Lesley Stern (1950-2021):
Dateline: Melbourne, December 1982. An academic conference held at La Trobe University by the Australian Screen Studies Association. Up the front, seated at a table and grimly reading out a paper that took a full 90 minutes to plough through, is me – dressed in my best dandy attire of bow tie and two-tone periwinkle shoes. I am 22 years old, and there to stir up some trouble: questioning some of the tenets of hardline “screen theory” as it held sway in Australian universities of the time.
Trouble is what I got, alright. At question time, international guest Robin Wood dismissed me as “a reactionary”. Laleen Jayamanne, Sam Rohdie and Meaghan Morris all weighed in with their critique. But the most striking presence of all in that packed room was the woman sitting in the front row – furiously knitting. This was a coping mechanism she had adopted (as I later learned) after giving up smoking. When she finally paused the needles to speak her mind, she held nothing back: I was a “stupid little boy”, she announced in her clear, hard voice, and everything I had proposed amounted to an “offensive intellectual joke”. How did I survive that day?
The knitter was Lesley Stern. We were friends before that event – starting with a 3RRR broadcast discussion in 1980 on Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) – and we managed, after that little bump of ’82, to stay friends until her death at age 71 in January 2021. Lesley was, as she once described herself, a “habitual scrapper”. She loved a good intellectual fight. And she respected people who could stand their ground, even if she thoroughly disagreed with their position. Lesley and I clashed on a number of filmic issues down the decades, but there was always that underlying mutual respect.
An incomparable deflator of male egos and fantasies, she once completely disarmed me by referring to a certain strain in the early work of myself and some of my 1980s buddies as “Big Tit Turned Bad” syndrome – i.e., arising from an irrational, primal fear of smart, powerful women. That made me laugh so hard, it had the effect of instantly curing me of my “reactionary” ways. Lesley liked to keep people on their toes that way.
Did Lesley realise how fiercely intimidating she was to so many people (men and women alike) in those early – and now almost entirely vanquished – days of cinema studies at La Trobe? I suspect she did, because if there’s one word that sums her up – a word that has a prominent place in her writing – it is gesture. Lesley really knew how to strike a pose and make a gesture. She knew how to stand, deliver and perform. Since her death, many of her friends and former students have recalled how she would teach while sitting on a table, slowly rolling her cigarettes; how she would arrive in a new city, ready for action in her leather jacket and impossibly thin jeans; how she would slowly lower her coffee plunger during one-to-one supervision sessions with students before announcing: “I’m not convinced”. And that voice! It could stimulate your brain and strike fear into your soul, all in the same sound.
I recall, probably from mid 1990s, a “Festival of Ideas” held at Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre. Each speaker was restricted to just a few minutes. When her turn came, Lesley swept onto the stage and began by decrying the very ‘90s corporate reflex whereby the word think was invariably followed by the word tank. The torrent of words and thoughts that followed culminated in a vivid description of the plot premise of the zany Jerry Lewis comedy, The Disorderly Orderly (1964): an acute psychosomatic disorder whereby merely hearing the litany of symptoms associated with a disease could actually trigger that disease in the listener. Lesley ended with a splendid flourish: she sincerely hoped that her discourse would have exactly that effect on us in the audience. She had just put a curse on us all! And then she stormed off. Now that is a fine gesture.
When Lesley arrived in Australia in 1976 to take up her position at La Trobe, she was barely out of her mid 20s – but she had already chalked up teaching experience in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia, where she was born and raised) and Glasgow, and had a stint working for the British Film Institute (BFI). Until 1982, she was primarily associated with the hard-left, semiotic, psychoanalytic and feminist theory promoted by international publications including Screen, Film Reader and Camera Obscura (she wrote crucial position-papers in all three), as well as the local Marxist journal Intervention. Leaving the academic scene for a couple of years in 1983, she tried her hand as a freelance critic and spent time in Japan. A different, looser kind of writing began to appear from her, in places like Sydney’s tabloid Filmnews and Framework in UK, which was edited at the time by her old pal from the BFI, Paul Willemen.
For the rest of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Lesley returned to intensive teaching around Australia: first at Murdoch in Perth, and then the University of New South Wales. Now Lesley’s creative side – which had hitherto expressed itself tentatively in a Super-8 film or a short play script (Finishing Touches) – shot to the foreground. Lesley had long cultivated friendships with artists of every kind, including filmmakers such as Australia’s John Hughes, Laura Mulvey in the UK and Bette Gordon in the US. Given the space and opportunity to do so in her courses, she freely mixed critical theory with experiments in performance, video, music …
The subjects of her writing changed accordingly: essays on the body, on performance and gesture, on identity, on opera and popular musicals, on the photography of Kevin Ballantine or the paintings of Julie Rrap. This work tended to appear in Australian arts magazines such as Photofile, Spectator Burns and Art & Text, as well as in journals of the then-burgeoning field of Cultural Studies.
