JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Staging the encounter in Cocktails & Appetizers through ...

... an older visual style of lesbian pulp fiction.

In one strand of Mixed Greens, Citron’s father Sam and ...

... her aunt Thelma recount what they know of Oscar’s life in Ireland.

Oscar in his IRA uniform.

Oscar and his wife on their wedding day.

In another strand of Mixed Greens, Sara and Isabel tell the camera about Sara meeting Isabel’s parents for the first time.

Isabel learns to cook Chinese food in case the baby doesn’t like American cuisine.

Sara flashes her new engagement ring.

Isabel loses her temper at Sara’s nonchalant attitude towards their money problems.

Extreme close-ups of hands and mouths ...

... are the only images we get of the characters in As American as Apple Pie.

 

Visibility and the gaze

Citron took inspiration from the covers of lesbian pulp novels... ...in designing the staging of Cocktails & Appetizers.

Citron’s concern with queer invisibility also encompasses an exploration of voyeurism, both as a tool of gendered violence and as a source of pleasure. Cocktails & Appetizers and As American as Apple Pie in particular seek to rehabilitate the gaze as a means through which queer subjects can become empowered and express desire. The gaze is no longer the exclusive tool of a masculine sadism that objectifies and fetishizes the female body, as described by Laura Mulvey in her seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The narratives of Queer Feast effectively queer the male gaze, appropriating it for gazes of desire between women that do not dehumanize or objectify their recipients.

Cocktails & Appetizers features a narrative in which the right to look and desire queerly plays a central role. The longest segment, which plays automatically after all of the others have been viewed, depicts the beginning of the relationship between Max, a photographer, and Jesse, a younger femme (described by an unseen character as “one hot woman”) who poses for her. The camera becomes a tool of mutual seduction that blurs the unequal power dynamics of Mulvey’s clearly defined subject/object relations.

Max starts off in the typically “masculine” position with the camera. Jesse poses for her in various butch and femme costumes.
Jesse appropriates the dominant position by taking up the lens. And then moves in closer to complete her act of seduction.

The erotic charge of the segment becomes palpable when Jesse, the model, teasingly takes the camera from photographer Max, and, in response to Max’s protests, flirtatiously tells her, “I know how to use it.” This provocation arouses Max, and she leans in to kiss Jesse. But Jesses backs away and tells Max to lie on the bed on her stomach, before leaning over Max and kissing her.

These actions emphasize the possible expression of queer desire and intimacy through the act of gazing at another. Both Max and Jesse, butch and femme, control the camera and the gaze alternatively. This sharing of the gaze avoids a sadistic subject/fetishized object imbalance of power by which Max, the butch and photographer, would gain complete ascendency over Jesse, the feminine object of the camera lens. This sliding between subject/object positions embodies the argument put forth by queer theorist Teresa de Lauretis in her work on film, in which she describes female spectatorship as a process of alteration between active and passive, masculine and feminine perspectives (1984).

The mise-en-scéne also provides a focus on the act of looking by referencing literature in which voyeurism serves as a source of queer pleasure. In addition to using the device of the camera to signal the two women’s mutual control over a queer gaze of desire, Citron composed all of the shots in Cocktails & Appetizers as replications of the covers of lesbian pulp fiction novels from the 1950s (Citron interview). Extreme close-ups of femmes undoing their pink sweaters, sipping martinis, undressing slowly under the camera’s gaze, as well as the textbook-porn fantasy of Max and Jesse’s seduction, speak to the influence of lesbian pulp fiction on the narrative’s aesthetics.

Identity issues

“The problem is, you can photograph desire. You can’t photograph identity.”
Cocktails & Appetizers

In addition to providing visible evidence of queer desire, Citron’s interactive narratives also explore identity, the non-photographable part of the subjectivities of her characters. The complexity of these identities cannot be conveyed to viewers through a look or be encompassed by any one action or moment in time. Many key moments in the narratives emphasize the impossibility of fully representing identity onscreen. Rather than depicting the formation and transformation of identities visually, many of the discussions involving this topic occur off-screen, as so are only heard rather than seen.

Perhaps the most striking example of the ambiguous, never fully knowable or visible nature of identity is the history of Citron’s great-grandfather Oscar Citron in Mixed Greens. Citron includes her father Sam and aunt Thelma in talking head interviews, as well as her cousin Stewart in off-screen interviews, in which she questions them about Oscar’s upbringing in Ireland, his involvement in the IRA and his immigration to the United States in the 1920s. Photographs of Oscar and other members of his family are interspersed with films of these interviews to provide us with some visible background of his life.

