The thousands of objects amassed by Norma and Virginia...
... pile up onscreen.
The images in Leftovers afford us only brief glimpses of Norma and Virginia’s life together.
Norma and Virginia smile for the camera...
... and then avoid its gaze in a moment of intimacy.
Paint-by-numbers fill in the gaps as the narrative progresses.
Dunye ironically dresses up in “mammy” attire in The Watermelon Woman poster.
The Watermelon Woman frequently performed these stereotypical mammy roles in Hollywood films – there were hardly any other options for black actresses.
Although feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray wrote the above words in 1984, in many respects queer subjects continue to disturb our cultural norms prescribing appropriate and inappropriate identity configurations and sexual behavior. The films of Queer Feast meditate on the invisibility of queers in the wider heteronormative society, providing numerous examples of their exclusion from dominant social discourses on love, sexuality and the expression of desire.
The story of Norma and Virginia in Leftovers provides the most striking example of this invisibility. This lesbian couple is indeed invisible to the world, save for their friendship with Kevin, a gay male friend who is out of the closet. Kevin muses that perhaps their reticence to admit to their relationship stems from their being born and coming of age in the pre-Stonewall era, a time when being gay was not as accepted as it is today. Kevin tries to get Norma to talk about her sexuality, but she won’t discuss it other than to say that “I think it’s right that people have their rights” to express it any way they like.
Leftovers provides explicit evidence of the invisibility and silence surrounding Norma and Virginia’s queer identities when Kevin cleans their house after Norma dies and mounting health problems force Virginia to move into a nursing home. Having never actually set foot in their house before, Kevin learns that the women were pack rats who collected, saved, and hoarded almost everything they could get their hands on. Over the years, they slowly built up a barrier of “stuff” to prevent the outside world from encroaching on their private territory.
Kevin uncovers various hidden objects, such as photographs of Norma and Virginia together as young women in the early days of their relationship, buried under mountains of baseballs cards and towering stacks of old National Geographic magazines. These unearthed objects furnish proof of their relationship, while the fact that they have literally been “buried” reflects the reclusive relationship dynamics between the two women: Virginia remained secluded in the house for years, while Norma “brought the outside world home” for her. In fourteen years they never interacted with their neighbors or went out together. Their life together was one in which, as Citron’s narration notes, “Day in and day out they hunkered down and became a world of two…finding a space of privacy in the silence.” Their relationship remained just as invisible to the outside world as the old photographs gathering dust in their home.
Norma and Virginia’s reclusive habits should not suggest that the two lived lives completely devoid of social contacts. Citron notes that what she found most fascinating about delving into the artifacts of their relationship was the evidence of a “vibrant community” of queer women from the over two thousand photographs of the couple and their friends taken by Norma from the 1930s to the 1950s (Citron interview). Even in the pre-Stonewall era, the photos depict Norma and Virginia displaying affection in public spaces. Citron speculates that these public displays of affection were more acceptable in an earlier, more socially conservative time period precisely because people could not imagine or think desire between women as a possibility; people assumed they were just witnessing sisterly embraces and nonsexual displays of affection (Citron interview).
In addition to eliciting questions as to how Norma and Virginia were able to display their desire for on another in public, the affection evident in the photographs also points towards another issue related to the invisibility of queer identities: the disappearance of the couple’s queer community and social network. The central question that Leftovers poses to viewers is, as Citron phrases it, “How did they get from a vibrant community to being totally isolated?” (Citron interview) Truthful to Citron’s belief that interactive narratives should create a space for the emergence of independent thought in viewers rather than furnishing them with transparent and easily consumable storylines (Citron interview), Leftovers provides no answers to this question. Instead, viewers are left to fill in the gaps of their incomplete knowledge of Norma and Virginia’s life together and can only speculate as to what could have led to their increasing isolation.
In addition to the vibrant social network of their youth evidenced in the photographs, the narrative crux of Leftovers hinges on the fact that Kevin becomes the support network that the two women lack in their old age. He becomes a surrogate son who fulfills the roles of caretaker and friend as the women grow older and their health declines. Norma even gives Kevin an allowance like a child, putting five dollars into a vacation fund for every errand he runs for her. And when Norma eventually dies in the hospital, Kevin is the only one left to break the news to Virginia, as he is the only person aware of her relationship with Norma.
In the absence of a normative family structure, in which the biological children of a heterosexual couple care for their parents in their final years, Leftovers illustrates the fact that alternatives do exist for those couples that do not fit this norm. When Norma dies, and the nurse assumes that Kevin is her son, he tells the nurse, “She wasn’t really my mother,” although for all intents and purposes she was. Kevin becomes the family that the women lack, highlighting the important role communal bonds play in supporting those from whom heteronormativity demands silence and invisibility.
Despite the fact that Norma, Virginia, and Kevin form a queer family unit (or queer the notion of the “family unit”), Leftovers also makes the harsh realities of their invisibility clear with Norma’s death. After Norma succumbs to an illness brought on by years of alcoholism, Virginia informs Kevin that she does not want to claim Norma’s body; Norma is gone, and Virginia just wants her remains to be taken away. Kevin does as Virginia asks, and Citron’s voice-over informs us that Norma’s body lay in Cook County Morgue for months before the state government finally paid around $250.00 for a pine box coffin and a funeral. They then placed Norma in a mass grave with 31 other unclaimed bodies, most of them homeless people. Citron notes with irony in her narration that the authorities spent months trying to locate a next-of-kin, but they never came close to discovering Virginia.