Most spectacularly during the ‘90s, her writing blossomed into its most expansive and experimental mode – labelled at the time ficto-criticism, i.e., criticism mixed (somehow) with fiction. The Scorsese Connection (1995) is nominally about a famous auteur and The Smoking Book (1999) is nominally about the ordeal of giving up smoking (recall that front-row knitting) but, fundamentally, both are books that claim the freedom to wander anywhere, in any style: dazzling, livewire montages of memoir, cultural history, fantasy, analysis, and what Lesley loved to call the magic of ekphrasis or close, detailed, loving description.
Several American universities proved receptive to Lesley’s interdisciplinary, multimedia approach. After stints in the late 1990s with the University of Chicago and University of California Irvine, she settled into a job at University of California San Diego in 2000, as part of a department that included artists the calibre of Babette Mangolte, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Eileen Myles and Steve Fagin. She lived in San Diego, with her partner Jeffrey Minson, to the end of her days – but an association with the film/media team at Monash University lured her back to Australia for several memorable events between 2008 and 2017, including a lecture where she reflected on film culture in 1980s Melbourne.
After she gave that talk, Lesley wrote to me to say that she had realised her turn to ficto-criticism “wasn’t as radical a break” in her life as she had previously imagined, but “actually arose out of the foment of the ‘70s and into the early ‘80s. And that's not just about an individual journey, but about what the Australian context made possible”.
Lesley fought, for over 15 years, with the leukaemia that finally claimed her. But she still managed to write a steady stream of essays for journals and anthologies, and to keep up with everything that attracted her: she had a keen interest, for example, in the developing audiovisual-essay field – seeing it as a renewed form of her beloved ekphrasis (on that we completely agreed!) – and her short book Dead and Alive: The Body as Cinematic Thing (2012) dialogued with “new materialist” philosophies in feminism and elsewhere. Her own passions evolved in what was (to me, at least) a wholly unexpected direction: gardening, investigated both on the micro-level as an all-consuming personal activity on and on the macro cultural and political levels. Just take a look at the “Garden/Kitchen Diary” maintained at her blog www.lesleystern.net/ from May to August 2020. Or watch this stunning lecture from 2014.
Her final book, the magnificent Diary of a Detour (2020) that appeared just before her passing, records how the force of obsession – obsessions with planting and tending, with chickens, with the growing and preparing of food, with the cycles of nature – literally prolonged her life, pulling her through into new and brilliant investigations, and an ever-widening collaboration with activists at all levels of the environmental movement. But artistic creation was never far from her mind: even in the midst of a campaign to reinvigorate tomato growth in the Tijuana canyons, she insisted that its members also form a writing circle and report back to her regularly.
Her final, semi-public gesture was a note to her circle of friends, simply titled “Farewell”. Dated December 13 December 2020, it explains: “The sands of time are slithering fast away. The treatment didn't work, cancer is aggressively moving. I'm running out of oomph. So, have elected to die at home with the help of hospice”. Later she adds, in tribute to Jeffrey: “We cry together, but also have some fun thinking up witty and macabre cemetery engravings”. The message ends: “You probably won’t be hearing from me again”. I took it as a subtle directive to all (or at least most) of us to no longer bombard her directly with messages, whether by phone, Messenger, email or social media. 46 days later, she was gone.
In truth, I am not certain that Lesley would appreciate being “summed up” in anybody’s obituary tribute. She often decried forms of biography and autobiography (in any medium) that were too coherent, too sewn up – as she once put it, she preferred life-stories to be “holey rather than wholesome”. Hence her taste for montage, discontinuity, multiple levels. Yet stories – she preferred the term fictionality – were central to her being. Imagination, fantasy and desire gave us all opportunities to shift the tracks, to conjure what could be otherwise in ourselves and in the world. Her sublime 1994 essay for Realtime, “Perhaps I Want to be Gena Rowlands”, concludes with the words: “I know that I too can act differently, be somehow other”.
Politically, too, Lesley held to this ethos of openness. In a 2016 interview with Tracy Cox-Stanton for the US-based web magazine The Cine-Files, she stated:
The experience of being in a female body is central to my experience of being in the world, but I don’t want to have everything reduced to or explained by that equation … the body is not an index of truth. […] I wanted to start from a base position: that we watch movies for a range of reasons and/or to experience a range of unreasonable affects. How does this happen? How can we experience horripilation, nausea, soaring delight, faintness, vertigo, freedom from gravity? And how do these somatic responses connect us to an apprehension of the world in which we breathe and walk and make love and vote?
Or, as she formulated a similar line of thought three years later in a reflection for the Berlin Film Festival’s retrospective screening in 2019 of Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983):
It is thirty-five years later. Much has changed in the general cultural arena: a variety of diverse sexualities have become visible, and of course the Me Too movement has been momentous. But also, sometimes in new guises, the old moralism recurs, the recourse, albeit veiled in different language, to censorship. We need to be on our toes, we need to keep dancing.
Vale, Lesley. Keep dancing.
© Adrian Martin February 2021