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Friday, 23 March 2012

Dreams of a new life

Last weekend was the opening of the 26th Lesbian and Gay Film Festival held annually at the BFI on the Southbank. Twenty years ago when I was at art college in Cardiff, I was invited up to London by one of my fine art tutors to watch the opening film. She had decided that my avant-garde black and white 16mm film I'd made entitled 'Death by Biscuit' was good enough to show at a future festival. The film consisted of a static close-up of two pairs of un-socked feet sticking out the end of a bed, with only the flickering of a TV lighting the shot. I had made the illusion of the light from the TV by flapping my hands in front of a 'red head' (technical name for a type of spot-light). The soundtrack was a script I'd written imitating the melodramatic style of a 1940's 'women's film'. The brief synopsis to the film was, a woman chokes her husband to death with ginger biscuits so she can run off with her female lover.

My tutor led me to believe that the programmers would think it was fantastic. (It turned out that my tutor thought it was my long legs that were fantastic. In a real life replay of The Graduate, she was a butch, short-haired Mrs Robinson and I was a slightly more feminine Dustin Hoffman.) 
With the film I was aiming for something subversive yet humorous. I knew the film was unclear, fragmented and possibly stupid. Anyhow, I arrived with the two film cans under my arm, dry mouthed and faint because I'd convinced myself that if they liked my film, I would be straight on the next plane to Hollywood. I panicked that I wasn't prepared for fame or success without having put in enough leg work.

At the BFI, I was led, tutor in tow, down a corridor into a small screening room, by a woman with a BFI festival pass dangling round her neck. Part of me wanted the film to be successful so I could get one of these passes, which was a hangover from never getting a Jim'll Fix It badge. I remember sitting alongside the women in the darkened room, my tutor in the middle, fretting in silence in case I was grilled about what the film meant. It finished, the programmer stood up, smiled and said thank you, yeah, great. We shook hands. Nothing happened. No phone numbers were swapped, no hint of a commission or even a pint of lager. I was relieved, I could go and stand in the bar with all the other normals, the ones who watched films and didn't have the burden of making them. It was gut-wrenchingly painful having to watch something I'd made, that wasn't good enough, get enlarged onto a screen and then watch it with strangers. I imagine its a similar feeling to watching your bandy legged, tone deaf child, tap dance and sing, then fall off the stage. 

This BFI moment reminds me of how my Mum approaches the lottery, which demonstrates how I was brought up to think about ambition. Every Saturday, Mum watches the Lotto draw live on TV and every week as the coloured balls fall down into a line along the metal rack, she holds her breath in case she wins. Every week she decides at that very moment of the numbers making themselves known, that she doesn't want to win in case it's just too much, too life changing.

Ambitious means: intended to satisfy high aspirations and therefore it is difficult to achieve. The film festival this week has inspired me to try to make another film. It's going to be digital this time. I have no idea what it will be about, but I know myself better now so it'll be a bit clearer than Death by Biscuit. I know you don't make films to make money, in the same way that you don't write books to get rich quick or you play the lottery to get a yacht. It's about dreaming up what you dare to dream and making it materialise. Its about daring yourself to write something that will change your life.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Culty Lesbian London

The other day, I went to the wonderful Curzon Cinema Soho where I watched Martha Marcy May Marlene. It's a film about what happens to your identity when you get entangled in a cult. Without giving too much away, the main character gets called by a series of names beginning with M, therefore diluting and unravelling her sense of self. She escapes (whoops, just gave too much away) though remains fractured throughout.

Once, I changed my name to Tom. It was when I began art college, I believed no one would remember the rather suburban Karen, surely everyone would a Tom. Little did I know then it was an old slang word for a lesbian and soon I would become the Tom I had called myself. People I knew from those days still call me it today and it strangely jars if they ever call me Karen. My friends who've always known me as Karen dislike me being called Tom in their company, as if I'm suddenly not the person they've always known. I still grow hot under the collar when the two worlds collide.

I don't know much about cults but I did brush alongside a couple in the late 90's. The first I witnessed taking place at The Candy Bar, Soho. It had a successful, loyal following and was the only predominately lesbian bar in those days. But soon I realised I wasn't quite what the disciples were looking for. The group of moody-faced lesbians who hung out there didn't want to initiate a round-hipped girly girl like me. Small hips, spiky hair do's and boy trousers seemed to equal a fashionable dominant robustness and a parade of sexual steeliness that I had no hope of ever pulling off, unless I became anorexic and stopped eating garlic baguettes.

