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Past Article

"The last refuge of democracy": a talk with B. Ruby Rich
By Jennie Rose
May 7, 2004 - 1:29 PM PDT

"It's a phenomenon of capitalism that only men can make movies."

You describe cinema being used as a Trojan horse. We do see a lot of this. In the McCarthy era, for instance, a lot of subject matter got past the Hays Code in disguise.

Yes, you even have Douglas Sirk couching social critique and social commentary in these very loveable genres.

You say no film festival is truly non-political. Cannes, Venice, Berlin, all occurred in hugely political climates. Did you have expectations that film festivals this year will have an overt political context?

The huge controversy on the jury of the Sydney Film Festival recently was over the Australian government censoring a movie called Ken Park. It's not very good. If The Graduate had been soft core from this era, it might have looked like this. But you can't pick your censorship battles. It's often for films that aren't very good. It's a drag that that's what you have to defend these on. The festival wasn't allowed to show it. The critics defended it. They protested the banning. That was the controversy.

I think that the place of politics has been so vacated in the public discourse that this instead tends to settle around issues of sexuality, lifestyle, same sex marriage, pornography, decency, things like this - instead of on political issues that should be talked about. We're losing the whole frame of mind to even talk about it.

Still, I thought it was great that the critics were prepared to go to the barricades for the movie and didn't feel they were violating their trust as critics. In the US, though, a lot of critics feel they're just supposed to be reviewing movies. I once had a critic say that to me: "You're not really a critic. I'm a critic. I just want to talk about whether a film was good or not and whether people should see it or not. You want to take on these issues and champion things." That's seeped into people's ideas.

I think there's a lockstep mentality that's triumphed in terms of the American discourse. I was involved in a murder trial in the early Reagan days because a good friend of mine was murdered by her husband, an artist who claimed she committed suicide. It divided the New York art world at that time, especially in terms of the feminist art world and the Latino art world - she was Cuban - and the mainstream art world.

I was arguing with everybody about it at the time. I was writing about it a lot. People told me, "You can't say that he's guilty. You have to assume he's innocent until proven guilty." I said, "No, that's the law. In court they do that. In public opinion that's not true at all." It's a complete misapplication of a principle. But that idea has reinforced people's timidity and put an ideology onto that timidity. Now there's a justification for not speaking out. In fact, you are not justified in speaking out. It's a disempowerment.

I was impressed at how France handled questions regarding The Passion of Christ. Marin Karmitz, a French producer who also owns an art house theater chain called MK2, made a statement that he will not show The Passion of Christ in any of his movie theaters because, as far as he was concerned, it was propaganda for fascism and he had spent his entire life fighting fascism. Now you can say this in France, where a war was fought over fascism, which meant Nazism. You can't say it here, where you're suddenly being unbalanced or unfair or not neutral. There's no vocabulary for political debate unless it's an electoral debate, which increasingly means a debate from the center to the right.

You're commenting lately quite a bit about Uma Thurman's role in Kill Bill. Why is this interesting to you?

I think the film is really interesting for many reasons. Thurman is offered up not so much as a messianic figure, because she doesn't preach. She kills everyone she encounters. She's more in the tradition of the crusaders. One part Joan of Arc, one part I Spit on Your Grave. I'm working on a thing for Sight and Sound, so I've been thinking about it a lot. I have a few ideas.

I'm ambivalent about Tarantino. Some of his films I'm put off by, and some of them I'm amused by. He lives, breathes, dreams, jerks off to movies. But they're not the ones I care about necessarily. It's really a boy, boy, boy, boy universe. But in this film, Tarantino's playing with something more interesting. Whether it's his intention or what I'm bringing to it, I'm not sure. But in a strange sort of way, I think he's made a very old-fashioned movie. It's a movie about the body. At a moment when people are making movies that aren't about humans, or use special effects, or are completely dependent on hobbits, elves, little nemos, monsters (Inc.), there's something oddly touching about a movie about the mortality of the human body.

What's queer cinema up to now?

It's over. What's it up to now? It's a niche market. It's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. It's the worst nightmare of every gay activist from the 1970s and 1980s who said, "If you don't watch out, you're going to end up with 'lifestyle, lifestyle lifestyle'." I don't think I'm getting my politics from The L Word. There's nothing formality-breaking going on there.

That is what was so striking about the 1990s when I came up with this term "Queer Cinema." It was a meeting of political engagement and aesthetic invention that led to an exciting movement. We had movies like Go Fish, Poison, Swoon, Edward II, Young Soul Rebels. I don't think it was only the films of the time. It was also the constituting of a queer community through the film festivals they started.

That's where I see the utopian film festival model. They took films without any access to the marketplace and created a marketplace for them. They also, in a way that few festivals did or do, didn't set up hierarchies between what was made in 35mm and what was shot in Hi-8. They took the class out of the production medium, and they took the class out of length. They weren't size queens. You didn't have to be a feature. In fact, they did the most inventive programming of shorts that would pack houses. They did the most inventive curating of the past. People were constantly rummaging through archives and coming up with discoveries. Year after year after year, it was an exciting place to be.

