For the past three years I have been making a movie which I am just now finishing. When I first conceived the idea and started writing the script in 1973 I was straight, although I had stopped related to men long before. Now the film is finished and I am have have been for two years a Dyke.
The long process of working on the difficult project has taken place a the same time as vast changes in consciousness and perspective that go along with becoming a Dyke and getting involved in the Lesbian community. These two processes, working on the film and coming out, have been very much interrelated. At time in an exciting and illuminating way, and times with great conflict and anxiety.
Working on one project over such a long period while my whole personal and political vision was radically altered created a dynamic which as helped me to see some things about Lesbian culture as a spectator and as a creator.
I started out in my first year of graduate film school with the idea that I wanted to make a film about menstruation. I wanted it to be a kind of rite of passage for an experience which men's society treats as both divinely ordained and unmentionable. As I continued thinking about it I came to feel that the best way to do this would be to place the experience in the context of the life of an adolescent girl.
In the past, when I was straight, m films had often surprised me by revealing feelings that I was not aware of having. I would find myself watching the little movies I had made and being shocked at how angry or isolated the women in them were. when I finished writing the script for this film I understood that I had written about the atmosphere of female adolescence of which menstruation is certainly a part, but that mostly the script had come to describe the growth of a relationship between two fourteen year old girls. the self-censorship, the longing and the healing potential of feelings between young girls and the massive and subtle acculturation which minimizes the value of these feelings and separates us from each other while we're young became the substance of the movie I began to make. Looking at the script I saw the emotional and political implications of the experiences I was describing and the ways in which my own life was still controlled by the same conditioning process I was trying to portray. Without further drama I gradually began identifying as and speaking about myself as a Lesbian.
The integrations of this identification into my work was far from complete. during the months long process of raising the money from grants, scholarships, interested Lesbians, my parents, my own savings, and during the six weeks of shooting, I went through all kinds of difficulties directly related to Lesbian oppression and quite in addition to the regular pressures and agonies everyone goes through during shooting.
The whole ugly process of writing proposals asking for money from various foundations was complicated by the necessity to change the language and tone in descriptions of of what was, after all, a film about friendship. My earlier experiences with foundations had shown me that they feel that intimacy and connections between women, however chaste, as a sustaining ideal is a threatening and inappropriate theme for support. In subtle ways the version I was presenting to the authorities began to creep into my own understanding of what I was doing. The emphasis began changing from the process of two girls moving towards each other back to that of a single girl going through some characteristically adolescent experiences. fortunately I realized what has happening, so that during the actual shooting I went back to my original plan and I tried to avoid situations that would put me in the position of having to explain or justify what I was doing to prob ably hostile people. for instance, I asked the young girls who acted in the film not ot bring th script home to their parents, who I felt might be upset about some of the specific scenes and general tone. They all felt that was a good idea even seemed relieved, and we continued to proceed in that fashion whenever necessary.
From that atmosphere where what we were doing seemed daring, even clandestine, I began the solitary process of editing. this stage was far more leisurely at first. A lot of m energy was being directed into coming out, meeting women, doing various things in the Lesbian community and earning a living. So the time spent of the film was broken up in a different way than it had been.
At this point with the film shot and the material before me, I started feeling that it might not be 'politically correct.' I felt that perhaps the relationship between the two girls was too ambiguous, that the feelings between them were not overt enough, that they were middle class, white, suburban, inhibited and not entirely conscious politically. In short, many of the attitudes I had chosen to portray in order to make the characters and the part of their experience I was talking about specific and individual now seemed like a problem and limitation to me.
I began manipulating the material in an effort to make out of it a definitive Lesbian film. that is, a film that would somehow touch on all the major aspects of Lesbian experiences as I was coming to see them and would speak to all Lesbians. In some ways I lost sight of what he original vision had been in my effort to to do this. What i was making was a kind of conceptual hybrid, like one of those cartoon creatures with the head of one animal, the body of another and the tail of a third. Of course it didn't work.
Eventually I realized what was happening. I had gotten trapped by what was essentially a male concept, that of the 'definitive' work. The idea that a work of art can be and ought to try to be the ultimate statement about a particular thing or experience comes out of competitive, hierarchical perspective in which life is seen as essentially static and therefore containable. Male culture is riddled with this kind of thinking. Every book or film review, every art magazine or architectural journal is full of comparisons and ratings in which work is often discussed in terms of how close it come to being the definitive statement about a particular thing or how far it goes towards becoming "the state of the art."
These kinds of notions, because they are static and objective, easily lead to the obligations of universality as another standard of value. somehow the idea has taken root that the value of a work is dependent of its having universality-appeal to the many. I can remember being taught this concept in high school when teachers would say that this or that poem or novel was great or 'a classic' because of its universality. Everyone could and it was implied ought to respond to it. The fight that this response might sometimes depend on setting aside, however temporarily, one's own experience, for instance as a Lesbian, and allowing oneself to be seduced by the vision of the author was not discussed.
