2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 57, fall 2016
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. [open endnotes in new window] Queer studies in turn took on assimilationist accomplices in gay and lesbian studies. 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. 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. 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. 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. Rich wrote of Jarman’s Edward II,
“Homophobia is stripped bare as a timeless occupation, tracked across centuries but never lacking in historical specificity.”
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. 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.” 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 theSan 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. 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.”
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. 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 videowith 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?”
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.’” 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.” 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,” 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 (6). 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.”
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. 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.” 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.
Montreal Main: A Queer Film Classic (2010)
In Montreal Main: A Queer Film Classic (2010), Thomas Waugh and Jason Garrison balance rigor and delicacy as they analyze the Canadian film about a group of white male artists, who fraternize in the clubs, arcades, and fast food joints of Montreal’s lower Main and contemplate homosexuality as an alternative to their rather boring experiences with women. In this now fairly obscure film, Steve (Lack) and Peter (Brawley) play the queer chorus, providing sideline commentary and offering unsolicited advice, as Frank (Vitale) falls in love with a twelve year old boy named Johnny (Sutherland), making Bozo (Allan Moyle), his best friend, jealous. Waugh and Garrison’s goal here is to reclaim Montreal Main as a “kid film” twice over. First, they offer an analysis of the film’s narrative that centralizes Johnny’s desire and the adult world’s denial of his agency, his father and Frank ending the relationship before it can even really begin. Second, the authors argue that Montreal Main a “kid film” in that it is an orphan of queer film history. While the film was once popular among gay audiences, it has since been forgotten, and Waugh and Garrison contend that this is because of the increasing taboo placed on intergenerational love and children’s sexuality since the 1970s:
“The openness and sensitivity to nuance and difference that marked the era, the basic respect and curiosity required to do justice to Frank and Johnny’s relationship, have since been obliterated in the West.”
Feminist critiques of rape and pornography influenced the gay and lesbian movement in the 1980s, and in the early 1990s the pressures of right-wing politicians caused organizations such as GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) to institute a de facto policy of boy-love exclusion. While queer studies emerged around this time as a field committed to the exploration of desire, Waugh and Garrison point out that its early authors had little to say on the subject and, if anything, contributed to intergenerational taboos. Waugh and Garrison’s major contribution is their analysis of these profound changes in LGBT movement discourse. Like Youmans, they dirty the break between “gay” and “queer.” Situating their close readings of Montreal Main’s tender representation of man-boy love within such a history, they challenge readers to rethink where they draw lines around sexual, artistic, and political freedom.
Due to this particularly sensitive subject matter and because Montreal Main is one of the lesser-known films of the Queer Film Classics series, Waugh and Garrison provide ample context for the film’s production, distribution, and reception as well as the more generally historical and national and international contexts in which it was made and through which it moved. The first two of the book’s four chapters after the short introduction are titled “Context: Time and Space” and “Context: People and Films.” In the first of these, Waugh and Garrison describe the “’perfect storm’ of institutional, economic, and demographic convergence” that made the film possible and made it an iconic story of early 1970s Canadian queer life. These included the recent decriminalization of sodomy in the Canadian criminal code; the collapse of censorship in much of the West in the 1960s and the resulting general laid back attitude toward and even interest in intergenerational sexuality and children’s sexuality across films made in Europe and North America, such as The Special Friendship (Jean Delannoy, 1964) and Death In Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971); the formation of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) in 1968; and such Canadian funding agencies’ tendency to grant filmmakers free reign on their projects. Together these elements laid the groundwork for a film like Montreal Main.
In the first chapter, Waugh and Garrison also take readers through the intricate geography of the film, detailing the histories of the upper and lower Main as well as the sexual significance of settings such as the Mountain, the Mall, the suburb of Notre-Dame-de-Grace, and the Hinterland as well as the Frank’s Volkswagen van, which moves the characters between these various places. Waugh and Garrison write,
“The characters of the film inhabit these six or seven worlds unevenly, straddling or even suspended between them, between fringe and center, tradition and revolt, intersection with the sexual subcultures proper to each.”
In learning about each, including through the great illustrated map the authors provide, one gets a clearer sense of cultural and class-based stakes of the film’s romantic and sexual encounters. These friends are neither the men cruising at the docks nor the young couples setting up families in the suburbs. Who they might be and where they might belong is what they are still figuring out, and with the means to make such journeys they appear to be in little rush to do so.
