At first glance, lesbian movies are all alike. An ostensibly straight girl, who is in a committed relationship, meets an unapologetic lesbian. The two develop a friendship, which quickly develops into something more. The less-than-straight girl eventually gives in to her desire for the lesbian. After a short-lived affair, guilt drives the not-straight girl to her boyfriend/husband. There are a few angsty montages, followed by a tearful break-up and a grand romantic gesture, and the two lesbians end up together. More often than not, there is nothing queer about these films—no engagement with a politics of sexuality, no questioning of normativity, and no effort to imagine a queer world. And it’s that last point I want to question. Most commercial lesbian films (for straight audiences) are firmly entrenched in the straight world; the queer girl is the outsider, not the other way around. Lesbian films that actually imagine a queer world are much harder to come by. Jacob Chase’s 2010 film The Four-Faced Liar and Maria Maggenti’s 2006 Puccini for Beginners, however, do engage in queer world-building. Both films work to frame New York’s West Village as a queer space through the use of easily identifiable landmarks. I argue that this cinematic project functions as a form of queer world-making.
Before discussing the West Village as it appears in the films, it is necessary to contextualize the West Village’s historical and cultural reputation. In a “must-see” web guide to the Village, David Sokol writes:
In New York, change is the only constant, and the West Village embodies that fact. Its web of cobblestone streets, lined in Federal and Greek Revival townhouses, Italianate brownstones and deco-era apartment buildings, has largely withstood history. Yet those structures have contained waves of literati, progressive visual artists, equal-rights activists and, today, a fairly upscale population of gay couples, families and longtime denizens. (Sokol)
The West Village is a space known for its queerness and progressive politics. Historically, it has been a site of intense activism. Central to the West Village is Christopher Street, the site of the historic Stonewall Inn and the eponymous riots. Historically, at least, this is a space where queers “have come to take for granted the availability of explicit sexual materials, theaters, and clubs. That is how they learned to find each other; to map a commonly accessible world; to construct the architecture of queer space in a homophobic environment” (Berlant and Warner 551). Although Berlant, Warner, and Sokol question the stability of the West Village’s queer progressive activist character, it is this space in which The Four-Faced Liar and Puccini for Beginners make their home.
The Four-Faced Liar takes its name from the bar where the four protagonists first meet. The bar, located at 165 West 4th Street, is a central location throughout the film. The group frequently hangs out there, during the day and at night, chatting, drinking, and playing Connect Four and Never Have I Ever. This is the site of the plot’s most pivotal moments. The bar’s bathroom is where Bridget and Molly finally hook up. Molly’s disastrous birthday party, where Bridget tries to win Molly back after they have broken up and Greg angrily confronts Bridget, also takes place at the bar. Beyond the bar, Bridget and Molly flirt about Brontë in Three Lives & Company, a bookstore at West 10th Street and Waverly Place, and on a park bench across from the playground in Washington Square. They are frequently seen walking through the streets of the Village. Their relationship is spatially bound to the space in which it develops. Similarly, the title sequence of Puccini for Beginners is a montage of shots of New York buildings, all of which appear later in the film, and the vast majority of which are located in the West Village. Allegra lives in the West Village. She and Grace first meet at Cinema Village, an historic theater on East 12th Street. They have a lunch/coffee date at Tremont, a restaurant on Bank Street. They first kiss just outside the subway station at the intersection of Christopher Street and 7th Avenue. In addition to the West Village’s historically legible gay-friendly reputation, these plot points code the space as queer.
Straight male characters in both films, on the other hand, read as out of place in the queer-coded West Village. In an early scene, as Molly and Greg walk past a cluster of sex shops, Greg comments, “It just doesn’t look like the New York that you see in movies.” He is visibly uncomfortable walking down the street at night and makes homophobic remarks throughout the film. He cringes when he sees two men kissing on the street. He later tells Trip, “I just don’t think whole gay thing is natural.” Trip asks him about anal sex in response, to which he responds that Molly isn’t that kind of girl. Although Allegra’s boyfriend Philip is neither uncomfortable nor homophobic, he is a character associated with places outside the Village. He is a professor at Columbia. He plays football in Central Park. Queer characters may venture into other parts of Manhattan, as Allegra repeatedly does, but they never seem rooted there, as Philip is. Furthermore, many of Allegra’s journeys outside the Village, such as her brooding about sexual identity on a park bench near Conservatory Water in Central Park, might be seen to coincide with her journeys outside the boundaries of her lesbian identity.
Both films engage in queer world-building. By drawing on the West Village’s queer legacy and referencing easily identifiable sites, the New York seen in both films is a queer New York.
So what does this filmic place-making do? I suggest that this project is actually one of queer world-making. To that end, I begin with a discussion of queer world-making at large.
The project of queer world-making is public, performative, and utopian in nature. It’s a concept without an easy definition. When asked in an interview with Annamarie Jagose how queer world-making functions in theory and in practice, Michael Warner explained it as:
The idea is that the activity we undertake with each other, in a kind of agonistic performance in which what we become depends on the perspectives and interactions of others, brings into being the space of our world, which is then the background against which we understand ourselves and our belonging…. The world made in public action is not an intended or designed world, but one disclosed in practice. (Warner qtd. in Jagose)
The goal, then, of queer world-making is an intimately “public world of belonging and transformation” (Berlant and Warner 558). Warner and Berlant argue that the intimacy of queer world-making must go beyond the sexual relationships that traditionally define queerness; these new forms of intimacy do not necessarily correspond “to domestic space, to kinship, to the couple form, to property, or to the nation. These intimacies do bear a necessary relation to a counterpublic—an indefinitely accessible world conscious of its subordinate relation” (Berlant and Warner 558). The queer world is neither absolute nor tangible; it is made (and remade) through acts of intimate sociality—performances, rituals, and avowals of queerness—whether organized events, such as pride parades and queer film festivals, or the quotidian, as simple as holding hands with a same-sex partner on the street.
