As a writer and filmmaker, I have always found the moving image a more rewarding way of documenting sexuality, as it circumvents the need to describe people’s bodies, sexualities or gender identities in detail, and avoids the problem of having to use words to discuss experiences that are often sensual rather than cerebral. (That said, I did explore how trans and non-binary authors have related to their specific gender identities through writing in my first piece for Mal.) As my tastes tend towards the marginal – perhaps due to having a gender identity and sexual desires that have not often achieved mainstream representation, especially not by those that share them – I have tried to cover films that haven’t been extensively documented. For that reason, I haven’t included anything by Luis Buñuel or Pier Paolo Pasolini, although I maintain that Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975) is the most astonishing investigation of the relationship between sex and power I have encountered in any medium. I have also tried to write on things I haven’t covered before – hence the absence of Rosa von Praunheim’s riotous queer musical City of Lost Souls (1983), Xanthra Phillippa and Mirha Soleil-Ross’s sublime documentary Gender Troublemakers (1993), Pedro Almodóvar’s All about My Mother (1999), Sébastien Lifshitz’s Wild Side (2004) and many others. So, here are five films that I wish would be seen more widely:
Lot in Sodom (1933) directed by J. S. Watson & Melville Webber
One of the earliest underground films to deal with homosexuality, Lot in Sodom was a stridently avant-garde retelling of the Bible story. Clearly made on a shoestring, and not always easy to interpret, I loved the way it made no moral judgements of what it depicted, despite its intertitles being drawn from the Book of Genesis. Completed just before the Hays Code was introduced – although its limited distribution meant it would have escaped such scrutiny – Lot in Sodom avoided not just condemnation but also simplistic pleas for liberal tolerance that would have been tempting in a time of legal suppression. Along with Alla Nazimova’s high-camp version of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé (1922), in which the ‘ladies’ of the court were men in drag and it was rumoured that the entire cast were gay, this is one of the most creative and curious pieces of queer cinema from before the Sixties and Seventies liberation movements.
Ecce Homo (1989) directed by Jerry Tartaglia
Jerry Tartaglia’s Ecce Homo comes from a line of queer North American underground cinema that runs through Warhol and Jack Smith (on whom Tartaglia recently made a documentary), and blew me away when I first saw it with its beautiful blend of art, poetry and pornography. Providing a sense of how the tension between creative expression and censorship shaped queer filmmaking culture, it combines Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour (1950), long banned for its explicit portrayal of male sex in prison, with gay porn and a monologue about the policing of sexual expression, on screen and in real life. Especially poignant at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, weaponised by the religious right to roll back the gains made since the Stonewall riots (repeatedly referenced in Tartaglia’s voiceover), it ends with a powerful call to ‘reclaim our desire [and] reclaim our power’ (and is available to watch via UbuWeb).
The Elegant Spanking (1995) directed by Maria Beatty
With its rather direct title, The Elegant Spanking taught me that the line between art and porn can be drawn closer to pornography and still be blurred. In this case it is through the subtle but consciously ‘arthouse’ black and white cinematography, the use of intertitles that recalled the Surrealist films of the silent era, and an evocative, slightly eerie soundtrack by John Zorn. Starring Beatty and Rosemary Delain as a mistress and her maid in a dream-like lesbian BDSM fantasy, it had the same sense of otherworldliness to similarly-themed works I was watching when I first saw it in my mid-twenties – Pauline Réage’s infamous novel The Story of O. (1954) and Catherine Robbe-Grillet’s The Image (1956), memorably filmed by Radley Metzger as The Punishment of Anne in 1973 – another work that came down on the side of pornography but could not have been written or filmed by someone devoid of an artistic sensibility.
The Story of I (1997) by Jo Ann Kaplan
I love creative responses to historical works when done well, and Jo Ann Kaplan’s feminist take on Georges Bataille’s ‘unfilmable’ Story of the Eye is certainly striking, transcending the low budget typical of avant-garde filmmaking with great style. Kaplan’s ‘free improvisation’ in reaction to such a visceral text is the content: she starts with a string of fantasies provoked by Bataille’s savage surrealism and ends with the reclamation of female sexuality from the male gaze, as the ‘eye’ of the story is finally integrated into Kaplan’s own body.
Lovely Andrea (2007) directed by Hito Steyerl
Also available via UbuWeb, Hito Steyerl’s documentary follows the artist as she returns to Tokyo to track down a photo-series that she posed for as a rope bondage model in 1987. The film raises questions about the ways BDSM practices are represented in mainstream media – Steyerl’s moving image work has little in common with better-known films dealing with the subject, such as Maîtresse (1975) or The Night Porter (1974). Like those films, her photos don’t seem especially transgressive after decades have passed. More interesting is that Steyerl’s photo-series, which she eventually finds in a magazine archive, have been superseded by the cavalcade of images and videos available online, many of which are far more extreme. This raises the question for anyone who fears anything from their past being dug up and used against them: is it better to just put things into the public domain oneself, to stop others from taking ownership of them, than to hope that one’s transgressions will escape discovery in an age when anything from any time can, in an instant, spread far beyond one’s control?
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