Equally revelatory was the representation of lesbian desire drawn by Sheila McLaughlin’s She Must Be Seeing Things, which drew its themes from her own life and from the seventeenth-century legend of Catalina de Erauso (the “Lieutenant Nun”), its style from the taboo-breaking work of performances in a storefront theater in the East Village, near where McLaughlin herself lived. The wow Café’s Lois Weaver starred as Jo, a filmmaker having trouble keeping her girlfriend happy, her life on track, and her cash-strapped film in production. Sheila Dabney, a member of the repertory company founded by the famed Cuban lesbian playwright Irene Fornes, played her paranoid girlfriend Agatha, convinced that Jo is cheating on her with a man in her crew.
Remarkably for a film that today appears so innocent, She Must Be Seeing Things endured the kinds of fights that erupted in the nqc years. It was denounced by a cadre of antiporn feminists, including Sheila Jeffreys of Great Britain. In the United States it divided the crowd by ideology, for it arrived at the height of the feminist “Sex Wars.” McLaughlin’s film became a case in point for both sides and helped lead the way to the new queer representations that lurked just around the corner.
All four films were shot in 16mm, a sign of their predigital era. All made on a shoestring budget, they departed from established aesthetics by going for a rough urban look, using friends as actors, using borrowed apartments or lofts for locations, even borrowing passersby for demonstrations and rallies. All four struck a blow for the outcasts, the subcultural heroes and heroines who’d been waiting so long in the wings. Life goes on. Bill Sherwood died in 1990 of complications from aids without ever getting to make another film. Sheila McLaughlin stopped making films; she lives in the same East Village apartment where she shot her film, but today she’s one of New York’s best acupuncturists and a terrific photographer. Lizzie Borden made two more films and now lives in L.A., but Honey, her star and lifelong friend, died of congestive heart failure in the spring of 2010.
Harbingers of the nqc had bubbled up throughout the 1980s, as filmmakers struggled to make sense of the time. Or to make fun of it. In 1987 a little film titled Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story made such a brilliant satire of Nixonian pop culture that the filmmaker Todd Haynes became an immediate sensation, though he was just two years out of college. In the same year, Isaac Julien’s This Is Not an aids Advertisement and John Greyson’s The ADS Epidemic struck back at the fear-mongering official campaigns against aids, using the new language of music video. Greyson’s humor and parody used lyrics as manifesto: “This is not a death in Venice, it’s a clear unholy menace, acquired dread of sex.” Julien’s take was elegiac, a subdued outrage leaking desire and soliciting dignity.
With Looking for Langston in 1989, Julien moved to a syncretic, meditative rewriting of history, queering Langston Hughes only to be censored by an unhappy Hughes estate, which denied copyright and forced the New York Film Festival to screen it with parts of the soundtrack muted. Looking sought to fuse a range of cinematic strategies (a return to black-and- white film, incorporation of still photographs and archival footage, a post-Brechtian embrace of theatricality and artificiality) with his love of pop culture (Jimmy Sommerville, resonances of Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol) to reclaim history for the queer black kids written out of it. Its status as a brilliant work was perhaps confirmed by the attacks it engendered for being too beautiful for its own good. Today it’s such a classic that it’s hard to recall the controversies set off in the 1980s or the bravery that produced it.
And there are so many more that came out of the fertile soil of the mid-1980s and built the energies and dreams from which the nqc would arrive in force in 1992. While not part of this argument, they are key works that merit serious attention: in Canada, Richard Fung’s Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians (1984) and Chinese Characters (1986) and John Greyson’s Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Queers (1986) and Urinal (1988); in the United Kingdom, Stuart Marshall’s Bright Eyes (1986); in the United States, Su Friedrich’s Damned If You Don’t (1987), Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989), and Jenny Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (1991). Chicago’s Video Data Bank engaged Bill Horrigan and John Greyson to compile a three-part program, Video against AIDS (1989), for video was where the most experimental work and the most urgent outcries could be found. Video artist Gregg Bordowitz, who worked with divatv, Testing and Limits, and GMHC’s Living with AIDS (1984 – 86), made Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993), a hybrid meditation on his life and the irony of community-approved aids messages. In 1990 the renowned dancer, choreographer, and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer announced, “I am out. small o.” She began living openly as a lesbian around that time, and declared that murder and murder (1996) was “about three unholy groups — lesbians, old ladies and cancer survivors. The deviant the damned and the desperate.”
Against the odds and the forces arraigned against them, filmmakers were creating a new queer film and video vernacular. A generation poured its heart and soul, shock and anger into modes of representation capable of spinning new styles out of old and new genres out of those that had worn out. Before the nqc emerged, lots of people would die, some that made films, some that acted in them, some that watched them.
In Martin Scorsese’s Public Speaking (2010), Fran Lebowitz says something I’ve never heard anyone say before: aids didn’t just kill the best artists of a generation, but also the best audiences.21 It’s an obvious truth and one that haunts me as I think about a lost generation and its voices. Revisiting the old hood, I’m stalked by ghosts. Avenue A, my old street, was the heart of a cultural scene that’s long gone, many of its denizens dead, and those who followed long since decamped for Dumbo, Williamsburg, Fort Green, Bushwick, wherever artists can still afford the rent.
In 2010 Ira Sachs created Last Address, an elegiac testimony to the final residences of numerous beloved New York City artists who died of AIDS. At first, he gives us only street noise and exterior shots of buildings, urban streetscapes divulging nothing — until a title quietly appears on screen: a name, an address. It’s a work that matches the present geography of the city with the lives of those who are gone. Here in these scenes of (mostly) Lower Manhattan are the traces of what transpired in the 1980s, the fabulous contributions and artists remembered even when the streets have obliterated their traces. Last Address does the kind of work to which I aspire, the work of not merely mourning but remembering and carrying on, holding the door open all the while to the new neighbors who continue to arrive, drawn by the siren calls and sirens of the past and the hopes and dreams of the future.
Complete first chapter after the image. Copyright Duke University Press, 2013. Buy the book here.