In the second chapter, Waugh and Garrison provide detailed biographies of all the major players in film, which is especially apt in this case, considering most of the non-professional actors played characters with their own names, living in their own apartments, essentially dramatized versions of themselves. By detailing how the four actors playing the four main friends, including director Frank Vitale, also appeared in different roles and positions in one another’s films, the authors offer intertexual readings of their performances here. In doing so, Waugh and Garrison demonstrate that the particular homosocial queerness of Montreal Main was far from incidental. The press frequently asked Vitale about his own sexuality, and he spoke frankly about his ambivalence, which Waugh and Garrison describe as striking them as “prophetically proto-queer almost four decades later.” The authors also see this proto-queerness in Vitale’s description of the film as propaganda aimed at exploring the “gray area” between homosexuality and heterosexuality. It is also in this chapter that Waugh and Garrison chronicle Montreal Main’s distribution and reception, from its world premier at the Whitney Museum in March 1974 to its Canadian premiere that April and its rave reviews in Toronto’s gay press. In 1982 the film played at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, where it was shown alongside Kenneth Anger and Rosa von Praunheim films.
The third chapter, “Text,” then focuses on the film text itself, dividing the film into sixteen episodes and analyzing each formally and thematically. While the detailed information of the first two chapters was helpful for those unfamiliar with 1970s Canadian cinema or how sexual subcultures mapped onto Montreal of 1974, taking readers through the entire film is unnecessary. The authors make a number of important observations in this chapter. It is here that Waugh and Garrison delineate exactly how Frank and Bozo’s heterosexuality is established at the start of the film such that they might later transgress without too much worry. It is also here that the camera’s close attention to Johnny’s sensuality is first analyzed. However, these could have been folded into the historiographical meat of the final chapter, “Sextext: Intergenerational Cinema and Politics,” which by the third chapter has begun to feel unnecessarily delayed.
In this final chapter, Waugh and Garrison approach Montreal Main from the vantage point of the mainstreamed LGBT present and claim that the openness and nuance of early 1970s queer communities, including those which made Montreal Main’s story about Frank and Johnny’s love possible, are distinctly elements of the past. Beginning with feminist critiques of rape and child abuse in the 1980s, Waugh and Garrison argue, various factions of the gay and lesbian movement began to distance themselves formally and informally from boy-lovers. Under further pressure from right-wing politicians in the U.S. in the early 1990s, a number of organizations, including the International Lesbian and Gay Association and GLAAD, expelled defenders of man-boy love. Waugh and Garrison argue that the LGBTQ community has “left the Franks of the world,” now considered pedophiles, “to be ‘disappeared’ by monstrous institutions like the sex offender registries and civil commitment prisons.” Furthermore, the case “isn’t that different in the radical corners of queer theory.”
Despite queer scholars’ proud commitment to studying non-normative genders and sexualities unaccounted for by the more presentist gay and lesbian studies, they have either avoided intergenerational sexuality entirely or cast it as a thing of the distant past. In doing so, Waugh and Garrison claim, queer scholars collude with the respectability politics they define themselves against. As a film about the love of a twenty-five-year old man and a twelve-year old boy, Montreal Main is an orphan queer film, Waugh and Garrison argue, “because it was abandoned—not because its parents died.” For them, this is a grave failure of queer studies, and with this definitive chapter they seek to recover the politics and aesthetics of this twice abandoned subject.
After surveying a number of films that explore man-boy love, always eventually casting what may have at first seemed desirable on both parties’ parts as trauma and abuse, Waugh and Garrison explore Montreal Main’s more balanced representation of Johnny and Frank. They take readers through the scene in which Frank meets Johnny, noting how the film makes apparent Frank’s attraction while also revealing his initial misperception of Johnny as a girl, thus prompting viewers to ask how and why this attraction persists. Waugh and Garrison also, however, insist that their readers ask how and why Johnny wants Frank, eventually insisting he wants to keep spending time with Frank and, afraid his parents will not let him, would even like to move in. Waugh and Garrison note that we can comfortably ask these questions because the relationship, if clearly sexual, is never fulfilled. For them, this does not eradicate such an understanding or lessen the importance of exploring its repercussions.