We discover through Citron’s interviews that attempting to discover the specific details of Oscar’s life only leads to more unanswerable questions. Although Citron’s family knows that Oscar was a member of the IRA, no one can tell her what motivated him to join this illegal organization, which carried the risk of imprisonment or death if he were caught. As Citron herself notes, Oscar’s involvement in the IRA is especially surprising given that none of his other family members brothers joined the organization. Oscar’s reasons are lost in his history, which the photographs and interviews evoke but cannot fully retrieve.

The stories of Oscar’s life also invoke the complexities of integrating the various cultural and religious identities within one particular family. As Sam and Thelma state, Oscar’s Jewish family had to assimilate to life in majority Christian Ireland after immigrating from Russia. There were then additional identity complications when Oscar moved his family to the United States in the 1920s and had to attempt to assimilate into the local culture of Boston as Irish-Jewish immigrants. Sam notes that he never experienced any racial or religious tension growing up, that in a certain sense the various familial histories of him and his childhood friends had little effect on their relationships. However, all of these layers of familial and personal histories are inextricably linked to the formation of identity, even those of us who are far removed from the processes of assimilation undergone by our ancestors.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

The links between Citron’s family history and the contemporary stories of queer identity suggest the advantages and disadvantages of assimilation in a variety of contexts. Mixed Greens contains both narrative strands in order to highlight the complexity of identity formation processes, especially when established social norms designated particular peoples or types of peoples as “outsiders.” When these outsiders attempt to assimilate, the narratives make us aware of what we stand to gain and lose by conforming.

Sara and Isabel, the lesbian couple who are looking to adopt a baby in Mixed Greens, serve as an illustrative example of the tension queer subjects face between the need to assert their non-normative identity and the desire to assimilate, even to a small degree, into heteronormative society. This story is set in the 90s, when queer couples could not adopt children in the United States. Sarah and Isabel effectively have to relinquish their identities as lesbians in the eyes of the authorities in order to be allowed to adopt: they must provide three references stating that the partner who will officially adopt the child is straight.

The women become angry and disagreeable with each other over the additional challenges they face to starting a family. One argues that they should persevere and “play the game” to get what they want: “It’s powerful to claim what the culture says isn’t yours.” The other says, “I hate this. This whole fucking culture.” They have discovered how much society demands the transformation or suppression of their identities in order for them to gain recognition.

However, the videos of the couple also reveal the extent to which they have assimilated into a more mainstream, heteronormative lifestyle. Their decision to start a family serves as the clearest indicator of their assimilation, which ironically is why they confront the host of challenges to their identities in the first place. They are staging their conversations in front of the camera in order to provide a visual diary of their lives for the soon-to-be-adopted Eva. They want to be a “normal” couple with children and are devastated by dominant culture’s rejection of this desire. They don’t want to remain on the outside.

We learn from their conversations with the camera that the rest of their relationship also follows a typical heterosexual couple script: they were college sweethearts, met each other’s parents before getting engaged (the butch partner gives the femme a ring), argue about not having enough money to pay the bills, and then duly set about the business of procreating.

This is not to argue that queer couples have an obligation to remain “on the outside,” or that their desires for children or a family are always a reflection of their longing to assimilate into a heteronormative system of values. However, considering that Citron created her characters out of composites of interviews with lesbian couples (Citron interview), we can take from the story in Mixed Greens that the desire of some queer subjects to assimilate may be partially instilled by social norms that “normalize the queer” by demanding they organize their social relations according to dominant paradigms.

The process of normalization that we see the adopting couple forced to undergo to get their child encourages us to think about what they stand to lose by conforming to dominant paradigms organizing desire and social life. The status of “outsider” and previous determination to resist co-optation is the price they pay to gain the official recognition they need to start a family.

Mixed Greens also strongly conveys the complexity of individual identities that exceed any one designation, including that of “queer.” The assemblage of identities within Citron’s family serves as a case in point. Her family is a nexus of Irish, Jewish, American, and working class identities. Their cultural heritage cannot be reduced to any one of these identities, nor can we construct a coherent whole out of their different parts.

Citron suggests that our identities are not encompassed by our gender or sexual orientation. We too are internal mixes of different, sometimes contradictory, influences and identities that cannot be easily reconciled with one another. Nor do our identities remain static over time, but they are constantly transforming and adapting to the particular circumstances and contexts in which we find ourselves. Mixed Greens presents the personal histories of its various subjects as a mixture of complex and disjointed identities continually in flux. As Citron puts it,

“Each of us is made up of all these different identities that we are constantly negotiating” (Citron interview).

