What makes a film bi, anyway?

Last Thursday night, I went to The Bi Eye On Queer Film at NYC’s LGBT Community Center. It was a two-hour program of arguably bi-themed short films (or short films with arguably bi characters), with time in between for discussion. And it was, all in all, an interesting evening. I have a somewhat narrower idea of what constitutes a bi film than the person who did the selecting, but the discussion gave a place to say that. And I met a couple of very cool bi women whom I will, with any luck, be seeing at future events (now that I’m all activisty and blogger-like, I’m really making an effort to make time for more of NYC’s bi scene. Further reports on that to come, I’m sure. And as of this coming weekend I’ll be done moving, with all kinds of lovely time to fill up!)

With the caveats that I’m not particularly into film, nor am I any good at reviewing a film without spoiling it, here’s what we saw:

Hold Up – Madeleine Olnek
Like many of the films, Hold Up was funny while you were watching it, but because it was so outrageously problematic. It also suffered from being shown in a collection like this, when one was waiting for the bisexual twist. It opens on a woman and a man in a car, the man trying to back out of a convenience store hold-up that the woman has clearly talked him into. She’s obviously crazy in some way, and in it for something other than the money – she fixes her makeup (“How do I look?” “Prominent!”) before putting on the sheer stocking she’s bought to cover her face (“These are sheer! Why did you buy sheer?!” “Because they’re the nicest!”) And of course, when they get into the store, the woman behind the counter recognizes her immediately, and turns out to be the ex-girlfriend who dumped her three months before. The man with her is, understandably, freaking out and insisting that they leave, but instead she introduces him as her fiance (always introduce the man with the gun by name! Good call!) and suggests that if he wants to leave, he can go out to the car while she catches up a bit He’s also outraged to find out they dated — “I thought I was the only man for you!” while he again points the gun that he’d lowered when she’d been recognized “Oh, honey, you are the only man for me.” The whole thing is so clearly nuts that the moderator suggested it’s a film that’s laughing with rather than at us, but I have trouble finding a conflation of such egregious stereotypes funny. It was a solid seven minutes of “bisexuals are neurotic, unstable, and possibly flat-out crazy, have no moral compass, and will cheat on you with and probably leave you for a member of the opposite sex.” Maybe those stereotypes will be funny when most of the culture around us no longer believes they’re true, but until then, I’m not really laughing.

Mano a Mano – Todd Strauss-Schulson (four minutes long, and you can watch it here)
Two guys are competing for a job at a gay phone sex line. This film was made by a straight guy, and it shows. Rumor has it he was completely taken aback when it took off at LGBT film festivals, and I have to say, so am I. It was funny to watch two presumably straight men try to pretend they were into talking dirty to other dudes, but I’m not really sure where the queer content is. (For the record, while one of the guys says he has a wife and child, the other never mentions a female partner when talking about why he needs the money. And while I read him saying “I’m all about makng dudes jizz” as a boast about how well he’ll do at the job, maybe he’s supposed to be read as some flavor of liking guys?) The fact that the guys didn’t even pretend to be turned on while having gay phone sex added to the humor but subtracted from the believability – neither of those performances would have impressed me if I was looking for a hot guy to get me off. And I’m really, really unsure what was supposed to make it bi – I guess a guy with a wife having phone sex with dudes, but I’m inconvinced.

Make Room for Phyllis – also by Madeleine Olnek
This one was pretty hilarious as a spoof on polyamory, but again, it was unclear to me whether the filmmaker was laughing with or at us. Awkward, unattractive Phyllis is propositioned by a couple to be the third in their triad, with promises of intimacy and love, but ends up being treated more like a maid – while they bring other people into their relationship who do seem to actually share their bed. You cheer for her at the end when she gets up and runs away — and the actress who plays Phyllis has a truly priceless deadpan — but I’m afraid I kinda missed the point. At least there’s the possibility that Phyllis is bisexual, since she’s persuaded to join this couple somehow, but even so you only see her responding to and expressing desire for the female half of the couple.

A Fairy TaleHysterie Productions
OK, this one was charming (and not just because it’s French). And actually struck me as bisexual. A girl spends an evening with a friend getting progressively drunker and talking about her conviction (mocked by the friend) that if she just holds out her Prince Charming will come. Stumbling home she sees a toad in the hallway of her building, catches and, and kisses it…and it turns into a beautiful woman. Said woman exclaims that she was three minutes early and was supposed to be kissed by our girl’s male upstairs neighbor, but of course our girl tells her the neighbor is not nearly good enough for her, and the film ends with them kissing and heading up to her apartment. On the one hand the whole thing seems like a build-up to two hot girls kissing, and one wonders about the male gaze…but on the other, here are two women who have both expressed an interest in or understanding that they’ll end up with men, falling for each other. Both of them read to me as bisexual. And, you know, two hot girls kissing. I kinda loved it.

