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Queer and Haunted

By Andreas

[This post is part of the Queer Film Blogathon over at Garbo Laughs. Thanks to Caroline for hosting it!]

As I’ve said time and again, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) is one of the greatest horror films of all time. Between its chiaroscuro cinematography, biting dialogue, and Julie Harris’s indelible performance as the neurotic Nell, it’s the haunted house movie. It’s the one to beat. It makes The Amityville Horror look like shit. It makes Poltergeist look like The Amityville Horror.

It’s also highly invested in queer themes, as exemplified by Theo (Claire Bloom), Nell’s aggressive lesbian roommate. Although the cast is rounded out by two men, it’s clearly Nell and Theo’s relationship that dominates the film. It’s a fascinating, fluctuating relationship characterized by seduction, rejection, mind games, and innuendo. Sexual hang-ups clash with troubled pasts and paranormal phenomena as The Haunting rages on.

It’s a remarkably dense film, in both its visuals and its writing, so I’ll unpack just a few salient textual details about Nell’s sexuality. First off, I’m intrigued by Nell’s initial appearance in the film, via her name on a blackboard:

This is Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), preparing his list of potential test subjects. Each one, as he explains to Hill House’s elderly owner, has been “involved, one way or another, with the abnormal.” (“Abnormal,” like much of The Haunting’s language, is left tantalizingly ambiguous.) Most of them get a last name; Theo gets a question mark. In The Haunting, names are filled with power and meaning. So why is Theo’s incomplete?

I see it as an incredibly subtle hint that Theo will be somehow different. Which is to say: she has psychic powers, she’s bitterly sarcastic, and she’s queer. Like the sexually confused and mother-haunted Nell, she’s just as abnormal as any of Hill House’s ghosts.

As you can see, The Haunting hardly takes a progressive view of Theo’s sexuality. She’s implicitly equated with the supernatural evil that infests the house. As Nell screams at her, “You’re a monster, Theo! You’re the monster of Hill House!” (Nell later adds that Theo is one of “nature’s mistakes,” evoking some common homophobic myths.) The Haunting certainly incorporates the prejudices of the era in which it was made.

At the same time, though, the film never invites us to hate or dismiss Theo. She’s its most vital, compelling presence, and she gets many of the best lines. Unlike the whiny, self-pitying Nell, she’s confident, bitchy, and unafraid to speak her mind. When the film ends, she’s the only one who understands what Nell really wanted. (“Maybe not ‘poor Eleanor’…”)

The Haunting may not cast Theo’s sexuality in a positive light, but at least it weaves her queer desire into its checkered matrix of symbols, genre tropes, and mirror images. It’s not just a rare pre-Stonewall representation of an onscreen lesbian; in The Haunting, queer desire helps structure the film itself.

[For more queer cinema, read our takes on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pedro Almodóvar, Swoon, I Love You, Philip Morris, The Ghost Ship, and more…]


Filed under Cinema, Sexuality

Oscar Grouching ’10: The Kids Are All Right

Yeah, folks, it’s Oscar season. Not duck season, not wabbit season, but Oscar season. It’s that time of year when my love/hate relationship with the mainstream film industry rears its ugly head, and I have weird internal conversations that go like this: “But the Oscars are so meaningless! It’s all industry politics!” “Well, yeah, but industry politics still means something. And the right movies get awarded, sometimes. You liked No Country for Old Men, right?” “That’s not the point! It’s all masturbatory self-congratulation. It’s a fluke if awards go to quality films, and they don’t even recognize the Honorary Award winners during the ceremony.” “But they have montages, and banter, and pretty dresses…”

This conversation goes on for a while, and it never gets resolved. I end up regarding the Oscars like any other highly flawed but still significant method of judging films: with a grain of salt. Or should I say a pillar of salt. (A whole salt mine?) In short, I treat it like the dog-and-pony-and-James-Franco show it so clearly is. The ceremony is really an accurate if broad mediation of Hollywood culture, after all. It’s shallow, glamorous, expensive, ratings-obsessed, but all in all fairly entertaining. Beyond that, the awards represent a loose consensus. All the acting, writing, director, and picture nominees are contained within a pool of just 16 films and these, for better or worse, are what the American film community recognizes as 2010’s best. Take from that what you will.

Having said my piece, I now jump into my abbreviated, last-minute Oscar nominee coverage. Between now and Sunday, I’ll rush to discuss as many of this year’s Big Ten as I have time for. (Click here to read my thoughts from last year.) So let’s begin! Last summer I was delighted that my local multiplex was offering up Lisa Cholodenko’s Sundance favorite The Kids Are All Right. It’s such a summery movie, too, full of warm California locations and fertile greenery. “Fertility” is a major watchword in this movie, too, since it’s all premised on two births via artificial insemination that led over time to the growth of a beautiful, functional family… even if it does have a few issues to work out.

Mia Wasikowski is Joni, one of these two kids, and she’s more than all right. She’s only a few months older than me (I feel like I say that all the time now about burgeoning movie stars!) and she looks very delicate and pale, which makes her Biff Loman-style disillusionment toward the film’s end even more heartbreaking. Joni is cerebral and well-behaved, but wants to start asserting her independence now that she’s college-bound. Her half-brother Laser can be something of an asshole, but he’s got a good heart. He doesn’t want to tear his family apartment; he’s just curious about how it got started.