“The pedophile gaze,” Waugh and Garrison argue, “is within us.” They demonstrate as much by analyzing two scenes in which Johnny is captured by the camera in a sensual fashion, even though Frank is not present. In cutting to a close-up and focusing on Johnny’s mouth as he drinks his orange juice at breakfast, for example, Vitale implicates the viewers in these erotics. The authors then analyze the film’s use of sound to outline Johnny’s trajectory as a desiring subject. They show how the silence of Johnny and Frank’s early scenes together contrast dramatically with the violent outbursts of Johnny’s angry father, and ask us to listen close as Johnny’s smashing of the coke bottle upon being abandoned by Frank gives way to the terrible silence of being alone.
In this last chapter, Waugh and Garrison, in a methodology akin to Youmans’ book of the next year, compare the advice of the secondary characters Steve and Peter between the video pre-shoot and the final film. The authors find that over the process of making the film, the queer chorus became less cajoling and more cautioning, morphing into two odd voices of respectable, white, middleclass society and the foils to Frank’s potential deviance. Waugh and Garrison deconstruct one of Steve’s monologues, demonstrating how his metaphors, first of drug addiction and then catching butterflies, perpetually characterize Johnny as the vulnerable victim. However, the authors also offer a secondary reading of the butterfly metaphor, revealing another dynamic whereby Frank waits for Johnny to fly freely to him out of his own curiosity and desire.Through this layered analysis Waugh and Garrison demonstrate the dangers of adults speaking for children and advocate that we listen to them instead.
Montreal Main: A Queer Film Classic (2010) is not an easy book to read. For those such as myself who came of age in the 1980s and 90s when such critiques of intergenerational sexuality peaked and then normalized, Waugh and Garrison offer a lot to think about. Ultimately, however, they make watching Montreal Main a critical and ethical project. For those invested in thinking about queer politics and the stories queer films tell, it is a unique and worthwhile read. Whether or not one agrees with the implications of their argument, namely that man-boy love ought to be welcomed back into the queer fold, they effectively provoke critical rigor in this oft-neglected area. In their conclusion, Waugh and Garrison reveal an audience for such work, Montreal Main itself having enjoyed an active underground VHS following through the 1990s and receiving a DVD restoration by Concordia University in 2009.
Waugh and Garrison clearly wrote this monograph on the film with gentleness and generosity toward those who may be discovering the film for the first time and reading their book in tandem. This book on Montreal Main speaks to very different, if not so distant, time in the history of gender and sexuality. However, Waugh and Garrison’s kid-oriented analysis of the film is especially provocative today, as the supporters of anti-transgender bathroom bills ignorantly cast transgender women as pedophiles, while refusing to listen to the transgender children and young adults advocating for their own safety in school bathrooms.
I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing: A Queer Film Classic (2014)
Julia Mendenhall’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing: A Queer Film Classic (2014) adeptly casts the 1987 Canadian indie as a proto-queer film, situating its production within the historical period immediately prior to both queer studies and New Queer Cinema’s emergence. I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing follows its thirty-one year old amateur photographer protagonist Polly, as she moves from temp work to permanent part-time employment as a curator’s assistant at a Toronto art gallery. The film is part mockumentary, as Polly reflects on her experiences at the gallery to a video camera, which the viewer only late in the film discovers she has stolen from one of the gallery’s installations. The fairly tame drama that Polly witnesses between the curator, her artist girlfriend Mary, and various male buyers and eventually contributes to plays out in linear episodes, interrupted briefly a half dozen times by Polly’s video camera narration and on a few occasions more extensively by her fantasies, played out in black and white, as she develops the photographs she takes in her modest darkroom at home. Offering a close reading of the scene in which the Curator commends an artist’s “oblique pragmatism” to a representative from the National Institute, Polly keenly listening from the gallery’s door, Mendenhall reinterprets the films send-up of pretentious artspeak as describing the film’s vision for lived queer practice. To Mendenhall, Polly is our queer hero, offering us examples for how we might curate our own sense of self worth, desire, and pleasure in the face of adversity.
