Saving Lesbian Films From Themselves

Did you hear the one about the cute girl who goes to a lesbian film with another cute girl and they walk out of the film, hand in hand, thinking they’d love to see that same film again only this time without nails holding their eyes open? Yeah, me neither.

I’ve been a semi-professional lesbian film watcher for decades now. (Woah. Did that sound pathetic). But as a kid growing up on a tiny island in the middle of a Canadian version of the Bible-belt TV and the VCR really kept me going. Watching Angelina fight her way through fashion faux pas in Gia, or cheering Xena and her redheaded friend on as they warrior-princessed me into oblivion gave me an outlet for my not-so-hetero-thoughts. Even La Femme Nikita (not the new version filmed on my street, the old one with the very tall and very tall—did I mention tall?—Peta Wilson) made me smile and feel less afloat as the only gay in the village, or so it felt. Especially when she wore thigh high boots and black spandex. These women were my secrets; they got me. But that was in the 80s and 90s and, for me, the expectations that I would find a version of myself on TV, or see something that resonated with my life, my worries, my fears, and my desires on the big screen was not as pressing. I was simply happy to watch women run around. And the bad lesbian films out there later on were fine too. They were nice as a start.

But it’s now 2012 and I’m old enough to need substance in my lesbian films. I need lesbians who can deliver a line without my ears imploding. I need a soundtrack that won’t make me hear Ani Defranco, or trumpets, or ABBA and vomit in my mouth. Records on fire, most of the stuff on screen now for lesbians is, well, shit.

I wrongly presumed the options for young women seeking narratives about the

everydayness of lesbian love, joy, longing, loneliness, and sex would get better with time, like wine. Instead, the plots seem to get emptier and the dialogue more predictably cliche. We’ve all heard the one-liners that are as see-through  as Harper’s ethics. Name the film: “We were actually only best friends, until [it happened]: ‘I want you to be my lover. I know I’m not the only one who feels this,” or, “women aren’t supposed to hurt anyone,” or “you left me to be with men. You broke your own heart, and you broke mine too.” Sound familiar? Ugh.

On my quest to find a decent film for my scholarly “research,” and my obsession with all things woman, I have watched a boxload of flicks that are marketed as good lesbian films. Trust me, way too many. When I was in younger version, I was forever sneaking past the chaps I knew at the counter of our local That’s Entertainment video store to try and find the tiny section called “erotic/foreign,” scanning shelves for anything with Catherine Deneuve or Susan Sarandon. Then Amazon started sending me weird lists of films that they (whomever that might be) had chosen based on my book interests. Friends soon began alerting me to LGBTQ and Queer film festivals. And on my own I have downloaded, uploaded, and unloaded titles that would make even Sylvia Plath sound happy in comparison.

I keep seeing them and they keep sucking donkey butts.

The question is why? Is it that my expectations are too high? Well, if that translates into the fact I have any expectations at all than perhaps, but I wonder what else could be going on. Why are quality films about lesbians just seemingly out of reach?

Before I get too far here I want to provide you with what I consider a lesbian film to be because there are many films out there with pseudo-lesbian characters, or kinda lesbian plots that I am completely disregarding. So what is my definition of a lesbian film? First and foremost, there are lesbians in the film. And when I say in the film, I don’t simply mean on the periphery in waiting for her pay check. I don’t mean those films where a gal has been cast as the odd, moody, Emo chick in school who has one line delivered through her clenched teeth and mystic chants (Mean Girls). Or where a woman is cast as the neighbor who the rest of the hetero-gals suspect is a lesbian but she is so funny, kind and harmlessly conventionally unattractive that she is left alone to take care of the kids and puppies (shout out to Bridesmaids). I really don’t mean the films where there are female obsessions, where we presume the psycho character/murderer is a lesbian because she wants to, literally, become the heroine (Single White Female anyone, but Jennifer Jason Leigh was delicious; Crack [which is interesting]), or the flicks where there are littered- about lesbian characters who act as best friends and foils for the main, heterosexual muse, so she can find her man (Sandra Oh in Under the Tuscan Sun). And I really don’t mean films about the girl whose heart gets ripped away so that the mainstay can realize that she really wants a penis and just needed a lesbian-one nighter as a reminder (Chloe). I’m convinced these above films were made to titillate a heterosexual audience, especially women who like to play with their Kinsey spectrums every once in a while, getting giddy to Katie Perry’s “I kissed a Girl and I Liked it” while their boyfriends swig beers out back.

