The Dearth of Dyke Cinema

WRITING IN THE New York Post last summer, Jonathan Foreman assailed the "glut" of gay films clogging theaters today. Apparently, even one queer movie per week in a major city is too many. But in any case, Foreman missed the real story: While films directed by or aimed at gay men have indeed become more prevalent, films directed by or aimed at lesbians have remained few and far between. And the body of work by gay male filmmakers far exceeds that of their lesbian counterparts.

The fall season has seemed to bring a bit of relief from the dyke-cinema drought, as five films by or about lesbians--Rose Troche's Bedrooms and Hallways, Lukas Moodysson's Show Me Love, Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, Ana Kokkinos's Head On, and Anne Wheeler's Better Than Chocolate--are currently making their way around the country. (Both Troche's and Moodysson's movies will be screening at U Film Society's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Film Festival; Wheeler's is now playing at Lagoon Cinema; and Peirce's starts October 22 at the Uptown Theatre.) But because none of these films was both directed by a lesbian and focused primarily on lesbian content, and because only Peirce's film was shot in the United States, these movies demonstrate just how precarious the state of lesbian films and directors really is.

While Head On tells the story of a confused, 19-year-old gay man and his addictions to anonymous sex and drugs, it was co-written and -directed by an Ana Kokkinos, an Australian lesbian. The sassy chick flick Better Than Chocolate features two lesbian lead characters (played by openly lesbian actresses), but was made by two straight Canadians, director Wheeler and screenwriter Peggy Thomson. Perhaps the most eagerly awaited of the bunch is Bedrooms and Hallways, the second feature by Troche (Go Fish), a lesbian director who had to cross an ocean to get the job. Bedrooms is a wonderfully insouciant comedy that explores what happens when a gay man joins a New Age-style men's group in which the members are all straight. But the irony of making a film with nary a lesbian in sight is not lost on Troche, whose 1994 debut is still one of the highest-grossing lesbian films ever released.

"I really thought lesbian filmmaking would have come a little farther than it has by now," says Troche from her longtime home in Brooklyn. "It's been pretty rough territory." After the great success of Go Fish, Troche struggled to realize various projects until last year, when British producing duo Ceci Dempsey and Dorothy Berwin hired her to direct Bedrooms. "Women just get chewed up by the system," she sighs, recalling the demise of one project, Life in High Heels. "I had a meeting in [New Line Cinema president] Mike DeLuca's office, where he said, 'We really want to do this. We just have to put it through the pipe.' And I waited. And waited. And then they didn't want it. And I waited for the producers to do something. And waited. And then they just said, 'Oh, well,' and walked away. Before I knew it, a year and a half of my life was gone. Bedrooms and Hallways took another year and a half. And that's three years already."

Critic B. Ruby Rich--who coined the now-infamous phrase "New Queer Cinema," and published her first book, Chick Flicks, earlier this year--finds the industry's gender bias pervasive. "Rose [Troche] has a golden touch with actors and brilliant comic timing," Rich says. "But Universal didn't hire her to do their big-budget, live-action version of Archie. They went to Tommy O'Haver [Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss]. The same studio gave millions to Gus Van Sant to remake Psycho. Rose has been trying for years to do a film about Dorothy Arzner [the lesbian who directed star vehicles for Hollywood icons like Joan Crawford], but hasn't been able to find the money."

During the Nineties, increasing numbers of lesbians have made theatrically released features. A partial list includes: Jennie Livingston (Paris Is Burning, 1990), Nicole Conn (Claire of the Moon, 1992), Troche (Go Fish, 1994), Shu Lea Chang (Fresh Kill, 1994), Maria Maggenti (The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, 1995), Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman, 1996), Sharon Pollack (Everything Relative, 1996), Alex and Sylvia Sichel (All Over Me, 1996), Ela Troyano (Latin Boys Go to Hell, 1997), Kristine Peterson (Slaves to the Underground, 1997), and Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, 1997). But waiting on deck to work again is sadly typical: Besides Troche, only four of these women have made followups to their debuts.

Maggenti wrote the screenplay of last summer's The Love Letter, and is in final talks to direct her second feature. The Sichels are currently working on "Women Only," a lesbian love story airing as part of next year's If These Walls Could Talk 2 on HBO. After helping to kick off the decade's queer box-office boom, Livingston toiled eight years to initiate her second film (and her first dramatic feature), You're the Top, a lesbian S&M musical.

The queer men who made films during the same period, however, have been far more prolific. They include Bruce LaBruce (Hustler White), Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine), Christopher Munch (Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day), and Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation), all of whom have made at least three films apiece. In 1998 the pattern of male privilege could be found in the fact that first-time directors Mark Christopher (54) and Tommy O'Haver (Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss) secured deals for their sophomore efforts even before their debuts had hit theaters. And Darren Stein created a new record: His second feature, Jawbreaker (made in 1998), premiered at Sundance last January and was released in February, actually beating his first film, Sparkler (made in 1997), into theaters.

"The problems of lesbian directors," Rich argues, "are compounded by the perception that their audiences just don't care. The theory goes, 'Why invest the money if nobody wants to see it?' But I go to festivals all over the world, and the lesbian audience is among the most dedicated anywhere. Movies like Go Fish and Two Girls in Love proved that this audience would turn out."

"I could make an entire career quite comfortably by just doing gay and lesbian movies," says Troche. "No one's done a lesbian spaghetti Western in outer space--which wouldn't be the worst-case scenario for me. But what troubles me is that even when you find--or write--a really smart script, which almost doesn't exist today, people are still unwilling to give you five million dollars to make that movie."

Rich believes that even accomplished lesbian directors aren't likely to outgun Tinseltown any time soon. "Lesbians have their very own Hollywood dilemma," she says. "Gay men may be gay, but they're still men. Lesbians may be women but, even worse, they're lesbians."

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