Gay Times Reviews XIV

TheWatermelon Woman

Dir. Cheryl Dunye 1997

My first encounter with Ms Dunye (that's Du–neé not Dunny) came with She Don't Fade shown on C4 in late 1996. I wrote then, 'It could be described as a brave effort... spoiled by the ego of the main protagonist.' Dunye had 'scrawled, supervised and starred' in the film, and has repeated the effort with The Watermelon Woman, the tale of her search for a black film star of the 1930's. As with She Don't Fade Dunye provides a running commentary and – just like She Don't Fade – it looks as if she ran out of money and had to wrap it up quickly with a chance meeting.

The story, set in Philadelphia, is fine. By day, Cheryl works in a video rental store with her fiesty friend Tamara (Valarie Walker). Every other waking hour is spent working on her 'project' to track down the elusive Watermelon Woman, who Cheryl first saw playing a 'beautiful black Mammie' in a film called Plantation Memories. In her quest to find the luminary, she shoves a camera in the faces of Afro–Americans to see if anyone remembers her, talks to her mother (a cameo by Dunye's mum), an old friend of the star and a film buff who provides information on the watermelon woman's white lover, director Martha Page.

Bi–racial relationships are a bit of a focal point here. Cheryl has been eyed up by Diana (the glorious Guinevere Turner) leading to some extreme close–ups of their sexual tryst, after which Cheryl claims to be 'in shock' as 'hip–swinging lesbians ain't my thing.' Tamara is also rankled by the burgeoning relationship. 'Nice bone structure if you're into white girls,' she spits, with more than a touch of venom. She invites Cheryl and her new lay to dinner, but along with her girlfriend, Tamara could well be accused of stirring racial tension. Of course, I could have misunderstood: it could have all been a clever pastiche or simple role–reversal as Cheryl seems perturbed by her friend's antagonistic attitude towards her 'wannabe black girlfriend'.

All this action is spliced with her eternal pursuit. Cheryl interviews the loathsome Camille Paglia (who whacks off her theories on reclaiming the watermelon as a positive black symbol) and Sarah Schulman surfaces as curator of the CLIT archive (who has thrown black history, unmarked and randomly, into a box). Cheryl starts to run into stone walls but suddenly, everything slots neatly into place when Cheryl discovers the Watermelon Woman's lover of 20 years, who remembers some 'unpleasant things about the past' (exactly what is never revealed) and asks, 'Why include a white woman in your movie?'

Despite the low–grade video and the sub–standard sound, it certainly is an stimulating movie, not least for the fact that Dunye invented the Watermelon Woman — claiming that, 'Sometimes you have to create your own history' — and faking old archive footage. Dunye spent prolonged portions of the film complaining bitterly about the lack of documented black history: call me stupid, but why not choose one of those we know little about? Maybe it's easier to point the finger than use it to flip any pages.

Gay Xchange

Commercial

Doesn't it send shivers up your spine when we have a groundbreaking, historical moment? On October 18, the first-ever gay TV commercial blazed onto Channel 4, a 30-second ad plying the wares of the 0891 Gay Xchange, which "encourages gay and bisexual men to make contact with men". Not a wholly original concept, but certainly a new way of getting the message across.

And of course, the BACC immediately imposed a broadcasting curfew on it, despite the fact that the ad was completely innocuous. In fact, it was so similiar in bland layout and stymied attitude to all of those 0891 ads of the 1980's, it was actually frightening.

From the opening shot (a thrice-split screen showcasing three blue-eyed blondes who stare somewhat vacuously in the direction of a camera lens) to the final group shot, where the five lads jig nervously about while pretending to be interested in the conversation, it was Dullsville UK.

The choice of models - "gorgeous guys" says the PR includes Mr Gay UK - Mr Gay UK, Lance Trimble and that Prince of Perfect Pectals, Mark Anthony. All of the chaps are white, three are fake blondes, two are dark and four have blue eyes, so a good effort at representation there.

They were all - in their own sweet ways - beautiful but the action itself (for want of a far better word) was quite pitiful. One snapped photographs, one bopped woefully, listening to his Walkman, and the others mainly stood around, gamely but lamely.

I know they only had 30 seconds, and I wasn't expecting a grand dame affair, but all of the lads look about as comfortable as Bernard Manning wearing a full-length ballgown and diamante. Let's hope potential users of the service have a bit more oomph.

