This collection of short films – some screened in the afternoon, some late in the evening – comprises curiously (un)structured snapshots of sexuality and sexual exploration, mainly American-produced but with one Japanese exception. We open with Sadie Benning’s 1992 short It Wasn’t Love, an impressionistic monochrome collage with a cracking soundtrack: a girl miming to Fats Domino’s ‘Blueberry Hill’, a clip from ’50s movie The Bad Seed cleverly edited so that it looks like the young pigtailed girl in it is miming to Prince’s ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’, and assorted clips backed to music by Chet Baker and Sly & the Family Stone. The images are allusive, but not allusive enough, and the assorted nature of the placards panned across by the camera – featuring words and phrases such as “Get lost”, “Love me”, “Scat”, “Crave Me”, “Tomboy” and “Faggot” – reflect the disordered nature of the film itself. It isn’t quite sure where it’s going, though the soundtrack’s great, and the vague sense of yearning (one placard reads “Her life was my fantasy”) is definitely there.
The next film, Jill Reiter’s Frenzy, gets two screenings today, and the fact that this repetition is undeserved suggests that the Festival organisers may have borne in mind the presence of Reiter herself. Her talk in the panel discussion afterwards sheds no light on what she meant the film to contribute; it’s the kind of film that, despite being filmed in a haze of mindless adolescent ecstasy, can now parade as a sort of historical document. But this sort of parade – if that’s how it’s being touted – is totally unconvincing, a gratuitous orgy-on-film that goes from slacker aesthetic to shagger aesthetic in just a few of its 12 long minutes. It films a queer riot grrrl performance, in which the musicians make some noise, get naked, and smear cake on each other’s breasts, after which one of the girls demands that the others in attendance see to her cunnilingual needs. While these others form a not-so-orderly queue, one punk-haired girl drags another (possibly Reiter herself) into a cupboard and uses an enormous knife to tear off each other’s clothes. We aren’t given a reason to care about any of the characters, and the music overdubbed over the vapid visuals soon grows irritating rather than exhilarating.
Things can only improve with the Japanese offering, the Tokyo-set Fingers and Kisses (Shu Lea Cheang, 2011), which – with a running length of about 250 seconds – doesn’t even have time to grow irritating. Instead, despite the paucity of actual substance or comment, it’s a winning excursion into the public sexual lives of a few characters who are as physically exposed as the film is underexposed. It’s a frank depiction of the openness of public and private lesbian sexuality in Japan, and culminates in some unexpected confessions: one normal-seeming woman enquires innocently, “Why am I such a sex maniac?”, while one confident-looking punk admits she’s “only ever had two orgasms”. The film is too fleeting to be poignant, but certainly has charm.
The most bizarre film of the day is probably Nao Bustamante and Matt Johnstone’s The Perfect Ones, a black-and-white trip in which a woman of some embonpoint – a sort of conflation of Norma Desmond and Divine – drinks perfume, talks to her roses, and crashes a car, somehow managing to embed a stiletto in her forehead. She walks aimlessly along the iconic storm drains of LA and through various phantasmagoria, until she finds a place in the riot grrrl world. Like most of the films on offer here, it isn’t satisfying, but it does have character of a sort (specifically a John Waters sort). Its eight-minute length is a mercy.
Michael Lucid’s 1996 documentary Dirty Girls, is by far the most interesting of the shorter films, charting the growth of the eponymous group of eighth-graders in a Santa Monica high school. Lucid frames the documentary with common perceptions of the girls – they’re “rebels”, they’re “filthy”, say others – and then extracts some frank and honest opinions from the ‘dirty girls’ themselves. There is an interesting fluidity between these girls and the others, but perceptions are set up, and the ‘dirty girls’ don’t care to challenge them. They broaden their scope beyond mere feminism, positing their affinity with riot grrrl as linked to their hatred of “any kind of prejudice – racism, sexism… we really hate that kind of stuff.” They’re seen by many of their peers as naïve; one girl refers to the group as “dime-store feminists”, and denigrates the girls’ homemade bills of rights. The riot grrrl aesthetic is mocked by the non-dirty girls, as is the ethos: “It’s not creative at all; it’s nothing new.”
The boys, however, are more sympathetic, even if they’re a little glib about it: one likeable dweeb opines, “I think it’s brilliant. It’s like a Marxist critique of the world.” Many of the girls come from broken homes, and are after a sense of belonging; not that this is noticed by many of the other girls, who are in the main derisive: “They hate everybody. They only ever see the bad things in life”. At points we forget that this is a bunch of eighth-graders, and we’re reminded by the particular scorn the ‘dirty girls’ reserve for accusations that they’re too young to know what they’re talking about. One of the more prominent members of the group exclaims: “Any age can know that women are raped… lots of people know people who’ve been molested. I’ve been molested.” Above all, they seem certain that some sort of reaction to injustice is better than no reaction; hats off to them.