It’s perfectly understandable—just as it is when their brittle, authoritative mom Nic bristles at sperm donor Paul’s intrusion into their family unit. Annette Bening’s Nic may overreact to minor incidents and overdo it on the red wine, but she still feels so cool. She’s outspoken, she’s competent, and she’s passionate (about her work, her family, Joni Mitchell). She might not be that tactful, but neither is she a bitch. She feels like someone it would be fun to sit down to dinner with. For that matter, so does Julianne Moore as Nic’s wife Jules. Even if she’s a little flaky and flighty at times, she’s still fucking Julianne Moore.

Mark Ruffalo as Paul completes the triangle. He’s not a bad guy, although he does become a homewrecker, The Kids Are All Right‘s equivalent of the classical Hollywood melodrama’s “other woman.” I already wrote a piece over at The Film Experience about Paul’s introduction through a David Bowie-scored sex scene, and I’m still impressed by Ruffalo’s (deservingly Oscar-nominated) performance and how well it slides into the textures of the overall film. Out of all this year’s Best Picture nominees, The Kids Are All Right is one of only two that you could really call “sexy.” In scene after scene, Ruffalo’s nonchalant but intense sexuality is almost palpable through the screen.

This is what I really love about The Kids Are All Right: how the performances and writing collide to forge deep, powerful characterizations. It’s a consistently funny movie, but it’s also extremely moving, because it makes you invest so heavily in this family and the love it’s grounded in. Nic and Jules may not be perfect wives, but they don’t have to be. They visibly love each other, and so to see all the damage that Jules’s affair has wrought on their relationship is devastating. These two mothers and two kids are just so right for each other that it’d be a cinematic injustice to wrench them apart. In scope and style, it’s a small, light movie, but at its core is the highest of all stakes: two people are in love, and that love is threatened.

Granted, it’s not exactly visually stunning. It’s modest and attractive, privileging the performers within each frame. It also has some uncomfortable implications, both in Jules’s never-addressed, subtly racist treatment of Luis, the Mexican gardener she employs, and in her willingness to sleep with Paul at the first available moment, which some critics have seen as endorsing the old “deep down all lesbians really want a man” fallacy. I confess the film has some issues to work out, and it occasionally compromises its own progressive virtues, but I think that’s too simplistic a reading of her behavior. “Human sexuality,” as she tells her son, “is complicated.”

This is the film’s approach, to not just human sexuality but also marriage (which Jules says is “fucking hard”), parenting, working, socializing, saying hello, and saying goodbye. It’s a very humanistic film, assuming good intentions in all of its characters and not judging them too harshly when (inevitably) they fuck up. It’s also flawlessly calibrated to adjust my emotions like a faucet, and I do not begrudge it that.

Within deceptively unimposing, even generic packaging, The Kids Are All Right conceals five great performances that work together like the gears in a watch, bound together by the strength of the warm, witty screenplay. Family can be painful, as we’ll see with many of this year’s Best Picture nominees. At least this time, the ordeal ends with our two torn-apart lovers holding hands once again.


Filed under Cinema, Sexuality

Why I Love Julianne Moore

It’s just an unavoidable fact about me: I love Julianne Moore. Love, love, love, in all the ways that a cinephile can love a movie star. (Except for the creepy, obsessive, and bad ones. Not those.) She’s just one of my favorite living actresses. Why is that? you may ask. Well, hypothetical reader, you are right to ask. Because I’ve prepared an itemized list of reasons for you. First of all: she’s a redhead. (Ashley is also a redhead. This is not a coincidence.) Second and mostly of all: she’s an incredible actress.

[Image via three frames]

Moore gives such intense, nuanced performances – in so many movies, she’s the one who sticks with you. Her actions and delivery burrow under your skin and stay inside you, surfacing in your mind when you least expect it. Just look at her in Safe (1995), one of her many collaborations with director Todd Haynes. She’s Carol, a superficial California wife and mother, obsessing over the color of her new couch and whether or not it matches the rest of her interior decoration. Then, one day, her body starts fighting her. Amidst spontaneous asphyxiation (see above), nose bleeds, coughing, and more, she’s jerked out of her once-comfortable life.

Safe is a brilliant mix of caustic satire, AIDS metaphor, melodrama, and horror. It’s got a great supporting cast, including Xander Berkeley (he of Candyman) who, in one haunting scene, has totally unemotional sex with Carol at the end of a long day. But at its core is Julianne Fucking Moore and her tender, pathetic vulnerability. She’s like a struggling animal, unsure of what her body’s doing to her, eager to just get on with her life and resume her former complacency. You know the old chestnut “you have to be smart to play dumb”? Julianne Moore is smart. She was also a crucial part of Haynes’ postmodern genre revisionism in Far from Heaven (2002), and to a lesser degree in his Bob Dylan super-biography I’m Not There (2007).

Or look at her in Magnolia (1999), where she’s acting in the service of a very different kind postmodern playfulness – that of director Paul Thomas Anderson. (She also played the aptronymous Amber Waves in his porn epic Boogie Nights [1997].) In one of Magnolia‘s many storylines, she’s Linda, the drug-addicted wife of a dying TV producer played by Jason Robards, and calling her “a wreck” is a massive understatement. She ‘s wracked with guilt and quasi-suicidal desperation, and she inflicts her emotional histrionics on everyone around her – from a nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to her husband’s lawyer (Nashville‘s Michael Murphy).

Like Safe‘s Carol, Linda is extremely vulnerable, but she’s also defensive. She may be plagued with self-loathing, but she doesn’t put with shit from anyone else. In a film packed with great, hot-to-the-touch performances – like a bathetic William H. Macy – Moore is a stand-out because, despite being a complete psychological mess, she retains an intimidating quality of refinement. Even when the screenplay gets a little too cutesy or pat, Moore’s performance sprawls, sneers, sobs, and threatens to collapse. In the most grandiose moments, she still feels naturalistic; this makes her the perfect cornerstone for PTA’s ensembles.

