Introduction: A Short, Personal History of Lesbian and Gay Experimental Cinema

Jim Hubbard

Printed in MFJ No. 41 (Fall 2003) Lesbian and Gay Experimental Cinema/Stan Brakhage Remembrances



In 1974, when I was first deciding that I actually could become a filmmaker, experimental filmmakers provided the only role models available for being an openly gay filmmaker. In fact, it seemed that gay filmmakers formed the very foundation of experimental filmmaking, at least in the United States.

Trying to re-imagine the mid- to late-1970s landscape of lesbian/gay experimental film as seen by a student at the San Francisco Art Institute seems like an archeological dig through my sand-covered memory. To my mind, the most prominent gay filmmaker at the time was Kenneth Anger. Fireworks (1947) captured the thrill, the danger, the glory of coming out so perfectly and joyously that it renders all subsequent coming out films unnecessary. Scorpio Rising (1963) defined a hot, rough-and tumble homosexuality and, through its use of rock and roll songs, insisted on its very centrality to American popular culture. Although one can argue that all Anger’s films come out of a gay sensibility, Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) is the only other of his films that could be called homoerotic. James Broughton’s work, which since the 40s, had contained elements of homoeroticism and homosensibility in spite of his frequent bouts of heterosexuality, burst into full gay bloom in his personal and filmic collaboration with Joel Singer. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat in nearly orgasmic anticipation as the vibrating double images of Broughton were “coming/wholy together/totally together/in toto together.” In one of the great ironies, perhaps the most forthright depiction of gay sex was the eyepopping, mind-blowing, double-projection Christmas on Earth (1963), made by Barbara Rubin, a 16-year-old who later embraced Orthodox Judaism, had 7 children and died in childbirth.

In addition there were a number of older films, made by gay and straight and people of undetermined sexuality that had a great impact on the landscape: the film known formally as Dickson Experimental Sound Film (the lovely film of two men waltzing made by W.K.L. Dickson for the Edison Co. around 1895), Watson and Webber’s Lot in Sodom ( 1933), Willard Maas’s coy and breathtaking Geography of the Body (1943), rumors of Alla Nazimova’s Salome (1923), Shirley Clarke’s tortured Portrait of Jason (1967) and Jean Genet’s extraordinary depiction of imprisoned love and desire Un Chant D’Amour ( 1950).

It is crucial not to forget that although there was a strong sense in the late 70s that gay film was everywhere important, much of it was impossible to see. Most of Warhol’s films had been withdrawn from circulation. The only way to see Warhol was when Ondine showed his personal copies of The Chelsea Girls (1966), The Loves of Ondine (1968) and Vinyl ( 1965). Those screenings were wondrous affairs because Ondine was the very embodiment of the perfect homosexual: witty, trenchant, sarcastic, unstoppably honest, uncontrollably sexual and potentially dangerous. The Paul Morrissey/Andy Warhol films were around, but they, while campy, were more critique of heterosexuality than overtly gay and, really, quite pallid in comparison to real Warhol films. The felt absence was the chance to see Blow Job (1963) or My Hustler (1965). Further, Gregory Markopolous and Robert Beavers had decamped to Europe. Their work was impossible to see. Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) may still have been in circulation, but his films became increasingly difficult, then impossible to see until their rather recent preservation and re-release.

In addition to this, back in Pittsburgh, Roger Jacoby was making his glorious, hand-processed films with Ondine, including L’Amico Fried’s Glamorous Friends (1976), Dream Sphinx Opera (1974) and the incomparable Kunst Life (1975) (in which Ondine, as the Knight, prone and unable to stand plaintively cries to his squire, “Martin, Martin, why won’t you make love to me? Is it the armor?”). George and Mike Kuchar separately and together were churning out their camp classics. (It was only much later that I saw Mike’s remarkable politically sharp-edged short film Chronicles (1969) which juxtaposes gay sex, Vietnam war footage and the devastation of the south Bronx shoreline). Tom Chomont was making his dazzling, ethereal films like Oblivion (1969), Phases of the Moon (1968) and The Heavens (1977) and Earth (1978). At the San Francisco Art Institute, Rosa von Praunheim had sex with a guy while his class filmed it for Army of Lovers (1979) and showed his indispensable—and echt deutschNot the Homosexual is Perverse, But the Situation in which he Lives (1971). All this was done in an atmosphere of sexual liberation and experimentation that was epitomized by the San Francisco gender-exploding performance group the Cockettes. In Tricia’s Wedding (1971), Sebastian’s film of them, a drag Eartha Kitt laces the punch with LSD and suddenly Tricia Nixon’s wedding becomes what it really ought to have been.