Like the other two Queer Film Classic books reviewed here, Mendenhall takes her readers through the details of the film’s production, situating Mermaids within Patricia Rozema’s oeuvre and biography as well as accounting for its funding and support and recounting its critical acclaim at international film festivals. The film was popular at the Cannes Film Festival, where it debuted, won the Prix de la jeunesse, and secured U.S. distribution with the then little-known Miramax. However, the film’s feminist scholars and lesbian reviewers struggled to identify both the film’s politics and Polly’s sexuality, resulting in ambivalent reviews. Mendenhall takes this historical problem of the film’s mixed lesbian reception as the motivation for her own analysis. Drawing inspiration from queer studies of the last quarter century, she makes an argument for thinking of Polly as polymorphously perverse, whereby the protagonist offers viewers a range of nonnormative sexual and affectional preferences, neither quantifiable as heterosexual or homosexual. Mendenhall contends there is a queer didacticism to Rozema’s depiction of Polly’s pleasures that is apropos to its historical moment and worthy of consideration by arbiters of the queer film canon.
The first two chapters are devoted to providing contextual information about I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing’s production and immediate reception. In “Creating the Queer Fairy Tale,” Mendenhall draws on the Patricia Rozema Special Collection at the Toronto International Film Group’s Film Reference Library and her own interviews with Rozema to narrate the challenges Rozema overcame in getting her first feature made. Rozema, Mendenhall tells us, was motivated to make Mermaids by scathing reviews of her half-hour film Passion: A Letter in 16mm (1985). Passion focused on a workaholic filmmaker who, having lost her lover to her work, addresses her genderless lover as “you” in a direct-to-camera monologue. One Toronto-based The Globe and Mail reviewer called the film “greatly overwrought and thuddingly pretentious.” In response, Rozema, who was still closeted and had only recently moved to Toronto, made Mermaids, a film about the very pretentiousness of the culture from which this review materialized. Quoting Rozema’s journals and recounting Rozema’s frustrations writing for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Journal, Mendenhall analyzes how the filmmaker wrote Mermaids in order to work through her developing ideas about art and media as well as her growing attraction to women. It is here that Mendenhall also describes the tensions in Canada around homosexuality at the height of the AIDS crisis and Canadian funders reticence toward funding “minimalist student films.” Rozema was willing to temper the explicitness of the lesbian lovers and Polly’s interest in them, and she had a champion in the Ontario Film Development Corporation. As a result, Mendenhall tells us, Mermaids got made quick and cheap, and Rozema’s fairytale vision of overcoming personal and professional adversity through art and passion became a reality.
In “Coming Out, Cannes, and Criticism,” Mendenhall contrasts Mermaids’ international popularity, beginning with Cannes, and lesbian journalists and feminist scholars’ fairly uniformly negative critiques, beginning with Chris Bearchell’s article on Rozema for Epicene and Teresa de Lauretis’ article, “Guerrilla in the Midst: Women’s Cinema in the 1980s.” While critics at Cannes were enthralled—the film received a six minute standing ovation, and Harry Weinstein courted Rozema for the U.S. rights—lesbians were annoyed by Rozema’s reluctance to come out, and de Lauretis criticized the film for what she perceived as a related ambivalence about feminism and sexual politics. Mendenhall, meanwhile, offers her own queer interpretation, whereby Mermaids is revealed to speak from the specificity of Rozema’s self-discovery of her own lesbianism and narrativize an individual’s growing ability to identify and articulate her feelings. Mendenhall highlights a moment late in the film where Polly stands up for the Curator, who is being derided by another painter and possible ex-boyfriend, as well as the moments where Polly experiences a multitude of pleasures not typically associated with sexuality. In doing as much, Mendenhall does not argue that the Cannes critics were right and the lesbian critics wrong, but accounts for the film’s queer sensibility while also demarcating its unique representation of sexuality.
This analysis develops across the latter two chapters. In “Reading Polly’s ‘Perversities,’” Mendenhall details her theory of Polly’s polymorphously perverse sexuality, conducting analyses of the film’s black and white vision scenes, including the one in which Polly draws on Freud to explain her theory to the Curator that “gender is irrelevant in matters of the heart,” as they stroll along a river bank in turn of the century garb. “By depicting Polly’s sexuality as polysexuality,” Mendenhall writes,
“Rozema, like Freud before her, recognizes that human excitations and desires are mutable and capricious, or to use the reclaimed contemporary term, ‘queer.’”