No judgment from me gals; I kissed a girl and liked it too and you can love whomever you wish. But for this post, I want to concentrate on films that have full-on lesbian plots (I am using “plot” loosely) and full-on lesbian characters who are either out and proud, or coming out and a bit messed up about it.

Also, the films I’ve chosen are neither porn nor erotica movies. I say this only because with lesbian films there seems to be a sense that if there is delicious sex within it, the plot must be nil. Or, if the plot is actually pretty alright, there can be no sex. I’ve seen some lovely lesbian erotica, and have watched some salacious, licentious lesbian porn (made by lesbians, for lesbians. Sorry, no male mullets or gals without any body hair gyrating on their veiny love sticks) but I’m concentrating on the less sexually explicit narratives for lesbians in order to figure out what goes missing when sex shows up in these films?

But first, the players.

[DISCLAIMER 1: For those who are still reading, I will also give a list at the end of this post of some great, pretty unknown, lesbian films.]

[DISCLAIMER 2: Kissing Jessica SteinHigh ArtLove and SuicideLost and DeliriousClaire of the Moon, Bar Girls, Chasing Amy, Loving Annabelle, The Girl, Lesbian Vampire Killers, Girl Play, Mango Kiss were each awfully hard to survive but we all know that already and we need to forgive budgets and time. If you have yet to see these, this weekend you really should grab five bowls of popcorn and have some fun. You might need Kleenex and lube. Kleenex for the crying you’ll do because of how terribly done these films are, and then lube to moisten your body after you finish watching the dryness of both The Girl and Chasing Amy.

Ok: The top 5 worst lesbian films that usually don’t make WORST EVER lists. These films should have been better because they had the budgets, the support, and the writers.

1. Bloomington

I want to be brutally honest here. If I could put Bloomington on this list 5 times, I would. This was hands down, by far, no questions asked, the most horrendous lesbian film I have ever seen. And I watched A Marine Story sober.

My lovely pal and I went to see this little number because it was being highlighted at the Inside Out film festival. The type-up seemed perfectly luring: Professor and undergraduate student fall in love. Done.

What they don’t tell you is that the Professor, Catherine, is a wayward psychologist who is obsessed with Freudian slips and who has a habit of “sleep[ing] with her students.” Trying to be kind here, she might have gotten her education from a Coles’ notes version of psychoanalysis written by Dr. Phil.  She asks: “How does that make you feel? What do you think?” so often you want to drive a fork into her mouth so she’ll eat more and speak less. The young heroine, Jackie, who looks no older than 13, is a child-actor who works on a children’s series about space travel called Neptune 26. Oh fuck.

At the theatre, we all knew we were in trouble when 10 minutes into the first scene–which was situated at the University’s first day meet and greet–we thought it was a dream sequence. And it wasn’t.

The young heroine is eyed up by the Abnormal Psychology Professor who saunters up to the girl, at school, surrounded by their peers and colleagues, and tells young Jackie they should get out of there and go back to her place. WHAT?!  The entire audience thought we’d mised half the movie, you know, where we actually meet the characters, start to care for them, see them begin to be interested in one another, get some foreplay. Nope. It was not a dream or a projector glitch. It was the plotless plot, and the audience started laughing. 

And we kept laughing through what were meant to be dramatic scenes about love and loss, presented to us instead as terrifying, offensive, counseling sessions where the Professor uses her psychobabble to woo, hurt, confuse, manipulate, and anger the child actor.  Terrible script. Really awful acting. Crazily offensive plot (and I’m not talking about the intergenerational relationship. That was the only redeeming aspect to this film.)

There are creepy maternal, Freudian scenes, where the Professor is washing her young lover in the bathtub, acting like her mother (asking her about her homework) that makes the audience cringe. At one point, trying to bring up the other students Catherine has slept with, Jackie says, open-woundedly: “Am I different?” To which Catherine replies, trying to pull a Sharon Stone open-leg moment in Basic Instinct, “Would you believe me if I said yes?”

