Six essential books on lesbian cinema

The Club des Femmes collective delve into the BFI Reuben Library to select six key books on lesbian film.

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So Mayer , Selina Robertson , Sarah Wood
Updated:

Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich

As Sarah Wood says of Marlene Dietrich’s love letters, “much remains untranslated in the history of cinema”, and lesbian filmmakers, film historians, critics and biographers have had to be notably cunning linguists. Reading between the lines of classical Hollywood gossip, recentring out-and-proud modernists such as Colette, whose queerness had been obscured, penning passionate tributes to hard-to-see experimental films and videos, lesbian film scholars (often filmmakers and/or curators themselves) are the lifeblood of a cinema that always risks disappearing. If we’re going to survive, we need Barbara Hammer’s “dyketactics” and – as Liz Gibbs titles her book – the “daring to dissent”, and we find them in these books.

Colette at the Movies: Criticism and Screenplays

Colette at the movies: Criticism and screenplays, 1980 book cover

Who’s the person you’d most like to take to the cinema? After reading this collection my answer would undoubtedly be Colette.

When she writes from the position of a spectator, Colette is playful and truthful. She chuckles along, for instance, with a Rome audience as they notice the giant decorative cross that accidentally redacts the groin of an overwrought melodrama heroine. But she also regards cinema with the eye of the pioneering writer and artist she was. She critiques the gender politics that already codify and limit film language and imagines instead cinema’s future potential.

Transgressive. Visionary. Colette. I’m off to the movies with her.

Sarah Wood

Abigail Child, This Is Called Moving

Marlene Dietrich: Greta Garbo storsta konkurrent (photobook)

Marlene Dietrich book cover

I once visited a Berlin museum that displayed love letters between Marlene Dietrich and Mercedes de Acosta. The letters were thrillingly explicit – if you read German. Much remains untranslated in the history of cinema.

In the BFI vaults, we uncovered Marlene Dietrich: Greta Garbo storsta konkurrent. How great to look at pictures of these two glorious stars! But think as well of de Acosta, the lover, who unites both. Before decriminalisation, a photobook like this spoke a hidden thrill.
 
As the 21st century threatens hard-won freedoms, we have Abigail Child, whose work reveals the power-play behind the image. This Is Called Moving is an essential act of translation.

Sarah Wood

Ulrike Ottinger, Madame X [facsimile script]

Madame X - eine absolute Herrscherin, 1999 book cover

Turn Madame X’s hard front page and there is a handwritten dedication written by Ulrike Ottinger: “For Jan, with the very best patés and smoked herring, XXX Ulrike, Christmas Day 1979”.

This is typical Ottinger – New Queer German Cinema’s utmost lesbian buccaneer, lover of Tabea Blumenschein, the film’s costumier and Madame X, “the narcissistic charismatic pirate queen of the eastern seas” herself. Andrea Weiss’s book Vampires and Violets (also on current display at the BFI library) calls Ottinger’s goal “visual pleasure for women”. Production notes, storyboard, scrapbook and sound mix in one, the script gives a behind-the-scenes, inspirational, ripping high-seas Sapphic yarn like no other.

Selina Robertson

Bev Zalcock, Renegade Sisters: Girl Gangs on Film

Renegade Sisters cover

“We don’t owe nobody and we don’t make no deals, we’re swinging chicks on motors, we’re man eaters, on wheels!” (The Man Eaters, from the 1968 film She-Devils on Wheels)

These badass bitchin’ lines are spoken by one of the many magnificent girl gangs, from women in prison and boarding schools to female hot rod racers and queercore girls, explored in this phenomenally fun and theoretically informed book. Cleopatra Jones, St Trinians, even Muff Match (starring a young Amy Lamé) get a thorough shake-down by Zalcock, an underground filmmaker whose Fireworks Revisited (1994) – a dyke homage to Kenneth Anger – is worth seeking out.

