about the acting. The filmmakers clearly wanted to foreground the sex and forgot to write a decent story and I found it extremely tedious with shallow characters I didn't care about. Nice lighting and the blue jumper in the (again) non-ending scene was quite cool, too. Why can filmmakers not end their films properly?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Flare: Signature Move

I am starting at the end, as this was the closing night film. This has been one of those festivals which I attended on several days but didn't actually see many films on-site, and so I shall be using the online service to review titles in the coming days. This one I did catch, however, as it was my must-see of the festival.

So, to Signature Move, billed as the latest from director Jennifer Reeder. And indeed she is the director, but the authorship of the film lies more with star Fawzia Mirza, as she co-wrote it and it draws on some of her experiences as a Pakistani-American woman in love with a Mexican-American woman. Mirza, who delivered a hilarious Q&A with Reeder at the early screening on Sunday, explained that the film was inspired by her interactions with her ex-girlfriend. Whether this is the co-writer Lisa Donato (absent) or not I am not sure. But, it is a timely film, given the incredibly rancorous debates over US immigration policy and the place of hyphenate Americans at present. Throw in the lesbian angle and this must rate as Donald Trump's worst nightmare.

But, the heck with him, because this is a very, very funny film. As Zaynab buzzes around Chicago on her motorbike, in her capacity as an immigration lawyer, she meets Alma at a bar and they get extremely drunk and spend the night together. But, Zaynab is not quite as together as she makes out, and she keeps the relationship secret from her mother (Shabana Azmi), while trying to work out how serious Alma is about the two of them. Oh, and while also training to be a lucha libre competitor. Audrey Francis is a scream as the deadpan wrestling coach.

There is so much to recommend this film, from Mirza's throwaway lines to the attention to location and culture, it seems a bit churlish to criticise, but I really didn't feel the mother's story was handled very well. In contrast to the quickfire pacing of Alma and Zaynab's scenes, the camera tended to settle on Parveen and linger there for way longer than seemed necessary. As most of her interactions were with her unseen soap operas, I found these scenes dragged badly, weighing the film down. Having cast a legendary actor in the role, possibly the filmmakers felt they needed to give her ample screentime, but it really unbalanced the film. Interestingly, filming Ms. Azmi proved a challenge to Reeder, who described the experience vividly as trying to approach a silver-backed gorilla without making eye contact--Ms. Azmi would not read the lines as written and basically directed herself. Well, that's showbiz.

Reeder and Mirza exhibited such chemistry on-stage, it really enlivened the occasion and I do hope they collaborate again some time. Thanking the audience for embracing "our little lumpy lesbian film", Reeder and Mirza showered lucky recipients with film merch, spreading the love from Chicago to London.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Flare: Queering Love, Queering Hormones

This was a new experience for me as my first visit to Flare this year was for my own screening. Over the last year I have been busily shooting, processing and editing footage for my film Love/Sick, a reflection on my experience of solitude and illness. Saturday was its world premiere as part of the larger QLQH project. We had the first screening of the day in NFT3, which was a thrill for me as I have been attending screenings at the Southbank Centre since my student days in the 1980s. To screen there was a huge privilege.

I had a chance to check the file played well and then sat down with the other artists and some guests, including my friend B., for some herbal tea to calm the nerves. Then off we trooped just before 12 to the venue, which was pretty full. Officially, it was sold out but there were a few spare seats next to me, from some of the co-sponsors that didn't turn up. I was second up after Nina Wakeford's live performance accompanying her footage of Greenham Common via artefacts and flowers gathered from the peace garden. I was one of the people who tagged along on a field trip to the Common last year, which was very exciting, and I think there may have been a few frames I shot, but I am not sure. She had a very complicated set-up of three screens behind her mic, and one of them did not play properly, but none of us realised it at the time. There were audible chuckles as she listed the sexual orientations given by women who lived at the camps: Lesbian, Lesbian, Het, and then there orientations when they gave interviews later: Lesbian, Lesbian, Lesbian, Lesbian. Hmmm.

My film was a digital output, so much less complex in exhibition and I watched with some anxiety, trying to sense the reception in the room to what is rather a difficult watch, as there is some explicit surgery footage. My heart rate crept up as a certain moment approached and then I calmed down.

Third up was Renee Vaughan Sutherland's much lighter in tone film which is a queering of Hollywood cinema's most cherished tropes of finding one's prince. A dazzling array of processed images featured, including several views of Julia Roberts' retracting tongue from Pretty Woman. This drew laughs every time. She had also soaked the film in hormones, thus influencing the fabric of the film itself, something she discussed in the Q&A. I had been especially nervous about the Q&A which followed our three films, but felt much better when we were on the stage and the feedback I got was I managed to be articulate. I recall I spoke about embracing DIY and the imperfect, so that covers a lot of ground.

The second half of the programme featured films more concerned with science and history. First up was the collaboration of Juliet Jacques and Ker Wallwork, which features beautifully wrought sculptures and narration on the experience of working out one's gender identity and its relationship to hormones. Next up was Sam Ashby's drama-doc staging an unfilmed script by Elizabeth Montagu on blackmail and gay men, which is quite timely as this year marks 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in the UK. The drama was played against items from LGBT archives, including some T-shirts I remember well from Lesbian Avengers and other activist groups. The concluding film was Jacob Love's dual screen exploration of chemsex and ADHD, an at times abstract and at times figurative depiction of cascading stimuli. I was struck by how many different paths we all took and everyone was really articulate in discussing the work. I hope there will be more screenings and opportunities to discuss the project, which I found fascinating to work on.

Then it was time to celebrate, which took most of the day.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Wide Open Space

It's been awhile, even longer than I intended as Google doesn't seem to want to let me log into my account! But anyway... so many films and other cultural things to share.

Most recently, I watched Certain Women, written and directed by Kelly Reichardt, which prompted me to ponder the slowness of cinema. These days I find myself becoming quite impatient with slow-burning films. I was unimpressed with Moonlight, in part because it moved so glacially, though I had other problems with it, most notably in the characterisations.

But, with Certain Women, I could accept the aesthetic. Reichardt is known for her attention to the minutiae of characters' existence, and in Certain Women, we find this multiplied by three, as there are three distinct plotlines involving characters played by Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Lily Gladstone, living in the wide open spaces of Montana. I felt the Williams plotline was the weakest and added nothing to the film. But, the first and third worked for me, and even if I got a bit restless watching Gladstone's Rancher repeatedly feeding her horses, trailed by a yippy dog, the repeated actions made sense: here is a creature of routine who has little human contact. When she meets Kristen Stewart's law student-tutor, her routine is disrupted and she can dream of other modes of being. When this doesn't quite happen, the sadness is possible.

Dern's branch of the story features some jet-black comedy as her lawyer attempts to help a client going off the rails, even to the extent that she is sent into a building where he is holding a security guard hostage. Their exchanges are bitterly humourous.

So, here we have rather desperate human beings attempting to connect with one another, with fractious results. Reichardt's view of humanity may be bleak but it is also beautiful.