No matter what the quality or genre of the film, she brings that je ne sais Moore, that unquantifiable essence. I haven’t seen some of her more mainstream roles, like Hannibal or Next, but I’m sure they’re all the richer for her presence. And take an already rich film, like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), pictured above, or the Coen Bros.’ wacky neo-noir The Big Lebowski (1998), where she plays the title character’s daughter, a sperm-hunting artist.

In both of those films, she’s a minor character who’s romantically linked to the protagonist. But she doesn’t feel minor; instead, she seems to exist on a higher, more mysterious plane than Clive Owen’s bureaucratic everyman or Jeff Bridges’ stoner private eye. As she is in real life, her characters in those films, Julian and Maude, are politically engaged. They’re fully aware of what’s going on, and they can manipulate their situations to get what they want. Thanks largely to Moore’s acting, they’re not plot devices, but rather self-motivated women. So Julianne Moore’s versatile, too: she functions equally well in lead and character parts.

All of this leads me to Moore’s most recent role: as a laid-back lesbian wife and mother whose family is unpredictably changing in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010). I seriously enjoyed this movie; it literally made me laugh and cry, sometimes in rapid succession. I was so deeply invested in the characters’ relationships, and it’s because the main cast – Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and especially Annette Bening – make their shared histories, as well as the repercussions of their tenuous biological links, believable.

It’s not a big or sensational movie. Nobody’s going to die or get arrested. The worst that can happen is a series of broken hearts, which in this case is really the scariest threat of all. The film’s screenplay also deals with difficult, controversial questions of sexual fluidity. It may not always be quite successful or accurate, but Moore’s performance as Jules personalizes these issues, as they have direct consequences on the dynamics of her marriage.

In an early scene, teenage son Laser asks his moms why they watch “gay man porn.” Jules hazards an explanation: “Well, sweetie, human sexuality is complicated. And sometimes, people’s desires can be… counterintuitive…” Without being too edgy or too bland, The Kids Are All Right takes on the human drama that results from those counterintuitive complications – and by extension, the confusing and inexplicable behavior that defines families. It’s a powerful, poignant movie. And, if the stars are right, maybe Julianne Moore will win that Best Actress Oscar she so deserves. Either way, I’m grateful to her for years of beautiful acting.


Filed under Cinema, relationships, Sexuality

Mississippi Hetero-Prom Bullshit

So, I’ve been stranded up here in suburbia lately, with my only Internet access coming in bite-size chunks at the public library. That said, I’m going to take the scant time I have to write a little. Ashley’s been working on a post about the history of Disney princesses in relation to feminism, and I would like to eventually comment on similar topics, as prompted by The Princess and the Frog. In the meantime, however, I want to address an ongoing controversy involving institutionalized homophobia. It’s the Fulton, MS Prom Discrimination.

The situation, which can be understood from glancing over a few news sources, is relatively straightforward. Constance McMillen, an 18-year-old student at Itawamba Agricultural High School, asked if she could attend the prom with her girlfriend, and wear a tuxedo. School officials told her no. Then they cancelled the prom itself, claiming that they were “taking into consideration the education, safety and well being of [their] students.” Students become upset with McMillen, although supposedly she wasn’t the reason for the cancellation, controversy flared nationally, and the ACLU sued the school district.

The results? The judge found the school district wrong, but felt it would also be wrong to forcibly reinstate the prom on April 2, because apparently it would “only confuse and confound the community on the issue.” Fulton sounds like a community that’s pretty easy to confuse and confound. Since the news broke of the school district’s bullshit decision, however, McMillen has become a rallying point for the rights of LGBT teens. A Facebook page called “Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend to Prom!” has hundreds of thousands of fans, and Dan Savage recently advocated donating to her cause. So, awesome! A lot of cool people are very much behind this brave young woman.

I think the above paragraphs should give you pretty much the objective background necessary to form an opinion and, if desired, show your support. And now I must subjectively say: Fulton, Mississippi, what the hell? Both my father and girlfriend went to school dances with same-sex dates, just because they wanted to, and neither was held to some nonsensical, arbitrary school policy. I don’t want to invoke my Yankee bias against the intolerance of the Deep South, but I see few other answers here.

The ACLU has also helpfully turned up a flyer handed out to Itawamba High students, informing them that their “guests… must be of the opposite sex.” You may notice that these aren’t “dates,” but “guests,” and it looks like as long as the two of you make a nice hetero couple, your “guest” can be just about anyone of any age. Why, exactly, was this rule in place? According to McMillen, the principal’s excuse involved same-sex students not in relationships trying to buy the cheaper tickets for couples instead of two more expensive individual tickets. Uh-huh.

So basically, in their effort to force students to pay through the nose for prom tickets, the school was willing to dismiss the existence of homosexuality. Ahh, what a pastoral dream world those Mississippian school administrators must be living in. Where women wear dresses, men wear tuxedos, and the two go together like peanut butter and jelly. (And you’re also forbidden from mixing peanut butter with peanut butter?) Here’s a little video where you can hear from Constance herself on the matter.

The matter of the tuxedo is similarly baffling. It reminds me of a story from last October where Ceara Sturgis, a 17-year-old lesbian student in Jackson, MS, was banned from wearing a tuxedo in her yearbook photo. As in McMillen’s case, it was chalked up to the ominous but inevitable “school policy.” I.e., it’s always been this way and that’s how we likes it. Granted, I don’t know why these girls want to wear tuxedos; in my thankfully limited experience, they’re uncomfortable as hell, and I’d rather wear a dress in an instant.

