Bright Lights Film Journal

PBS’s Queer Newsmagazine In the Life: June 1996

Su Friedrich's Hide and Seek

The theme of the latest edition of the acclaimed PBS queer newsmagazine is the queer body and the queer body politic under assault.

The body as battleground is the tacit subject of the June edition of the PBS production In the Life, TV’s only national gay and lesbian newsmagazine. More specifically, it’s the gay and lesbian body that’s under assault from a variety of sources, from the social virus of the Christian right to physiological attacks by AIDS and ovarian cancer.

The first segment in this episode looks at the making of two documentaries. The first, Arthur Dong’s graphic Licensed to Kill, attempts to make sense of murderous attacks on the gay male body. The filmmaker was himself gaybashed and never understood why; years later he put together this composite picture of killers of gay men, based on prison interviews. The excerpts seen here give flashes of insight, but most viewers will want to see the entire film to follow Dong’s lead in trying to reason out the unreasonable. A different but equally familiar attack on the gay male body comes from the scourge of AIDS, a subject never far from Lesli Klainberg and Monte Bramer’s Paul Monette: The Brink of Summer’s End. Again, as with Licensed to Kill, tantalizing excerpts and interviews with the filmmakers make the viewer anxious for more. (The film can be seen in its entirety at this year’s Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.)

Like Paul Monette, openly lesbian television executive Donna Isman fights a lethal disease — in this case, ovarian cancer. “A Day in the Life” shows how coming down with the disease also forced her to come out. Isman is a model of strength and stoicism, and her ability to remain grateful while being ravaged by the disease is at once unsettling and heartening. Ultimately, she finds solace in her elaborate network of friends: “I am alive, I have so many great people in my life, there’s so much love.”

Sometimes society doesn’t seem satisfied with murder and disease as counters to the Queer Threat. In yet another wearisome retread of past struggles, politicians are busy crucifying lesbian auteurs for the crime of self-expression. The idea here is not merely to attack the body, which after all might leave it standing, but to suppress its existence entirely. Chilling clips show Pat Buchanan screeching in his eunuch whine about the terrors of Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman. The idea that a caveman like Buchanan is being paid as an arbiter of artistic merit is bizarre enough, but he’s just part of a system of abuses. Su Friedrich is also shown being vilified as a child pornographer for Hide and Seek, which dares to treat one of society’s many upper-tier taboos: lesbian childhoods. Tina Difeliciantonio’s Two or Three Things but Nothing for Sure completes this unholy trinity, but the real agenda behind these attempts at suppression is more expansive. After years of support, the NEA was recently “persuaded” to end its $100,000 funding for the distribution company Women Make Movies, which distributes some of these films.

Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! is the subject of a lengthy segment that includes interviews with the writer, director, and several of the actors. This is in some ways the weakest of the show’s entries, perhaps because it reads simply as a promo piece, with the actors cheerleading in the usual tired ways about how wonderful and different their film is. One actor’s comment that “it’s not about being gay — it’s about relationships!” seems both unnecessary and duplicitous given the film’s insular, gay-ghetto mentality.

In the Life doesn’t only point out problems and document cultural expression; it also offers specific strategies for rebellion. Three video shorts remind viewers how easy it is to pick up a video camera and document what’s happening in their lives and their community. Two of these videos give glimpses of rare subjects: Janet Baus’ Risk: Lesbian and AIDS explodes the myth that lesbians can’t get the disease; Ioannis Mookas’ Only Human: HIV Negative Gay Men in the AIDS Epidemic looks at the profound ways the disease affects those who aren’t afflicted with it. The third entry, The Rhetoric of Intolerance: An Open Letter Video to Pat Robertson from Dr. Mel White, shows White upbraiding his televangelist ex-boss for homophobia. Like the murderers in Licensed to Kill, Robertson can’t be reasoned with, and the viewer may be tempted to suggest White stop complaining and simply go and kick the old bastard’s ass. Nisha Ganatra’s black-and-white short Junky Punky Girlz, a comic take on a mother-daughter clash over a nose ring, wraps up this episode.

This month marks the fifth anniversary of In the Life. The fact that it appears on nearly 100 PBS stations and airs in 19 of the top 20 national markets may seem like a miracle in these turbulent times, but it’s more a testament to the sheer tenacity of gays and lesbians in the face of enduring social censure.