So, I’ve been sick all weekend and it’s trickled into today. The cedar fever really is no joke in Austin. This has derailed me from a lot of things, among them practicing David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” and making a coherent pass at a post of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (a three-star movie in need of elaboration). I’ll try again after I wave a white flag and get some drugs. Basically, I’ve been able to do three things. One is some light editing for my partner’s e-zine and an abstract a friend and I are pitching. The second is re-watch The L Word. I discovered that Dana is kind of an idiot and the sex scenes can run together in a dispiriting fashion, though my love for Alice Pieszecki endures. Finally, I completed Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, which I started yesterday.
Despite some initial reservations about Smith’s gender politics, I’ve warmed up to her music and was especially motivated to read Just Kids after she won the National Book Award for Memoir last November. I endorse it. As writing, Smith’s lovely prose recommends itself, as she honors her profound relationship to a man who grew up and grew into his talents with her in a New York wiped away by AIDS and gentrification.
I also feel I have a better understanding of Smith’s rejection of femaleness. Her stance against feminism always bristled against my convictions, and interpreted her reverence toward male cultural icons as misogynistic. As I elaborated upon these feelings in a previous post, my friend Curran challenged my position and noted that Smith’s fandom was largely reserved for queer and/or queerable men and that she herself might identify as trans. While Smith never states as much in Just Kids, she mentions her disgust toward the hyper-feminine beauty ideals she grew up around in the 50s and makes specific reference to having little regard for the female body as culturally proscribed.
What I may have previously believed to be categorical hatred might actually be personal disregard. While I reject the idea of femaleness or femininity as singular–indeed, it’s a discursive, contradictory interplay of a variety of identities–I think I have a deeper understanding of where and when she came from and how that informs her art. This regard for autonomy seems especially clear when Smith discusses her disavowal of the decadence surrounding in New York during the later half of the 1960s and into the 70s. She believed drugs and sexuality were sacred, and thus only engaged with them for sacred purposes. Unlike many of her generation, Smith didn’t believe in copping or hooking up as means to an end.
But what’s special about Just Kids is the love she shared with Mapplethorpe. Once her lover and always her friend, the story is actually about the evolution of friendship and the cosmic connections forged between a masculine woman and a homosexual man who existed within the binaries of male and female and black and white that they played with. As someone whose first boyfriend was her oldest friend before he came out, I could certainly relate to the trajectory of their relationship, though Smith and Mapplethorpe shared something far deeper and queerer than most intimacies I’ve experienced.
The book courses their chance meeting to their affair to the development of their twin language to their artistic collaborations and years of silences. He champions her poetry and music. She strains to understand his fascination with sadomasochism. He photographs Horses. She cradles his urn, as a dream she had of him turning into dust foretold. It might be one of the best love stories I’ve read in ages. A few weeks before Valentine’s Day, reserve Just Kids for the person who understands you past language and memory.
Sometimes a movie just finds you right when you wanna see it. I felt this way the other night watching Alex Sichel’s only movie, 1997’s All Over Me. Five minutes into this poignant story (written by Alex’s sister Sylvia) about a young girl coming out, crushing on her friend, learning about homophobia, finding love, and thrashing on her guitar, I was hooked.
It didn’t hurt that the movie makes good use of Babes in Toyland and Sleater-Kinney.
I originally put this one in my Netflix queue because Leisha Hailey is in it. She has hot pink hair and plays in a band led by Helium’s Mary Timony called Coochie Pop. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I love her. I met her once when a friend was building her house in Marfa and she was as nice as I was paralyzed with awe. I think I was about 11 when I heard “You Suck,” a song she recorded as one-half of The Murmurs. I also really like their cover to the theme for H.R. Pufnstuf from the ultra-90s alterna compilation Saturday Morning: Cartoons’ Greatest Hits. They were two girls with Manic Panic hair, acoustic guitars, and helium voices that swore a lot, often in harmony.
And, then there’s all the other stuff she’s done. The Yoplait ads that a lot of people have slammed but that she and I argue are super-queer (especially this one). Her electro project Uh Huh Her (taken from the PJ Harvey album of same name). She was also consistently my favorite part of The L Word, playing sarcastic, loyal, proudly bisexual wordsmith and deejay Alice Pieszecki.
