Bright Lights Film Journal

The Secret That Won’t Stay Hidden: Queer Innovators at the 1998 San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival

Lot in Sodom

In James Broughton’s Hermes Bird, a seven-minute close-up of a penis in various stages of arousal, the filmmaker reads a line from one of his poems: “This is the secret that will not stay hidden.” The six-part Queer Innovators series in this year’s San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, of which Hermes Bird is a part, is making sure the secret – the queer contribution to experimental film for the last seven decades – doesn’t stay hidden.

Broughton’s 1979 phallic paean stresses the primal power of sexuality, but such themes had to be cleverly masked in earlier works mining the same territory. Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet predates Broughton by 50 years, but is equally lyrical, if less single-minded, in its sensually surreal tableaux of beautiful, martyred, half-naked men. Freud’s comment that watching the film was “like looking through a keyhole at a man undressing” still applies to Cocteau’s very personal vision. The infamous Lot in Sodom, directed by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, mingles biblical kitsch, mock damnation images, and again beautiful partially clad men – including one seen naked from behind – in its then-shocking visualization of a well-known bible story. The filmmakers’ use of multiple images of their male subjects, in a kind of radical “smearing” technique, is a telling example of the difficulty at the time of “fixing” the homosexual image. Without being completely overt, Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1947) moves into more transgressive territory with its images of fetishized sexuality and a sailor’s erection that erupts like a roman candle. Maya Deren’s forceful psychic landscapes in Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) were extremely influential in validating the transposition of inner realities – which would include gay and lesbian realities – to the screen.

More recent queer filmmakers owe a debt to these predecessors for making it possible to unabashedly integrate their sexuality into their work. Anie Stanley’s brief, scintillating Easy Garden (1994) offers its own brand of lesbian fireworks in compelling images of cotton candy swirling on a stick, Busby Berkeley semi-nude women in formation, and dazzling close-ups of female fingerfucking. Jennifer Reeder’s Clit-o-matic (1995) features “White Trash Girl” in an unapologetic anti-male, anti-maternal camp assault. Barbara Hammer has described her Dyketactics (1974) as “an erotic lesbian commercial – a coming-out film, celebrating what it was like to make love to a woman.” With its 110 lesbian images in a mere four minutes, Dyketactics is also a fascinating artifact of the lesbian separatist movement – historian Raymond Murray recalls that “Hammer attempted to restrict initial screenings of the film to women.” In Gently Down the Stream (1981), Su Friedrich invokes a series of lesbian dreamscapes and applies a written commentary across striking black-and-white imagery.

Daily life as a kind of suffocating dream is the subject of Chantal Akerman’s 3+ hour masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, starring Delphine Seyrig.Akerman, one of the great filmmakers working today, has proven problematic to those who wish to pigeonhole, if not assimilate her, because she’s refused to be ghettoized as a “lesbian director.” It’s surely good news that she’s allowed Jeanne Dielman to be shown in this year’s festival, given her history of pulling her films from stated queer venues. The fact that this epic about the agonizingly slow breakdown of a middle-class woman is almost impossible to see theatrically and is not available on video makes it – like much of the Queer Innovators programs – essential viewing.