Spotlight on Hilary Harris
March 27, 2013
Spotlight on Shirley Clarke’s Short Films
April 11, 2013

Discussions with Juliet Jacques: Queer Cinema, Trans Politics and the Films of Jack Smith and Rosa Von Praunheim


By Bradley Tuck
On the 14th April, as part of Eyes Wide Open, Juliet Jacques will be presenting a double bill of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and Rosa Von Praunheim’s City of Lost Souls at The Dukes at Komedia, Brighton.  Juliet is an exciting journalist who writes for the New Statesman and other publications on subjects as broad as literature, film, art, music, gender, sexuality, journalism and football. Excited about the forthcoming event, we at One+One decided to interview her about cinema and trans politics.
Bradley Tuck: We are often faced by two apparently incompatible narratives around trans identity: one emphasises ‘corrective’ procedures and is largely gender normative; the other is more gender-fluid, anti-essentialist and queer. Where do you stand on this apparent tension and how do you prefer to conceptualise trans identity?
Juliet Jacques: Intellectually and spiritually, I am more drawn to the gender-fluid and anti-essentialist conception, but my experience has involved moving from a male identity to an unambiguously female one, through the established medical pathway with hormones and sex reassignment surgery, and I definitely felt these procedures to be ‘correct(ive)’ for me.
The gender-fluid approach was invaluable as I explored my identity before transition, and I don’t think I could have reached that point without this area between the loaded categories of ‘transvestite’ and ‘transsexual’. Having decided to live ‘as a woman’, according to the Real Life Experience requirements of the Gender Identity Clinic, there was a long physical and psychological process of moving from male to female: the anti-essentialist approach made it far easier to accept the state of my body and mind, and their slow, subtle shifts, during those three years. So I don’t think the two approaches are irreconcilable, as gender-variant living can and does incorporate both.
BT: On 14 April, you will be presenting Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and Rosa von Praunheim’s City of Lost Souls at the Duke at the Komedia, Brighton, as part of Eyes Wide Open’s queer cinema screenings. What do you admire about these filmmakers and films? What insights do you think these filmmakers and films can offer us today?
JJ: One of my favourite things about City of Lost Souls (1983), a queer musical about American expatriates living in West Berlin, is the fascinating discussion between transsexual Angie Stardust and ‘transvestite’ Tara O’Hara about the necessity of medical intervention into transgender bodies, years before that wave of American gender theorists (Judith Butler, Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg, Sandy Stone et al) published on this. The scene where Tara explains her identity to a man wanting sex with her is similarly ahead of its time.
City of Lost Souls was semi-improvised: rather than cast outsiders as trans women and then have them establish their gender variance through a series of clichéd vignettes, von Praunheim could just point the camera at his team and let them spontaneously discuss their experiences. It’s one of the earliest films I know in which transsexual and transvestite people represent themselves, sharing their social, sexual and political concerns. Otherwise, it’s often ridiculous, contentious and funny – this combination with frank immanent critique of queer culture is often a feature of von Praunheim’s works, but the latter has often blinded critics to the former, particularly when they have no investment in the issues concerned.
City of Lost Souls displays the strong influence of Sixties and Seventies US queer cinema, and I wanted to pair it with a representative work. I considered Ron Rice’s Chumlum, which documented the filming of Jack Smith’s Normal Love, but decided that one of Smith’s films would be better. Flaming Creatures (1963) cast some real genderqueer pioneers, the wonderful Mario Montez and Francis Francine amongst them. It covers sexuality more than gender – you don’t get the theoretical discourse that feature in City of Lost Souls, but Flaming Creatures puts gender variant people on screen and lets them express themselves in a way that hadn’t really been seen before. Obviously, it was banned immediately.
Today, besides showing us the infinite benefits of casting trans people as trans people, these films can maybe inject some radicalism back into LGBTQI activism, art and politics, serving as a counterpoint to more assimilationist campaigns and culture. They were made between friends, cheaply, which could inspire radical queer communities who have access to cameras.
BT: There seems to be a queer cinema tradition that runs from Jack Smith to Rosa von Praunheim, but that also includes figures such as the Kuchar brothers, John Waters and The Cockettes, which incorporates gender explorations with shock, controversy, camp, trash and low-budget aesthetics. What do you think has become of this?
