Better Than Sex: Queer Auteurship in the Age of Mass Media
An opinion formed too early in the game of life is no where nearly as valuable as a studied, carefully considered context. Ok, so preamble complete, what was the purpose of that? Simply that I am just now getting to write to you about The L-Word. And what a waste of film stock that was! I don’t know what I was thinking though, when in 2009 I was directing photography for a documentary filmmaker, and we were in Hollywood interviewing people involved in The L-Word. The show’s final episode had literally just aired days earlier. I would wax lyrical to anyone polite enough to listen about how people with talent don’t have the money to make good TV while the people with money don’t have the talent, and The L-Word was my favorite example. My gripe with the show, I would continue with the grace of a cactus, was that with that much responsibility and resources at their fingertips, it was a huge flop to see the discontinuous narratives, the incomplete character and story arches, the gratuitous stylization, the multitude of loose ends, the lack of vision and cohesion. Sadder than this was that when The L-Word came on the scene there was virtually nothing else for lesbian viewers to consume and the show developed a cult-following that remains with us. Viewers were so desperate for anything that remotely appeared to reflect us, our lives and our (supremely superficial) desires, that we lapped up the poor writing without so much as a wince. I walked away from that experience wondering why I had, in the space of 24 hours, put my foot in my mouth more times than I could count, by telling people money doesn’t buy talent. Even if I was right, what was the point in pointing that out and hurting people’s feelings? But over the next six years I started to wonder what was really wrong with The L-World structurally, as a plotted and narrated television spectacle like every other. I came to the conclusion that it lacked an auteur and it was this that resulted in putrid chaos. I did rummage my brain and found a theoretical argument by Jacques Derrida that can help The L-Word’s epic narrative failures; we could say this is a feminist, de-constructionist anti-narrative that is rebelling against the patriarchal structures of beginning, middle and end or against the phallic, linear arrow of time. We could go down that vindication path if we so wished. I’m not going to, but please help yourself. Instead, I want us to think of filmmakers who have managed to give us strong, queer female characters with very small budgets. And probably it was precisely because of those small budgets that they were able to produce compelling work. The success of these productions can be attributed, in large part, to the spirit of the author that pervades the text. I am going to take for example two queer filmmakers who have given us consistently cool, thoughtful content, and who also exhibit some old school auteurship that reminds us that filmmaking is an art. The word auteur is simply the French word for author, and in film theory it refers to a filmmaker who has achieved a special status. A filmmaker becomes an auteur by virtue of signature techniques that can be identified, iconically, across their filmic work. Usually, an auteur is someone who has been making film over the course of a lifetime. We think of Stanley Kubrick as an auteur, we think of David Lynch as an auteur, or for TV, how about Joss Whedon? The status of auteur is not often relegated to women filmmakers and I’m really not sure why that is, beyond basic, institutional sexism. To deal with this omission is partly why I am taking a quick look at the auteurship of Fadia Abboud, an Australian-born filmmaker with Lebanese heritage, and Rolla Selbak, an American filmmaker with the complex origin-story of a Palestinian. I am going by letters of the alphabet here, so let’s start with Abboud. I have to say that I was lucky enough a decade ago to watch some of Abboud’s earliest films. Experimental shorts, that included transgressive, queer oddities that juxtaposed something quintessentially Lebanese-Australian (of the late 90s/early naughties) with female homoeroticism. Abboud had shot these very short shorts with a queer Lebanese-Australian performance artist, whose stage name, if I remember correctly, was Wife. In one film, we see Wife hang out her laundry on the iconic Hills Hoist you find in most Australian backyards. Among her laundry items (which were also stage props) are a strap-on dildo and a bomber jacket with the words “Leb Dyke,” emblazoned on the back. Years later, in episode four of her web series I Luv U, But…, Abboud takes us back to the Hills Hoist, where an Arab lesbian couple are having a conversation about coming out to family, which changes into a flirtatious exchange. While the couple returns to the house, we’re left to visually contemplate the lingerie that’s blowing in the wind for a few seconds more. When the (fake) husband returns and we hear him say “Habibi, I’m home,” Abboud pans across to his neighbouring underwear, appropriately branded “Aussie Bum” (i.e. the erotic climax is deflated by a bummer! The bummer being the husband’s arrival. Don’t know what a bummer is? Ask an Australian). Abboud captures Arab-Australian suburbia brilliantly in I Luv U, But… and her mise en scene is a fertile field of Lebanese-Australian cultural history. For example, if you are Arab and lived in Sydney in the late 90s, then you would know what the Bessemer cookware joke in Season 2 episode 1 is and you would have appreciated sighting Bessmer throughout season 1. Your mother would have been visited by that family friend who sells those orange, Teflon-laced pots and pans. You two would have heard your mother declare that they “last forever,” in justifying spending hundreds of dollars on the pans, and maybe you too overheard her complain, five years later, that forever was only five years. Abboud’s trademark is to take Arab things to do: smoking argileh, rolling vine leaves, drinking coffee and turn them into visual signifiers of ethno-racial identity in an Australian landscape. She then successfully infuses these images with (often comedic) homoeroticism. For example, in another one of Abboud’s very early shorts we are shown how to brew Arabic coffee as we see Wife’s butch lover prepare it. The rising and waning of the coffee being boiled can be suggestive for those who read between the lines. The scene ends with butch drinking the coffee by licking the rim of the coffee cup. Speaking further of Abboud’s auteurship, few people know the story behind her use of an archival photograph of two Lebanese women in English suits with ties and Tarabeesh in her 12-minute short In the Ladies Lounge. Abboud found the picture in a store along Gemayzeh Street in East Beirut, much like the two protagonists of her short film, who stumble upon the poster in a shop in Sydney’s Western Suburbs. She later discovered