There were other scenes where the Professor’s immaturity was so hard to take a lot of the audience walked out.  The ending was a drip that left you wondering how you just lost 2 hours of your life.

And there was no sex. At all. I think I saw panties, once.

Do I need sex in a lesbian film? No. But if the film is this utterly horrible, than yes if only not to have to hear the two women attempting to exchange forced dialogue for a few moments. I’d take moaning over bad psychoanalysis any day.

AfterEllen actually reviewed this film and raved about it. This is “a refreshing, unique lesbian drama that gets things ‘right’ in every department” the reviewer claimed, which has made me refuse to ever listen to a review on AfterEllen again.

I’ll try to be kinder from here.

2. Itty Bitty Titty Committee

This film held so much promise. Like Obama. The plot begins with a young, likable, overly-parented teen who has a perfect heterosexual sister who is about to get married. The heroine is distraught because her family’s cultural traditions don’t reflect her own desires and she feels trapped and alone.

She then meets a group of sexually liberated feminist activists who all gather at this utopic, underground warehouse (for sexual play and feminist debate) that seems cut out of the fantasies of young lesbians everywhere. Jenny Shimizu is there. Need I say more.

Their motto (and Audre Lorde’s): “We can not bring down the master’s house with the master’s tools,” makes us want to believe.

The problem with this rambunctious drama is the crew’s leader Sadie. She is a young, blonde, smoker who is in a relationship with a much older woman whom she doesn’t love and who she is using for money and stability. The film paints this older woman as a pathetic pariah and academic, who is disgusting for even loving a younger woman, and, therefore, deserved of the ill treatment she receives.

The rest of the plot is laid out as follows: traditional girl, Anna, falls for the young Sadie and ends up being hurt by her because of her belief that love actually means something more than a one night stand can offer. Sadie goes through a stirringly calcified metamorphosis and remains an arrogant heroine who spouts theories about non-monogamy and sexual intimacy as though she were a third grader writing poetry. The only saving grace here are the other friends within the group, including a wildly funny bisexual woman who chastises the entire bunch of lesbian disasters as being “closed minded” when they see her making out with a man and then see her making out with a woman in the same few days.

3. The Night Watch

What to say. Read the book? It’s miles and miles better. Other than that I will say that the director somehow managed to take the sensuality and complexity of the post World War 2 characters in Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch and devoid them of any intrigue.  The mainstay of the book was its concentration on the deliciousness of the everyday, ordinary experiences of women and men in love. However, the film steals that beauty away and presents us with a trite portraiture of a lonely woman, Kay, who wanders around town in her men’s suits pining for something she never really had and depressing the hell out of all of us.

The main lovers in the film, Helen and Julia, who in the book were courageously explored as two women who loved one another through not only the ordinary domestic experiences of trying to live and love together–fighting, sex, making dinner, reading books– but also through a war, are presented here as characatures of nothingness.  They’re boring and not well rounded. The film concentrates much more on the male character, Duncan’s, love affair with men and the heterosexual characters in the novel.

Sorry, this film really was crap. The book leaves you wanting more. The film leaves you wanting less.

4. Bandaged

I had to put this film here because it was so disturbing I almost loved it. Until I watched it through. I will now never think of a hospital bed in the same way.

Lucille, the daughter of a creepsville doctor who is mourning the death of his wife, is cloistered away in her room until one day she decides to commit suicide. Rescued, but terribly burned, her father replaces her mangled face with one that resembles his dead wife’s (Yep!) and then puts the bandaged, immobilized daughter in the care of Joan, an around the clock nurse. Lucille falls in love with her caregiver and wow if you thought the plot was creepy before, it really goes gremlin from here. Enter S&M, evil aunts, bloody nipples, and used bedpans stage left. That’s the best part!

What the issue might be is that there is no chemistry between the two leading ladies, which is unfortunate, because there are quite a lot of sexual scenes with gory climaxes where faces wither away (literally), skin peels, eyes roll back, and yet these ladies seem to be bored, as if the pins they are playing with would be better used for knitting. They are as uncomfortable pretending to be enamored with one another as we are trying to believe in this plot.  This one held promise. But it couldn’t deliver.

