The two daughters discuss memories of growing up and their relationship with their mother in Daughter Rite.
Home movie footage of a daughter and her mother in Daughter Rite.
The menu of As American As Apple Pie.
Hands cut butter as one partner accuses the other of cheating.
An unidentified woman slowly eats the olive out of a martini.
Unidentified female smoker, lit and costumed for maximum glamour.
A butch prepares her look by slicking her hair back.
Dublin at the beginning of the 20th century, at the time Oscar immigrated.
A butch woman at a BBQ in the 1970s.
A moving subject within a Polaroid, with handwriting overlaid.
Text accompanies many of the images in Mixed Greens.
Virginia and a friend in earlier years.
Michelle Citron has been an academic, filmmaker and new media artist for almost 40 years. Her films and new media projects such as Jewish Looks (2002), Visual AIDS (1997), What You Take for Granted (1983) and Daughter Rite (1978) address a wide range of topics related to the politics of sexuality and identity. These and other films have been screened at numerous film festivals and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney in New York City, the American Film Institute and The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as well as the Berlin, London and Edinburgh film festivals (Citron, “Biography”).
In this article I will be focusing mainly on Queer Feast, a quartet of Internet-distributed new-media works made at different points throughout Citron’s career that have been collected together at queerfeast.com. The interactive narratives of the Queer Feast quartet have been screened separately at art galleries, conferences, contemporary art museums, film festivals and media exhibitions around the world.
Queer Feast confronts issues surrounding the expression of queer desire and love; the difficulties and joys of monogamous lesbian relationships; the invisibility of queer communities within the larger society; and the role of performance in queer relationships. The narratives share a high level of interactivity that allows viewers to construct their own stories out of the various segments provided. Alongside my own analyses of the thematic and aesthetic tropes of Citron’s narratives, I include information and quotes from an interview I conducted with the filmmaker in January 2012.
First I will explore how the aesthetic and narrative content of Queer Feast relates to that of Daughter Rite (1978), one of Citron’s earliest films. I will then provide a short introduction to each of the works in Queer Feast, and discuss issues of identity, interactivity and performativity in these works at length.
Daughter Rite and Queer Feast:
Citron’s first film to garner widespread acclaim and scholarly attention was Daughter Rite, an experimental narrative detailing the complexities of mother-daughter relationships. The film blends home movie footage with fictionalized documentary interviews in exploring the complex relationship of two adult sisters to their mother.
Daughter Rite provided the opportunity for female viewers to share in a progressive feminist politics that was taking place both behind and in front of the camera. The film was heralded as a non-essentializing exploration of motherhood and the loving and fraught bonds between mothers and daughters, as well as a politically generative critique of the patriarchal power underlying the personal dynamics of heterosexual families. Linda Williams and B. Ruby Rich argue that Daughter Rite differs from classical Hollywood films that explore mother-daughter relations, such as Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937) and Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), in that it provides an explicitly feminist account of motherhood. The film attends to the ability of maternal figures to both reproduce patriarchal power and impart a feminist consciousness to their daughters, instead of “merely exalt[ing] its ideal while punishing and humiliating the individual women” who take part in these relationships (Williams and Rich 17).
In this regard Daughter Rite presents a timely feminist film praxis that
Daughter Rite employs many of the formal techniques on display in Queer Feast, such as the use of home movies, cinema verité-style footage, voice-over narration and image/voice-over disjunction to examine how visual representations of the past aid in constructing our identities—a process shared by filmmaker and spectators. These works share a blend of documentary and fictionalized elements that Citron employs to deconstruct the “truth-telling” capacities of documentary film, as well as to explore how we as viewers construct our identities from documentary and home movie footage. I will address the obscured lines between documentary and fiction in Queer Feast in my discussion of identity formation in these works.
Daughter Rite also prefigures the high level of spectator interactivity encouraged by the aesthetics of Queer Feast. In both works, the ambiguity of the images and narration allows
Daughter Rite and Queer Feast are also linked by their engagement with contemporary political movements. Feminist film scholar Jane Feuer argues that Daughter Rite’s deconstructionist use of cinema verité footage reflected the realist aesthetic of feminist experimental films and documentaries that emerged in the 1970s. Queer Feast’s explorations of queer identities and relationships in the post-Stonewall era constitute its timely political project. The problems resulting from the invisibility of queer identities and desires constitutes a major thematic and aesthetic strand uniting the narratives of Queer Feast. These works seek to expose this invisibility by providing space for their previously silenced queer subjects to tell their stories. These subjects engage in a queer politics through their testimonies, which make visible their exclusion from larger cultural and social narratives surrounding relationships, desire, love and identity. In this regard, perhaps as important as the specific content of the narratives in Citron’s films is the fact that they are being told at all: the speech-acts of the films are fundamentally political by virtue of the challenges they present to queer invisibility.
Similar to the highly individualized reactions elicited by the intimate narratives presented in Queer Feast, Daughter Rite has resonated personally with many viewers. Feuer describes her reaction to the film as a conflation of her personal and professional lives, in which she writes about Daughter Rite “with the voice of a film critic, but [she] watched it as a daughter” (Feuer). In my discussion of the works in Queer Feast that follows, I will attempt to highlight the ways in which these works elicit personal reactions in viewers that dovetail with the politicized content and form of the works themselves.
In addition to individual engagement with the narratives, the online format of Queer Feast raises questions as to the exercise of political choice when we decide what to watch, and how to watch it. These shared formal and thematic tropes allow us to trace a political continuity in Citron’s work. Both early (Daughter Rite) and more recent (Queer Feast) examples engage spectators in the process of interpreting the images and constructing feminist and queer political agendas from these interpretations.