Selina Robertson

Martha Gever, John Greyson and Pratibha Parmar, eds. Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video

Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video, 1993 book cover

Queer Looks, co-edited by filmmakers Martha Gever, Pratibha Parmar and John Greyson, blew apart the borders between practice and theory, art and activism, experimenta and porn – with an essay by Barbara Hammer that covers them all. It puts (as Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover’s new book is titled) “queer cinema in the world”. It’s a community action (dedicated to Stuart Marshall) that hearts theory that has practice at its heart, where Michelle Parkerson’s salute to black LGBT video brushes up against Patricia White’s fanfare for Madame X, under Donna Evans and Jean Carlomusto’s “lesbian visibility lampshade”.

Sophie Mayer

www.clubdesfemmes.com

Collections Focus March: Lesbian Cinema

Sophie Mayer, Selina Robertson, Sarah Wood, collectively Club des Femmes, selected the BFI Reuben Library’s Collections Focus for March 2017 to accompany the library salon discussion with them. The Club des Femmes’ wider selection of essential books from our world-famous collection is listed below.

Ahlen & Akerlund, Marlene Dietrich: Greta Garbo störsa konkurrent [photobook]

Kim Akass and Janet McCabe, eds, Reading The L-Word: Outing Contemporary Television

Chantal Akerman, Les Rendez-vous d’Anna [published script]

Bad Object Choices, How Do I Look?: Queer Film and Video

Madeleine Bernstorgg and Stefanie Hetze eds, Frauen in Hosen: Hosenrollen im Film [film programme catalogue]

Wayne Bryant, Bisexual Characters in Film: From Anais to Zee

Gary P. Cestaro ed., Queer Italia: Same Sex Desire in Italian Literature and Film

Abigail Child, This Is Called Moving: A Critical Poetics of Film

Michelle Citron, Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions

Colette, Colette at the Movies: Criticism and Screenplays

Richard Dyer, Now You See It: Studies in Gay and Lesbian Film

Martha Gever, John Greyson & Pratibha Parmar eds, Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video

Shohini Ghosh, Fire: A Queer Film Classic

Liz Gibbs ed., Daring to Dissent: Lesbian Culture from Margins to Mainstream

Jane Giles, BAD GIRLS [poster pamphlet]

Robin Griffiths ed., British Queer Cinema

Boze Hadleigh, The Lavender Screen: The Gay and Lesbian Films – Their Stars, Makers, Characters & Critics

Barbara Hammer, Hammer!: Making Movies out of Sex and Life

Lynda Hart, Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression

Owen Heathcote, Alex Hughes & James S. Williams eds, Gay Signatures: Lesbian and Gay Theory, Fiction and Film in France 1945-1995

Stefanie Hetze, Happy-End für wen? Kino und lesbiche Frauen

Kara Keeling, The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense

Alice A. Kuzniar, The Queer German Cinema

Sophie Mayer, Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema

Judith Mayne, Directed by Dorothy Arzner

Judith Mayne, Framed: Lesbians, Feminists and Media Culture

Trimiko Melancon and Joanne M. Braxton eds, Black Female Sexualities:

Mandy Merck, Perversions: Deviant Readings

Ulrike Ottinger, Madame X [facsimile screenplay]

Sally Potter, Orlando [published screenplay]

Yvonne Rainer, Feelings Are Facts: A Life

B Ruby Rich, New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut

Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt, Queer Cinema in the World

Emma Smart, Lesbian and Gay Cinema: A Selective Bibliography [pamphlet]

Chris Straayer, Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-Orientation in Film and Video

Tristan Taormino, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley and Mireille Miller Young eds, The Feminist Porn Book

Ruth Vanita ed., Queering India

Lee Wallace, Lesbianism, Cinema, Space: The Sexual Life of Apartments

Thomas Waugh, The Romance of Transgression in Canada: Queering Sexualities, Nations, Cinemas

Andrea Weiss, Vampires and Violets: Lesbians in the Cinema

–– and Greta Schiller, Before Stonewall: The Making of a Lesbian and Gay Community

Patricia White, Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability

Tamsin Wilton ed., Immortal Invisible: Lesbians and the Moving Image

Bev Zalcock, Renegade Sisters: Girl Gangs on Film

Jump Cut nos 24/25 March 1981

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