“TOO MANY QUEERS, too many screenings, too little time,” joked a Dirty Looks audience member last week. This month, to celebrate its biannual On Location series, there’s a screening every day (thirty-one in all), as the itinerant initiative shows rarely seen queer moving-image work in some of New York’s gay-cruising/art-viewing landmarks. Creative director Bradford Nordeen’s Dirty Looks provides a platform for more than innuendo; over the past five years the organization has proved one of the best forums for experimental queer cinema in New York City and beyond.
“The films are fantastic, but it’s really their pairing with screening locations that makes Dirty Looks what it is,” said artist and longtime New York resident Adrian Saich. “Most of these places have emotional importance for us.” On Location’s itinerary is a veritable scavenger hunt through New York’s queer scenes, dropping in on historic haunts such as the Stonewall Inn and Julius in the West Village and engaging new hotspots like the Spectrum and Secret Project Robot in Brooklyn.
Four recent screenings provided a perspective into Dirty Looks’ wide-ranging demographics. July 5 brought us to the Rusty Knot for Neil Goldberg’s She’s a Talker, curated by Theodore Kerr and Carl Williamson. The scene was Scissor Sundays, a weekly party thrown by musician/provocateur JD Samson and Amber Valentine replete with coconut cocktails, nautical interiors, and sunset views of the Hudson River. “It looks like Fire Island in here,” said Vice photo editor Matthew Leifheit as he gazed at the crowd of tank-topped twinks in boat shoes.
Goldberg’s two-minute video is a supercut montage of eighty gay men petting their cats while musing, “She’s a talker.” Created in 1993—well before the Internet’s obsession with cat memes—the work evinces the losses ravaged during the height of the AIDS crisis. The refrain speaks to the time’s fraught emotional intimacy—many of the felines are stand-in companions for the lonesome sitters’ former partners.
The Rusty Knot’s location in the once gay epicenter of the West Village made the AIDS context all the more palpable. The decision to stage the “intervention” during Scissor Sundays meant that less than half the bar was there for the screening. Without an informative introduction, drunken revelers laughed their way through (and at) the cat-friendly video, and the emotional poignancy felt mostly lost.
The charged dynamic between crowd and context continued uptown at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem during the following night’s screening: “Misadventures in Black Dyke Dating in the 1990s,” a compelling program of shorts by queer black filmmakers Cheryl Dunye, Jocelyn Taylor, Dawn Suggs, and Shari Frilot. More than one hundred viewers, including poet Pamela Sneed and filmmaker Barbara Hammer, filled the theater to well over capacity, requiring the organizers to open a downstairs auxiliary space for a simulcast. Program curator Vivian Crockett bravely began the evening by encouraging those in the air-conditioned upstairs theater to trade seats with any of the queer, black women who remained downstairs. More than half of the attendees scuttled downstairs, their privileged identity positions in tow.
The program’s “misadventures” moniker rang true, as the many Mses in the shorts navigated everything from interracial affairs to familial misunderstandings. Cheers were loudest when credits to Dawn Suggs’s I Never Danced the Way Girls Were Supposed To read, “This film is dedicated to black lesbians everywhere,” and the hour-long postscreening discussion included some uncomfortable yet productive discussions and testimonies around identity politics, safe spaces, and the woes of falling “victim to lesbian serial monogamy.”
Dirty Looks’ July 8 event assembled an equally populous yet entirely different demographic, as bearded gay men packed the dimly lit Eagle in Chelsea for a projection of Wakefield Poole’s 1972 gay porn Bijou. Artist Rebecca Levi, one of the few women in attendance, noted that Dirty Looks screenings are often chock-full of cuties but also suffused with body odor. Yet the fervent armpit licking occurring in the Eagle’s back corner demonstrated that not everyone was discouraged by the summer sweat.
The titular Bijou in the East Village was for decades a popular underground cinema for gay cruising. Filmmaker Jim Hubbard recounted the “sexual nooks and crannies” of the now defunct theater, smiling as he noted that one could even have sex behind the video projection screen.
Poole’s porn is a hallucinogenic maze of sexual escapades set to a melodramatic sound track. Violin crescendos accompany Technicolor six-somes, and the length of the protagonist’s appendage was the talk of the night. Watching gay porn in a room full of art fags felt, unsurprisingly, pretentious and unsexy, exemplified when one viewer shushed the audience when others’ flirting impeded his viewing experience. In stark contrast to habitués of the original Bijou, this group was focused on watching those on screen get off as opposed to using the darkened screening context as an opportunity to play themselves. Music from the Eagle’s “Jockstrap Wednesday” party blasted over the final minutes of Bijou, and the evening eventually continued upstairs with far less clothing and far more action.
Thursday’s screening at Brooklyn’s Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art, curated by Carmel Curtis, featured politically minded archival footage of drag queen Joan Jett Blakk’s announcement of her presidential campaign in 1992 paired with trans activist Sylvia Rivera documenting her gay homeless camp in the West Village in 1995. Blakk ran for the “orifice of the President of the United States” under the slogan “Lick Bush in ’92.” Citing Ronald Reagan, Blakk asks (quite reasonably): “If a bad actor can be elected president, why not a good drag queen?” Between gags, the tongue-in-cheek speech calls out the underrepresentation of queers in politics. The proceeding footage of riveting trans lightning rod Sylvia Rivera provided a fitting counterpoint, with Rivera lambasting mainstream norms as well as the larger gay community for turning a blind eye to the homeless queers occupying the shantytown where she lived. An engaging discussion led by the media-preservation collective XFR on the impartiality of archives followed the screening. The audience sported activist couture like a pink PRISON ABOLITION snapback and an ACT UP “The Government Has Blood on Its Hands” shirt. In our gay-marriage era, it’s reassuring to know spaces like those fostered by Dirty Looks can be a forum for queerer politics to make a comeback.