There were, of course, a small number of people working in longer form. John Waters’ films were special midnight treats at the Roxy. Peter Adair’s monumental Word is Out ( 1978) changed our perceptions of ourselves as much as our view of documentary. While cruising a porno theater, I found myself riveted by Artie Bressan’s Passing Strangers (1974) and Forbidden Letters (1976). He also made Gay USA (1978), the seminal and rarely shown documentary on Gay Pride marches, and later, Buddies (1985) (the first AIDS narrative) and Abuse ( 1982). Chantal Akerman (whether or not she was out to her mother, whether or not she dealt directly with lesbian issues) riveted our attention with Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974) and Jeanne Dielman ( 1975). Still for me, experimental film remained the best way to express my thoughts, feelings, and vision.

Now the other important thing to recognize about the earlier “gay” experimental films was that although they were immediately recognizable as having a “gay sensibility”—certainly they contained a lot of male nudity, drag and assumed a male “gayze”—they actually had very little homosexuality. It wasn’t until the next generation, working at just this time, that male-onmale and female-on-female sex exploded onto the screen. It was in Curt McDowell’s Loads (1980), Michael Wallin’s The Place Between Our Bodies (1975) and Barbara Hammer’s Multiple Orgasms (1975) and Dyketactics (1973) that homosexual sex was actually unabashedly placed on the screen. Now this was also a time of the ascendance of structuralist filmmaking, certainly not a hotbed of homosexuality, although much of its strategy derived from Warhol’s filmmaking practice. Structuralism, at least to me, seemed almost a reaction to the gay dominated cinema. And yet, it would be interesting to explore the admixture of structuralism and overt sexuality in the work of makers who came of age at this time, such as Curt McDowell, Michael Wallin, Joel Singer, Jerry Tartaglia, Su Friedrich and Barbara Hammer, who are not usually seen as structuralist, along with the more evident influence of structuralism on the work of Nathaniel Dorsky, Warren Sonbert and Abigail Child.


By 1987, when Sarah Schulman and I founded the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival (now known as MIX), the landscape had been blasted by AIDS. Roger Jacoby and Curt McDowell were dead. Jack Smith died the day before the 3rd Festival opened. Hundreds of our friends, lovers and audience members were dead. The film scene was moribund as well. While numerous filmmakers still toiled away in isolation, there was no sense of community.

Happily, the late 1980s and early 1990s brought a revitalization of lesbian and gay experimental film. Jerry Tartaglia, who had largely abandoned film, made his startlingly powerful AIDS trilogy (A.I.D.S.C.R.E.A.M. [1988], Ecce Homo [1989] and Final Solutions [1990]). Michael Wallin created the tautly constructed and resonant Decodings (1988) and Black Sheep Boy ( 1995). Jack Waters and Peter Cramer continually re-imagined and presented their extraordinary gesamtkunstwerk, The Ring, OUR Way (1987-1992), a Super-8, 16 mm, projected video, live performance version of Wagner’s Ring seen through the prism of American racial politics. The remarkably prolific and hardworking Barbara Hammer made the evocative Optic Nerve (1985) and Endangered (1988) before turning her attention to feature-length experimental documentaries. Su Friedrich continued to delight and challenge audiences with her complex and beautiful black and white explorations of sex, politics and culture. Lawrence Brose’s work became more complex and beautiful and, god help us, even more experimental, as he successfully combined an intense chemical attack on the image with ever-more intricate use of the optical printer. After two decades of creating lyrical, otherworldly enchantments, Tom Chomont began to explore the intensities of S&M and found a way to transfer his highly filmic visual style to video. Marguerite Paris, who filmed the first three Gay Pride Marches in Regular 8, continued to make meditative, tough and uncompromisingly lesbian films like Burma Road (1979), Haitian Initiation (1989) and October 1967 Pentagon Peace March (1991). Among the newcomers, Anie Stanley’s personal and mysterious Super-8 handiwork stands out.