It’s the quotidian side of world-making that I want to address. Fiona Buckland, who has studied social dancing in queer clubs as a form of world-making, speaks of her desire to “link the everyday to the utopic” (1). Both Buckland and José Esteban Muñoz emphasize the utopian potential in the quotidian, in having a coke with someone (Muñoz 6), or in dancing in a queer club (Buckland 2). Or, I suggest, in watching a film, whether at a theater or at home. This is the meaning of world-making: not fully intentioned or designed, public yet intimate. At its heart, queer world-making is a utopian project. Suggesting that queerness is always already a utopian project, Muñoz claims, “We must dream and enact new and better pleasure, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds. Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present. Queerness is that thing that that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing” (1). Queer world-making is that propulsion. It is an acknowledgement that utopia can be made in everyday life.
How, then, do we bridge the gap between the sprawling utopian project of queer world-making and the small-scale world-building of two relatively unknown lesbian films?
The gap is smaller than we might think. Drawing from Warner, world-making is both public and performative. And so is cinema. Cinema is an inherently public and social experience. Filmmakers create films for public consumption. Audiences gather together in movie theaters to watch and react to films communally. Bonnie Morris describes the movie-going impulse as follows:
Desperate for emotional outlets, we go to the movies as an excuse to hold hands, to weep, to feel a vicarious and ‘safe’ experience, to be sexually aroused… Surrounded by complete strangers, we can snicker, gasp, and sob, knowing that our personal reactions to carefully budgeted stimuli will never be a matter of public record because no one is watching us. In this group experience, there is safety for emotional release. (Morris)
Even when we watch films alone, we discuss them with friends, family, classmates, colleagues, or strangers on the Internet. For French actress Jeanne Moreau, cinema “is the mirror of the world” (qtd. in IMDb). Films are not self-contained; rather, they are cultural objects that have the power to (re)shape the worlds in which they are produced. This is the power and the frustration of cinema. Morris discusses striking homophobia of most twentieth century gay and lesbian films, detailing the frustration of being a queer audience member in a theater that did not question or object to the representations of queers as deranged or pathological. There is, however, an equal but opposite opportunity when cinema engages in less homophobic and stereotypical modes of representation.
World-making means reconstructing the landscape and redefining our world and spaces of belonging; it means relocating the center and the periphery. As mentioned above, most modern lesbian films (for mostly straight audiences) find their setting in a straight world, where the out lesbian is clearly an outsider. Even in films that are ostensibly queer, the self-identified lesbian is on the periphery (ex. Imagine Me and You, Elena Undone, I Can’t Think Straight, etc.). Filmic queer world-making is the act redrawing the map. Films must create “a specifically queer universe” characterized by its “studied indifference to mainstream acceptance” (Halberstam 92). It is not about carving out a place for queer characters in straight worlds, but rather about the construction of that queer world counter to the existing world of hegemonic heteronormativity.
Both The Four-Faced Liar and Puccini for Beginners rely on public spaces rather than private. The majority of the action takes place in parks, restaurants, bookstores, bars, in front of subway stations, or on sidewalks. They create a counterpublic with their audience, characterized by the intimacy of shared place-making. They take part in the creation of a specifically queer world. As Berlant and Warner describe, “The queer world is a space of entrances, exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, projected horizons, typifying examples, alternate roots, blockages, incommensurate geographies” (558). Although the world can be referenced by a handful of specific sites, the sites are only referential; the queer world transcends. While the site-specificity of The Four-Faced Liar and Puccini for Beginners marks the films as belonging to this queer world, the films do not contain or constrain that world. They reference it, but they also gesture to its incommensurate geographies.
The Four-Faced Liar and Puccini for Beginners reference recognizable landmarks and cultural history to frame New York’s West Village as a queer space. This act of queer world-building plays into a larger project of queer cinema. These films disavow the internalized homophobia apparent in so many gay and lesbian films for straight audiences. Borrowing from the legacy of New Queer Cinema, they create legibly queer worlds instead of merely inserting queer characters into an overwhelmingly heteronormative world. The creation of legibly queer worlds is a filmic exercise in utopianism on two levels. First, the world-building within the films is a utopian exploration on the part of the writers and directors. Second, the release of the film for public consumption queers the real world, too. The making and viewing of queer films are public acts, social yet intimate. Cinema can create queer counterpublics and filmic spaces of belonging, which make it a powerful tool for queer world-making.
Berlant, Lauren and Michael Warner. “Sex in Public.” Critical Inquiry 24.2 (1998): 547-566.
“Biography for Jeanne Moreau.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 29 April 2013.
Buckland, Fiona. Impossible Dance: Club Culture and Queer World-Making. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.
Halberstam, Jack. “Lovely and Confusing: By Hook or By Crook and the Transgender Look.” In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: NYU Press, 2005. 92-6.
Jagose, Annamarie. “Queer World Making.” Genders 31 (2000): 5. EBSCO MegaFILE. Web. 15 Mar. 2013.
Morris, Bonnie J. “Lesbian Sex at the (Straight) Cineplex.” The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide 8.2 (2001): 23-. ProQuest. Web. 17 Mar. 2013.
Muñoz, José Esteban. “Feeling Utopia.” Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of QueerFuturity. New York: NYU Press, 2009. 1-18.
Puccini for Beginners. Dir. Maria Maggenti. 2006.
Sokol, David. “Must-see West Village.” NYCgo.com. NYC & Company, Inc., 30 Mar. 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.
The Four-Faced Liar. Dir. Jacob Chase. 2010.