Geraldo: Power Dykes  Sky One

Friends: The One With The Lesbian Wedding Ch 4

Celluloid Closet Ch 4

Dark Secrets: A Shot Of Manhood BBC2

Enter Achilles BBC2

With Great Pleasure: Angela Mason Radio 4

The Tablecloth Trick Radio 4

Elton John: Tantrums & Tiaras LWT

Adult Ricki: I Have AIDS and I'm Spreading It Ch4

I've been cabled. I expected a whole new world of television but now I find I have 41 channels with nothing on instead of four. The satellite world is filled with talk shows as well and I can't seem to avoid them. I pray for a day when gay issues are not confined to the likes of Oprah, Sally, Gabrielle or Jerry Springer but for now, there's Geraldo (Sky One). He's a swarthy, moustachioed macho man with a perfect coiffure, immaculate teeth and a huge range of polo neck jumpers. He recently tackled Power Dykes, bringing on the cream of American lesbian chic onto his stage. Don't imagine this was a serious show. No. I couldn't take it so. Geraldo began by saying that "Lesbian chic is a reality" (for who, I wonder?) but then asked "What is an average dyke?" Who knows? The panel, including Pamela Snee, Victoria Starr and the droll Maggie Cassella, certainly didn't. The audience sat with a collective confused expression. No matter. Geraldo ploughed on. "Now lesbians are accepted by America..." he announced, to mirth from the panel. More chuckling greeted a clip from Claire Of The Moon but the audience missed the target completely. It showed during question time, with those classics "Why are you dressed as a man? Can't you make up your mind?" and "What do you find in a woman that you don't in a man?" Yes, lesbians have been truly accepted, wouldn't you say?

Friends (C4) has featured a lesbian couple since the second series and it has been widely rumoured that Chandler is going to come out. Gay references abound. One episode featured Phoebe's estranged gay husband who was really straight. "Do your parents know?" she asked. "It's okay," he replied. "My brother's straight too." And yes, lesbians are tolerated on this show to a point where there a lesbian wedding took place, officiated by none other than Candace Gingrich. The cameo of the evening however came from Lea Delaria, who proffered herself to Phoebe.

Ex–husband Ross didn't take to the idea of lesbian nuptials. It's enough for him that his child is being brought up by them. "So, who's the bitterest man in the living room?" asked Chandler. Adding to his dilemma, his sister Monica was drafted in to cater ("Tell me if this is too cute. Lesbian wedding... chicken breasts") while red–blooded Joey felt slightly fidgety at the wedding. "I feel like Superman without my powers," he grouched. "I have my cape but I can't fly." Despite the constant, hackneyed carping from certain quarters that Friends is "schmaltzy, bland" and thoroughly irritating, I find it fills a half–hour quite adequately.

Finding a way to satisfactorily fill two hours is a different matter. I tried with The Celluloid Closet (C4) I really did, but I came away feeling as if I'd had a cinematic Chinese meal. I know it must have been hard to cram one hundred years of gay films into 120 minutes. I know it must have been difficult to get gay actors to talk about their experience. It must have been nigh–on impossible to get a clip of Salmonberries or anything by Ed Wood. Or even Victor / Victoria which was mentioned in the running order but remained invisible. Maybe C4 sliced it. I'm sure it was hard enough having to deal with Lily Tomlin's revolving closet door. But, lavish and illuminating though it was, it felt as if its heart wasn't beating as vigorously as it could have. It's a shame that Armistead Maupin always has such a formidable battle on his hands whenever he wants to schedule a slice of gay life on screen. Maybe if the American paymasters weren't so tight–arsed when it came to gay content, there would have been a series which would have explored the subject in greater depth. Dream on...

In Britain, it seems the discipline of censorship is a little less dictatorial. If I lie, how could a programme like Dark Secrets (BBC2) ever be shown? I mean, lesbians on testosterone. What a horrifying thought. A group of self–professed unique women were paraded, lauding the increase in energy, the boost in libido, the additional muscle mass, the sprouting of their clitoris, extra hair growth, coarsening skin and changes in facial structure that injections of the male hormone gave them. But these women didn't wish they'd been born to be male although they all thought they looked more masculine. Well they did, except for the thicker neck, large hands, fatter backside, smaller head, slight physique, wider hips, narrower feet (shod in Testoni shoes, I kid you not) and thinner ankles.

The producers's remit was ambiguous, the programme itself extemporaneous and jumbled. I have a natural imbalance of testosterone and it makes me totally rambunctious. It pisses me off and I still look pathetic in a suit. Viewing these women screwing with nature by forming fake phalluses from hair gel, condoms and Slime Eggsª on the Flaccid Prosthetics Shopping Network (pur–lease, I was eating breakfast) could only be considered voyeuristic. Any questions that this process brought up where completely ignored by the programme makers. No–one said why they were infusing themselves with this hormone, except for "I always want to act like a gentleman." No doctors offered an opinion and there was no reaction from family, friends, lovers or haters. Maybe a topic looks interesting on paper but that doesn't mean it has enough actual substance to fill 30 minutes.