But then again, that’s why I’m me and they’re them, isn’t it? Because I’d prefer a dress and they’d prefer those stiff, black-and-white iron maidens we call tuxedos. And I’d also guess that just because they’re in Mississippi and surrounded by heterosexuals (and bigots), that doesn’t mean said identity rubs off on them. So thankfully the tide is turning and such outdated school policies are starting to change. As the Facebook page I linked to above mentions, a recent attempt by a Georgia high schooler to take his boyfriend to prom was successful, and McMillen’s trials may well have been a factor.

This piece of Internet access is rapidly coming to an end what with the library closing, so I’ll conclude hastily. The school district’s actions in this case is just self-evidently ridiculous. It reminds me of last Christmas, when Ashley’s hometown of Chambersburg made national news for its decisions about the displays in the town square: If the atheist veterans are going to get one, then no displays for anyone! Apparently the school administrators of Fulton have a similarly childish approach, and it’s kind of blown up in their face. I say good luck to Constance McMillen and the ACLU with their struggle to get this all sorted out in the name of equal rights, and fuck you to oppressive, illogical school policies everywhere. Now, take everything I said and apply it to gay marriage, too.

(PS: regarding the tuxedos, it’s not like they were planning to go naked or topless or wear bikinis or anything. They were going to be very heavily clothed, just in clothes that weren’t strictly gender normative! Any school that has a problem with that deserves to have its idiotic intolerance plastered all over the national media.)

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Filed under Media, Politics, relationships, Sexuality

What would bigots do if they knew…?

So, I haven’t written in a while (sadly), but that’s what this is for. Yesterday, while researching the great Belgian surrealist René Magritte, I happened to find this fascinating blog called Sexuality & Love in the Arts, topics to which Pussy Goes Grrr is certainly no stranger. And I ended up reading their article on Alan Turing, the brilliant British cryptographer, mathematician, and pioneering computer scientist who was legally persecuted (after helping win WWII) until he committed suicide. Why, you may ask, would a great genius like Turing be chemically castrated, tormented, and hounded? Because of what the authorities called “gross indecency”… he was a homosexual.

Long-suffering genius Alan Turing

So, reading about Gordon Brown’s recent apology for Turing’s rather shabby treatment by the government, I was reminded of an idea I had the other day. Because, okay, homophobia is alive and well and living in America, as evidenced by this video of Carrie Prejean, the ditzy beauty queen whose po’ widdle ego was demolished by contest judge Perez Hilton after she said “You know what, in my country, in my family, I think I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense to anybody out there…” and some other similarly halting statements. And now apparently she’s a horribly persecuted, God-loving inspiration to us all who’ll get her rewards in heaven!! at least according to her.

And so, between that and reading about Turing, I thought about this: lots & lots of people (hell, even the majority of California voters) don’t want gay people marrying each other. And they’d also prefer if they’d take their homosexual selves, get back in the closet, and let the children go on thinking heterosexual is the only kind of desire. (Honestly, people act like attraction to the same sex is automatically graphically sexual, while attraction to the opposite sex is, by default, clean and pure. ‘Cause men never lust after women, right? And so exposing kids to the notion of gayness is sucking away their innocence. But that’s another blog.) So it got me to thinking, people are OK with letting queer artists provide them with great entertainment and profundity, but if they have to know that Rock Hudson’s sleeping with men on his off-days, they’d rather he was prosecuted for it? Because let’s face it: queerness and art have gone together pretty well for, oh, all of human history. And I wanted to take a look at some examples. Hence, this is the “what would gay-hating bigots do if they knew…” list.

First, a few caveats: I’m going by a pretty loose definition of queer here. If I’ve been witness to some form of evidence that a historical figure was queer, I’ll include them for argument’s sake, but by no means is this academically rigorous. It’s a thought experiment. Also, there’s going to be a lot more gay men on this list than lesbians because, well, men are better-represented historically in everything than women. When you narrow it down to women attracted to other women, the representation gets even tinier. That said, here’s my list! What would gay-hating bigots do if they knew a gay person was crucial in creating:

Western philosophy, Hellenistic civilization, the Sistine Chapel, the Mona Lisa, My Ántonia, Leaves of Grass, A Shropshire Lad, The Importance of Being Earnest, much of literary modernism (Stein, Woolf, and H.D. for starters), Remembrance of Things Past, Valentino, The Battleship Potemkin, Bride of Frankenstein, Blithe Spirit, Gaslight, computers (going liberally with Turing), Jean Cocteau himself, Night of the Hunter, Screaming Popes, Beat poetry, pop art and the phrase “15 minutes of fame,” Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, The Leopard, American absurdist theater, if…, Harold and Maude, Cabaret, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and then starting in the ’70s-’80s, too many advancements in the arts and elsewhere to name as the LGBT community became more legal, visible, and able to express themselves – I’ll just toss out Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home as one particularly sublime example.

