Queer Film Classics Review

reviewed by Roxanne Samer

Greg Youmans, Word Is Out: A Queer Film Classic (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011), 189 pp., $14.95.

Thomas Waugh & Jason Garrison, Montreal Main: A Queer Film Classic (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010), 269 pp., $14.95.

Julia Mendenhall, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014), 149 pp., $14.95.

Queer Film Classics—the title of a new book series edited by Thomas Waugh and Matthew Hays and published by Arsenal Pulp Press of Vancouver, Canada—is a challenging phrase to hold in one’s mind. Each term vibrates with anticipation and impatience, jostling the one next to it and in turn that on the other side. Since its emergence in the early 1990s, queer studies has fought to be anything but “classic.” It borrowed its nomenclature and took inspiration from AIDs activism of the preceding decade. The grassroots organizing of Act Up and Queer Nation had mobilized activists across gender and sexual identities against the mass shaming of HIV-positive people and mainstream gay and lesbian organizations’ reactive politics of respectability. And they did as much with sardonic wit and humor.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Queer studies in turn took on assimilationist accomplices in gay and lesbian studies.[2] Queer scholars did not yearn for histories of gay and lesbian subjects, undifferentiated by time; they pursued gender and sexual variation across history and the social relations that held categories particular to certain cultures—such as “tribade,” “sodomite,” and “pederast”—in place.[3] Queer epistemologies did not build toward “equality” in democratic citizenship; they deconstructed the heterosexual/homosexual binary and explored how the subordination of the latter identity to the former causes the former to become dependent upon the latter for meaning, identifying potentiality in the resulting irresolvable instability.[4] In short, there was nothing “classic” about “queer.”

Twenty years later, despite its intentions, queer studies has become its own field of inquiry with its own methodologies and doctrines. In the process, queer film studies has formed at its intersection with film and media studies. Many early queer film scholars built on the theories of Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, and Teresa de Lauretis and analyzed the processes undertaken to normalize heterosexuality in classical cinema or otherwise found threads that unraveled such texts, baring queer desires.[5] Others studied explicitly queer films and/or films by queer directors. New Queer Cinema (NQC) erupted on the 1991 international festival circuit, and in 1992 B. Ruby Rich gave it its name. The new films of Derek Jarman, Sadie Benning, Laurie Lund, Gregg Araki, Su Friedrich, and Todd Haynes, among others, made queer pleasures and queer histories paramount. Like the queer scholars beginning their research on pederasty in Ancient Greece and masculine women across the centuries at this time, these filmmakers crafted new historiographies, approaching the past through archaeology and alchemy.[6] Rich wrote of Jarman’s Edward II,

“Homophobia is stripped bare as a timeless occupation, tracked across centuries but never lacking in historical specificity.”[7]

Reflecting on this historical moment would later lead Rich to reconsider these films’ antecedents—those queer films made before queer cinema became what it did.[8] Writing the history of NQC is one area of the field that only seems to be growing.

Arsenal Press’ Queer Film Classics book series makes notable contributions at this academic juncture. A collection of short monographs, each devoted to the study of a particular film (and titled accordingly, each book having the same name as the film it studies, with the subtitle “A Queer Film Classic”), the series’ editors make the now only mildly audacious claim that there are films worthy of study as queer classics. In preparing to write this review, I selected three titles that struck me as particularly surprising for such a series—those on the Mariposa Film Group’s documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1978), Frank Vitale’s semi-autobiographical Montreal Main (1974), and Patricia Rozema’s whimsical first feature I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987). To me, each of these films seemed to hold tenuous relationships to queerness. Among other things, they were all produced before “queer” became an operational political, aesthetic or analytic paradigm. The first two films, in particular, were made well within the period of the gay and lesbian movement, the oftentimes liberal politics of which queer activists and scholars would be sure to distance themselves from in the 1990s. I found that each monograph’s author or pair of authors—Greg Youmans, Thomas Waugh and Jason Garrison, and Julia Mendenhall, respectively—negotiates this queer classics framework and offers his, her or their own argument about queerness and canons, historicity and the politics of memory. Direct and critically engaging, these books in the Queer Film Classics series challenge us to think about the role of film in queer history and the history of queer film.

Word Is Out: A Queer Film Classic (2011)

Greg Youmans’ Word Is Out: A Queer Film Classic (2011) is a richly researched and insightful examination of the talking-heads documentary on 1970s U.S. gay and lesbian lives made by the San Francisco-based Mariposa Film Group, which consisted of Nancy Adair, Peter Adair, Andrew Brown, Rob Epstein, Lucy Massie Pheniz, and Veronica Selver. Youmans draws on research in Peter Adair’s Papers at the San Francisco Public Library—including footage from the celluloid interviews that did not make it into the final film and the film’s one hundred and forty video pre-interviews—as well as his interviews with the other five filmmakers and a few of the film’s interview subjects to craft a compelling story of the film’s production. Youmans also situates the film historically within the late 1970s shifting U.S. political climate. Word Is Out made its theatrical tour in the wake of Anita Bryant’s successful “Save Our Children” campaign in Miami, and the film first was first broadcasted on public television two weeks before Californians voted on the Briggs Initiative, which moved to ban gays and lesbians from working in California public schools. Such initiatives, Youmans reminds us, lead directly to the formation of a national gay and lesbian movement organized around gay rights. As U.S. lesbians and gay men began to make their presences known at ballot boxes, Word Is Out circulated a personable portrait of a few of theirs lives. Through his contextualized analysis of the film, Youmans untangles the varied functions of the film’s cultural activism.