Here in San Francisco, above all. The 1990s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival at the Castro every June. I call it the Gay Cannes. These films would premier; people would line up around the block, cruise the line and meet their next lover. It was a scene. To stand on the stage of the Castro for a sold-out show of 1500 people, screaming over, say, this little Canadian documentary called Forbidden Love about the history of lesbians in Canada. It was an experience they couldn't have had anywhere else and at any other time. It became a movement that traveled around the world. This film I saw this year that I liked a lot, A Thousand Clouds of Peace, came out of Mexico. People began making work in video because, suddenly, there were 80 festivals they could show it at. Film festivals and democracy opened up a discourse.

Some say that Boys Don't Cry is the lesbian story that the Academy tokenized. What do you think?

At the time, I summed up my feelings by saying, "The bad news is Hilary Swank was acting. The good news is she was acting." It's hard to talk about that film and its exceedingly downbeat ending as a problematic fiction the week that the Gwen Araujo trial was going on. The transgender narrative is still a tragic narrative. It is, in terms of the real world experiences people have, but it's also the preferred mode. Paris is Burning, for example, is interesting because of the way in which the documentary film didn't know how to deal with the fact that one of the main people was murdered halfway through the film. It became an inconvenient moment in the film, and nothing more. The murder was not the climax.

There's a long tradition of the tragic transgender narrative. Another example goes back to Fassbinder's In a Year of 13 Moons, which ends with a suicide. Often when you find a transgender film that is not tragic, like Different for Girls, which has a happy ending, nobody talks about it. Nobody goes to see it.

On the other hand, the desire for the happy ending is a stage people go through. For gay and lesbian filmmakers, it was a stage they went through. It turned out that the most radical movie you could make was one that didn't have a happy ending. High Art became one of my favorite lesbian movies ever, in part because it has a tragic ending. But Boys Don't Cry didn't establish a benchmark after which everything got better. It was almost as if that was the top of the mountain and everything rolled down.

Rose Troche said, "Everyone knows I'm a lesbian. There's a way in which I'm not commodified in the male world. I think, in some ways, this gives me freedom to do my work." Do you relate to that statement?

That was also true about Go Fish, her movie. Establishing that right up front frees you from the coming-out narrative. The sentence starts after that, and then you can move on to whatever comes next. For many people you can never get past that.

It's hard to know, given the gender dynamics of the movie business and film festival world, whether being a lesbian means you're less than a woman or more than a woman. You're certainly less than a straight man or a gay man. [laughs] It's more for me a question of how the films I care about get received. It's an issue in some places. If you travel internationally, it can become an issue.

I think more to the point is the fact that that's the body I inhabit. Therefore, there are certain films I'm not going to sign on to, and that's just too bad. This will happen to me often at festivals: "I heard that you didn't like that film. How can you not like that film?" I will often say, "Sorry, I guess I was just sitting in the wrong body for that one." There are a lot of boy movies I can't relate to, I won't enjoy, I don't care about. Then there are others I might find fascinating.

Our own power to imagine ourselves in different experiences, cultures, genders, different ages, bodies is underestimated. It's something we all learned early on in life from reading books, watching TV, from going to movies. There are other subject positions I can never give up, no matter what I do. I can't sit through stalker movies. I know other women who can. So I know it's not only gender. But the kind of woman I am, I can't, and I've moved way past a place of apology for it.

On the other hand, I don't think it's that different from the male critics who stormed out of the Cannes premier of Cronenberg's Crash. They screamed, yelled, booed, hated it. My astute analysis is that it forced them to take a subject position of being fucked in the ass. And this was intolerable to them. I don't behave any differently than they do; I'm just more honest about it. I don't claim it's a bad film or technically lacking. I'm willing to acknowledge my own subject position. Most critics are not. They think it's a fact.

We often hear the stat that 12 percent of the members of the Directors Guild of America are women. I'm sure that stat will be the same in 2005 as it is in 2004. Do you ever tire of talking about women's films vis-a-vis this marginalized stature?

UCSD releases those statistics every year. It's even worse now than 12 percent. The number of films directed by women both in Hollywood and indie film is six percent - less than the number of women in Congress. I am tired of it. I think it shows the failure of affirmative action when it came to the movie industry, but I think the reason is that movies aren't really an industry. It's a medieval guild. Passed on from fathers to sons. There is almost nobody who can go into filmmaking as a woman, no matter how wildly talented, and find that it's a meritocracy. It's not.

But it's not universally true, and that's what fascinates me so much. Because if you look, for example, at France, not a country notorious for its successful women's movement, you'll find more women filmmakers with larger bodies of work than I suspect you'll find anywhere else. There's Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Agnes Varda. I could name many, many French women film directors and run out of breath before I finished.

The reason is that their careers are not dependent on box office. The French government has a commitment to cinema as part of the French cultural heritage. There are incentives, subsidies, prizes, distribution, an audience. It all has to do with the national heritage of the French language. Similarly in the former Soviet Union. Because of the ideological commitment to cinema, women in Russia, Hungary Poland, what was then Czechoslovakia, all had enormously successful careers - more successful than any women in the US.

It boils down to a cultural imperative that can rival the dependence on box office dollars as a measuring stick. Once you have that, women can make films as much as men can. It's a phenomenon of capitalism that only men can make movies. Capitalism run amok; Capitalism on steroids.

back to past articles >>>

"If more people met in the lobby, maybe life would be better."
"It's a phenomenon of capitalism that only men can make movies."

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Jennie Rose
A San Francisco-based freelance writer, Jennie Rose is also a mom to one two-year-old rascal. In the last ten+ years, she has made a career out of having opinions. She often posts reviews at Blogcritics, a sinister cabal of bloggers.

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