Light as Air
Paradoxically, queer cinema – for all its shock tactics, modernism and political radicality – has offered us some the lightest and airiest depictions of romantic love in contemporary cinema. We see this, in a frankly experimental vein, in the classic Australian short Resonance (1993) by Stephen Cummins (1960-1994): in the musical-Utopian impulse of that film, we see how violent gestures – gestures of gay bashing and macho boxing – can be appropriated, worked through, turned into dance, rendered poetic and graceful. Edging closer to the mainstream, Rose Troche is a major figure in the rapprochment of queer cinema and romantic comedy.
Go Fish is a disarming queer romance. One has never seen such a breezy portrait of the dating game as in this lesbian divertissement. Even the most carefree teen movies – with their fond celebrations of everyday fun, getting out of bed, hanging out and dagging around – don’t come near the helium-high offered here by Troche.
Everything in this movie floats. Its happiest and most vibrant moments take the form of dressing-up montages: all the various characters, in their assorted domestic spaces, pulling on coats, hauling up jeans, ruffling their hair and putting on their specs. Hip-hop music provides the beat for these scenes, and slow-motion, dancing camera moves conjure an air of weightlessness. Dressing-up offers the filmmakers no less an occasion for such lyricism than scenes of lovemaking or intense, sisterly bonding. Indeed, as Luc Moullet (an unexpected champion of Go Fish) eloquently states: “The power of observation is ... thus magnified by this sudden passage into abstraction, which prolongs the emotion on a superior, essentially lyrical register.” (1)
It’s not only the characters who flounce and bounce along, but also the film itself. Troche and her regular collaborator/co-writer Guinevere Turner conjure a narrative space that is full of digressions, multiple layerings, lyrical inserts of a top spinning or a hand trailing through the air. They could be symbols, but they may just as well be spectacles, little phenomenal occurrences that express a certain poetry, a particular grace. Regularly throughout, the characters huddle together on some abstract floor-space – their heads entering the frame in sequence, forming Busby Berkeley-esque geometric patterns – so that they can look in on the story and speculate on its future direction, like Céline and Julie (Jacques Rivette’s heroines of the ‘70s), before they plunge back into their own house of fiction.
In a strange and compelling way, Go Fish is like a modern re-invention of certain Old Hollywood forms – specifically the musical and the romantic comedy of manners. Troche borrows the Utopian aspect of these venerable genres, their drive to create imagined, heavenly worlds that provide release and escape from the real, harsh, miserable one. The fugitive idyll in some exotic location, the ecstasy of song and dance – such are the fantasies offered by these narrative forms. But even during the Golden Years of Hollywood, such dreams were often delivered to their eager audiences in a qualified, considered, critical frame. Many are the classic movies, such as Vincente Minnelli’s wartime romance The Clock (1945), that compare the reality to the fantasy, weighing up the consequences of passing from one to the other, and arriving at a pragmatic or (at the limit) tragic conclusion.
In Go Fish, however, there is no harder, more real world even implicitly lurking beyond or around the one we see. It is as if the characters are already living inside Brigadoon … and as if Brigadoon is not about to vanish into the mist, leaving everybody stranded and confused. Thus, Troche’s movie offers itself to its target audience as a frankly Utopian fantasy, militantly excluding from its frame any doubt or contradiction. Moreover, it presents a model of perfectly functioning multiculturalism; race differences present no barrier whatsoever to gay desire. Only in an odd fantasy sequence, where a side-character is interrogated by a fierce jury of queer peers about her “slip” in sleeping with a man, does any discord or debate enter this airy world – and this troublesome matter exits the screen just as suddenly as it entered.
As Chris Berry has discussed, the Utopian character of some current queer cinema (he cites The Adventures of Pricilla, Queen of the Desert , Longtime Companion  and especially Love and Human Remains ) relates to the way it tries to rescue and promote a certain radical conception of “family” – not a family constructed from blood ties and obligations, but a freely chosen, loose and extended family of like members, bound by sexual preference and political disposition alike. “In the queer communities”, writes Berry, “we speak today about our ‘chosen families”, families which are defined by “conscious commitements”). (2) Go Fish works like a promo for this kind of extended queer family – arguing for the benefits, the joy, the warmth it offers. Its politics strive to be straightforwardly separatist – of course, straight women and straight men scarcely figure in this picture – without becoming toxic.