5. Lipstikka

Ok. This film angered me. We are presented with very politically charged subject matter that is being tokenized and completely mishandled in order to sell movie tickets. How can I say this?  At the movie’s release we all met the very pompous, arrogant, ill-informed director Jonathan Sagall who, when asked time and time again why he set his lesbian love affair within the Israeli/Palestinian conflict answered, angrily, “it’s just a movie.” When asked why the female heroines were treated so stereotypically awfully he laughed that we didn’t understand his vision. When he was asked if he would like to explain, from his point of view, why the heroines needed to be lesbian at all if not to appease the male gaze he scoffed and refused. Gem.

Set in contemporary London, two Palestinian women reunite after years of separation. One, Lara, is married to a man (who cheats), is an alcoholic, has a child, and is miserable. The other, Inam, is a frail, odd, beautiful, suicidal woman who Lara mistrusts. They have a torrid past. Cue flashbacks to Palestine where we get a disjointed, American sense of the Israeli, Palestinian unrest in very basic, quick scenes filmed on random dirt roads, where we meet the younger versions of Lara and Inam (played by an actually super talented Moran Rosenblatt): two friends always straddling a fine line between being lovers and being best pals. Inam is a sexual misfit we are led to believe—she uses her body to get what she wants and needs from men. Lara tags along behind her, wishing for more of Inam. After a difficult hour and a bit where we suffer through hard to watch scenes where Inam (young and older versions) is taken advantage of by men in order to save Lara, tries to commit suicide, wanders through Lara’s house naked, wishing for some love and compassion from her long lost friend, we learn that Inam is not only mildly disoriented, she is actually an escaped client from an institutionalized sanatorium.

This film does all of the things to lesbian women that we don’t want to see: hurts them, rapes them, uses them to get an audience, abandons them in mental institutions, accuses them of sexual deviancy, punishes them for independence, renders them alcoholics and drug-addicts, makes them the spectacle for male desire. Worse, it uses an intricate political issue and makes it the backdrop to a failed love story without ever paying homage to the actual complexities of the Israeli/Palestinain conflict.

Each of these 5 tempting films adhere to all of the stereotypes that have made the conceptualization of lesbianism forever entangled in notions of unhappiness, death, suicide, tragedy, mental illness, poverty, and negative affect. Or the inversion where lesbian intimacy seems beholden to extreme elation, arduous joy, happy coincidences, implausibly privileged experiences, progressive success, neo-liberal passion for patriarchy and militancy.

A lot of lesbian films are being made out there that are bargain basement, labors of love, that cannot afford certain luxuries that come with the privilege of larger budgeted, hetero movies. Producers for these films are often friends, ex-lovers, the directors or actors themselves. Having said, the movies I have chosen each had a lot of financial backing comparatively. And I have seen some fantastic, art-house, low-budget lesbian films, that were incredible. Plot doesn’t take a lot of money. And a lot of money does not necessarily make a good film. Point in point, has anyone seen Waterworld?

Laura Doan and Sarah Waters respectively suggest in their article, “Making up Lost Time” that it is now more than ever necessary to explore intimate spaces of belonging for lesbians that forge new possible directions and places for desire. They question whether or not our drive to forge a “lesbian pedagogy” (a drive conditioned by the pressure for queers to have marked origin stories and locatable positionings) has left contemporary moments where we try and capture lesbianism in narratives confined by a frantic desire to have a history to take ownership of. A desire that leads us to hold onto universalizing tropes (such as the idea of the suicidal lesbian, lesbian dead-bed, lesbians returning to men, lesbians being mentally ill, violent, murderous, sociopathic). This means that even if the histories are unreliable or fantastical, or support political structures that seek queer erasure, the pressure to hold fast to the archive is immense enough to continue stereotyping us.

The “burden of lesbianism,” then, might be that there is an inherent responsibility for lesbians to teach and reconfirm origin stories for contemporary generations of women, while, simultaneously configuring new narratives for lesbians that speak to our every day experiences. And that’s what I want people! The films don’t have to be filled with boobies and hairless bodies. Actually, if a plot could show up that reflected what it is like to live as a lesbian today, I’d even forgo nudity all together.

