In the meantime,
Lesbian and Gay Film Festival review from the TLS
There is, of course, a case against taking the art produced by minority communities off to one side and handing out prizes, or organizing festivals, for that art. That case is well-rehearsed in these pages - see NB most weeks - and is fundamentally based on the unspoken assumption that significant inequalities and intolerances no longer exist, that the reason for separatist institutions is solely and wholly based on bloody-mindedness, provincialism or a desire to foster coterie careers. However, for as long as inequality and intolerance do continue to exist, there is a purely pragmatic case for separatism, a case reinforced and exemplified by some of the best offerings at the 21st London Lesbian and Gay Festival. We do not inhabit the utopian world desired by dogmatic separatists; equally, we do not live in the ideal value-neutral world in which separatism would be unnecessary.
There are, for one thing, some films that are a tough sell in a commercial world, in spite of being passionate, lyrical and decorative. Auraeus Solito's TULI is about life in a remote Phillipines village where passionate austere folk Catholicism lives uneasily side by side with traditional shamanic mysticism and eye-to-the-main-chance witch-hunters. In many ways, the teenage lesbian romance that forms much of the film's plot is the least exotic thing about it, the thing we have seen before in spite of the exoticism of its setting. Yet even here, the film wrongfoots us - its emotional climax is the circumcision by the two young women of the outcast shaman boy who has fathered a child on one of them; young Daisy has found acceptance in the village by taking on her dead, drunken father's ritual role. It is the sort of extraordinary film that needs to be shown at festivals purely because it is unlikely to turn up at any multiplex soon.
It is also a film to which lesbianism is central in spite of the fact that the word is only used once in the whole film and that the heroines have no social or intellectual framework for their love. Most of the films on display at the festival are from societies in which a whole set of mechanisms of coming out, self-acceptance, hiding from families, and getting caught are more or less standard, which is one of the reasons why so many of them plug such rituals into the larger mechanism of farce. Maria Maggenti's delightful PUCCINI FOR BEGINNERS, for example, has its heroine Allegra experiment with bisexuality and infidelity on the rebound from her woman lover, only to become inadvertently embroiled with both halves of a straight couple. The endless inventiveness of Maggenti's plotting - and the sushi chefs in a local restaurant who act as chorus observers in subtitled Japanese - cannot obscure the fact that this is a stock New York comedy, and none the worse for that. The fact that it takes the lesbianism of most of its characters so utterly for granted, though, is the thing that will probably deny it the commercial success its wit and deftness deserve.
The same is possibly true of Maurice Jamal's DIRTY LAUNDRY, though the awards it won at the major American festival for Black films may change that. Metropolitan Patrick discovers that he has a ten-year-old son when the child turns up at his New York apartment and goes back to Georgia to sort this out. Again, Jamal does little here that is original and much that is highly accomplished - this is a well-observed film about small-town life and the competitive egos that dominate the gospel choir of the local church. In the end, Patrick and his boyfriend find acceptance, as do Rag and Tag in the vibrant but occasionally clumsy Black British drama RAG TAG, in the face of fundamentalist parents, class snobbery and Nigerian gangsters; both gay film and the commercial mainstream are perhaps a little too fond of implausibly happy endings.
Happy endings are, after all, the positive alternative to tragic ones; the history of lesbian and gay films in the commercial mainstream has tended to the lachrymose, something the success of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and BOYS DON'T CRY did nothing to change. Pleas for tolerance which end in the violent death of protagonists are terribly reassuring to an audience which never has to make those choices, or take those risks; in reaction, much lesbian and gay cinema in the last few years has become almost neurotically life-affirming, so that tragedy crops up most often in films that are tinged with the fantastic - VAMPIRE DIARIES with its lesbian Renfield sacrificing her Goth friends to her predator lover or the stylist remake of THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY set in New York's world of art and clubbing.
This habit of looking on the bright side remains the case even with documentaries - the LLGFF is fond of films about people in intolerable situations making the best of it with a dignity not untinged by camp. CRUEL AND UNUSUAL deals with transexuals mistreated in the American prison system, THE RAILROAD ALLSTARS with Guatemalan prostitutes who form a football team - both films ladle on the adversity at the same time that the documentary makers encourage their subjects to be charming. In some ways, one of the best documentaries on display this year was LULU GETS A FACELIFT, with its ageing entertainer recuperating from plastic surgery, simply because it managed not to idealize its subject.
Making films for an assured minority audience has commercial liabilities, clearly, and also potential artistic problems that will sometimes outweigh the passion that comes from knowing that you are righteous and wronged, and the wit that is a standard human reaction to enduring that knowledge. The Festival opened with THE ITTY BITTY TITTY committee, a flawed comedy whose strengths and weaknesses serve as a handy example of this - anyone who has done time as an activist will recognize it as an effective comedy of manners and how small political groups - in this instance Californian radical feminists - become sexual hothouses. Jamie Babbitt, its director, has a long history of work in television as have most of its stars, so that it is never less than effective in its pacing and comic timing.
Yet for all its good intentions, charming eroticism and snappy one-liners, THE ITTY BITTY TITTY committee falls apart badly in its third act and this has to some extent to do with the fact that it will do the rounds of festival and then appear on DVD. Like Babbitt's earlier film - BUT I'M A CHEERLEADER, a comedy about Christian brainwashing camps for lesbian and gay teenagers - it ends in confrontations that play to the populist instincts of the audience. Unlike BUT I'M A CHEERLEADER, though, it makes that confrontation fantastic wishfulfilment - an ultimate piece of political theatre- instead of a logical consequence of personal conflict. Knowing your audience, and playing on its preferences, is as likely to be lazy in feminist cinema as it is in the wide-screen adrenalin-pumping Hollywood mainstream.