Go Fish is like a promo, and especially like a rock video. It’s one of several American independent features of the ‘90s – most of them with queer themes, such as Swoon (Tom Kalin, 1992) and Poison (Todd Haynes, 1991) – that plunder devices from the archive of avant-garde cinema, giving them a mainstream, postmodern make-over. Like a lot of what has been tagged over the last decade as exemplary of postmodern pop culture – Pee-wee Herman, Northern Exposure, TV ads that make a smart joke of the most momentous life crises – Go Fish gets into a certain reverie of pure style, pure display. The camera angles go askew; the fiction is regularly fractured by dreams, fantasy images and indecipherable montages that belong in no particular character’s head; multiple voices burst onto the soundtrack to sing, quote, whisper and reflect as in a Nouvelle Vague flashback/insert – but none of this is hardly, anymore, for the sake of arch-modernist shock or transgression, distortion or rupture. Rather, it’s all in the service of the floating world of this queer Utopia; this world of laughter and smart style that circulates its good cheer around the bodies and hearts of all its clan members.
This is why most of the banter in Go Fish doesn’t get any more heated than a magazine-type roundtable rap on lifestyle differences – how some of the sisters still sport a stolid ‘70s style while the younger gals have the ‘80s tomboy look, how butch and vanilla dispositions work themselves out on the plane of clothes and hairstyle, dancing and make-out moves, which catchword is the best to describe female genitalia (“honey pot” wins the day). All these difference are shown to be pretty fluid, and none of them seem to actually stop anybody pairing off with anybody else. That’s another intriguingly Old Hollywood aspect of the film – the romantic comedy celebration of mismatched lovers who nonetheless find the path to each other.
How different this all is to a film made only five years earlier, Spike Lee’s teen musical School Daze (1988). There, Lee includes a show-stopping number dramatising an ongoing campus debate among black women about their “Good and Bad Hair” (militant jigaboos squaring off against glamorous wannabes) in order to signal that style is as fiercely politicised and contestatory as any field of lived experience. Personal style is less connected to activism or anger, taking up a position or making a statement, in Go Fish. The queer Utopia presented by this film, sensuelle and sans suite as Serge Gainsbourg once sang, is a more delicate, abstracted, refined matter – a lifestyle that demands unusual metaphors from unfamiliar fields. Once again, living and loving are rendered as somewhat impersonal, or transpersonal diagrams of flows, vectors, temperatures, balances. The voice-over reflection of Max (Turner), that we see being scribbled in a notebook throughout, expresses this kind of sensibility time and again. The entire film addresses the problematic of finding a romantic partner – how to make oneself available but alert, open but discriminating. It’s a sophisticated balancing act – and a stylistic challenge. The young heroine concludes at the end of the film: “Keep your options open, be directed – but don’t box yourself in”.
It is more a choreography than a politics, more an ongoing musical improvisation searching for harmonic resolution than a bloody war of positions and attritions. But for all its fun, romance and flagrant Utopianism, Go Fish is maybe not so enamoured of or fixed on its own Happy End. Tension – that high-wire tension, keeping a fine balance so as not to come a cropper – is an important part of the poise of the X-Generation lover; a finely tuned apprehension of even the slightest hint of impending malaise. When the Brigadoon of Go Fish vanishes at last from the screen, we don’t really expect that it goes on humming in a parallel world. Everything in it falls apart to be put together again some other time, some other place.
MORE Troche: Bedrooms and Hallways
MORE queer cinema
1. Luc Moullet, “La toupie, Vigo et la coupe-ongles”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 491 (May 1995), pp. 44-45. back
2. Chris Berry, “Not Necessarily the Sum of Us: Australia’s Not-so-Queer Cinema”, Metro, no. 101 (March 1995), pp. 12-16. back
© Adrian Martin January 1995