On a good day.

In closing, as promised:

5 recent and great lesbian films that were fantastic:

1. Tomboy

2. The Secrets

3. Elena Undone

4. Trigger 

5. Spider Lilies

Why are these films good? They are ordinary, great stories about women you’d meet on the street or at the bar. They don’t depict lesbian lovers on a murderous rampage throughout the city like Godzilla trying to wipe out all men and women who’d done em’ wrong. They don’t try to turn the reality of women loving other women into a game that can only be survived by one. They don’t try to turn lesbianism into a metaphor for decline, death, lost hope, lost children. They give us well-rounded characters who are at times total jerks and are at other times lovely figures attempting to negotiate what it means to be in a world with others while trying to protect your heart. Some of the characters are narcissistic but also compassionate; some of the girls grow to realize that the fantasies they’d told themselves were actually not as good as the realities they could live; some of the endings are sad but reflective of the way life tends to be. Happiness, then, is not flagged as a burger we need to consume. If it’s there, it’s supposed to be. If unhappiness or loneliness is there, its presence is necessary and teaches these characters something about themselves and the way they love others.

About newdaynewmood

A Lonely lesbian trying to write about everyday life and everyday ways to negotiate the tough political issues therein.
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4 Responses to Saving Lesbian Films From Themselves

  1. ReaLife says:

    HI, Great article!! laughed quite a bit and agree with most everything you said.

    Though you left out some really great movies:

    Imagine me and you
    Fingersmith (TO DIE FOR – Talk about an amazing plot line!!!)
    Four Faced Liar – Hilarious if anything
    Better Than Chocolate
    But I’m a Cheerleader – So ridiculously weird
    The world unseen / I cant think straight – to wonderful actresses with great chem!
    Fucking Amal (AKA show me love) – wow talk about an awkward movie
    Kyss myg (Kiss Me – Swedish film)

    Curious if you have seen these and if so what was your opinion?

    • Hi there! Thank you so much for the response and I totally agree there are some movies out there that I missed. I actually love ‘But I’m a Cheerleader’ and think it was a smart plot and was well written. Also, it was hilarious which I always appreciate! ‘Imagine me and You’ I didn’t love. I think it’s because I didn’t believe their relationship at all. It seemed forced and way too romanticized. Plus, where was the steam?! ‘Fingersmith’ I saw as well, and I didn’t include it because the book is SO much better than the film I felt the film lost something. It’s by Sarah Waters and if you loved the movie, the book is extraordinary! And beautiful. ‘Better than Chocolate’ was lovely, and I adored Anne Marie MacDonald’s role, but it is older and I would love to see some more updated love stories for us out there. ‘I can’t think Straight’ was actually pretty great (I forgot about that one!) as was Fucking Amal (I loved it. One of my favorite movies about queer teens). Kiss Me and Four Faced Liar are the only two on this list I have yet to see. I’ll check them out for sure.

      Thanks so much for the suggestions!

      • ReaLife says:

        LOL!! ok I have to admit that once I saw the movie fingersmith and realized it was actually a book first I bought it the next day!! And, however, forward this may be, the book definatly invoked (I should say) stronger “feelings” if you catch my meaning ;). but that always seems to be the case with books made into movies, its just not quite the same.
        The only sad part with movies in this genre is that even when you have seen them all (whether good or absolutely horrid) there are no more. 😦 I search everyday seeing if I can find some movie that I havent seen yet, that is worth at least a glimpse at. Our views may differ a bit because I am in all actuality still a niave child (just turned 19) but if you have some other movies worth recomendation please let me know!!

        P.S.
        I love imagine me and you for the one liners really (Heck is marvelous, love him in leap year as well – he does great when he is asking luce if she was ever married or the supermarket scenes, you can’t help but giggle)
        and Lena Heady (Luce/ lucy) is just an actress I just adore and is quite lovely in my opinion as well. Plus game of Thrones is my shit right now!!

  2. Pingback: LGBTQI Week: The Good, the Bad, and the Other in Lesbian RomComs | Bitch Flicks

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