Interactivity and identity construction

The interactive style of Citron’s narratives mimetically enact the processes of identity formation depicted within them. Citron, who holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology, is interested in exploring the construction of personal narratives through memory and engagement with our pasts, the paradigmatic example of this being the construction of autobiographies through home movies and photographs. In her book Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions, Citron describes her own family’s home movies functioning as a kind of Lacanian mirror stage in which they were able to glimpse idealized versions of themselves:

“Watching home movies together…gave my family a sense of history of themselves as a unit and a way to position themselves in the past, where everyone was younger, thinner, healthier, happier, and together. We needed to believe that the visual “evidence” was honest (seeing is believing). We took the surface image as a sign for the whole lived experience” (12).

This self-construction necessarily involves what Citron characterizes as her Brechtian method of making audiences work with her films in order to create narratives themselves. In this regard the disjunctive aesthetic elements of Citron’s work are central to the processes of identity formation in her subjects and viewers. All of the narratives in Queer Feast contain different aesthetic “channels” (Feuer) such as voice-overs, dialogues, images, videos, interviews, and illustrations whose connections to one another are not immediately apparent. This is a narrative strategy that Citron employs throughout her work to explore how viewers react to the lack of easily consumable narratives.

Citron states that she is continually surprised at how strongly people strive to construct a coherent, linear story out of the fragmented narrative lines in her work (Citron interview). She sees her role as an artist as one of creating moments and scenes out of which viewers construct the narratives themselves. For Citron, these acts of constructing narrative from abstract fragments of information are inextricably linked to the formation of identity in viewers:

“In constructing a narrative, fragments are knit into a whole; what has been shattered is cohered; a sense of self is restored. Narrative construction and integration of the self, regardless of which comes first, go hand in hand” (Home Movies 44)

For this reason Citron adamantly refuses to hand straightforward narratives down to her viewers, as she is interested in exploring the processes through which viewers constitute their selves through this process. Intelligible narratives are produced through the interactions between the artist and viewers. The construction of stories does not occur solely on one side or another, but in the space between the two; As Citron writes in Home Movies, interactive narrative takes place “[w]here the audience and I meet in the emotional space shaped by the film” (70).

Viewers of Queer Feast are given opportune chances to engage in mutual acts of narrative constructions with the films through their interactive presentation. By picking and choosing which pieces to watch, and the order in which we watch them, we are given a high degree of freedom to construct our own narratives out of the pieces Citron provides. Just as the content of the narratives often involves the construction of personal identities through memory, so we as viewers mimic these processes by forming our own conclusions about the characters’ identities through the scattered pieces of information provided.

Cocktails & Appetizers provides a prime example of the links between identity, memory and interactivity. The first nine segments feature dialogues about a couple with whom we are not previously acquainted, as well as images of women that do not seem to relate directly to these voice-over conversations. Only in the final segment depicting the beginnings of Max and Jesse’s relationship are we able to retroactively tie all of the pieces of the story together, necessarily employing memory to reconstruct a linear narrative out of the fragments we are given.

The aesthetic form of As American as Apple Pie gives us even less visual information than Cocktails & Appetizers on which to base a coherent narrative. In fact, we only see extreme close-ups of a pair of hands preparing an apple pie while the lesbian couple speaks in dialogues; no photographs, no home videos, no talking head interviews. Despite the fact that we only hear the story without ever actually seeing its characters, we still manage to construct a narrative out of the snippets of conversation that we hear, indicating as Citron would have it our psychological need to construct intelligible narratives out of insufficient information (Citron interview).

Citron also employs her strategy of encouraging viewers to aid in the construction of narrative in Mixed Greens and Leftovers, although in these works she uses actual home videos and photographs to establish parallels between the identity formation processes of her subjects and those of viewers. In Mixed Greens, Citron purposefully centers each of the eight stories around one character experiencing young adulthood, what Citron describes as “the place of identity formation” (Citron interview). These characters use a variety of different visual media, such as Super 8 and 16mm home videos, video cameras, black and white photographs and Polaroids to make sense of their pasts and construct their identities.

Citron employs a wide variety of visual media in Mixed Greens. Clockwise, from top left, Super 8 video; 16mm film; Polaroids; and black and white photography.

The narrative pieces provided allow us as viewers to engage in a similar process in constructing the characters’ identities, as well as provides a space to think about how our own identities have been shaped by home media. In this regard, the aesthetics of Citron’s narratives mimetically enact the identity issues they seek to address, confirming Citron’s belief that “new media is a perfect way to continue my exploration of these ideas” regarding the construction of identity through narrative (Citron interview).

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