Now, I grant there are a lot of flaws with this list and its reasoning, and I admit that most of the examples come from film, because queer filmmakers are one of my great areas of interest. But I was mainly trying to make a point: if intolerant people think they can dismiss all gay men & women as being icky, unnatural, somehow poisonous, undeserving of rights or public exposure, or evil/impure on some basic level, maybe they should look around their culture and realize that often what they consider wholesome, unobjectionable art (like one case in point I discovered tonight) is actually made by (gasp!) the very “perverts” and “deviants” they’re dead-set against. I think homophobia requires much of the same solipsistic blocking out of the real world as racism – “No, no, no, I’m not listening; you will not be a counterexample to my passed-down belief that all gays/blacks/etc. are unworthy degenerates…”

Gustave Courbet's The Sleepers, 1866

They’re often similarly ignorant of the fact that homoeroticism turns up all over place – for an obvious example, in The Picture of Dorian Gray – because, oh, it’s a pretty common, basic element of human sexuality and hell, I’d even say a universal part of the human experience (I mean, honestly, who hasn’t had at least a fleeting, vaguely homoerotic thought or two in their whole life?). These people act like by constructing thick moral walls we can erase all the “evil” in the world and create a cuddly, gay-free cultural womb. The fact is, queerness has factored somehow into some of the greatest artistic accomplishments in history, in one form or another. And you know what? If Charles Laughton, John Gielgud, Noël Coward, Oscar Wilde, and all the rest are wrong, I don’t want to be right.


Filed under art, Cinema, Politics, Sexuality

Asking and telling

I’ve got about an hour here to write, so likely as not this’ll be a fairly short post. I had some thoughts this morning I wanted to write about, based on some random Wikipedia reading. The category I ended up in was “Changing sexuality,” via Norma McCorvey (aka the “Roe” in Roe v. Wade), who declared that she was no longer a lesbian when she converted to Catholicism. This, in turn, led me into reading about the ex-gay movement, homophobia, AIDS, Ryan White, and a host of other sexuality-related topics, but mainly my thoughts were on this idea of changing sexuality; according to the category’s guidelines, it also includes articles about the potential fluidity of sexual orientation.

And I was talking to Ashley about how sexuality is such an interestingly important part of your life: it determines a lot about what (and who) you pursue, how others view you, etc., but it does not by itself define who you are. It’s one of many aspects of your identity. But everyone has a sexuality, even if they identify as asexual, since that’s a kind of sexuality, too. And so this big question is, how is it determined? Judging from the research done so far, it looks like it’s a complex convergence of many factors, genetic and environmental. And this makes me think about a lot of things: for example, consider typical homophobic retort that, oh, well, statistics show that homosexuals have more abusive relationships, more of them are drug addicts, more get AIDS, are promiscuous, blah blah blah, so therefore homosexuality is evil. And it’s such an ignorant claim because it seems to pretend that if we have two identical human beings, except that one is straight and the other is gay, and each of them grow up in a Skinner box, then solely because of this one difference, the gay one will go on to become an HIV-positive heroin addict who sleeps with a different man every night.

And of course this is total bullshit, because of environmental influences. I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert, but it just seems obvious that when you’re gay in a society (e.g., the U.S.) where your sexuality has been a mental illness, a crime, or both for all of history up until the last, say, 40-50 years (hell, Lawrence v. Texas was only in 2003!) – I mean, I think I’m understating when I say these are not exactly sterile laboratory conditions. There’s a huge albatross around the neck of every American (hell, every human being on earth, more or less); a huge shadow being cast by a long, long history of institutionalized homophobia.

I think a lot of the ignorance here follows the same logic as another easy example: let’s say that black, or hispanic, or Native American communities in major U.S. cities happen to have higher rates of crime and poverty than elsewhere. I’m not citing any statistics or claiming this as an absolute truth; this is just hypothetical. Is the answer clearly that they just don’t work as hard as white people, and they’re more inclined to crime? Or is there a slight chance that the centuries-long legacy of racism, and the subjugation of other races by whites, is coming into play in the present day (not to mention racism that persists, in part because people swallow such ridiculous fallacies)?

My point is that yes, each person is their own person and no, there are (duh) no inherent tendencies toward laziness, illiteracy, or violence in gays, blacks, etc., but the simple fact is that centuries of history are very difficult to undo, so of course society and the government still have lingering elements of racism and homophobia from all the years when these institutions fully endorsed all the hatred and ignorance. And so naturally this is going to have a negative effect on minorities, who start out at a disadvantage largely because of this historical baggage. Of course, this brings up yet another kettle of fish, but fuck it, that’s not what I’m here to discuss. My point was to touch on people misinterpreting the effects of institutionalized homophobia.

I’m reminded of the “Heterosexual Questionnaire,” a great little exercise we did in my intro WGST class. This kind of ties into Ashley’s “Corrective Rape” posts in that it’s another (albeit less horrifying) sign of the stupidity and intolerance that continue. And continue. And continue, to affect personal choices, policy decisions, and the way life is lived all over the world. To quote Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?” I just glanced over Wikipedia’s page on the inane “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy the U.S. military has had since 1993; interestingly, I just learned of Lt. Frederick Gotthold Enslin, who in 1778 was apparently given a dishonorable discharge for attempted sodomy. This is interesting to learn about, and I want to explore his life in greater detail at a later date, Internet research permitting. I’m also reminded of a video I watched for Digital Storytelling last spring called “Last Time“; here’s how I described it in my posting for the class.

It tells of a queer black woman’s decision to leave the military after attending a meeting discussing social justice issues. Feeling supported by a community, she is finally able to take a closer look and speak out about how those issues impact her life.

Human beings are so complicated, unpredictable, and dynamic; it really is just a shame on so many levels to put them (us?) into boxes. You are [attribute], therefore you [action] – like yesterday hearing the sentence, “But I thought women liked it when you’re sensitive…” to which I immediately replied, “Different women like different things.” Duh.