Anyway, Hailey’s the love interest in this one. And does she ever meet cute with the movie’s protagonist. They exchange flirtatious glances in a guitar store. Hearts.
The story itself focuses on Claude (not Claudette, even though that’s her given name), a fifteen-year-old, working class baby dyke who loves knee-length shorts, her guitar, and her best friend Ellen (played by be-credded Imitation of Christ impresario Tara Subkoff) who is in serious denial about her friend’s true feelings (and possibly her own).
All around Claude, people are correcting her, trying to convince her that she likes boys, telling her to dress more feminine, putting lipstick on her. It’s particularly hurtful that the worst enforcers of heteronormativity in her life are also the two closest female presences — Ellen and her single mother, Anne (played by Ann Dowd, who plays Cookie Kelly, a similarly unsympathetic mother, in Freaks and Geeks).
It doesn’t help matters that Claude is totally in love with her best friend, who has ambivalent feelings about their relationship. Ellen seems to be aware of Claude’s attraction, and in two instances (momentary) reciprocates physically, but quickly dismisses these moments, running away from them so as to get closer to Mark, her dangerous, homophobic, possessive, violent boyfriend who may have killed a young gay man in the neighborhood. He’s played to type by Cole Hauser, who may be a lovely individual, but has a low monotone and looks like a red-headed potato and thus seems pitch-perfect to play angry young chauvinists.
When Ellen isn’t running to Mark, she’s abusing drugs and drinking. Add to that her (anorexic?) skinniness and blondeness and you have a girl trying very hard to be rebellious and subversive but who actually plays right into staid notions of straight, white, patriarchal society. And while she always reaches out to Claude in need — notedly through music, as both girls play the guitar — she is just as quick to push her away.
Meanwhile, Claude can’t really abide by straightness or patriarchy. There’s no room for her without completely destroying her spirit. Actress Alison Folland (who I thought was heart-breaking in To Die For) makes Claude both nervous and sedate, on edge but starting to make peace and embrace her lesbianism, recognizing that a life in the closet is far graver than the initial scariness of coming out.
As a result of recognizing her burgeoning sexuality, Claude starts breaking from Ellen, making a few queer friends in the process. A pleasant surprise in the movie is the presence of Wilson Cruz. He plays Jesse, who works with Claude at the neighborhood pizza parlor. As many know, he played Ricky Vasquez on My So-Called Life, one of the first and more fully realized gay teens on television. In some ways, he’s not playing too dissimilar a character here — the gay friend — but, like Ricky, is also a quiet, pensive, damaged but resilient young man. And one key way that he is not just playing the gay friend is that he is the gay friend to a young lesbian, thus promoting the idea that members of the LGBT community can be friends and allies across orientations.
Claude also gets involved with Lucy, a local musician played by Leisha Hailey. While Lucy’s age is never explicitly stated, it is revealed that she lives at home with her dad, who is often away, implying that she’s about Claude age. Claude meets Lucy at her band’s concert, blown away by her talent. Yet, she’s able to play the chivalrous dyke and buy Lucy a drink. She then goes home with her to hang out and listen to records, while Ellen camps out with Mark in Claude’s bedroom. Claude puts on one album (presumably Patti Smith’s Radio Ethiopia), and has the following emotional scene.
While I have ideological problems with Patti Smith’s gender configurations and how essentializing and normativitizing (male) rock historians can be of her work (particularly Horses), I was completely moved by this scene. By my count, there’s two things going on here: Claude is in anguish over Ellen and she is starting to confront her fear and anxiety of being gay (“Should I pursue a path so twisted? Should I crawl defeated and gifted? Should I go the length of a river?”).
Importantly, Claude isn’t galvanized after this scene or by this song (indeed, perhaps some would argue, in this movie, as she never has a big coming-out moment; the closest moments are at the end — one is implied, the other wordless). Through the rest of the movie, she struggles and evolves while learning to own and articulate her feelings for Lucy and confront the impossibly for her and Ellen to be together. Yet, Claude is becoming aware and is learning to develop and assert herself, potentially holding a guitar in one hand and Lucy’s hand in the other. No small feat for a fifteen-year-old lesbian teenager.