GOTH - Undead Subculture edited by Lauren M.E.Goodlad and Michael Bibby
( Duke University Press 427 pp)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
To be a Goth is to wear black clothes in a variety of textures, and to cultivate pallor and enhance it with foundation and mascara. It is to listen to gloomy music, and to read horror novels, and to celebrate androgyny and morbidity both for their intrinsic pleasures and for the antinomian joy of making a dandyism from that which the mainstream of society excludes. Above all, it is a way of looking at the world in the consciousness that the world is noticing you.
Like most of the subcultures to which people acquire allegiance in youth, but maintain to some degree in adulthood, Goth is a confluence of hobbyism and a passionate sense of the constructed self. This is well understood by those pieces in this intelligent collection of writings that are primarily documentary accounts of the authors' involvement in, and self-identification with, Goth, or those which celebrate the fashion, the music and the books for their merits. Unfortunately, a significant number of the pieces set aside documentation of lived experience for the doubtful pleasures of theoretical analysis.
It is simply more useful to discuss why, say, Poppy Z Brite acted, in the early phase of her career, as the voice of her peer group through literary analysis of them, than to discuss the ethics of her tales of vampirism and necrophagy in the light of neo-Marxist sociology or feminist film theory. Theoretical perspectives can illuminate both empirical fact and vigourous memoir, but are at least as prone to subject them to a Procrustean lopping. This is especially the case when, as here, the theory is highly contentious in the first place; several essays discuss androgyny in terms of Judith Butler's wrong-headed, arrogant and patronizing misreadings of AfricanAmerican drag culture as if Butler's were necessarily the last word. Even peripheral acquaintance with Goth subculture and its artefacts indicates that the editors should have concentrated less on cultural theory and more on getting factual references right - one piece refers, for example, to the London nightclub Kinky Gerlinky as Kinky Kalinky, thereby obscuring the club's eponym and iconic proprietor, the late Gerlinde Costiff. and
'Everything turns out to be connected'.
Bryan Talbot's masterly graphic novel 'Alice in Sunderland' is a book in which coincidences cluster like nesting birds wherever you look. When he appeared on the Today programme the other week, the presenters tried to make him out to be a conspiracy theorist, but nothing could be further from the truth. It really is that, once you start paying attention, you see more things that are connected than you had ever imagined.
Talbot moved to Sunderland simply because his wife got an academic post there, and it turned out to be the place in which various aspects of his work jelled in a particular way. His underground comics work needed to find a focus now that the era of sex'n'drugs'n'rock'n'roll was definitively over - the surreal connections he found between Sunderland and almost every topic he could think of were as dreamy and subversive as he could have wished. He wanted to find a theme that was radical and English in a different register to his heroic tales of Luther Arkwright and his revolution, a subject that would let him celebrate the richness of an Englishness fundamentally based on waves of migration, to which it is racist nationalism that is the alien.
His friendships, notably his growing acquaintance with Carroll expert Michael Bute, brought him in touch with the material he needed, as did his habit of endless and voracious reading. His increasing fascination with the technical possibilities that computers give to his art coincided with his building of thick textures in both the ideas of the book and its appearance - some pages in 'Alice in Sunderland' have 200 layers of art work and script on them.
He tells us a tale of connections and how great art grows out of them - what started as a mere interest in the extent to which Lewis Carroll's roots in the industrial North East fed into the Alice books became a genuine fascination with Carroll the northerner. Oxford has always, with some justice, claimed the donnish fantasist for its own, but there is more to it than that. Carroll spent most of his life in Oxford, but he holidayed in the Sunderland area most years for the whole of his life; he wrote the Jabberwocky with its dragonslaying youth a few miles from Lambton, whose dragon 'The Lambton worm' is celebrated in ballad and myth. (In the course of 'Alice in Sunderland', Talbot illustrates both poems and brings out the likenesses between them.) It is not that Oxford created some vast conspiracy to hide Carroll's interest in the Northeast; it is that there is a willed ignorance in Carroll studies that lets one of the major annotators write that of Carroll's visits to Northern resorts 'we know nothing.'
One of the things that drew Carroll to Sunderland was its palace of varieties, the largest theatre between Manchester and Edinburgh. 'Alice in Sunderland' is a dream and it is also a performance, in which one version of Talbot lectures another from the stage, constantly heckled by the ghosts that haunt the theatre, one of whom is Sid James of the 'Carry On' films who died there. 'One of the most difficult things I ended up having to do was finding a way of writing down Sid James' dirty laughter that looked right on the page as well as sounding right.' A good graphic novel is not just words and pictures; it always has an element of the coincidental about it. (And here's a bizarre connection - in 'Alice in Sunderland' Talbot compares comics to the ballet, while in my own forthcoming book 'Superheroes!' I compare them to the opera.)
'Alice in Sunderland' moves out of the theatre, but never very far, since it is structured in acts, with intervals, finales, encores and a curtain call. Talbot takes us on a walking tour from the oldest to the newest parts of his adopted city, showing us the sights and telling us of how Sunderland was torn down and created all over again by Britons, Romans, Angles, Vikings and Normans, how it fared in the Civil War and how it became such a centre for heavy industry that the nickname for the locals is Makems.
The book is a work of art that celebrates constantly other works of art, from Carroll to his friends the Pre-Raphaelites and the modern sculptor Anthony Gormley; it is a book about how art, and human lives, are made from the circumstances and coincidences that surround them. It is also, and this is perhaps the most important thing of all, a book about wild improbabilities which combines the beautiful and the hilarious, the tragic and the bawdy, which comes to seem a work of art drawing on the contingent and unlikely but that could only be as it is.