More rubber, with Enter Achilles (BBC2), the latest piece from DV8 Physical Theatre. Blew my tiny mind. I loved it but that's not saying I could entirely comprehend it. Was it about homophobia or homophilia? Was it a queerbashing or a ritual initiation? Was it about tolerance? Bravado? Bonding? Could I have been wrong when I thought it was strange to see men objectifying each other, not knowing if it was a sexually motivated gaze or one of utter ridicule? Was it just about being lads – the mock fights and horseplay, darts, air guitar and puking? Was the final scene, in which the players ruthlessly batter a blow–up doll, misogynistic? Never mind. I don't suppose I'll ever interpret modern dance (or modern art) but the performers showed weightless fluidity yet obvious strength throughout, gliding around and smashing into each other with consummate energy and an aesthetic rarely seen on television now. Round of applause too for the lighting which was tremendously atmospheric.

After last month's faux pas with the tape for With Great Pleasure (Radio 4) with Angela Mason, I was sent a brand new copy. And grand it was too (although there's something about Mason's voice that's better suited to mime) with Michael Cashman's reading of "Little Dorrit", excerpts from "The Well Of Loneliness", Anne Bannon and Holly Johnson's "A Bone In My Flute", Armistead Maupin's infamous coming out letter and a love poem by Gertrude Stein read by Pam St Clement. Stonewall was never far from Angela's lips, and she ended with the speech made by Tony Blair during the age of consent debað8te, as a "reminder of how far we've come." So far ahead are we that Tony's forgotten about us but it's nice that Mason should remember those heady days.

Due to restriction of deadlines, I couldn't tune into The Tablecloth Trick (Radio 4) presented by Communard–turned–Catholic Richard Coles because it hasn't aired yet, but it sounds jolly interesting. I'm keeping an ear out for the final instalment where he discusses the difficulties and solutions that religion presents when dealing with sex and sexuality with Peter Tatchell. Check back next month.

And now to the programme of the month: Elton John: Tantrums & Tiaras (LWT). Not because it was especially scintillating, brilliant or extraordinary but because it fulfilled the constant craving of public for raking over a celebrity's life. Filmed during 1995 by Elton's lover David Furnish, I'm surprised he let the result on air. It was a litany of awkward and cringing moments. Sir Humphrey Hairbag was seen pinching cheeks, crushing his PA's testicles and saying "Fuck" more times than any Quentin Tarantino cast could do without collapsing.

From my armchair, Elton came out of it quite badly. For the most part, he acted like a sad, vicious queen, desperate for a spotlight on and off stage. He is obsessive about his chart position (but denies it), is awfully abusive of his PA (who bears the skin of a rhino) and berates or slags anything that isn't quite to his taste. I don't understand this man. He claims to be uncomfortable enough with himself to refuse video shoots, but wears a tight bubblegum–pink vinyl suit and that hair.

All this paled before the face of his puerile tantrum on a tennis court in France. Having stomped off and declaring he would never return, he finally explained why he had been so annoyed: "This bloody woman near the court waving at me, 'Yo–hoo!' and it pissed me off. I'm always being waved at." Comes with the territory... All the vitamins, M&S muffins, HP sauce, prescription glasses (divided by colour groups), infinite racks of suits, jackets, silk shirts, waistcoats etc. and two tiaras don't help. Shopping for half a dozen shirts, scores of ties, jackets, albums, feathered hats, trainers, glassware and prints doesn't help either. Even Beechy Cloclough (Elton's and GMTV's resident therapist) can't help. "You're talking about me like some fucking piece of soap powder," he grouched. "One more fucking interview... I've had enough," he sulked. "I just want to get out of here." If he hates it all that much, maybe he should just jump off the gravy train. His music's been crap since he stopped taking drugs anyway.

Elton really flunked out was in his response to the AIDS pandemic. I know the man is a saint, what with the charity and donations, but to say that the deaths of "too fucking many" people is "just really, really boring" seemed tactless to say the least. No doubt he realised the ramifications of the statement, and a nice little speech about it being "his job to repay the debt" of not being HIV+ was edited in.

But that wasn't a patch on Gwen, a guest on Adult Ricki (C4). She had been diagnosed HIV+ after having a blood transfusion because she "stuck a coat hanger in my vagina" to affect an abortion. Enraged, she decided to "wipe out as many men as possible by intentionally infecting them with AIDS" saying it was "my gift to them" for not using a condom. "I wanna take at least 1000 out," she said, smiling, "and really enjoy doin' it. I'm proud of it."

I'd question whether Ricki was up to this. Faced with a woman who has human papilloma virus, she said, "So basically," Ricki says, "AIDS isn't the only STD that kills?" Duh! Go Ricki! The audience were rightly horrified and indignant but their vocal anger was muted. "You're an idiot," said one. Yeah, that'll scare Gwen into changing her behaviour. "I know they can't get rid of it. That's why I'm giving it to them." Someone yelled, "But do two wrongs make a right?" but Gwen blithely ignored them. "I hope I bump into one of your boyfriends or husbands..." For the first time ever, I'm inclined to agree with the right–wing philosophy that, for people like Gwen, tattooing, prison or sectioning might be the only res1solution, but meanwhile, get them off my TV set.

© 1996-2001 Megan Radclyffe

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