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New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut

B. Ruby Rich

As a critic, curator, journalist, and scholar, B. Ruby Rich has been inextricably linked to the New Queer Cinema from its inception. Her book follows this cinematic movement from its origins in the mid-‘80s to the present.

Excerpted from New Queer Cinema: The Director's Cut (footnotes omitted) by B. Ruby Rich. © Copyright Duke University Press , 2013. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.


Free Radicals and the Feminist Carnivalesque

A persistent problem of New Queer Cinema, which I’ve addressed repeatedly, has been its lack of gender balance. Even including the low-budget productions where more lesbians have tended to work, the imbalance has only worsened. Hopefully there’s a new generation ready to jump into action, but I fear they are more likely to show up on YouTube than on film festival circuits, more likely to surface on blogs than in the newspapers I still read. I fear for their visibility. The NQC has been dominated by gay male directors who build oeuvres; lesbians pass through like comets, lighting up the screen before disappearing into The L Word credits and an otherwise unknown universe. Status differentials trump the category of queer.

From the start of NQC, there were only a handful of women, many already invoked in these pages: Alex Sichel, Shu-Lea Cheang, Rose Troche, Maria Maggenti, Cheryl Dunye, Hilary Brougher. For argument’s sake, include those who came just before: Patricia Rozema, Donna Deitch, Léa Poole, Sheila McLaughlin, Yvonne Rainer, Monika Treut. The ranks are woefully thin, the prospects dim.

Luckily, in 2007 one project snuck through: Jamie Babbit (But I’m a Cheerleader, 1999) found assistance in one of the few bright spots in lesbian production and financing: POWER UP, a nonprofit founded by Stacy Codikow to produce work by lesbian writers and directors. Babbit had already established a reputation with her earlier features, shorts, and stint as a television director (including, yes, The L Word). She was a good bet and she had a great idea: The Itty Bitty Titty Committee, a film that went back to the source for new inspirations. The source, in her case, was Lizzie Borden’s legendary pre-NQC classic Born in Flames (1983), her inspiration the idea of reviving those gritty, exciting days of early lesbian-feminist feature filmmaking.

“She says I’m the inspiration, but I don’t see it,” Borden wrote me. Babbit certainly does: she always introduces Itty Bitty Titty Committee (IBTC) as an homage to Born in Flames and credits the earlier film for her film’s style, tone, and kick-ass spirit. If Babbit was looking for a route out of lifestyle narratives and back into the pent-up rage and political energies of lesbians in the 1970s and early 1980s, she found the right model. Borden was working in New York City at a moment in between the women’s liberation movement and a full-scale AIDS epidemic, in between feminism’s consciousness-raising groups and lesbian power-brokering, in between Reagan and... Reagan. Babbit, filming in L.A. in 2006, updated Born in Flames’s downtown punk-dyke attitude to reflect the lives of young lesbians today—if they live in a world of postpunk, pansexual, anarchist, communalist, anti-consumerist acting-out. Thanks to IBTC, there was a rerelease and reconsideration of Born in Flames unmatched since it first appeared in 1983, when audiences packed theaters to see it and a generation of theorists wrote about it.

Babbit appears to have taken to heart the lessons of Born in Flames. She echoed its production commitment to an all-woman crew, or nearly so. She respected and updated the driving musical soundtrack that had made early Born in Flames fans want to dance all the way to the revolution. She shot scenes in Super-8mm and 16mm, emulating the production formats used by Borden and other indie filmmakers of that time. Babbit’s long-time partner, the producer Andrea Sperling, personally masterminded the production, using the low-budget pickup style of the early storied NQC. And of course, there’s the title, impossible to hide behind, brandished like a fiery sword in front of the film itself, warning all and sundry what to expect.

In addition to her tip of the hat to Borden, Babbit invokes an entire roster of names with this film, a blast from the past, as though she’d synthesized a mixtape of lesbian and feminist Greatest Hits into the shapes, politics, and subtexts of her screenplay in a bid to make once-powerful ideas live and breathe again. Decoding her film becomes both a great game for the viewer and a process of enlightenment—that is, a subcultural lesbian-feminist Enlightenment, not necessarily the rationalist kind.