Tammy (Jessica Campbell) and Paul (Chris Klein) in Election

This subject ties in with a movie I wanted to mention briefly, Alexander Payne’s 1999 comedy Election. It’s a really dead-on satire that brings to mind, one of my favorite books, Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, which really deserves its own post. Like the book, Election is the story of a man (Matthew Broderick as a neurotic civics teacher) who watches as a quasi-sociopathic bundle of raw ambition (Reese Witherspoon as the pinch-faced, tight-strung high school student Tracy Flick) schemes and drives toward success… and eventually decides it’s time to put a wrench in the works. It’s a film built on strong characters – there’s the briefly appearing Dave Novotny, a teacher whose career and life are ruined by a dalliance with Tracy; Paul Metzler, an empty-headed jock who blithely runs against Tracy in the school election; and then there’s Paul’s anti-authoritarian sister Tammy, who ties the movie to the topic at hand. As Tammy claims early in the film (each of the four main characters get a chance to seize the POV and make their case),

It’s not like I’m a lesbian or anything. I’m attracted to the person. It’s just that all the people I’ve been attracted to happen to be girls.

And Tammy, played by Jessica Campbell as a braces-wearing anarchist, is a delightful presence in the film, as well as a small LGBT representation; her hilarious speech to the student body (“Or don’t vote for me… who cares? Don’t vote at all!”) even caused Witherspoon to initially pursue her role. Ultimately, Tammy gets exactly what she wants (even if it does inadvertently fuck things up for other people), and it’s a very satisfying turn of events. I really liked Election, and I recommend it; it’s got great interplay between well-defined, dysfunctional characters and makes a droll statement on the nature of ambition.

That quote from the movie also makes me think a little more about the stigma against the word “lesbian” itself. Ashley and I use both it and the word “dyke” in a totally neutral, descriptive sense, and I think it’s disgusting that schoolchildren still use it along with gay, homo, etc. as an insult. As I once noted: the word lesbian, besides being just fun to say, is derived from a gorgeous Mediterranean island that was home to a great ancient poetess. It’s also the location of Mt. Olympus, the dwelling place of the Greek gods. What better images could a word conjure up than the sun striking the blue waves as a mountain towers over trees that line the coast? I seriously think lesbian should be used as a compliment.

Mt. Olympus on the isle of Lesbos


Filed under Cinema, Politics, Sexuality

In search of lesbian vampires

It’s a beautiful day. I don’t know if going outside and being overwhelmed by “Yellow! Green! Blue!” is objectively beautiful. But hell, it’s spring, it’s warm in a nonobjectionable and physically comfortable way – I’m happy! It’s May. Time for May Poles, maybes, and Ashley’s birthday. So what’s on the old mind today? Slept in, feeling sickish, got work in 2 hours. And by work I mean, I wander the library bringing books up and putting them back. I love helping to organize the knowledge of the world. And the fact that shelving allows me to go about, glancing at interesting books. Like when I shelved the entire selection of books about menstruation, a couple weeks ago. Fun stuff.

I’m hungry. Oh, hunger. Hunger, a novel by Norwegian Knut Hamsun. The Hunger Artist, a short story by Kafka. The Hunger, a 1983 sucky (no pun intended) vampire movie whose best part, as I was discussing the other day, is almost certainly the sex scene between a blood-drinking Catherine Deneuve and a naive Susan Sarandon. Maybe among the best scenes in lesbian vampire film history. Oh, the lesbian vampire – a topic which I am known in certain circles (i.e., quiz bowl) to be an expert on. Let’s explore it briefly, shall we? Antecedents to the subgenre (as in, horror -> vampire -> lesbian vampire) go back to Gothic literature: Coleridge’s poem “Christabel,” for example, as well as J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s landmark novella Carmilla, which served as a template for many future lesbian vampire works. So, you may ask, why vampire? Why lesbian? Vampires are an undyingly fascinating element of folklore.

One may even ask, why is horror such a big part of folklore in the first place? I think folklore’s great to dive into. It’s the collected tales, some codified and some more vague and flexible, that float around our culture, from ear to ear and mind to mind, and generally serve pretty well to give us ideas about our heritage, our history, and our identity. Lore. “Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.” Lore was also the name of Data’s evil doppelganger in Star Trek: TNG, but that’s another story. Folk – ein volk, one people, “your folks” as a term for “parents” that has always intrigued me. Folkish as an adjective for Will Rogers. Folk music harkens (after looking up and making sure “harkens” was the appropriate word and spelling, I come to the conclusion that it’s an absurd word, and once you double-check your usage of it, you can hardly look upon it without laughing) back to times past and brings people together, more or less. So we have these two words: folk and lore. Folks are people; it’s a very populist word. It suggests that we all share in something. We’re all the folks – folk is what Ma Joad meant in The Grapes of Wrath when she said, “Because we’re the people.” And then lore is stories. Like a Tome of Eldritch Lore. Like folk, it has implications of the past. You can’t just make folklore; it has to marinate. It has to age. Because we’re not the folk now; we’ve always been the folk. And some new novel can’t be lore. Lore needs time to collect dust. So with that… I was talking about vampires.

I’ve puzzled on many occasions over what vampires mean. And why I love them so. Vampires are not really human beings – they’re a whole other animal. But they’re kind of people. Let’s take an example: Prince Mamuwalde, aka Blacula, central character of his namesake 1973 film. He’s recognized by Tina and Juanita Jones and all the others as a human being. Vampires play the part of a still-living human being, go into the midst of real people, and insinuate themselves into their lives. Because, after all, if a vampire is revealed – as in, “Whoa, you cast no reflection! You hiss at the sight of crosses! Could you be some creature of folklore-?” – you can guess that either some would-be Van Helsing or an angry mob with pitchforks is going to storm into their castle and kill the shit out of them. Because people have a general antipathy toward undead things that drink their blood and turn them into undead things. God, vampires are the ultimate evangelists. Imagine if Jack Chick could just bite you and then voila, you’re a fundamentalist Christian. Or if Jehovah’s Witnesses marched up to your door and then as soon you opened it – well, you get the idea. Vampires are essentially rapists. But instead of (most of the time) violating their prey with genitalia, instead it’s the teeth. But at the same time, are vampires really in control? All these thoughts remind me that I need to watch Abel Ferrara’s vampire deconstruction The Addiction, which stars Valerie Solanas herself, Lili Taylor, as well as Christopher Walken as the head vampire. That’s about as great a recipe for awesome as I’ve ever heard. If only I could find a copy anywhere.

