Review: A Pleasing View

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The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers by Mathew Hays.

Arsenal Pup Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-55152-220-3. 384 pages.

The View from Here is rich in its diversity. Mathew Hays, a film critic and author with

the Montreal Mirror since 1993, conducts 32 interviews with directors and screenwriters

about their work. He gives each filmmaker a short sub-title to sum up their work.

David Secter is dubbed “Queer Pioneer,” Annie Sprinkle earns the descriptor “Sexual

Chameleon,” Monica Treut is labelled “Gender Outlaw,” while John Waters is “The Pope

of Trash.”

Some of those Hays speaks with are mainstream big budget filmmakers such as Randal

Kleiser who directed the 1978 musical, Grease, Gus Van Sant who directed Good Will

Hunting and Bill Condon who made the 2006 hit, Dreamgirls.

Others, such as documentary filmmaker, Arthur Dong, who was born in San Francisco

to Chinese immigrant parents, work more from the margins. Dong has produced a

trilogy exposing anti-gay sentiment. Coming Out Under Fire is a response to the Clinton

administration’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy imposed on gays and lesbians in the

military. His 2002 film, Family Fundamentals, tells the harrowing saga of Christian

fundamentalist families who have disowned queer offspring. Licensed to Kill gives voice

to convicts jailed for murdering gay men: a theme inspired by Dong’s own brush with

gay bashers in San Francisco’s Castro district in the late ’70s.

Hays draws fascinating material from each interviewee. He probes how they were

attracted to filmmaking, their work and the political context, and how their sexuality

influences their creativity. He does not impose a rigid format. Speaking about the book,

Hays comments: “I wanted each chapter to be about each person’s passions….The

biggest divide I noticed was the difference between fiction and non-fiction filmmakers.

Fiction filmmakers are prone to say they’re not really activists but rather filmmakers just

telling stories. Whereas the documentary filmmakers are much more prone to say they

come from an activist background. They do what they do in part to change the world.”

From Almodovar to Waters. The book opens with Spanish queer filmmaker Pedro

Almodovar whose 2006 hit film Volver, the quirky tale of female solidarity, resonates

with feminist viewers. Raimunda, played by Penelope Cruise, attempts to dispose of

the body of her violent husband after her daughter accidentally kills him. She then

finds herself confronted by the apparent ghost of her mother. Almodovar reflects on

what influences his work: being gay, being Spanish and being born in a democracy —

“these circumstances come together in my work unconsciously.” He wouldn’t work in

the Hollywood system: “My ambition is to be completely involved in the story that I

am telling…In Hollywood, there are so many people giving their opinions, powerful

opinions, and the director is one of fifteen people making the decisions in one movie.”

The book closes with a conversation with John Waters, whose early films include Pink

Flamingos, Polyester and Hairspray. Through his films, Waters set out to shock and

disrupt the status quo. He describes how Pink Flamingos had no critical support: “I

like the idea that the film became huge, not through money or marketing or any of the

things that run Hollywood today.” Waters is “totally against isolation and segregation.”

He considers himself “an activist who is gay. Gay is not enough. All gay films aren’t

necessarily good.” Waters appeared on The Simpsons, a proud moment for him,

especially when he got a phone call from his ten-year-old nephew to compliment him. “In

some ways it is much braver to say you are gay on The Simpsons than in The Advocate.”

Waters describes the ’70s as “gloriously happy and joyous” and yearns for the younger

generation of filmmakers to start making movies “that make me nervous.”

Girls on film. Hays probes the art and politics of filmmaking with Canadian lesbian duo,

Janis Cole and Holly Dale. Cole and Dale teamed up to make gritty documentaries with

feminist themes. P4W Prison for Women is a 1981 feature, set in Ontario. The women are

clear that all filmmakers have a perspective and they share a deep sense of solidarity with

the inmates. Several of the women were released as a result of campaigns demanding

justice sparked by the film.

Holly and Dale’s next project, Hookers on Davie, released in 1984, documents the lives

of sex workers on Vancouver’s Davie Street. They show the dangers of sex work and

the incredible solidarity between women and transsexuals: “The drag queens punched

out the pimps for the real girls and the real girls made the drag queens blend in like

they were ‘real girls.’ At its core, Hookers was truly feminist.” But Holly and Dale

encountered a lot of criticism for their positive portrayal of male to female transsexuals

and respect for their preferred gender identity.


Rose Troche, director of Go Fish.

Hays also spoke to the filmmakers who made two of my favourite lesbian films of

the ’90s, Go Fish and When Night is Falling.

In 1994, Rose Troche made the charming lesbian romantic comedy, Go Fish. The quirky

film about a group of friends searching for happiness was a hit on the film festival circuit.