Youmans organizes the book into a twenty-five chapter “alphabet book” (he could not think of a good “J”), inspired by the film’s early (if, as Youmans points out, incorrect) title card—“Conversations with 26 gay men and women.” This allows him greater adeptness in analysis and argument. Early on, Youmans admits that he used to have “trouble understanding how so pleasant an image of ordinary people could have been groundbreaking.”[9] As has been likely the case for many queer folks who have viewed Word Is Out since coming of age in the 1990s or 2000s, the film’s universalizing of gay and lesbian experiences, for him, made it first appear apolitical. After conducting archival research and discovering how so many people contributed to this film and its reception, however, Youmans concludes that he can no longer reduce his interpretation of the film to a singular argument. If one includes all the celluloid and video interviews conducted for the film and the feedback given at community screenings of the film’s rushes and rough cut, the work of hundreds of individuals with varying ideologies went into the film. Furthermore, the final film, through national theatrical distribution and public television broadcasting, immediately reached hundreds of thousands of others, many of whom found it profoundly moving in critical as well as affirming ways. Youmans takes all of this into consideration and analyzes the film’s many contributions, his unique alphabetic structure preventing one element or argument from trumping all others.

In the chapters “F is for Feminism” and “T is for Third World Gay,” Youmans explores how the film engaged with some of the most heated controversies happening across U.S. gay and lesbian communities in the 1970s, including generational divides among lesbians around feminism and its relevancy or influence on their sexual lives. Meanwhile, in chapters such as “E is for Editing” and “N is for Narrative,” he isolates a particular formal element and analyzes the film’s aesthetics, its history of edits, for example, suggesting different paths the film may have taken. Perhaps because of this thematic organization, there are a number of delightful analytic surprises to be discovered within and across chapters. In “I is for Interview,” for example, Youmans begins by describing the style deployed in the celluloid interviews, wherein the six filmmakers had decided that any given camera operator (they alternated, sharing this responsibility) would serve as the interviewer as well. This, the collective believed, would better connect the flow of the interview and its filming as well as make it more natural for subjects to look at the camera when answering their questions. Youmans soon, however, focuses on the unique filming behind Pat Bonds’ interview and the significance of its difference. Apparently, Nancy Adair, who knew the ex-Women’s Army Corp nurse from the San Francisco lesbian bar Maud’s, brought in her brother Peter Adair to get Bonds’ delicious stories before wearing her out with a second interview of her own, in which and she revealed what she perceived to be the darker truths behind Bonds’ comedic defensiveness. Youmans observes that such confrontational interview techniques were reserved for interview subjects of older generations, whereas younger participants, closer to the filmmakers’ own ages, “seem to arrive before the camera already interpellated as authentic gay subjects,” never acting out and not being taken as needing direction toward self-awareness.[10] While cross-generational conflict often seems a defining characteristic of the relations between post-Stonewall gays and lesbians and queers of the 1990s and 2000s, Youmans’ account of this film’s production reveals such generational negotiations to have their own histories.
One of the most fascinating features of this book is Youmans’ periodic analyses of the video pre-interviews he watched in Peter Adair’s collection. In “T is for Third World Gay” and “V is for Video,” he contrasts the video pre-interviews with the celluloid interviews that ended up in the final film to reveal how interviews with gays and lesbians of color were shaped over the production process to fit the film’s universalizing liberal framework. This was not merely a matter of editing, trimming what does not fit (either in terms of running time or ideology), as is often the case with documentaries. Rather, it was a matter of switching interviewers, asking entirely different questions the second time around, or not asking some interview subjects back for a final interview. Dennis Chiu’s video pre-interview was conducted by Andrew Brown, a Black man and the one Mariposa Film Group filmmaker of color. According to Youmans, the early interview focused on racism within the gay community. In the video, Chiu speaks extensively to Asian-American gay men’s tendency to internalize the racist and sexist values of white gay male culture, and when Brown asks him if there are gay people in China, Chiu passionately expounds on how Western critiques of sexual repression in China are used to divert attention from the exploitations of the West in China. This is not the interview, however, that viewers encounter in the final film. Rob Epstein conducted the celluloid interview. He asked fewer questions about race than Brown had, and Chiu’s answers, as they are cut into the final film, seem to hold racism and homophobia apart and suggest overcoming the former has strengthened him in overcoming the latter. While Chiu appears a bit unsure of himself in the final film, Youmans notes that Chiu seems confident in the video pre-interview. The archive does not definitively explain why this is, but as Youmans concludes,

“Whatever the explanation, the person in the video pre-interview, with his impassioned critique of white, Western racism and imperialism, seems unassimiable to the argument and ideology of the final film.”[11]