While Teresa de Lauretis would go on to coin the term “queer theory” in 1991, neither she nor anyone else, Mendenhall claims, has read Polly as distinctly “queer.” For Mendenhall, Polly’s queerness lays in her rejection of the heterosexual/homosexual binary and its conventional narratives, choosing instead to find her own pleasures, which advance a very unusual story in the process. Polly’s visions, Mendenhall argues, are exemplary of the erotics Polly finds in aesthetics. Mendenhall uses Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema” to reclaim a primordial scopophilia (rather than fetishistic scopophilia) for Polly, wherein observing the world around her and photographing it becomes paramount. While the outside world does not understand Polly, and the Curator rejects her anonymously submitted photographs, Mendenhall describes how Polly brings these experiences home with her, in turn creating a sanctuary among her developed photographs, where she enjoys other sensual pleasures, such as eating food and listening to music (a list to which I would add, petting her cat). This builds to Mendenhall’s interpretation of the film’s conclusion. As the Curator, Mary, and Polly walk into Polly’s darkroom-turned-forest, Mendenhall argues, they come together, now a threesome of polymorphously perverse lovers, on Polly’s terms.
In the final chapter, “Envisioning Our Futures,” Mendenhall returns to contextual analysis, retrospectively situating the film as the first of many queer films Rozema would go on to make. After Mermaids, Rozema started making more explicitly lesbian films as well as more political films, including White Room (1990), which, unlike Mermaids, graphically represented lesbian sex. Meanwhile, her autobiographical When Night is Falling (1995) critiqued Christian homophobia but was not considered New Queer Cinema, because its narrative more closely resembled those films that New York Times critic Stephen Holden described as “Giddy Gay Lite.” Mendenhall explains these changes over Rozema’s oeuvre in both personal and cultural terms. Around this same time, Rozema finally came out. Furthermore, the venues and sources of funding for queer cinema shifted from independent cinema to HBO, benefitting Rozema greatly.
For Mendenhall, Rozema’s later productions do not merely prove the queerness of her first feature. Instead, they offer an important contrast, whereby Mermaids’ oblique pragmatism might be better appreciated today. Mendenhall argues that the empathy with which Polly treats herself is still relevant when, even with advances in gay rights, criticism, rejection, and humiliation have yet to wane. In such moments, finding one’s own little pleasures and indulging in them can be a life-saving strategy. For this reason, Mendenhall claims, the film remains inspirational. This returned focus on oblique pragmatism allows Mendenhall to practically link this pre- or proto-queer past to the present and claim its relevancy to global audiences pursuing their own unique passions, visions, and desires today.
In this newest Queer Film Classics title, Mendenhall offers a much needed rereading of a subtle queer film that in many ways remains strange in an age where queer films made by “out” filmmakers and with “out” characters are supplemented with homosocial friendships that anticipate queer readings and yet do little to augment what that queer reading might entail. In focusing on Polly’s polymorphous perversity, Mendenhall reminds us of the many pleasures films themselves provide and encourages the pursuit of even those most commonplace. Reading the book alongside watching Mermaids appropriately creates greater pleasures in viewing. Mendenhall’s correction of de Lauretis’ rather rigid reading of the film is welcome. However, a more generous reading of the film’s feminist critiques could encourage a more critical engagement with the limitations of the film’s queer pragmatism. The model of queer lived practice that Mendenhall lays out is highly individualistic. Furthermore, the film leaves us at the moment when the Curator, Mary, and Polly begin their adventure together. Thus, we are unsure how Polly’s sexuality, so well articulated by Mendenhall, might develop with others by her side. Mendenhall quickly alludes to other minorities whom Mermaids might inspire. However, she does not reconcile such claims with her focus on this film’s individualizing strategies and an individual, Rozema, in Toronto in 1987. While appropriating “oblique pragmatism” might offer a much-needed critique the exclusiveness of the high art world, there is a limit to which subjects can make, appreciate, and find productive adapting such a critique.
Queer Film Classics
As a book series, Queer Film Classics makes important contributions to the field of queer media studies. Each title amasses contextual information that is integral to further research on its given film. At the same time, there is flexibility to their format, which allows each author to pursue a question of particular interest to the study of film history, queer history, and how we remember and think about both. As early as 1993, Judith Butler anticipated the end of queer studies and queer politics, claiming,
“If the term ‘queer’ is to be a site of collective contestation, the point of departure for a set of historical reflections and future role imaginings, it will have to remain that which is, in the present, never fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted, queered from a prior usage and in that direction of urgent and expanding political purposes.”