But anyway, the vampire is both a victim and villain. After all, nobody becomes a vampire without, well, being made one. This reminds me of a discussion I was having yesterday with Ashley: isn’t it bullshit to be able to get a transmissible disease without really having physical contact with someone? As I wrote in my Halloween CLAP article last October, “Vampirism is a venereal disease. Vampires are horny old syphilitics.” So that’s one viewpoint. It’s VD. It’s AIDS. You go to bed with someone whose genitalia are all covered in pustules, you wake up with a thirst for blood. One way or another, being vampirized requires intimate physical contact. Whether it’s Dracula going down a foggy street and approaching a streetwalker, gazing into her eyes until she’s petrified, then raping/biting her and running off, or if it’s Deneuve luring Sarandon into bed and in the midst of their passion, biting her. A vampire’s bite is like a mosquito sucking out the blood and spitting in some saliva, to make it coagulate, but also causing an itch. And sometimes handing over West Nile virus or meningitis or what have you. So in STIs and mosquitoes, we’ve got some origins; also, as some have claimed, vampire stories could have originated in experiences with the corpses of rabies victims – how they’d still have liquid blood, as this article points out. I’ve read some extensive, very plausible theories along these lines before. There’s cases like that of Peter Plogojowitz, a Serbian “vampire” of the early 18th century, the truth about whom is probably linked to rabies or something similar.

Really, at the heart of it, the vampire myth is a lot about being afraid of the dead coming back. We invest the dead with terrifying powers, because, well, we know no mortal, living made-of-flesh man would hypnotize you or walk through walls or bite into a human skull (like vampires, ghosts, and zombies). But who says there are such constraints on the dead? Ghost legends say that the dead are often pissed. “I was murdered? And my killer married my wife and controls my kingdom? Hamlet Senior is not happy with this…” And at the same time, it’s about more than not wanting the corpses of people we didn’t like it to come back – it’s also about being afraid of our own mortality. And for that matter, as with many such myths, these ones are ambiguous, and hence the immense appeal of the vampire. Why would we keep telling stories that terrified us – Holy shit, I thought he was dead but he’s gonna come back! – unless we wanted to hear them, too? After all: wouldn’t you want to know that when your body gives out and you finally die, you have a chance of coming back – with superpowers! – to get all the revenge you want? Just a possibility. There are all kinds of dense psychological motivations for telling these stories. That’s why we tell them over and over again, century to century, and though we’ll cover our eyes and ears – “No more, no more, it’s too scary!” – well, of course we’re going to be in line again for the next showing. That’s how it’s always been. The next night, the terrified children are pleading with their dad to tell them about the headless ghost who’s out for blood, all over again.

And this brings me to the lesbian vampire. A few months ago, Ashley and I watched a very interesting, informative, and analytical lecture from a 2004 Los Angeles Pride festival, called Queer for Fear. It does a good job of delving into the innate links between the horror film and supposedly “deviant” sexualities, or those who are sexual outsiders or minorities. This is another part of the ambiguous appeal of the monster story. It’s driven by a combination of fear and identification. Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula was one of my idols growing up. You’re simultaneously afraid of him – mind-controlling lord of a cobweb-ridden Transylvanian castle – and you sympathize with him, pity him, know what he’s going through. He’s got his lion’s share of pain, guilt, and suffering; it’s inherent in the vampire. Most vampires don’t go around happily, greedily draining innocent bystanders of their blood. Vampires can be sociopaths, but it’s not part of the definition. The best vampires are reticent. They’re addicted, and they know they have a problem, but they just can’t stop. In the end, monsters just want a hug. But, well, when you’re green and scaly and 8 feet tall, nobody realy wants to hug you, now do they? Anyway, the point is that sexuality is an inextricable aspect of the vampire. Neck-biting is an intimate act no matter how it’s done. And so a lot of vampires happen to be bisexual – or bi-neck-biting-ual – or however you want to describe it. As I noted earlier, there’s a metaphor here about sexually transmitted disease. Vampirism anticipated HIV by centuries. Just think about it: Count Dracula (already an unapologetic polygamist) lures in a vulnerable young man – stealing him from his poor wife! – and after licking his bleeding finger, turns him into the vampire’s unhesitating slave. Could there conceivably be some subtext here?

As you can see if you watch Queer for Fear, about the earliest lesbian vampire who can be identified on film is Countess Zaleska, the enigmatic, reluctant vampiress played by the little-known Gloria Holden in Dracula’s Daughter (1936), the first sequel to the original Dracula.

