PRINT May 1993


Lawrence Chua

IN A BIENNIAL FINALLY (though sometimes clumsily) attending to cross-cultural inclusiveness, poetry looms truer than history in the handful of films projected on the museum’s postage-stamp screen. If the documentary form claims to show what has happened at a specific moment and site, the best works in this program of films from the last two years entwine home-movie approaches with historical narratives to demonstrate that the most effective stories not only imagine what might have been, but also articulate experience in unspecified times and geographies.

In Nitrate Kisses, Biennial veteran Barbara Hammer conjures history from shadows, layering the voices of lesbians and gay men (as well as gay jazz reissues and out-of-print “ac/dc” blues) into a rhythmic lyric. Hammer collages imagery culled from archival footage and documentaries, as well as footage of queer couplings, including two remarkable older lesbians making love with dental dams and latex gloves. By delving into collective and personal pasts, Nitrate Kisses interrogates how silences are built and exploded. In one sequence, the text of the Hayes Code (the 1930 censorship regulation for Hollywood movies, prohibiting, among other things, depictions of miscegenation) scrolls over a black penis rubbing against a white ass. The text becomes a fence: it can be read through or around, but it obstructs our more urgant voyeurism. Later, Hammer unrolls footage of shadows in the sand, under the boardwalk, with a metal detector slowly emerging from the corner of the screen, prodding for lost treasures.

The emotional narrative of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust unfolds like wrinkles on a beach. At the turn of the century, a Gullah family is moving forward, struggling with the prospect of flight from their Sea Island home to the metropolitan promises of the north. The clan’s matriarch, Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), safeguards traditions and beliefs linked to their African heritage; carrying “scraps of memories” in a rusted tin can, she recollects the family’s story as a spiritual contemplation bringing things back from outside memory. In the end, the family decide that culture and identity are not unchanging coasts, and move farther into the diaspora, though they carry grandmother’s “scraps” with them. The promise and realities of migration are explored more comically in Christine Chang’s incisive Be Good, My Children, which focqses on a Korean-American family, the Lees: devoutly Christian mother, very confused son, daughter dreaming of movie stardom. Hovering over them are two “good fairies,” one luring children with shiny new pennies over the rainbow and into the ghettoes of Koreatown, the other disturbed at the ensuing influx. Both are elusive gatekeepers of “naturalization.”

Compared to some of the splatter and homo-sex epics shown in art-houses last year, the Biennial’s choices seem almost demure. Many of them eschew conventional cinematic forms for a more subjective approach to violence and sexuality. William Jones’ Massillon is that rarity that eluded the “queer new wave” of 1992, a homo road movie in which gay icons are nowhere to be seen. Named after the small town in Ohio where Jones grew up believing he “lived in the center of the world,” Massillon uses the quiet landscapes of the American Midwest to look at a history disfigured by myths of the family, patriotism, and religion. In Finding Christa, Camille Billops and James Hatch tell the story of Billops’ return to find the daughter she had given up for adoption, and look at the fables of maternity. Roddy Bogawa’s Some Divine Wind unfolds (finally) when the Asian-American protagonist discovers that his Caucasian father flew on the bombing mission that wiped out his mother’s family in wartime Japan. In The Hours and Times, director Christopher Munch imagines John Lennon and his manager, Brian Epstein, on a weekend vacation in Barcelona that they actually took in the pause before Beatlemania. Every sentence in this elegant film is pregnant with desire; Lennon’s smarmy ambivalence toward the people around him—Epstein, his wife, a stewardess he meets on the plane—eventually dissolves in a puddle of innuendo and perspiration.

Trinh T. Minh-ha’s characteristically provocative Shoot for the Contents probes power and change in contemporary China. Nothing in this sophisticated film is taken at face value: the film’s tone-setting first image seems to show a peasant singing a folk song until the light shifts to reveal an actor in rustic drag rehearsing his lines. The positions of the film’s subjects are also constantly in flux, as Chinese-American women look in as outsiders on China, an “insider” in the Chinese film industry looks out at American filmmaking, and a Caribbean-accented “China expert” discusses the state’s “progress.” In all these scenarios Trinh calls into question the power of the translator, of both words and images, in re-presenting history.

Jean-Pierre Gorin’s My Crasy Life is a fundamentally ethnographic account of a group of Long Beach-based Samoan gang members, and there is a heady thrill in scenes of fierce Pacific Island homeboys flipping off Margaret Mead. Gorin uses a well-intentioned Hawaiian-born cop as his entrée into the Sons of Samoa Westside 32nd Street posse, and, in an attempt to transcend his own anthropological methodology, he tempers his noble intentions with the cynical pronouncements of the talking computer in the cop’s squad car: at times, the computer seems like it’s addressing Gorin, not the cop. Then, midway through the film, the director tries to turn control of the project over to his subjects. Instead of a portrait commissioned by the gang members, though, the work comes off more like Gorin trying to wash his hands and emerge as a benevolent apostle.

With few but pungent exceptions, the Biennial’s film program affirms that artists can represent states long absent from the institution’s programming with verse that doesn’t boil down to mere correctness. Whatever the motivations for the presence of so much work authored by queers and people of color, for one of the first times in recent memory the film galleries at the Whitney are flickering with intersecting subjectivities, colliding stories, and sexy complications.

Lawrence Chua