Where was the cult of the feminine lady-loving beauties with an edge, I asked myself?

My question was soon answered when I had an adventure with a group of women who lived in a house in Walthamstow. The odd thing about them was that they lived in a different era. I was asked to visit by Miss Martindale, the head-mistress of the house. I'd met her when I was a contestant in Amy Lame's (Duckie host extraordinaire) 'First Ever Lesbian Beauty Contest'. Amy was challenging the lesbian community and world at large with putting this event together and all the contestants understood and wanted to subvert the stifling dominant image of the butch Lesbiana Kingdom. We thought it was time for all shapes and shades of femaleness to come out into the open. We wanted to say, yes you can like Karen Carpenter and Julie Andrews and wear false eyelashes whilst having the desire to kiss a lady. We thought lipstick and eye shadow and females parading around as bold as drag queens (who understood that that part of our femininity was all about drag) should be released like glitter onto the masculine dominated world at large. Maybe, in a small way things shifted (although the crown did leave on a bull-dyke's head).
Soon after the furore of the beauty contest dissipated, Miss Martindale invited me along to one of their open evenings. They held these to recruit girls from the outside world, which she referred to as the The Pit. She told me previously that I should not wear trousers but a nice dress. She picked me up at the tube station wearing lace gloves and hat with a net veil pulled over one eye. When I entered Aristasia, as their invented world was known, a maid in a wig took the bottle of wine out my hands and brought it back in a glass decanter. Later, when I pulled out my cigarettes, the maid was called in again and the fags were removed from the box and slotted into a silver cigarette case. Any reminder of modern day living was swiftly discarded. Miss Martindale explained they lived in the 1940's or thereabouts, sometime before TV and before there was too much plastic. She asked me what I would like to be called for the evening. I chose the name Belinda Light, after the American cigarettes in the case. As we chatted on, I was encouraged to think whether Belinda Light was blonde or brunette. Blondes were weak and likely to need punishment and brunettes were the ones in charge. Though she did explain that you could possess both types of character within you. Belinda Light I figured was blonde with a surname like that.
During the evening we drank sherry, listened to the gramophone, and had a very long poetry reading given by a lady with a hair-lip called Alice. I felt excited, but nervous. I knew something was up when Miss Martindale left the room to change into a new persona for the third time. Early on Miss Martindale's character (true or not I wasn't sure) had been a woman in her early fifties with long oily-black hair but her third incarnation was as a young girl with pig-tails, silly and naughty. Her overacting as she bounded about the room, fluttering her eyelashes and looking to be told off made me feel nauseous. I told myself that this might be because everything was so foreign. But really, I know it now as a body signal from my stomach to say I should get my coat. But, in spite of feeling uncomfortable, I stayed, because being able to play out being someone else with a group of strangers was liberating.
When it was time to leave, Miss Martindale, still in her teenage persona, drove me into London. She didn't believe in seat belts as they were a sign of a law outside of Aristasia and she drove madly and too fast, overtaking cars, finally dropping me off by Nelson's Column, parking up on the pavement. As I left the car, she invited me to join the house, and I said I would think about it. I understood that once in the house I would have to cut all communication with family and friends. On the one hand I was really interested in playing with new identities, but on the other I wasn't into the corporeal punishment that I knew they all enjoyed. Miss Martindale enticed me by saying there were houses like hers in Cambridge and Paris, but they were closed to visitors. I imagined, dotted across the world, these small contained liberated universes of women changing selves as they saw fit.
 I went back to Penge and the phone rang repeatedly with Miss Martindale's number appearing on my answer machine. What was I so afraid of? I was autonomous, I could have left at any time I wanted. Then one day I took a deep breath and answered the call. Would you like to come and stay the weekend? She asked in her precise, posh voice. I said I was sorry, but I loved my mother too much to leave her. I would miss her cauliflower cheese, and the dog. What about walking the Cocker Spaniel? Although it was an old-fashioned answer, the phone soon stopped ringing. My Penge roots holding me safe, or, holding me back from adventure, I wasn't sure.

The documentary showing the world of Miss Martindale as it was then in 1997.