Go girl

The 1980s gave us some magnificent lesbian films. Why can't we get back to those 'lezbionic' days?

If nothing else, the tribute to lesbian cinema unspooling at London's National Film Theatre in June is a crash course on a category in crisis. The "lesbian" brand is in trouble; in dire need of a remix if it's to retain any space on the racks of culture. While actual lesbians continue to prowl the earth, the cultural, cinematic, and lifestyle acreage that could remotely be called "lesbian" has shrunk precipitously. It's time to return to the base, retrofit the foundation (as we say here in San Francisco earthquake country), and begin to imagine what a fresh, contemporary and dynamic "lesbian" identity might resemble, at least on screen.

Any rethinking would do well to take the past into consideration. Thankfully, the film season's title, She Must Be Seeing Things, signals the inclusion of crucial films dating back to a moment when the image of the lesbian had been sprung free of the ideological constraints of 70s lesbian-feminism to flex her muscles and even enjoy an oh-so-brief flirtation with the celebrity of "lesbian chic". Soon, alas, she would disappear into the seductive folds of "queer" identity, smothered under the pillow of male, bisexual, pansexual, and transsexual hipness. And there it's mouldered, further and further from the "lezbionic," to borrow an old friend's colloquialism from the 1980s that I've held on to for both utility and sentimentality. The "lezbionic" nation was gutsy and funny and full of life; sexy and daring and full of risks.

What would a lezbionic cinema look like? For starters, check out a pair of mid-1980s landmarks, both New York City downtown visions: Sheila McLaughlin's She Must Be Seeing Things that provides the NFT's moniker, and its spunky predecessor Born in Flames by Lizzie Borden. Both films imagine worlds in which lesbians have agency and exercise power. The lesbian characters in these films are sexual, imaginative and activist, using their force to oppose ruling systems (the film world, the Catholic church, a futurist socialist state) which would otherwise shut them out.

Note the dates, 1983 and 1987, smack in the midst of the Reagan I and Reagan II era. It was a time when the initial promise of lesbian culture was in full flower, with plenty of lesbians convinced this was just the beginning. A whole new world was surely about to burst open.

Well, not exactly. Even then, there were cracks in utopia. "We've come a long way," said McLaughlin now, recalling her film's British reception in the summer of 1988. "The theatre showing She Must Be Seeing Things received bomb threats." Seen today, it is so hard to believe. McLaughlin's film is downright charming, playfully imbued with many of the issues of its era (racism, role-playing, bisexuality) and free of polemical agendas.

Born in Flames, on the other hand, looks even more radical today than it did in 1983, thanks to the Coalition of the Willing. Trained in the sub-Sahara, pursuing rapists on bicycles, spinning music by which to make love and revolution, the lesbian posses of Born in Flames make it one incendiary little film. Borden's enlisting of friends and downtown legends in the film-making, along with her pre-sampling approach to film editing, raises the hipness factor, then and now.

Neither film is a coming-out story, a coming-of-age story, or a romantic comedy. They don't fit easily into the marketable genres of the 1990s or 2000s. They are stimulations, not simulations. Both truly radical gestures, they pointed the way to a lesbian film practice that was slow in following, not least because nobody would fund them.

Many of the most interesting lesbian films at the NFT can be traced back to this pair of classics. By Hook or By Crook, a brilliant gender-bending buddy movie that's one part Kerouac and one part Midnight Cowboy, comes out of San Francisco but easily fits into a Born in Flames lineage. All Over Me parses the same New York City landscape as McLaughlin's trailblazer, with art-film chops that are just as solid. Fire and Boys Don't Cry continue the challenge of fitting deeply transgressive stories into frameworks of beauty and tragedy.

The NFT season's selectivity is an invitation to question the choice of films on offer. Why, for example, are The Killing of Sister George and Persona the only pre-1980s movies to be included? Surely an evening could have been found for Fassbinder's still-raw The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant to represent the 1970s. And how can DVD be invoked as an excuse for excluding High Art and Desert Hearts when Bound is on offer?

Such questions are unanswerable, however much journalists must ask them. Fortunately, Go Fish is part of the show, so the London public can celebrate its 10th anniversary and take notes on what Rose Troche has wrought. The closely observed lesbian lives in Go Fish have enough dimensions to register as "lezbionic", while the film's mix of critique and affection is a perfect tonic for today's lesbian-deprived landscape. Troche didn't stop there. After a few more films, she landed in television - as the creative force behind Ilene Chaiken's hit series, The L Word, coming to the UK via Living TV.

Lipstick to the hilt, rich and gorgeous and living in Los Angeles, the rainbow gals of The L Word would seem to be in a whole different postal code from the black-and-white foresisters of Go Fish. Or are they the same girls, cleaned up and better paid, still struggling over sex and treachery and true love?

The success of The L Word in the US has demonstrated that there's a lesbian audience starving to see itself on screen. The show is on the verge of making lesbianism hip again, something that seemed impossible only months ago. With Troche and other survivors of the lesbian new wave on board, The L Word just might evolve into a lezbionic show - especially if Mia Kirshner gets the boot.

And if it ever wants to get radical, The L Word ought to arrange a screening of Born in Flames. Anyone remember Sheila McLaughlin's cameo? She plants the bomb at the top of the World Trade towers. Talk about starting a trend.


B Ruby Rich

The GuardianTramp

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