As American as Apple Pie, made in 1999, is the oldest work in the quartet. It begins with a pie graphic overlaid with keywords such as “butter, cut,” “texture,” “roll,” “crimp,” and “peeled” that correspond to the different segments of the film. Each segment features film of a pie being prepared and baked, including extreme close-ups of a pair of hands crumbling dough to make the crust and spooning in apples smothered in butter and spices. A voice-over consisting of conversations between two lesbian partners accompanies these images. The couple’s dialogues chart the course of their relationship through various stages, both high and low: birthdays, professional success, family medical emergencies, the difficulties of raising a teenage son, jealousy and hints of infidelity.
Cocktails & Appetizers (2001) consists of separate segments that we access by choosing small drinks icons from an illustrated menu. Options such as “Daiquiri,” “Mint Julep,” and “Tom Collins” lead us to pieces that detail the breakup of lesbian couple Jean and Max, and Max’s subsequent relationship with the seductive Jesse. As in As American as Apple Pie, the images in Cocktails & Appetizers, mostly close-ups of women against black backgrounds, do not correspond directly to the voice-overs.
Jean, Max, Jesse and various friends and acquaintances provide the voice-overs that convey to us the intimate details of the three women’s romantic entanglements. Each of the segments is quite short, around 30 seconds or less, and feature films of various women performing seductive acts: smoking, eating olives out of a martini, brushing back their hair to put on an earring or slicking it back to achieve a butch look, and adjusting masculine clothing such as a man’s dress shirt and a large belt buckle.
In the longer final section of the narrative, we witness Max and Jesse’s first tryst immediately after the former was still in a relationship with Jean. Max and Jesse first meet when Max photographs Jesse for an exhibit. A light flirtation develops between the two as Jesse poses in different butch/femme outfits, erotically slipping on a silk stocking or lowering her shirt as Max directs. Jesse finally takes Max’s camera from her, and, after directing Max to lie on the bed, kneels over and kisses her before the scene cuts to black.
Mixed Greens (2004) is the longest and most interactively intricate of the four narratives. It begins with a menu of forty-eight vegetables (cucumbers, lettuce, onions, peppers, spinach, and tomatoes). Each choice contains a segment on the topics “Desire,” “Family,” “Heartbreak,” “Mysteries,” “Place,” and “Other.” Viewers compile their own film of eight segments, which they place in a video player at the bottom of the screen. A film composed of these segments then plays, and it can be altered depending on the segments viewers choose to include.
Citron describes Mixed Greens as a “do-it-yourself movie about identity, belonging, and the things we desire” (Citron, “Curriculum Vitae”). The segments in Mixed Greens tell a wide variety of stories related to these themes, ranging from Citron’s great-grandfather’s experience in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the early 1920s, to the “witch hunts” for homosexuals in the 1950s and 1960s McCarthy-era United States, and the personal romantic histories of Citron and many other queer women and couples inspired by Citron’s interviews with real-life subjects.
Citron’s interviews with real-life subjects inspired the multiple narratives centered around queer relationships in Mixed Greens. The stories of these relationships usually address, as Citron notes, issues related to identity and belonging. These issues include family dynamics within queer households, lack of family acceptance for queer women, the depression that can result when we are compelled to hide our sexuality in order to conform with what is “normal” and expected, learning to “own” your sexuality, and the bonds of solidarity and support that can form within queer communities. The film also details some of the less politically salient aspects of these relationships, such as the difficulties of maintaining monogamy within committed partnerships and marriage, adultery, bisexuality, and relationships with straight women.
Stylistically, Mixed Greens incorporates many of the same formal traits as As American as Apple Pie and Cocktails & Appetizers. The film often employs aural/visual mismatches in which viewers are left to establish connections between the images and voice-overs, as well as moving photographs and Polaroids that develop as the subjects inside tell their stories. Many of the photographs and videos are also accompanied by texts underneath that comment upon the topics under discussion at the time.
Leftovers (2011), the most recent of the four narratives, shares the story of elderly working-class lesbian couple Norma and Virginia, who have lived in the Northside of Chicago their entire lives. We never actually see the couple; we only hear Citron narrating the story of their friendship with a younger gay neighbor named Kevin. We also hear an unidentified female voice reading short fragments of poetry throughout, later revealed to have been written by Norma. Kevin strikes up a friendship with Norma when he sees that she has a limp and begins driving her to the grocery store every week. He is struck by her insistence on maintaining complete privacy regarding her personal life; Norma never admits to a sexual relationship with Virginia, her housebound lover.
As I will discuss, the aesthetics of the film reflect its concern with articulating the isolation and invisibility of the reclusive couple. Leftovers affectively conveys the distance Norma and Virginia keep from the outside world, whose non-acceptance of their relationship renders them invisible. This invisibility is emphasized when Norma dies, and Kevin is the only person intimate enough with her to know that Virginia is her partner. When Virginia eventually dies as well, Kevin is the sole witness to their relationship.
As in the previous three works in Queer Feast, narration accompanies images that do not directly depict their subjects. Photographs of Norma and Virginia when they were younger serve as visual witnesses to their relationship, testifying to its existence and allowing their memories to survive. An interesting inclusion is the paint-by-number drawings that gradually fill in as the story progresses, mimicking Kevin and Citron’s slow uncovering of Norma and Virginia’s hidden history together.