Lesbian Movie Review: If These Walls Could Talk 2
This film was selected in our annual PlanetOut.com Movie Poll as one of the Top Ten GLBT Films of 2000!
What happens when a serious social agenda conflicts with an entertainment menu? You can watch that sordid end-of-the-line anytime you tune into World Federation Wrestling -- or, you can see the nuances unfold in this week's prestigious HBO special: "If These Walls Could Talk 2" ("ITWCT2").
In this timely morality tale we see how one celebrity dyke producer makes a movie about a population whose lives have been remarkably unrecorded, largely because everyone thought lesbians were too boring to bother.
The HBO answer to such callous disregard? Lesbian Tit! In "ITWCT2," Ellen DeGeneres shows us three lifetimes of lesbians in America with a premise that only Hollywood could dream up: a battered conscience meets beautiful breasts.
The film starts out with a strange archival collage of Jackie O, Gloria Steinem and Hillary, dovetailed with early women's libber protest parades. Famous (straight) women and no bras -- the tone is set.
Filmmaker Gregg Araki once said that he was so sick of seeing "gay films for straight people," that he decided to make a "straight films for gay people." "ITWCT2" is a classic case of the former, where themes of gay oppression and loneliness are given a cutesy-pootsy makeover in a vain attempt to support current liberal causes. I hope Ellen & Company are thrilled to look at themselves in this mirror, because their self-indulgence has backfired, benefiting their body-conscious careers at the expense of their political aims.
The conscience of the film is a vapid script, hoping to bring tears to the most clueless of straight people's hearts -- and to piss off virtually any lesbian who makes it to the end. Yet the sight of such beautiful gal celebrities making out together, without their tops on, presents a real conundrum to the lesbian viewer: is this embarrassment too physically luscious and gossip-worthy to miss? Obviously, I took the low road and watched every tacky minute.
"ITWCT2" was both timed and composed to address the March 7 election, which features anti-gay propositions such as the California Knight Initiative, one of those "You'll Never Be Married in THIS State, You Fucking Fruit" type measures. "ITWCT2" aims to provoke conservatives into reconsidering whether queer couples should have basic rights after all, like giving each other a decent funeral, or being able to get pregnant without making asses of themselves.
Yet someone at HBO had the conviction to insist that if right-wingers were going to watch a tear-jerker about homo causes, the least they could do was offer up some tantalizing flesh. Now it remains to be seen if "ITWCT2" will score at the ballot box or the Neilsen ratings. I personally don't think right-wingers will want to let girls get married after they see Chloe Sevigny and Michelle Williams suck each other's nipples -- after all, one of the primary aspects of homophobia is the fear and loathing of watching other people have fun.
"ITWCT2" consists of three vignettes, with the first story starring Vanessa Redgrave as the most serious of the trio. I would have liked to see Vanessa's lovely body as much as any of the younger actresses, but this story is clearly intended to raise the "noble" tone for the rest of the film. The drama opens in 1961, when one half of a devoted elderly couple suddenly dies from a heart attack. The survivor, Redgrave, is left to cope with the grotesque reaction of her lover's distant relatives, and her lack of rights to do anything to serve her beloved's memory.
It's curious that this tale is set in 1961, which implies that something has changed in regard to gay couples' plight; that this is a 1960s portrait of the "bad old days." The tragedies of gay lovers being pushed out of their partner's death arrangements is an issue that became overwhelming in the wake of AIDS, and as everyone knows, is as abominable today as it was any number of decades ago! The only difference nowadays is that Vanessa Redgrave would shout at the moronic hospital employees and grasping breeder relatives, "SHE'S MY WIFE!" Then they would have smiled smugly, and said, "You can say whatever you want, but you don't have a legal leg to stand on."
In solitude, Vanessa's acting -- her dignity and grief in coping with the insults that await her -- is quite affecting. The horrible visiting family is suitably horrible. Just as I was turning to my partner and saying, "If I were her, I'd slit my throat now, right in front of these bastards," the story ended, and a new scene, set in the same couple's cottage, now in 1972, begins.
If any lesbians watch this program, it's likely to be the '70s boomers who came out during this era -- just like the Hollywood dykes who made this program. Yet this second sequence is the most absurd of all: HBO taking a Brandon Teena-lite pass at the changing of the guards in the wake of the "Lavender Menace."
But this is no "Rubyfruit Jungle." Here's the plot: an adorable lesbian commune of college girls is pouting because the feminist university group they co-founded has kicked them out for raising "divisive" issues. They decide to go slumming at an "old gay bar" and one of them, played by Michelle Williams, falls for a mouth-watering bulldagger (Chloë Sevigny) who offers her a cigarette.