The most immediate, powerful and innovative work that dealt directly with AIDS was made on video. Because most of it was documentary and conformed to the half-hour time slots of cable access television, it is generally not considered experimental. However, many of the practitioners were knowledgeable students of the history of media and the work is clearly influenced by Dziga Vertov, the New American Cinema, the portapak tapes made by such groups as TVTV and Videofreex, feminist documentaries of the sixties and seventies and the political filmmaking collective Newsreel. Further, out of a sense of urgency and necessity, AIDS activist videos pushed and pulled the documentary form to places it had never been before and that is the very essence of experimental media. (For a more complete discussion of AIDS videos, please see the essay I wrote to accompany the series Fever in the Archive: AIDS Activist Videos from the Royal S. Marks Collection, presented at the Guggenheim Museum December 1-8, 2000 hubbard.html).

Among the most important works about AIDS that appeared on film were Carl Georg e ’s tender and seminal Super- 8 film DHPG, Mon Amour (1989) which influenced filmmakers, while giving hope and encouragement to people with AIDS and Lawrence Brose’s haunting remembrance of his lover, An Individual Desires Solution (1985). Some of the more personal and experimental AIDS pieces included Phil Zwickler and David Wojnarowicz’s justifiably bitter Fear of Disclosure ( 1989), Gregg Bordowitz’s unsentimental and revelatory Fast Trip, Long Drop (1993), Marlon Riggs’ incomparable and magnificent Tongues Untied (1989). Stephen Winter’s Chocolate Babies (1996) set radical AIDS politics, gender identity, love and the closet on a collision course. The indefatigable James Wentzy made 150 half-hour cable television shows almost single-handedly plus a number of shorter, experimental pieces.

Since the beginnings of the Festival, but especially since 1993, lesbian and gay experimental media have changed in some fundamental ways. The two most important aspects are the proliferation of video and the veritable explosion of makers of color. There are those purists who would argue that video has a diff e rent history and provenance and therefore video art should not be included in the same category of experimental film. In the past, I, in fact, have argued such.

For the first 4 years, we did not include video in the Festival, primarily because I, as a filmmaker, did not understand the technical requirements of showing video. Furthermore, I felt that experimental film was more in danger, that video had the support of the academy and the gallery system to sustain it, and finally, because we felt that once we let it in video would overwhelm film. The first was a piss poor excuse; the second continues to be true. The third turn out to be the case, but how long can you hold back the tide of history? Today there doesn’t seem to be much reason to maintain the distinction when makers shoot in film and video, edit on laptop computers and output to tape, show on the internet and transfer back to film. The artificial distinction also had the unintended and unexamined result of excluding most of the makers of color, who largely worked in video and, ironically, excluding much of the work of AIDS activist videomakers.

The large numbers of makers of color have brought a renewed vitality to the experimental scene. The first film we showed at the Festival was the theoretical, multifaceted neo- Brechtian experimental narrative Passion of Remembrance (1986) by the British collective Sankofa, whose most famous member was Isaac Julien. By 1992, Cheryl Dunye, Dawn Suggs and Shari Frilot were making exciting groundbreaking work. Nguyen Tan Hoang made playful, exuberant and smart films such as maybe never (but I’m counting the days) (1995) and Forever Bottom (1999). Stuart Gaffney’s quiet, insightful work surreptitiously seeped into our consciousness. Raul Ferrara- Balanquet explored the confluence and conflicts of race, Latino identity and African heritage, while Thomas Allen Harris used his own family to explore the complexities of politics, religion and race. The various manifestations of identity, which seem so singular and fixed in mainstream culture, get a thorough working over in experimental media. Jocelyn Taylor’s examination of the female body and Lynne Chan’s exploration of popular culture and gender identity resonated with Ximena Cuevas wacky collages of Mexican culture, Ho Tam’s elegant constructions of transnational Chinese (male) identity and Charles Lofton’s thoughtful, sexy examinations of Black (gay) male identity.