that the picture was taken by Marie el-Khazan, whose work is archived by the Arab Image Foundation. Filmmaker Akram Zaatri, a co-founder of AIF, further illuminated that el-Khazen shot this picture in Zgharta in 1927. el-Khazen never married and died at the age of 80. Most of her photographs, all unpublished work, are of other women, Abboud had been told. When we get to her web series I Luv U, But…, we notice that same photograph, this time printed on large canvas, hanging in the background wall of one of the scenes in episode 3 of season 2. This is a moment of auteurship at its finest, when one quintessential artifact from one film migrates its significant way across to the next body of work. Thematically, the photograph ties Lebanese women who (seemingly) loved women, to their Lebanese-Australian counterparts eighty years later, while they struggle with similar social and familial pressures. Abboud renders this queer Lebanese history seamless rather than disjointed and Lebanese identity and culture as fluid and adaptive, even when hybridized in diaspora. Abboud’s Club Arak exterior shot (at the end of season 1) is of The Imperial Hotel in Erskinville, where scenes from Priscilla Queen of the Desert were also shot. Club Arak, an actually queer Arab dance night, had been held at Sydney University’s Manning Bar before migrating to the more appropriate Erskinville location in its later incarnations. When cultural history is needed to decipher the mise en scene in this way, then we know we are dealing with an auteur. When the films are thematically in dialogue with each other, across a decade of production, then we also know we are dealing with an auteur. Rolla Slebak is also a queer auteur to watch out for. At what at least appears to be a very young age, Selbak has already mastered a range of inter-related production skills. From directing to creating original movie soundtracks, to editing, script writing, producing and who knows what else, Selbak is a quintessential auteur with a very long career still ahead of her. In 2003, Selbak wrote, edited, directed and produced the feature-length Making Maya. Three Veils, released in 2011 again brought to life her own script with directing and editing credits to boot. In 2013 and 2014 Selbak wrote, directed, edited and co-produced the two-season web series shorts Kiss Her, I’m Famous. Let’s take a closer look at the distinctive features of these works. Kiss Her, I’m Famous is a perfect, mainstream lesbian production, and is what The L-Word should have looked like had it had a creative brain behind it. Selbak’s auteurship seldom seems nostalgic, though, like Abboud’s is. In fact the lens filter of ethnicity with which the filmmaker oversaw Three Veils in 2011, is entirely suspended, retired even, for the making of Kiss Her, I’m Famous in 2013/14. Had the show done otherwise, it would not have convincingly simulated the object of its satire — reality TV in which whiteness is coded as universal. There are so many competing signature moments across Selbak’s works that, like Abboud, entire chapters could be spent unpacking cultural histories and theories of representation. But for the sake of this argument, let’s look for traces of singularity across Selbak’s major works. When we do so, we find that the transmigration of the auteur from Making Maya, to Three Veils and onward to Kiss Her…, occurs at the site at which an unconscious sexuality seeps, surfaces, or begins to emerge. In Making Maya, which is a wonderful Indie film (up there with All Over Me and Personal Best), and in Three Veils, and again in Kiss Her…, Selbak’s same-sex encounters are always fresh, first-times. I don’t mean we are dealing with adolescence or virginity even if those are present. I mean this in a more literal sense, as an experience so immediate that the experiencer has not yet had time to mediate the rawness of what is experienced with concepts and constructs. There is a quasi-Zen encounter with the immediate, before one has had a chance to articulate the is-ness of what is (as lesbian, as sexual, as anything at all). Selbak’s characters encounter these moments of self-realization at different stages of their lives, and the homoerotic seems to be the gateway to these ritual passages. Repeatedly, Selbak captures the liminality between the homosocial friendship and the homoerotic attraction. What’s more, the audience is never treated to prurience. In Three Veils, for example the encounter between Nikki and Amira is depicted as remedial, with Amira literally licking Nikki’s wounds, which we later find out were caused by a violent scuffle with her father. Without evacuating the erotic value of wound symbolism, this is not lust, this is not the desire that appeals to the voyeuristic gaze of a mass consumer. The same mass consumer who was very upset that they watched all of Making Maya “for just one lousy kiss.” (Let us ignore what it must mean for someone to wish to see actors that young do anything more than “one lousy kiss,” but let’s not ignore that the narrative simply did not require any more than what was depicted.) Meanwhile, Selbak’s web series Kiss Her…, is not at all shy about showing two seasoned adults having a good time on screen. Nonetheless, even so, the viewing pleasure is undermined when these sex scenes are repeatedly interrupted by a manic and incognito director, played by Selbak herself, whose concern is the composition of the shot. The “director’s” intrusion into the set, points to the constructedness of the images, inviting the viewer out of a potential stupor of fandom in which fantasy cannot be gleaned from fact. Such is the stupor induced in cult-following of celebrity and reality television, and at whose expense the show is making a joke. To succeed in Making Maya and Three Veils at capturing sensuousness without voyeurism and objectification is easier than the achievement of the same in Kiss Her, I’m Famous. If only because the latter, at least aesthetically, belongs to the genre of prurience. But with the “director’s” pointed interruptions, sex is depicted as work without it quite being sex work. This is something The L-Word was not able to pull off, not even with Gloria Steinem making a guest appearance, or the numerous plot-line moments that cried “foul” at the voyeuristic male gaze, because The L-Word cashed in on this as much as humanly possible. And at least from a funding perspective, there was an implicit understanding that this contractual assurance between consumer and production studio must be observed if the show were to continue. And it continued, for seven seasons, even in the absence of palatable story-telling. And just in case you can’t remember what I’m talking about, I will leave you with the poster for the show’s final season. Yes, because we do spend most of our lives naked, with our eyes closed and heads thrust back slightly enough to reveal our necks but not too far back like someone who has fallen asleep in a chair.