The Lesbian Image, Part 2

Monika Treut’s Virgin Machine (1988) does not limit its concerns to the lesbian identified. On the contrary, Virgin Machine’s narrative deals with incidents of rape and incest that through the self-awareness of the film’s protagonist Dorothy (Shelly Mars), function as touchstones in the journey toward lesbianism. In this way Virgin Machine utilizes the journey from West Germany to San Francisco as a metaphor for the transition of self-identity, a metamorphosis into a state of sexual fluidity that eventually solidifies itself as lesbianism.

Virgin Machine

Monika Treut’s melo-dramatic minimalism and sociological interest in female sexuality and Virgin Machine’s philosophical notion of “Romance” are all hallmarks of the New German Cinema. Where Rainer Werner Fassbinder was able to implement the New German aesthetic to humanize the homosexual, Treut successfully negates the binary impulse of the media in terms of sexual identity with the same aesthetics. But Treut belongs to the generation of filmmakers directly after what is popularly known as New German Cinema. Treut,, like Ulrich Edel and others of her generation, have a more overt political and sociological commentary in their films. Partly this is because the filmmakers whose hey-day came immediately before them were encumbered by the chore re-establishing a German identity in film, and partly because the international export of foreign films called for, in the eighties, a cinema with a cut and dry intent. Treut is unique in this because, unlike her contemporaries, she was exposed more readily to the first works of the underground film movement known as Transgressive Cinema that had begun to take hold in the mid-eighties.

Transgressive Cinema’s importance to queer cinema is not due to its depiction of homosexuality; most of its subjects are heterosexually derived, but is due largely to the aggressive depiction of reversed and inverted sexual images. For instance, Richard Kern’s film Submit To Me Now is about a man who visits his girlfriend. This girlfriend and her roommate then dress him as a woman and proceed to penetrate him in both his anus and mouth with large strap-on dildos. These images signaled a move away from the strict binary impulses of cinema at large, and provided a means with which filmmakers such as Monika Treut and Todd Haynes could reclaim their sexual identities in the cinema. During and immediately after the Transgressive Film movement there is a marked increase in narrative films made by queer filmmakers that endeavor to originate a filmic vernacular unique to the sexual identity of the author of a film. The most significant result of Transgressive Cinema is, of course, the New Queer cinema of the nineties.

The New Queer Cinema has had a long lasting impact on the cinema at large in a number of ways, but in terms of its sociological advocacy it is rather singular in impact. What New Queer Cinema did was present a number of films that served one function, and that was to transport its homosexual protagonists, male and female, into scenarios and narratives where they were not codified as fetish properties or marginalized as cult figures. All of the instances of lesbianism listed above in which the film humanized its lesbian characters are particularly insular in the cinema, the exception rather than the rule. For lesbians, New Queer Cinema marks a distinct move away from, and opposition to, the fetishistic portrayal of lesbians in mainstream cinema that is the direct result of heterosexual codification derivative of the assumption of a sexual binary in Western society.

Sarandon and Deneuve in Tony Scott's The Hunger

Sarandon and Deneuve in Tony Scott’s The Hunger

New Queer Cinema followed Treut’s model of de-fetishizes the lesbian, in one major instance, by utilizing close-ups of the lesbian characters’ faces during intercourse that were emotive rather than signifiers of carnal pleasure. This tactic contradicts the mainstream tendency of a film like Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1982), which utilizes mostly wide-shots during its scene of lesbian intercourse. The wide-shots Scott uses fetishize the bodies of the lesbians (Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve) by insisting that the audience remain at a distance where their entire bodies are more clearly visible and their emotive powers as actors are weakest.

Though such tactics in the New Queer Cinema were affective, they never crossed over into the mainstream. In fact, by the time New Queer Cinema began to dissipate in the mid-nineties, Queer films themselves would begin to move away from the radicalism it learned from Monika Treut, Transgressive Cinema, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. By the 2000s, lesbians in film and television would again conform to the fetishistic parameters of predator versus prey and the assumptive sexual binary.

-Robert Curry


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