In contrast to the public’s non-recognition of their relationship, Leftovers reinstates Norma and Virginia in one another’s lives by bearing witness to a private relationship that the authorities never even considered possible. Citron’s work thus becomes political in testifying to their queer relationship when it would have otherwise disappeared with their deaths, their forty-five years together unacknowledged and uncelebrated. The narrative serves as an act of remembrance that allows Norma and Virginia’s history to survive. As Citron sums it up at the end of the film, “Virginia, in death, finally came out.”
Invisibility and visual evidence
Citron conveys this historical silencing of the queer couple affectively, through the aesthetic forms in which she expresses the narrative. Her use of photographs, paint-by-number illustrated photographs and a voice-over narration all serve to inform us of Norma and Virginia’s life together without completely exposing this very private couple to our gaze. A few examples indicate the plethora of creative techniques on offer: illustrated magnifying lenses hover over old black and white photographs of Norma and Virginia as Citron narrates their relationship with Kevin. Moving photographs depict the women in earlier years. Strips of still photographs taken by Norma unravel across the screen.
Leftovers itself functions as a magnifying glass over the lives of Norma and Virginia, serving as a visual witness of their history when their voices have been silenced. Citron also respects the couple’s need for privacy through using these indirect means of depiction to tell their story. Norma and Virginia are simultaneously hidden and unhidden in the photographs; we are only given the images, with no first-hand accounts of their context, meaning or significance. A sense of mystery inheres in the story we are told of their relationship. They tell Kevin nothing about their life together, and we too are left to wonder about their history after having been granted access to only very small pieces of it.
Citron’s use of Norma’s photograph archive recalls Citron’s investigation of the role that home movies play in identity formation in her book Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions (1999). In relating the story of the impact of her family’s home movies on her own identity, Citron argues that we construct the autobiographies of our lives through home images such as those presented in Leftovers. Photographs serve both a historical and psychic function in these instances, documenting our history while also allowing us to psychologically construct a narrative of our lives.
The photographs in Leftovers serve as the limited foundations for the imagination of biography. They provide visual evidence of Norma and Virginia’s life together, but taken out of context and without the details provided through Citron’s narration, they actually tell us very little concrete information about their subjects. Kevin, Citron and viewers engage in mutual acts of narrative production by teasing out a hidden history behind Norma and Virginia’s latter-day hermetic existence.
The paint-by-numbers also serve as apt metaphors for the film’s gradual uncovering of the women’s relationship. Paintbrushes slowly fill in various illustrated photographs of Norma and Virginia as we learn more and more about their clandestine relationship. As with the use of the magnifying glass over the photographs, the paintbrushes visually enact what Citron attempts to accomplish her film: engaging viewers in the process of creating narrative by filling in the missing pieces of Norma and Virginia’s life together. To look closer and discover what the outside world had ignored and would have forgotten, and preserve a queer history for posterity.
Citron’s use of photographs as visual witnesses to unrecognized queer histories recalls director Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996), which also depicted the discovery of queer sexuality through visual material after the subject had died. Dunye’s film follows the efforts of a video store clerk (played by Dunye herself) to ascertain the history of an African-American Hollywood actress credited only as “The Watermelon Woman” in her films. This Watermelon Woman, despite her obvious talent, was relegated to “mammy” roles during the 1930s and 1940s. Dunye sets out to discover the identity of this actress by poring over archives of old, forgotten films collecting dust and interviewing the Watermelon Woman’s now elderly colleagues and friends.
Through painstaking effort, Dunye is eventually able to reconstruct the Watermelon Woman’s history and discover her name and identity. Dunye also finds out that the Watermelon Woman was a lesbian who lived happily with her partner for decades. In this regard Leftovers bears a striking resemblance to Dunye’s film, as both emphasize the importance of visual memory and oral testimony in preserving the identities of those whose queerness was forced underground by dominant social norms demanding either heterosexuality or invisibility.
Invisibility and the queer community
Out of the four narratives of Queer Feast, Leftovers deals most explicitly with the topic of invisibility. However, it is by no means the only narrative to do so. Many of the stories in Mixed Greens highlight their queer subjects’ feelings of invisibility in the wider community. This feeling of non-belonging motivates them to form strong networks among themselves.
One particular story in Mixed Greens clearly illustrates the necessity for a queer community. This story is set in the backyard barbeque of a lesbian couple and their friends. We hear Peg, an older butch lesbian, speaking to Jan, a young woman who displays suicidal behavior due to her insecurities about her queer sexuality and her family’s disapproval of it. Jan feels disconnected from her previous social network, while also feeling isolated from the queer community. However, Peg’s partner Betty informs Jan that she needs to seek out the support of those to whom her desires are not invisible, telling her that although “The world is a helluva place for our kind,” she should not despair: “You’ve got us now, and we take care of each other. No one else will.” Although this visibility to each other does not directly address the problem of wider societal non-recognition of queer sexuality, it nevertheless constitutes a step in generating the communal support system that could eventually combat it.
All of the narratives in Queer Feast convey the invisibility of their subjects in an affective register, through the video’s aesthetic features. As I discussed previously, Leftovers creatively renders visual documentation of Norma and Virginia’s invisible relationship. As American as Apple Pie, Cocktails & Appetizers and Mixed Greens all employ the device of aural/visual mismatches to avoid direct visual depictions of their subjects while still allowing their stories to be told through photographic evidence, voice-overs and off-screen action. The lack of clarity provided by the narratives stylistically conveys the historical invisibility of their subjects in a wider society that stigmatizes and rejects their queer sexuality.