I think this pressure to be 'definitive' and 'universal' exists within the Lesbian community as well. We are particularly susceptible to it not only because were raised in male society where such ideas dominate, but also because of the extreme scarcity of the opportunity and ther relatively small number of cultural products we have the resources to produce. This scarcity creates a situation in which each thing we do has the expectation put on it that it will speak about or to with an awareness of the many racial, class, ethnic and personal realities that exist among Lesbians. Because we have as yet so voices and outlets for Lesbian identified expressions, there is pressure on those who do create to be all things to all Lesbians. This is, of course, impossible. It is also limiting in that it moves us away form the expression of nuances and particulars and towards the portrayal of our experience in terms of simple generalities, and visual, verbal cliches.
I don't mean that we should not struggle to become conscious of the class and ethnic conditions that effect us and attempt to integrate this into our art. On the contrary it's the recognition of these realities and in respect for them that we should demand for ourselves the right to create, with whatever resources we have, out of our own individual interest and vision.
As Lesbians, we are in the difficult position of being at the same tome both culturally dispossessed and culturally sophisticated. That is, systematically excluded from the means and perhaps even the will to self-expression, so that even those few Lesbians who have found a voice in a patriarchal world have done so often at great cost. Beyond that we still have to struggle to reconnect with those voices which even as they were formed have been suppressed, contained and absorbed. Middle class women are encouraged to appreciate and consume the products of "great art," to become as far as it is seemly and decorative in in a woman, versed and comfortable in that world- as spectator, patroness, fan and, the jackpot, Inspiration. To do this is a social plus and one of the main way class is measured even among us. Therefor it is also one of the main and most vicious ways wer have been set against each other. For Lesbians to recapture our cultural roots and create the elements of our future we must refuse the term of competition upon which the value of art and experience are determined in a patriarchal world.
All the active encouragement we have received to be culturally passive has had and still has an effect on the way we relate to Lesbian culture. It is interesting that by far the most popular Lesbian culture is music. Concerts are the best attended events i most communities and Lesbian musicians are 'stars' and the most nationally known women in the Lesbian community.
There are probably all kind of reasons why this is so. One f them is that music is a way we can be together as Lesbians and relate to each other through an experience which would seem to break down class and other barriers between us. But it is also true that we have been molded as consumers and music is one product we are accustomed to consume. It is quite possible to receive and be entertained by music and remain essentially passive. It can require a less active participation on the part of the listener than most other cultural activities. It seems a ttimes to offer a non-idiological refuge from troublesome political considerations.
Recently at a Lesbian concert in New York, there was a dispute about the men who were there. Some women wanted to talk after the concert about the fact that the men were there. Other women were angry that these women had brought it up and wanted to forget it. What I heard being said was, "we're here to have fun and enjoy the show, we don't want to get into politics." This seems like a pretty depressing division to me. It seems in the Lesbian movement that we're attempting to create a situation where enjoyment does not have to depend on forgetting one's politics. Our feelings, ideas, awareness don't have to be set aside in order for us to be entertained
In the August issue of The Lesbian Tide there is an article by Penny Grenoble about Lesbian culture in which she observes that so far we have not come up with any new forms comparable to the development of of such things as political mime and so forth in the 60's. My feeling is that we are in the process of evolving new forms but that these will derive slowly from the substance and spirit of what we are saying to each other and will not be invented and then imposed on what we do
For instance, when I started making my film, Getting Ready, I realized I wanted to make a film which would depend on women who saw it summoning up feelings about their own adolescent bodies in order to respond to it. I wanted to make a film which would not require passivity. Politically what that amounts to is not being interested in propaganda. I don't want to make films to change women's minds. I want to make films out of my own feelings which invite women to call up their own understanding of whatever is being talked about. This political choice had had a big effect of the form and look of my own work. I see the effects of the various political struggles we go through as Lesbians reflected in the form of the work of other Lesbian identified artists.
Through this work process I came to see more clearly that no one product or event can or should be expected to express the totality of Lesbian awareness. We are more complex than that. Anything which illuminates an aspect of our lives, however small, is a subversive and valuable act.
About Janet Meyers film Getting Ready HERE in
Now You See It: Studies in Lesbian and Gay Film
By Richard Dyer, Julianne Pidduck
The Theme For Getting Ready was written for the film and performed by Alix Dobkin. Available HERE
In her songbook, Alix Dobkin's Adventures In Women's Music (Tomato Pubications 1979) Alix writes:
Theme From Getting Ready in which the melody of the chorus was written for Janet Meyer's highly acclaimed film, Getting Ready, expresses appreciation for the creative and loving powers of women. the verses detail some of the well known destructive behavior of men now and throughout the ages. It is basically and angry song pinpointing a few of the more blatent ways in which men make a mess out of everything they touch. It chronicles some crimes of the patriarchy and points out how misearable the rule of men is and has always been, especially for women. I tried to convey the shocking breadth and depth of patriarchal horror so often excused or ignored by otherwise insightful women. In a world where men's classic stupidity and violence is taken for granted as merely our "way of life" and ascribed to "human nature."