Dracula's Daugher (1936)

Zaleska isn’t a “vamp”; instead, she’s exotic and mysterious, constantly playing hard-to-get to the naive human who lusts after her, because she doesn’t want to see him get hurt. I watched the movie a few weeks ago and it really is full of interesting subtexts which, I think, are the primary reason for watching it – beyond the performances of Holden and future director Irving Pichel as her eunuch-like servant Sandor, it’s not an overly interesting or well-made film. But it’s short and serves its purpose as an attractive quickie sequel to a hit movie; after all, Universal in the 1930s was the place to be if you’re making a film about vampires. Of course, as it’s shortly after the Production Code was enforced, the lesbianism isn’t explicit – but here’s the deal. Zaleska is a vampire. A “deviant” sexuality is part of her character, as it was part of her father’s. It’s built into the core of the film, the concept, the myth (or is it? I really need to read Stoker’s novel, as well as Carmilla and Polidori’s The Vampire, written during that June of 1816 that also produced Frankenstein), and no amount of Hays censorship can take that away. The Code zipped up mouths about sexuality, so it was expressed through its own code, a beautiful code of nuances and double entendres. Yeah, it’s family friendly; all Zaleska wants is for that girl to pose for her. With her breasts exposed. And their bodies pressed together, her teeth in the girl’s soft, alluring neck. Nothing sexual about that! My point? She’s a lesbian vampire. Or at least a bisexual vampire. Because blood doesn’t have a gender. Renfield sucks the vital juices out of rats and flies. Is he into bestiality? You tell me. (Probably not, but it’s worth asking.)

I guess another aspect of this is the whole “predatory/insane homosexual” stereotype, too. When homosexuals aren’t busy being pansies or fruits or butch dykes or gender inversions, well, they’re often off being evil and crazy because, hey, they don’t respect sexual conventions, so why would they respect any morality? The logic here is kind of at the heart of a lot of horror movies, but it’s also undermined just as frequently, partially because of the identification factor I mentioned earlier. The norm is established as a two-person heterosexual relationship. Jonathan and Mina Harker. Or Dr. Frankenstein and Elizabeth. Or Brad and Janet. But something goes astray… hence the horror. Next thing you know, Count Orlok’s seducing both man and wife, Frankenstein’s off “creating life” with Dr. Pretorious – you get the drift. But after all, you don’t go to the movie to see the heteronormative happiness. You go there to see the perversion. No one’s interested in watching a couple be happy and unthreatened for 2 hours. But toss in a queer, unnatural monster, and there’s a threat I can get behind! Nobody watches Dracula and spends the whole time unambiguously praying for Lugosi to get killed. He’s the most charismatic, well-developed, and lovable character in the movie. So, while the monster may be sexually deviant, evil, crazy, and not care what gender his/her victims are, the monster’s still the one you love, who draws you in to the movie. Why did Universal make a bajillion sequels to their original 3-4 monster movies? Because people wanted to see the monsters. And yes, in the end, the monster must die a karmic death to pay for all the people he killed, and normalcy must be restored, and the heterosexual couple lives happily ever after, because that’s what society demands. But why is there a smile on your face as the credits roll? Because you got see the monster.

So, why lesbian vampires? Why not lesbian werewolves (oh my God I totally want to make that movie) or lesbian mummies (maybe not that one quite so much…)? I guess in the first place it’s easiest to represent a beautiful woman as a vampire; they don’t undergo gruesome transformations (becoming a bat is as easy as a puff of smoke) or have hideous bodily disfigurements. And OK, granted, there are female (maybe lesbian?) werewolves, see She-Wolf of London (1946) or the very similar concept behind one of my favorite horror movies, Cat People (1942), but that’s kind of barking up a different tree. Vampires are seductive. Just as you catch more flies with honey, it’s “the spider spinning his web for the unwary fly,” as Dracula puts it. Vampires, unlike werewolves, rarely maul unwary passers-by – unless you count the brilliant recent film Let the Right One In, which has a whole different, very fascinating take on the subject – but instead lie in wait in their dark castle for society ladies to keep private appointments. And this, I think, fits a little with the sometime-stereotype of the wealthy butch lesbian who entrances a protege who over time becomes her lover, like Frédérique in Claude Chabrol’s Les Biches (1968). Another possible reason for lesbian vampires: we have an inherently sexual, deviant, and voracious monster. How best to, dare I say, take away its teeth and make it palatable for mainstream male audiences? Make it a deviant woman. This brings up some interesting questions about, well, what gender do we make our monsters? For example, a natural step was going from Frankenstein to Bride of; have you ever heard of a horror movie called The Groom of…? I think the sexuality of monsters is an important area to explore; after all, monsters are there for us to fear. What, 9 out of 10 times, is our fear going to involve? Sexuality. Ashley and I watched Repulsion (1965) last night, and… that’s a whole other blog, twice as long as this one (believe it or not). But the point is, it’s sexually derived horror. We’re afraid of sex. Or afraid of rapists. Or else we’re afraid of homosexuals. Or we’re afraid of deformed sexual organs (cf. David Cronenberg’s entire career). Since sex is supposed to be the beautiful source of pleasure, and since so many varieties on it are possible, and since so many kinds of sex are widely condemned, and since so many things can go violently wrong in sex – is it any wonder that it’s the root of endless horror? And so, I return to where I began, with the mediocre horror movie The Hunger, a film most notable for its lesbian vampirism (or vampire lesbianism?). Of course the “hunger” of the title is one for blood, but it’s also the carnal hunger of Miriam for Sarah. At their core, I think, that’s a lot of what vampires are about: hunger. Vampires are like fire in their endless consumption – even after they’ve downed many pints of blood, they still need more. They’re an extreme version of endlessly consumptive human beings. But in the end, vampires would be OK with going thirsty (“To die, to be really dead…”) and really just want a hug. Or in the case of lesbian vampires, to fuck Susan Sarandon.

I hope you found this overlong analysis somewhat informative. I must be off to dinner (to consume!); feel free to leave any thoughts about lesbian vampires, monsters, horror in general, or anything at all.

The Hunger (1983)

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Filed under Cinema, Sexuality