So they called me a “Pioneer of Queer Cinema” during an interview in Berlin last month. At first I balked, imagining myself in a novel by that great Queer American writer Willa Cather (Oh Pioneers!). Then I realized that as I’m now pushing 70 years on the planet I’m among a half dozen or so gay male underground filmmakers left standing. My earliest “gay film” was Lawless, a feature length film that I made in 1977 with Factory star Ondine. That means that I have a memory that is packed with details about the truth of our history.
It also means that as a sexagenarian, I don’t speak in soundbites nor do I need to write fluffy, reassuring advertising copy in order to advance my “career.” This post is a long read. You’ll need to understand the back story. I appreciate your time and attention and I hope you appreciate its relevance to you as someone interested in Queer Culture and Underground Cinema.
The majority of men of my ilk were wiped out by the A.I.D.S. epidemic. In the minds of most younger people today that blight on our collective history is a minor story that seems unconnected to the present demise of the American Republic. So many “issues” have followed since the days of horror under the silent, passive murderer, Ronald RayGun. The frightened American public that watched as about 50,000 gay men died in fear and rejection, today prides itself on its “compassionate” response to the epidemic. History is easily rewritten.
The onset of the A.I.D.S. epidemic coincided with a crucial moment in the evolution of Human Identity. It was not unlike the moment in our history when, in 1933, the work of Carl Heinrich Ulrichs (the first openly gay liberationist) came to fruition in the theories posited by Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany. The Nazis (radical right wing conservatives) ended the discourse and evolution of our Queer Spirit.
Similarly, the A.I.D.S. epidemic altered the evolution of Human Identity. This may be difficult to understand for people who claim to have “transcended labels,” since that bizarre posture is a by-product of apathy rather than an expression of spiritual enlightenment. It is usually espoused by non Queer people who refuse to see how their own privileged behavior oppresses others. Yes, straight terrorism is a choice, and it masquerades behind the face of polite acceptance. The price to be paid, however, is assimilation.
In the late 1970s and early 80s there arose in the Queer Community a movement that was based upon a serious alternative concept of human Identity. It reversed the heterosexist paradigm which said: “Gay people and straight people are exactly alike except for our sexual behavior.”
The new paradigm was expressed by Harry Hay ( a founder of the Mattachine Movement) and the Radical Faeries. I’ve updated the language a bit. Here it is:
Queers and non-Queers are completely different; except for our sexual behavior.
Read that again and you’ll begin to see the possibility of a new paradigm. Imagine a world in which our difference, rather than our similitude, were explored, understood, and celebrated. Imagine a world in which parents looked into the face of their newborn child and hoped that she grows into a beautiful Lesbian. Imagine when heterosexualism is gone.
The possibility of such a world still exists, but the evolution of the thought – the discourse – the conversation – was brought to an abrupt halt with the onset of the epidemic and the death of so many gay men who were exploring a new way of understanding Identity.
My own work in Underground Cinema converged at that moment with this new understanding. My first exposure to Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures happened in 1970 at Albright College, while under the mentorship of Harry Koursaros, an abstract expressionist painter who was a friend of Gregory Markopoulos. In Jack’s works and that of the Underground filmmakers of that era, I saw visual poetry, radical thought in picture and sound, and Gay identity manifested in Art. Queer Cinema expresses our difference; not our similitude.
In short, I understood that the Underground Cinema was and is an end in itself: an expression of the human experience. It is not a means to an end. Cinema is not a career path. And despite the fact that many experimental films deal with very personal ideas, Cinema is not fuel to be used to stoke the ego of the artist.
If we objectify Cinema in any of these ways, then we are inclined to regard the CONTENT of Cinema as an irrelevant matter; as if that were a matter of “personal preference & point of view.” Such forms of Cinema are called “movies,” and their purpose is to lure us away from reality, away from the experience of the eternal and vivid present. They are enticing to the senses but they lack depth.
In the early days of Lesbian and Gay Film Festivals, audiences were treated to provocative films that provoked the audiences into the multi-dimensional aspects of Queer Identity. As these festivals grew in size and budget, their programming strategies shifted from pedagogical to pandering. They abandoned the revolutionary spirit which drives Cinema and replaced it with the primary technique of Capitalism: Pandering to the audience.
And so we now have the tail wagging the dog. Filmmakers contrive to please programmers who want to please audiences. Unfortunately, audiences seek assimilation through their movie-induced fantasies.
The result is the mediocrity that pervades Queer Film Culture. Film schools teach young filmmakers to please their teachers so that they can get good grades. Upon entering the “industry,” these filmmakers are well trained and more than eager to please the programmers, who have, with the help of some bland academic writing, elevated programming into an “art.”
Films that actually push the boundaries of polite film forms or that contain truly radical content tend to be ignored by Gay Film Festival programmers, who are themselves, locked into a closed-circuit daisy chain that links donors, ticket sellers, academic writers, grant-hungry movie makers, audiences, fame seekers, and programmers in one giant orgy of happy assimilation.
It is a tragedy that we are unable to accept the “Right Relationship” of artist and audience. There are so many young filmmakers whose vision could help transform this degenerating American hetero-centric Culture. But the system itself has become part of the problem. We need a radically different way of thinking about exhibition of Queer Cinema: one that abandons all premiere policies and that eschews the creation of packaged, “thematic” programs of short films.
Queer film festivals must stop treating Cinema as if it were an object to be sold in the marketplace. Cinema is an expression of ideas. It is neither a product nor a property.
Jerry Tartaglia, Lobachsville PA, March 21, 2018