“There is something magical about being in the dark, with a group of people you’ve never met before, responding to the film as one.” – Tony Comstock, September 2006, An Open Letter Regarding the Cancelled QueerDOC Screening of DAMON AND HUNTER
Last Saturday night Peggy and I enjoyed a rare treat. We got to see one of our films play in a theater, in front of people who paid for their seats, and find out of BRETT AND MELANIE had what it takes to meld a group of strangers into that most magical of all entertainment entities – an audience!
Well I am pleased to report that BRETT AND MELANIE was up to the task!
From the opening stanza the audience laughed, chuckled, guffawed, snickered, sighed, chortled, and murmured at all the right places for all the right reasons. During the unfamiliar experience of sitting through an extended, explicit sex scene, the audience stayed right there with the film. No restless shifting in the seats; no nervous giggles. And when the scene (and Brett and Melanie) reached its climax, a warm sense of pleasurable resolution washed over the room. Then the credits rolled, the audience applauded. It was lovely.
Of course what was a rare treat for me was a rare experience for the audience as well.
Where the depiction of sex is concerned, there are well-observed lines in cinema, and (for a variety of reasons) films that cross those lines are vanishingly rare, and even then, when a film does cross these lines, the manner of the transgression is well proscribed.
Even at fellow panelist Lisa Vandever’s Cinekink Film Festival, a festival devoted to sexuality and eroticism in cinema, less than a third of the films presented contain any explicit sexuality. This isn’t squeamishness on Lisa’s part. She’d love to show more explicit erotic films, but says it’s nearly impossible to find depictions of sex that are sufficiently engaging to hold an audience’s attention in a theatrical setting. (More about the how and why of this at TheIntentToArouse.com).
Against these proscriptions, the chance to be a part of an audience and to watch a film about the grown-up pleasure and joy of love and sex that actually shows what grown-up love and sex looks like is not an experience you can have at the local cineplex, or even at the local indie arthouse.
No, to have the experience requires collaboration between filmmaker, venue, and people willing to take a chance on something most of them probably have never done before, and that is a rare collaboration indeed!
And then of course there’s the fact that Brett and Melanie are a lesbian couple. Or as my co-panelist and Velvet Park editor Diana Cage put it in her post promoting the screening:
How often do you get to see films with a real lesbian couple talking frankly about their relationship and sex life, having sex, and genuinely being authentic and open? What? Never, you say? Oh yeah, I forgot, lesbians are a completely underrepresented minority in popular culture. We rarely see images of ourselves, and the ones we are treated to are often exploitative, or vaguely unappealing.
Indeed, how often do any of us get to see any couple, gay or straight, black or white or any other color “talking frankly about their relationship and sex life, having sex, and genuinely being authentic and open?” Regardless of who you love or how you love, the answer is: almost never.
Diana’s response to the film was effusive, and during the panel she talked about the affirming aspect of seeing women she identified with up on the screen, treated as if their lives, their story, their erotic nature was every bit as worthy of being celebrated as anyone else; and the normalizing effect of seeing that two women having sex with one another, something described as “queer” really isn’t so queer. That when it’s placed in the context of love, it seems as natural and normal and beautiful as any other aspect of the human experience.
Which brings me to my favorite reactions to the film, which are simulaniously paradoxical and yet completely consonent with one another.
The first is from Grace Moon, founder of Velvet Park:
This movie was pretty amazing. Kudos to Tony for making the most lesbionic docu-real-world flick I’ve seen in like… ever.
The second was from a straight woman who was there with her documentary filmmaker boyfriend:
I didn’t really feel like I was watching a “sex film” or “queer cinema”. I felt like I was watching a movie about two people who love each other very much – and what could be more human that that?
I’m not religious, but I used to do a fair amount of documentary work that told stories from an explicitly religious point of view. When I made these films I was always trying to tell the stories in a way that would make people who shared the religious convictions of my subjects feel affirmed without doing it in a way that would make people from a different religious background, or no religious background feel excluded; and in my mind the key to doing that was to make sure that when I was telling a religious story that I was telling a human story as well.
I try to do this in the films I make about love and sex too.
Throughout the entire process I keep it in my head that every one who watches one of my films is going to come to it with their own unique life experience — about sex, gender, race, even about the very act of watching a film of other people having sex — and I want to make films that are as welcoming as I can make them, without denying the inherent eroticism of the subject matter, or betraying or denying the humanity and life experience of the people in my films.
But whatever my hopes and intentions, there’s no real way to know if this has been accomplished without seeing the film play in a theater, in front of a group of strangers and find out if the film can transform them into an audience.
Thanks again to Union Docs and Colin Weatherby for giving me that chance; to Diana Cage and Lisa Vandever for basking in the afterglow with me; to my wife Peggy for her support and partnership all the way along; and most of all, to the people who came out to Union Docs and took a chance on something rare. There is something magical about sitting in the dark, with a group of people you’ve never met before, responding to a film as one. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.