Saturday, October 10, 2009

Film Shorts Review: Here Come the Girls

Multiple directors

Cast: Nathalie Toriel, Yolonda Ross, Lucy Liemann

Peccadillo Pictures DVD

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer


Film festival shorts programmes can be melancholy affairs: not because of the films per se, but the feeling that these slices-of-life or fragments of wild imaginations may be seen here and never again. More often than not, shorts don’t act as calling cards for the big-ticket feature, and the director of that film you loved is never heard from again. It’s like a brief pick-up, a smile and dance in a bar or a single fuck at the baths: you’re haunted by the question, could they have been the one?

All of shorts on Here Come the Girls have played their parts in film festival programmes, both queer and general, many of them winning awards as well as the prized Official Selection tag, so the DVD is like a festival of festivals curated across the last ten years of lesbian cinema – which is looking pretty healthy. There’s a diversity of content, narrative styles, performers and tones across the collection, from Suzanne Guacci’s sweet two-hander of domestic metaphors A Soft Place to Roberta Munroe’s Dani and Alice, a hard-hitting short about partner violence between two African-American lesbians that pays stylish tribute to 1980s issues-led TV movies while subverting their conventionally tragic endings (which contrasts again with Monroe’s very different, Whit Stillman-meets-The L Word/lesbian Woody Allen witty short Happy Birthday).
And there’s a diverse group of artists being recognised: several of the directors are either accomplished feature filmmakers – all hail Guin Turner! and friend-of-Chroma Inge ‘Campbell’ Blackman, recently feted at NY’s Queer Black Cinema festival – or went on to make features, like Laurie Colbert and Dominique Cardona (Finn’s Girl). Munroe made her films with the prestigious Fox Searchlight Directors Program (after several years as a Sundance programmer) and Cassandra Nicolaou, whose first feature Show Me starred Ginger Snaps cutie Katherine Isabelle, is a graduate of the Canadian Film Centre’s Resident Programme. While fellow Canadians Colbert and Cardona tell the tale of two school-age best friends experimenting with desire and identity (if you like boxing, you’ll love this short), Nicolaou tells a story of older lesbians, a lifelong couple facing up to dementia and terminal illness, in what could be called a lesbian Away from Her.

But it’s the emerging directors whose films charmed me the most, maybe because they came of age, as artists, in an era when they have models like Blackman, Munroe and Turner to look up to – and to challenge. Angela Cheng’s Wicked Desire is American indie at its best: the warmly quirky observation of Me, You and Everyone We Know, the blue-collar grittiness of Boys Don’t Cry and the almost poetic strangeness of Wild Tigers I Have Known. I hope Cheng gets funding for her feature soon, because Wicked Desire is bursting at the seams with great ideas, as it follows a young girl reading dimestore romance novels, flirting with the Thai boy next door, and discovering that her sister Jessica is enrolled as a boy at school.
Abbé Robinson’s Private Life also blurs the boundaries between lesbian, trans- and straight identities and desires, offering the challenge of ‘fluidity’ to lesbian cinema – all in 1952 Yorkshire. Drawing on the same historical taproots as Sarah Waters blockbusting novels, Robinson uncovers and tells a slender tale of female-female desire between the mill boss’s daughter and a young female mill hand who meet cute at a backstreet jazz bar in Leeds. Class, race, and gender really are meshed in this touching tale, which combines the sexy camp of La Cage aux Folles (as Ruth swaps her evening gown for pal Louis’ sharp suit so he can attend a boys’ night as Lauren Bacall) and the English romanticism of Brief Encounter: Never has Leeds railway station looked more dreamy.

So far, so narrative and character-driven. The two superstars, Turner and Blackman, offer more conceptual and experimental delights. Turner’s Late is a surprisingly complex and bittersweet film based on a simple conceit: the viewer listens to a series of answerphone messages left for Maggie as the camera pans around her apartment. It’s a neat solution to the thrills of the thriller and Maggie’s apartment is given incredible texture and vividness by the production designers. Texture, colour and style are entwined with the substance of Blackman’s Fem as well, a catalogue film unlike any I’ve seen before, a pin-up calendar of almost overwhelming femme variety. Beginning with Eve in the garden, the film reclaims lushness and excess, the camera lovingly recording every curve that each performer gladly exhibits. It’s a mutual seduction poetically voiced by Split Britches’ Peggy Shaw, and is definitely the short to show your next hot date. At one point Shaw praises the gorgeous femmes for “inventing new rules from old games.” Each filmmaker here takes up that challenge differently, but few are as successful as Blackman at inviting the viewer to play.


Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at http://www.sophiemayer.net/

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