Itty Bitty Titty Committee opens with Anna (Melonie Diaz) a young Latina, facing a life crisis: she’s been dumped by her girlfriend and rejected by the only college to which she applied, she’s living at home with her parents, and her sister expects her to dress up as a bridesmaid for her upcoming traditional wedding. Her dead-end job has her manning the receptionist desk at a local plastic surgeon’s office, where a steady stream of women show up for boob jobs. She steels herself for a grim summer.

The leader of the C(I)A feminist guerrilla group, Shulamith Firestone
(the nom de guerre for Carly Pope), lectures eager newcomer Anna
(played by Melonie Diaz) on the fine points of ideology in
Itty Bitty Titty Committee

And then, just like Alice in the looking glass, one fateful encounter changes her life. Leaving work late, Anna discovers Sadie (Nicole Vicius) spray-painting graffiti on the clinic walls: incendiary slogans exhort women to love their bodies and abandon surgical “improvements.” Sadie invites Anna to her group’s next meeting, flirting madly while she describes it: Clits in Action, or C(I)A, a sort of underground cell carrying out mysterious actions. The film then morphs into a coming-of-age tale in which Anna is inducted, not into lesbianism (she already is one), but into politics, consciousness-raising, the duplicities of love, and the passion of activism. (Incidentally, it also appears to be her induction into a race and class to which she doesn’t belong: a majority-white group with a style and lifestyle outside the realm of her simple Latino family.) The courtship of Sadie and Anna then plays out against the forward motion of C(I)A brainstorming and actions. The cell’s members tag slogans, crash store windows, disrupt press conferences, infiltrate a television show, and pull off a major, spectacular action in the nation’s capital as a grand finale. In between, though, they play the age-old games of lesbian bed-swapping and heart-breaking.

That’s the plot, but IBTC is more than its style or story, and its homages are not there just for fun. It’s a history lesson and a call to arms, a guerrilla action keyed to audiences fed up with a status quo that seems to have left them behind long ago. And its strategies reach beyond the mise-en-scène.

Consider its hall-of-mirrors casting. Melanie Mayron is Courtney Cadmar, a second-wave feminist leader with a backstory: as a visiting lecturer at Smith, she’d swept away young Sadie. Mayron starred in of one of the earliest feminist independent feature films, Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978), and was in the cast of television’s iconic show of the 1980s, thirtysomething. She’s a perfect choice to embody this earlier era.

Cadmar appears on a television talk show hosted by the archconservative Marcy Maloney, played by Guinevere Turner of Go Fish and Watermelon Woman fame, a casting choice that links IBTC explicitly to the early NQC. The déjà vu continues. Another C(I)A member is Laurel, played by Jenny Shimizu, who was the It girl of the 1980s known for her modeling, rumored love affairs, and brief squiring of Madonna; she now describes herself as a “sober Samurai.” When the C(I)A girls pick up sexy hitchhiker Calvin on the side of the road, s/he turns out to be Daniela Sea, who played transman Mac on The L Word.

In this use of casting as a way to “write” a film’s meaning beyond its screenplay, Babbit is following Borden too. Flo Kennedy appears in Born in Flames as a strategy advisor, but she was defense attorney to Valerie Solanas in “real” life. The editor of a journal collaborating with men in power was a young Kathryn Bigelow, and the woman on the World Trade Center roof was Sheila McLaughlin.

In Babbit’s case, the casting strategy encourages her publics to recognize their lineages on the screen and invest accordingly, while her considered choices of names and actions deepen the film’s grasp of history and links it firmly to the Born in Flames era and influences. Carly Pope, boss-lady of the C(I)A, adopts Shulamith Firestone as her nom de guerre, invoking the uncompromising theorist whose book The Dialectic of Sex: A Case for Feminist Revolution was published when she was only twenty-five. Firestone was a revolutionary futurist convinced that the fundamental key to women’s liberation was to separate procreation from women’s physical bodies; she’s a visionary who used Marx, Engels, Freud, and Beauvoir to critique the structures of gender power, called on women to rise up against the oppression of their own biology, and helped found the first women’s liberation organizations. This is no casual moniker that Pope’s character has chosen. Naming, like casting, has power.

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