I'm always kind of stunned by the demographics of Frameline audiences. As I'm walking up to the Castro Theatre, almost every single person in line is a lesbian. Hundreds and hundreds of lesbians, mostly middle-aged, and of course this is great to see, but also I wonder: doesn't anyone else want to see a lesbian-themed movie by a lesbian director?
Especially a director, Cheryl Dunye, who is well-known in queer film circles for making perhaps the first black lesbian feature film, The Watermelon Woman, in 1996. And yes, this new movie, The Owls, was made specifically for a lesbian audience (as was The Watermelon Woman), but this makes it all the more important for other audiences to see it as well.
Of course, the demographics of Frameline audiences are symptomatic of divisions in gay/queer cultures, but it still surprises me to see how clearly the divides are marked.
But, on to the movie.
I might as well admit that I wasn't expecting to like this film -- I knew ahead of time that the plot structure centered around a group of lesbians approaching middle age who murder a younger dyke, and then the ways that they deal and don't deal, but mostly don't deal. I knew that a central theme of the movie would be intergenerational tensions between lesbians, dykes, trans men, and genderqueers, but the whole thing sounded hackneyed.
At the same time, I was fascinated when I heard that a pantheon of lesbian icons would be involved, including Guinevere Turner (co-director and one of the stars of Go Fish, the biggest lesbian film of the '90s), as well as her love interest in the film, VS Brodie, known for an iconographic butch coming-of-age moment where she cuts off her long hair on screen. Originally, I heard that former Calvin Klein supermodel Jenny Shimizu, and Silas Howard, formerly of the band Tribe 8, would also be in the cast, but this didn't turn out to be the case.
The fact that Sarah Schulman was writing the script -- and, that it was filmed on location in Palm Springs, of all places -- did make the whole production sound fascinating. Still, I was worried it would be an exercise in 1990s lesbian nostalgia -- before we knew the final title, my dyke friends and I settled on Desert Fish (Go Fish + Desert Hearts), and we were unimpressed with The Owls as a replacement, until we learned the acronym Older, Wiser Lesbians (OWLs -- aha!).
I should always have low expectations for the movies I see -- I was only hoping for a few campy moments, but as soon as the movie opened, with band footage from the fictional lesbian band two of the characters were once part of (The Screech), to actual footage of ACT UP protests, I knew I was in for something more. The footage, both real and constructed, was gorgeous -- even when ACT UP demonstrations led to Prop 8 protesters draped in the US flag, as if they represented part of a continuum of resistance, instead of a dead-end, I wasn't thrown.
The imagery was styley and sophisticated. The first good line came early, when Cricket, Deak Evangenikos's character, the bossy queer drifter, talks about how she hates all the alpha male posturing "in our community," and ends, "so I hit her." She's the one about to be murdered. And then, when Iris, Guinevere's character, former star of the Screech, a high-end drunk who's run out of cash, tells MJ, VS's character, her love interest once again (although this time in the past), that she's selling the house: "I'll be fair -- I'll give you half your furniture, I'll take mine."
Then the characters start talking to the camera, and the actors talk to the camera about their characters, sometimes split-screen. I love that shit. Cricket keeps talking to us throughout -- even though she's dead, she still gives us insight into why she feels marginalized as a young butch genderqueer dyke: "I don't hide my identity. I do not hide, I am hidden." But, you know, she's not just hidden, she's dead!
And the whole thing takes place in two houses -- one sleek and contemporary, with puffy white sofas out by the pool, and the other giving us homey desert flair. I've never been to Palm Springs, so I couldn't tell if this was filmed there or maybe somewhere else in California with more trees, are there really that many trees in Palm Springs? Deer, even. Tightly-framed shots of the architecture and vistas. Everyone remains well-lit throughout, except when they aren't supposed to be. The dialogue is sharp, hilarious. Yes, the characters veer between stereotyped and flat, but this matches the theatrical flatness of their framing. It reminds us that we're watching something contrived, which actually ends up making it feel more emotionally engaged.
The weakest part for me was actually Carol, director Cheryl Dunye's character, someone who delivers a monologue about how all she cares about is social justice, but never asks Skye (same name in truth and fiction), the mysterious, muscled genderqueer character who shows up, fresh from fighting in Iraq, to avenge hir lover's death, what the hell ze was doing fighting a war for oil. Perhaps we are supposed to notice that contradiction, but it doesn't feel illuminated in the film. Dunye is stronger when playing herself, especially in the scene where she establishes the fact that it's the actors, not the characters, who are now talking, by moving the mic uncomfortably around underneath her shirt, a comedy routine.
The themes of intergenerational tension and misunderstanding are delivered without subtlety: Carol explains to Skye, a younger black queer, who Audre Lorde was, and Skye later declares (to the camera), "I fought for this country so you could live like a bunch of lazy bitches." It's in the closing sequence, though, just before and just after the cheesy cliffhanger ending, when we learn that the film was made with a collective structure, and different participants voice their opinions on everything from the absurdity of strict femme/butch roles, intergenerational conflict, shifting identities, and even a critique about whether The Parliament Collective was actually a collective. One participant of color describes the movie as not "raced," because there are two black characters who are not associated with stereotypical cultural norms or affinities. Sarah Schulman describes how two gay people who have never met can run into one another in an elevator, and communicate something conspiratorial within a few floors.
A parliament is a family of owls, we learn earlier, and there is something familial about this closing sequence. It's where the staginess of the dialogue and framing, the crispness of the editing gives way to open ruminations from participants. During the question-and-answer after the film, I believe it was Dunye who said she wanted to "make a film about us at this moment."
Indeed, the collective created a highly polished movie for $20,000 (and tons of volunteer professional labor), a tiny amount in the world of Hollywood (although certainly still inaccessible for most budding filmmakers). They created a collective structure, albeit a collective with Dunye as a leader/director, but nonetheless something very different than conventional cinema. Speaking to the cliffhanger ending of the movie, Dunye added, "the happy ending of the lesbian film is something I don't look forward to."
And true, this film does not include a lesbian couple walking into the desert sunset, but it did leave me with a sense that intergenerational, cross-identity conversations about gender and politics might allow for communal possibilities.