In many ways, stories such as these affirm what many of us already believe we know about the overwhelming whiteness and racism of gay liberation. In other ways, however, thanks to Youmans' adroit analysis, they reveal such conversations as having happened at that time, not merely decades after the fact.
Most of the video pre-interview subjects did not make it into the final film at all. The Mariposa Film Group conducted eight initial interviews and after screening selections from these for community audiences in San Francisco, they realized viewers were already beginning to see the film “as a definitive statement on gay life,” and as a result of as much they needed to conduct many more interviews.[12] After conducting pre-interviews on video individually, the filmmakers gathered for a retreat on Cape Cod, where they screened one another’s pre-interviews and discussed them each in turn. Eventually they came to a consensus as to which people should be included in the final film and who would interview whom on celluloid. Among those left behind, Youmans informs us, was Audre Lorde. In her pre-interview video with Veronica Selver, Lorde refuses to narrativize her experience of “coming out” as a purely lesbian one. Instead, Lorde rhetorically turns the question back on Selver:

“Um, so when you speak of coming out, do you mean coming out as a black woman who is determined to make her own way? Do you mean coming out as a poet who knows that she must write or die? Do you mean coming out as a woman who loves women and feels she has a right to? Coming out as a woman who loves women and who also wants to have children?”[13]

Watching this videotape, Youmans notes that “Selver’s abstractly personal questions seem jarringly at odds with the charged responses of the self-proclaimed ‘warrior poet.’”[14] Selver does not register that Lorde’s answers challenge the structural premises of the project. As if recognizing as much, Lorde continually asks Selver if she hears what she is saying, at one point even putting her hand to her mouth and calling “Yoo hoo!” While Lorde demands people confront their differences and how they get used to keep them apart, Youmans writes, Betty Powell, the one Black lesbian included in the final film, gives the impression that the only racial issue in the gay and lesbian community is underrepresentation, a problem easily solved by greater inclusion. Ironically, Lorde’s exclusion from the final film retrospectively reveals this not to have been the case. Youmans shows how the Mariposa Film Group felt the burden of representation in crafting their portrait of gay and lesbian America and strove to meet community demands. He also demonstrates how the resulting liberal mosaic only did so much.
Over the course of the book, Youmans establishes that “gay” and “lesbian” in the mid to late 1970s were “rather flexible terms—arguably more so than they are now—with blurred boundaries around the identities they sought to fix and describe.”[15] In the chapter “Q is for Queer,” Youmans does as much by exploring the interviews with gender nonconforming participants in Word Is Out. Among these are the androgynous, genderqueer Tede Mathews, who claims to have once identified as transsexual but now practices a more fluid gender presentation, believing “anything anybody wears at any time is drag,”[16] and the butch Rusty Millington, who casts her male-identification as a matter of the past but also appears ever the more classically butch with Pam Jackson, her femme partner and co-parent, at her side. Youmans analyzes Mathews and Millington’s dismissive statements as exemplar of second wave feminism’s reach, but he also posits that Mathews and Millington, in their gender presentations and analyses of their approach to them, speak back to this often-prescriptive politics as well. In holding both of these in tension, Youmans argues, Word is Out can be seen as a film that “celebrates a queer openness to change and possibility.”[17]

Elsewhere, however, Youmans also chronicles the film’s contentious reception and demonstrates how critiques similar to those that many of us might have today appeared even before the film’s release. After attending a 1976 New York City community feedback/fundraising session Thomas Waugh, for example, criticized the Mariposa Film Group in an essay for Jump Cut for “soft-pedaling” explicit and radical political rhetoric so as to not alienate non-politicized gays.[18] Meanwhile, after seeing the film on PBS, a number of viewers wrote in. While most expressed gratitude, a few wrote that they were disappointed by either the lack of bisexual representation or the overrepresentation of young hippies. Thus, while the film strove to hold a mirror up to the varied gay and lesbian communities from which it and its filmmakers emerged, Youmans demonstrates that this image was fractured from the start.
Youmans wrote this monograph on Word Is Out for others like himself, “who were not there and who now exist on the far side of the late 1970s when gay liberalism and a gay rights agenda again dominate and define the mainstream of US LGBT politics.”[19] Through his analysis of this film, Youmans opens up a period of gay and lesbian history that is more often than not closed to queer interpretation. He makes it apparent that the late 1970s was a much different time. The stakes were such then that a film like Word Is Out could make an impact in a way that it simply could not today. Many queer folks have moved beyond positive images and beyond binary identities precisely because of the achievements of activists such as the Mariposa Film Group. At the same time, as queer studies has taught us, the mainstream LGBT movement has streamlined these same goals under the neoliberal, corporate-sponsored rainbow umbrella of “equality.” In doing so, it has continued to repudiate queer sex’s most taboo intimacies and has too often neglected more pressing concerns, including queer youth homelessness, the incessant murder of trans women, and the U.S. government’s uncaring detention and deportation of LGBT people of color. In this contemporary context, Youmans’ history is more than a cautionary tale of a politics taken too far. It is a much-needed story of queer people, who have come before and struggled—often in passionate conversation with one another—over these very same issues of queer history, community, and politics.