Michelle's roomies think Chloë is disgusting, but obviously they're just jealous ... or maybe it's only obvious to the viewing audience, because the script avoids making that point. We're given to believe that the smug hippie dykes are rejecting Chloë just because she won't wear Indian peasant drawstring tops like they do. Okay!
The attitudes and appearances of each member of this routine are pure '90s. No dyke of any age had cute layered razor cuts and hairless legs like this when I was a teenager in the '70s. We weren't "Party of Five" with a labyris. The remaining old gay bars in 1972 were not filled with fabulously suited and fedora'd butches slow-dancing to Lesley Gore. No, it was a more homely, casual, and tougher crew at the working class bars, and they were listening to the Stones' "Brown Sugar" when the women's studies students came in and demanded to turn that racist cock-rock off. The cops busted us every weekend, which leveled the playing field a bit. It was a hardcore class conflict with a feminist peppermint twist, and ultimately the new girls took over the jukebox, took over the hard drinking, and cried about it all in AA meetings 10 years later.
If you want to see a movie about the reality of coming out as a teenager, go see "All Over Me," which was set in '80s New York. But if you want to know what was happening in 1972, there still is no movie about dykes, feminists, or hippie communes that even begins to touch that period with real feeling.
Instead, you'll have to open an old newspaper and read about Nixon's reelection, the invasion of Cambodia, the massacre at Wounded Knee -- and realize that every lesbian separatist of the time was once marching on Selma, saw her brother die in Vietnam, and had been gassed/clubbed/stripped by the pigs, which was really what we called them at the time.
Contrast that context to the characters of "ITWCT2," who need even more than a weathervane to know which way the wind blows. Real '70s lesbians were naive, yes, and utterly without irony, but at that time we were also burdened with a level of tragedy in American life that ran as a continuous undercurrent to every intimate moment. Unlike Vanessa Redgrave, the actresses of "1972" can't transcend the banality of the script to breathe any authentic gesture into those moments.
The real '70s dykes who "came out" at that time were largely the result of the college-kid sense of self entitlement combined with nascent identity politics. That closet door creaking was relatively tame by today's standards; it was not the day of "Lesbian Avengers" and "Kiss Me I'm a Dyke" T-shirts. In 1979, I was fucking my lesbian women's studies professor, and she certainly wasn't public at the university -- oh no, not if she wanted to keep her job. All those workshirts and bowl haircuts we wore were our little counter-culture language; we weren't advertising it yet.
The biggest cop-out of "ITWCT2" is that it tells a story about '70s dykes without illustrating the tension of hating men, the bitter consensus against "the patriarchy," and how that passion devolved into an inner war against our own female sexuality. The movie tries to symbolize this epic battle with the appearance of Chloë's butch character, but it's only an eccentric set-up to a love story, a titillating piece of Lesbian Gothic.
Did my righteous indignation make me turn off the set just as Chloë and Michelle began to grind? No way -- these two, especially Chloë, who's already a dyke heartthrob, beautifully feed the lesbian bliss machine with their bedroom eyes and golden skin. If only they had this kind of casting for dyke porn films!
In the last vignette, Ellen DeGeneres and Sharon Stone play a contemporary couple struggling to get pregnant, from finding the right donor to hitting the perfect ovulation day. Stone mugs up a storm and DeGeneres gets antsy. Despite a few comic lines, Ellen's discomfort at having to make horny for the camera outweighs both the plot line and the lack of chemistry between she and Stone. My own private back story to this is that butches like Ellen shouldn't have to take their tops off for national television, no matter who they have chemistry with -- it's too humiliating.
Meanwhile, our yuppie couple's story of "looking for child" is likely to horrify actual alternative families. A particularly chilling scene occurs when Stone is skimming the donor lists and queries DeGeneres about whether they should pick an "ETHNIC baby." Whew! Just how bad do they want to make gay parents look? Let's squirm at the smug little bourgeois who don't even know how racist they are, going on another shopping trip, this time for an infant.
"Honey, I want one in black!"
"But sweetie, we said we'd prefer blondes!"
I don't think I want people like this to have the right to sleep comfortably at night, let alone raise children as fashion accessories.
Don't worry, I AM going to vote against the Knight Initiative, and press on for queer family rights, in spite of "If These Walls Could Talk 2." But please, next time Hollywood decides to throw the dykes a bone, tell them to come run with the pack for a day or two. I don't have a problem with a "gay movie" that straight people can understand, but must that be incompatible with something we can respect?
-- Susie Bright