Queer Film Classics takes on this challenge and keeps “queer” queer. From Greg Youmans’ archival exploration of the construction of an early and necessary collective portrait of gay and lesbian life and the many routes it could have taken to Thomas Waugh and Jason Garrison’s provocation about which love stories are the first to be left behind in the march toward “equality” and queer studies’ own institutionalization to Julia Mendenhall’s championing of everyday pleasures of looking, making, eating, and self-care, Queer Film Classics pushes back on the contemporary cultural and social forces working to make “queer” rigid or dull.
In reading these three titles, it is apparent that Queer Film Classics would make incredible teaching aids. They are written in direct and clear prose and thus would be great for undergraduate classrooms. In being assigned them, students would receive introductions to the historical and production contexts of each film. Furthermore, their more critical analyses would offer examples for how to engage with these sometimes dated and often strange queer films, and they are likely to generate ample questions for any given class to discuss. Finally, reading Queer Film Classics would introduce undergraduates to key concepts in queer theory, while also teaching them about important moments in gay and lesbian history. I myself am teaching from them in my course on Queer Cinema this fall.
Since 2009, Queer Film Classics has published fifteen books on sixteen films (other than those reviewed above: Gods and Monsters, Law of Desire, Trash, Farewell My Concubine, Fire, Death in Venice, Zero Patience, Strangers on a Train, Paris Is Burning, C.R.A.Z.Y., Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives, and a joint monograph on L.A. Plays Itself/Boys in the Sand) and has plans for at least seven more (on Female Trouble, Arabian Nights, Manila by Night, and Scorpio Rising).
2. Early texts in queer studies include: Teresa de Lauretis, “Queer Theory: Gay and Lesbian Sexualities, An Introduction,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3.2 (1991); Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London: Routledge, 1990); Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York and London: Routledge, 1993); Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemologies of the Closet (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990); and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993). Michael Warner’s The Trouble With Normal (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999) perhaps took on homonormativity most forcefully.
3. For example, see Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998); Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999); and David M Halperin, How to do the History of Homosexuality (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002).
4. See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990) and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemologies of the Closet (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990).
5. Alexander Doty, Making Things Perfectly Queer (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), Patricia White, unInvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 199), and essays by Richard Dyer, Judith Maybe, and D.A. Millier published in Diana Fuss, ed., Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories (New York and London: Routledge, 1991).
6. B. Ruby Rich, “New Queer Cinema: Director’s Cut,” New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut (Durham and London: Duke University Press), 25.
7. B. Ruby Rich, “New Queer Cinema,” 21.
8. B. Ruby Rich, New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut.
9. Greg Youmans, Word Is Out: A Queer Film Classic (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011), 21.
10. Youmans, Word Is Out: A Queer Film Classic, 81.
11. Youmans, Word Is Out: A Queer Film Classic, 140.
12. Rob Epstein, “Word Is Out: Stories of working together,” Jump Cut 24-25 (March 1981), 9-10.
14. Youmans, Word Is Out: A Queer Film Classic, 148.
15. Youmans, Word Is Out: A Queer Film Classic, 115.
16. Mathews quoted by Youmans in Word Is Out: A Queer Film Classic, 116.
17. Youmans, Word Is Out: A Queer Film Classic, 122.
18. Thomas Waugh, “Films by gays, for gays,” Jump Cut 16 (1977): 14-18.
19. Youmans, Word Is Out: A Queer Film Classic, 27.
20. Tom Waugh and Jason Garrison, Montreal Main: A Queer Film Classic (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010), 136.
21. Waugh and Garrison, Montreal Main: A Queer Film Classic, 64.
22. Waugh and Garrison, Montreal Main: A Queer Film Classic, 55.
23. Waugh and Garrison, Montreal Main: A Queer Film Classic, 71.
24. Waugh and Garrison, Montreal Main: A Queer Film Classic, 147.
25. Waugh and Garrison, Montreal Main: A Queer Film Classic, 147.
26. Waugh and Garrison, Montreal Main: A Queer Film Classic, 151.
27. Waugh and Garrison, Montreal Main: A Queer Film Classic, 176.
28. Chris Bearchell, “A Canadian Fairy Tale: Chris Chearchell Talks to Patricia Rozema about Taking Her First Picture to Cannes,” Epicene (October 1987): 24-26; and Teresa de Lauretis, “Guerrilla in the Midst: Women’s Cinema in the 80s,” Screen 31 (1990): 6-25.
29. Julia Mendenhall, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing: A Queer Film Classic (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2014), 85.
30. Judith Butler, “Critically Queer,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian & Gay Studies 1 (1993), 19.