JJ: I think the onset of AIDS changed it a lot: I’m not sure that City of Lost Souls could have been made any later than 1983 without having to seriously reconsider its often flippant tone. This tradition led, amongst other places, to Derek Jarman, whose brilliant late films were more activist, more stridently intellectual and more engaged with the old idea of ‘high’ culture – referring to Wittgenstein, Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare and others – perhaps in response to the opportunistic right-wing assault on gay sexuality, history and creativity.
It must have been difficult to work as a queer filmmaker in the mid-1980s and early 1990s without explicitly addressing AIDS the backlash: films such as Ecce Homo by Jerry Tartaglia feel attached to this tradition (in this case by referring back to Jean Genet, one of its biggest inspirations) whilst being stylistically and thematically rather different.
Some of it went more mainstream, through Waters (and Divine) becoming more accepted, and the line that runs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, as well as in other forms – Seventies performance art and early Eighties pop music in particular. I’ve not seen much of their work but from what I’ve read about it, I’d be surprised if Todd Haynes and Guy Maddin were unfamiliar with these filmmakers. As the documentary shows, The Cockettes’ attempts to find an audience beyond San Francisco were disastrous, but decades later, they’re genderqueer idols.
Von Praunheim is still working, having made his AIDS films, Silence = Death and Positive in the Eighties, and addressed LGBTQI history through his biopic of Magnus Hirschfeld, his documentary about Charlotte van Mahlsdorf (I am My Own Woman) and elsewhere. Sadly, none of his works are available in the UK, but Ubuweb put up a few dodgy VHS rips.
BT: There has been a lot of controversy around transgender issues lately – especially around, for example, Julie Burchill’s recent article for The Observer. On the other hand, there have been moves towards gay marriage and other supposedly ‘progressive’ causes. How would you draw up today’s ‘LGBTQI’ battlefield and how would you relate these issues to broader political and cultural concerns of our time?
JJ: Assimilationist LGB and T politics don’t deal particularly well with intersectionality [the idea that people can experience more than one type of oppression, and that these oppressions interact in complex ways]. Inherent within them is the idea that one specific minority is trying to win acceptance from (heterosexual, cisgender, white, middle-class male) society, in access to its most conservative institutions, or the upper reaches of hierarchical capitalist structures. To do this, they tend to aim to ‘normalise’ the one thing that makes them ‘different’ and disassociate themselves from other minorities. In the past, there have been problems with gay and lesbian movements distancing themselves with gender variance, and trans politics doing the same with sexual diversity.
Queer culture emphasises the overlap between gender and sexuality, and the need to resist conservative social structures, as far as possible. It still needs to be better in incorporating people of colour and/or faith, but I think the theory behind it is capable of that, even if the practice hasn’t always been. Tactically, such resistance is complicated, but I think it’s an important mindset, particularly given the poisonous nature of British and Western politics.
BT: What would you consider the overall aim of your journalism?
JJ: As a teenager, I had an existential crisis, combined with a deep depression that lasted throughout secondary school. This sprang, partly, from my position as a closeted trans person, scared to discuss my gender with my family or friends for fear of rejection or reprisal, and without the language to make sense of it myself. I became convinced that life was pointless, to the extent that I couldn’t see how anyone else might feel differently.
After I went to sixth form college and made myself visible as queer and trans, even if I didn’t have these words in the late 1990s, and I began reading all the authors you’re supposed to – Camus, Sartre, Kafka etc. Then, I felt that my aim should be to create something that would make the world better, as far as possible, than when I found it. I loved Roquentin’s aim, stated in Nausea, to create ‘something beautiful, as hard as steel, which makes people ashamed of their very existence’.
After being in terrible post-punk bands, I realised that I was best equipped to do this through writing. I tried to write plays and films about revolutionary politics, but surprisingly enough, I proved incapable of single-handedly pulling socialism out of its 21st century malaise, and focused narrowly on improving the cultural representation of trans people, trying and failing to write short stories and then a television pilot before settling on journalism.
I took on board the Deterritorial Support Group’s point about left-leaning columnists policing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable thought, so I try to stretch that space. This means not just covering trans and queer issues, but also mental health, avant-garde art, radical politics and marginalised counter-culture, and refusing to be ashamed about expressing negativity, unhappiness, alienation, depression and lack – really, my journalism is about creating the resources and discussions that would have helped me in my youth, and which still don’t seem to be present today.