Everyone agrees that New Media is the future, though no one knows where it is heading, what it will be or when it will fulfill its promises. Lesbians and gay men have begun to explore media where gender, identity, sex, race and everything else are infinitely malleable and unfixed. Leah Gilliam’s thoughtful examinations of race and film morphed into elegant installations. Virgil Wong, an artist who actually paints on canvas as well as making Internet art, curated remarkable shows of New Media art at his PaperVeins Biennials. Shu Lea Cheang has made mad, wonderful films, incredible installations and now lives and works completely in cyberspace.

Sarah Schulman and I wrote in the Directors’ Statement for the first festival something that I still accept as true. We created the festival because we believed “that lesbian and gay men can have an especially rich relationship to experimental film. Both avant-garde film and gay consciousness must be resolutely created in a world that insists on a homogenous sexuality and a narrowly defined aesthetic through a stiflingly limited media. The experimental process mirrors, in many ways, the process of understanding a gay identity, both demand an endless re-imagining of the self and the world in order to envision and create what the mainstream believes should not and must not exist.”

Even in a world, where gay assimilationism prevails and people can’t understand the difference between arrogating experimental techniques for commercials and music videos and the true and difficult practice of experimental film, I would argue for the continuing necessity of both a gay/lesbian identity and experimental film. Since the advent of this fake war on terrorism, the US government has sought to establish even narrower parameters for thought and behavior. There is no choice but continued resistance.


Lesbian/Gay/Transgender/Queer experimental cinema has exploded to such proportions and complexity that it would be impossible to contain in one small issue of this journal. Therefore, this issue of the Millennium Film Journal attempts only to limn the boundaries, to sketch the landscape of this abundance. Twenty-five years ago in these pages, Jerry Tartaglia began the ongoing attempt to define and analyze this cinematic expanse in “The Gay Sensibility in American Avant-Garde Film” (MFJ, Nos. 4/5, Summer/ Fall 1979). In “Notes from the Homo, Underground,” he insists that first we must understand the difference between kitsch reaching for “the lowest level of market appeal” and a “genuine inventive” cinema before we begin to define true queer cinema.

Ernest Hardy’s passionate and strongly reasoned “Young Soul Rebels: Negro/Queer Experimental Filmmakers” examines some of the most important work by Black Lesbian and Gay Experimental makers. While acknowledging the desire of marginalized people to “see themselves slotted smoothly into the genre outlines and movie formulas,” he makes unambiguously clear the necessity of making work that utterly rejects that longing for the mainstream.

Eve Oishi examines the bending and twisting complexities of Asian-American Lesbian and Gay identities and their relationship to popular culture and images of sexuality in “Bad Asians, The Sequel: Continuing Trends in Queer API film and Video.”

Sarah Schulman and I have been the best of friends and have worked together for nearly twenty years. We co-founded the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival (MIX) and are now working on the ACT UP Oral History Project (www. actuporalhistory. org). Fifteen years ago, when I first showed the very heterosexual Maya Deren in a lesbian context, I did so hesitantly, only arguing that the dilemmas of her filmic persona would be resolved by lesbianism. I am now glad to have a much more subtle argument for Deren’s crucial influence from Sarah’s article, “A Thought about Leni Riefenstahl, Maya Deren, and Gay and Lesbian Film.”

AIDS has been the central calamity of Gay male life for 20 years now. Roger Hallas eloquently depicts some of the most stirring and intricate work about AIDS in “The Resistant Corpse: Queer Experimental Film and Video and the AIDS Pandemic.”

Who sees this work? and Where is it shown? are two central questions that have always haunted the experimental scene. Scott Berry provides some contemporary answers in “Size Matters: Microcinemas and Alternative Exhibition Spaces.”

Since it is still technologically impossible to include films or videos in this journal, it was important for me to offer some new visual representation of the work that inspired this issue. All of the artist’s pages were created specifically for these pages and are, in a sense, still movies. I want to offer my profound appreciation to all the artists who created pages: Tom Chomont, ecilia Dougherty, Lawrence Brose, Peter Cramer & Jack Waters, Thomas Allen Harris, Patty Chang, Ho Tam, Su Friedrich, Barbara Hammer, James Wentzy, Christopher Chong, Fabiola Torres & Ximena Cuevas, and Del LaGrace Volcano.

My sincerest thanks to all the writers and artists who selflessly and without remuneration created all the wonderful new work for this issue.