It also found an instant audience among lesbians who lapped up a film whose characters

were likable and did not end up dead, straight or suffering. Troche and her then partner,

Guinevere Turner, who she met through ACT UP, decided to make a film together: “we

also wanted to include the activism that we were both involved in.” Troche says that the

film was also popular among gay men: “When so many gay men were affected by the

AIDS crisis, Go Fish became an escape for them.” After the success of her first film,

Troche found herself labelled the lesbian filmmaker and expected to make a “bigger

and better Go Fish.” Although she resisted this label for some years, she now writes and

directs for the lesbian soapie, The L Word. But Troche, who comes from a working class

Puerto Rican background, is not a fan. She says: “I want to be irreverent. I want to be

political. Gay has become so superficial. It’s become ‘what am I going to wear to this

event.’ To an extent, The L Word has helped to perpetuate this.”

Hays’ interview with Patricia Rozema is also fascinating. Rozema grew up in a strict

religious family and shot to critical acclaim in 1987 with I’ve Heard the Mermaids

Singing. Her third film, When Night is Falling, is perhaps the most erotic lesbian

love story ever filmed for mainstream release. Camille, an uptight and conservative

woman working as a professor at a large urban university, finds herself strangely

attracted to Petra, a free-spirited woman who works at a local carnival that comes to

town. To evoke a shameless romantic rapture, the film uses light and colour, “gold and

burgundy and warm woody colours,” in a way that has no real precedent in movies about

homosexuality. Rozema describes it as a standard love story.

Rozema switched pace for her next big film, an adaptation of Jane Austin’s Mansfield

Park, released in 1999. She weaves a strong anti-slavery theme through her version. She

told Hays: “I didn’t want to do another English dance party…I wanted the audience to get

a better understanding of what Austin knew by showing a bit more of the debate that was

raging at the time of the novel’s publication.”

Queer docos. Hays’ conversation with Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman, who

produced the fabulous documentary Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian

Lives, is gripping. The women filmed older lesbians who talk about life in Toronto,

Vancouver and Montreal in the ’50s and ’60s when being gay guaranteed a life of

police harassment, family disapproval and discrimination at work. To do the research

for their film, rather than searching under “lesbian” they had to search under “police”

and “crime.” They also got pressure to leave some parts out: “The worst thing someone

wanted us to get rid of in the fine cut was Lois saying, ‘I think post-menopausal women

should run the world.’”

Hays’ interview with Robert Epstein brings home just how much influence documentary

filmmaking can have. Epstein was part of the team that made the landmark 1978

documentary, Word is Out. I remember watching this documentary, based on interviews

with gay men and lesbians, in 1979. I was blown away by so many gay and lesbian

stories told with such raw power. Several of the documentary filmmakers featured in The

View From Here speak of the impact Word is Out had on them. Robert Epstein went on

to make an impressive collection of celebrated documentaries, including The Times of

Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories from The Quilt.

Shaping the culture. As each filmmaker settles into their relaxed and unique

conversation with Mathew Hays, it can be hard to draw common threads. All that these

filmmakers really have in common is that they are gay, lesbian or otherwise queer. But

despite the diversity — from romance to erotica, from political documentary to camp

trash — all of these filmmakers operate in broadly the same environment. Consequently

two cultural references keep popping up — Vito Russo’s important 1981 study, The

Celluloid Closet, and Brokeback Mountain, the 2005 drama that depicts the complex

romantic and sexual relationship between two American cowboys.

The Celluloid Closet, made into a documentary by Robert Epstein and Geoffery

Freidman in 1995, analyses queer portrayals in over 300 films. Russo’s research found

that before the 1930s, homosexuals were often presented as objects of ridicule. In 1934,

the Hays Code mandated that “sex perversion or any inference to it be forbidden on the

screen.” In the 1960s and ’70s, although the code was loosened, gay men and lesbians

were usually portrayed as depraved or dangerous. Homophobic stereotypes in the movies,

Vito Russo argued, not only reflected the prevailing oppression of gay men and lesbians,

but also helped perpetuate it. The filmmakers whom Hays interviews are not primarily

makers of gay and lesbians films; they are openly queer women and men whose world

view has been shaped by their experience.

In 1980, I was a member of the Coalition Against Cruising. With other gay liberationists,

I stood outside the Cinema Centre in Bourke Street to protest and educate about this

virulently homophobic film in which Al Pacino played an undercover cop seeking

out a serial killer in the gay male leather scene. Thousands of gay men and lesbians

demonstrated against the film during its production in the U.S. and, as a result of the

disruption, it came in 60% over budget.

Vito Russo described how the 1970s were characterised by a newly aggressive and

vitriolic homophobia on the big screen, as evidenced by Cruising. Homosexuality was

equated with something to be feared and something that inevitably produces violence.

But the Gay Liberation Movement was not going to take it anymore. Getting angry about

the shortcomings being dished up by a homophobic movie industry was the first step

towards producing queers on screen who changed the patterns, so skilfully documented

by Vito Russo.

The movement created the space for the filmmakers in The View From Here. And many

of them are clearly a proud part of it. The work of these filmmakers, combined with the

work of heterosexual directors such as Ang Lee who directed Brokeback Mountain, have

brought Ennis and Jack to the big screen. May there be many more!

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