The Best Men – Tony Wei (about 15 minutes – I liked this one, watch it here before I ruin it for you completely.)
In an evening of comedies, this film was much more poignant, and well-written enough that the touching moments actually touched. It’s told from the point of view of the best man in the wedding, and it quickly becomes clear that he’s in love with the groom, as well as being his best friend. What’s less clear is exactly what happened between them, and whether his feelings are or were ever returned. A reference to a hotel room in Vegas makes it seem like something must have happened, as does the way the groom gives the best man his ring as a present – “You always wanted it, and I don’t wear it anymore” – but it’s a ring, and those are pretty significant gifts. The groom also refuses to answer the several times his best man asks him if he’s happy. And yet, is this because he’s not happy – because he’s still in love with his best friend, but marrying a woman because it’s the socially acceptable thing to do? Or does he just not want to break his friend’s heart by saying aloud that he is happy, that he’s in love with this woman he’s marrying? The way it’s played, he could reasonably be read as a straight man whose childhood best friend is in love with him, a bisexual who had a relationship with his best friend but is now partnered with a woman, or a gay man who’s closeted and marrying a woman for appearances’ sake. And when the groom’s mother pulls the best man aside to wish him well, imply that he never fooled her (about his love for her son?) and express the hope that her son will be happy, she adds more questions rather than clearing anything up. I actually liked the way a lot of this was left open to interpretation. That usually feels like lazy filmmaking to me (I told you I’m not that into film?) but in this case it seemed like leaving the viewer wondering was part of the point, and those lingering questions could actually lead to useful and interesting musings on sexuality and how many sides a story can have – and how little they can resemble each other.

Happenstance – Joyce Draganosky
I actually recommend Happenstance. I’m about to ruin it for you anyway. So if you intend to see it, don’t read this paragraph.
A boy shows up at his parents’ house to introduce them to his new girlfriend. We’ve already been led to believe he’s dated a string of girls his parents find unsuitable, so I was a bit anxious to see that the woman by his side is black. His father initially seems thrown when he meets her, but recovers quickly. His mother pales, stammers, and excuses herself to the kitchen to lose her shit completely – down to a snapped “How dare you come here?” when the girlfriend goes into the kitchen to see if she can smooth things over. Because racism is such a pernicious force in our culture, because I at least try to be so alert for it and guarded against it, I completely bought into Happenstance’s red herring. Even knowing I was at a showing of bi-themed films, it never occurred to me that the mother was freaking out over anything but the girl’s race, until the way they moved into each other’s arms and started kissing made it obvious that they’d been lovers. I expected the bisexual twist to be the son exclaiming something like “You can’t stand that I brought home a black girl, but I could have brought home a boy!” Granted I have a lot of suspension of disbelief, but I thought this one was well done. And while it shared its “No one expects the bisexual! Fooled ya!” twist with Hold Up, in this case the characters felt like real people with real motivations and desires and agency, not pawns for that “got’cha!” moment.

Operated By Invisible Hands
– Nicole Brending
A girl doll wakes up next to another girl doll, sizes up the clothing scattered on the floor, gasps, and slowly remembers the night before. She tries to leave a note saying “This was a mistake” and sneak out, but the other doll has woken in the meantime. Cue a lot of heavy-handed but funny lines about feeling like she’s being operated by invisible hands, sometimes she feels like a plastic doll with painted-on emotions etc. This one was cute, and the filmmaker showed up to give us some interesting perspective on it (Why was it filmed in French? etc.) I liked the creepy, dramatic feel of it, but was a little unclear on the take-home message. (Yes, I always want films to have a message, and to be getting at something. I told you I’m not a film person.)

After School Special
– David Quantic
Oh, what to say? (My notes on this one say “Mrrr?”) A pretty clearly gay teenage boy and his dykey softball-playing friend have awkward, disconnected sex (initiated by her, never clearly consented to by him) while waiting for their parents to come home. It’s tempting to accuse this of falling into the “Bisexuals will fuck anything that moves” stereotype, but I’m not convinced either of the characters is supposed to be bisexual (though I’m totally unclear on how the girl is supposed to read.) Really it feels more like a claim that teenagers will fuck anything that moves. And the way the sex was awkward and the kids seem to be off in their own worlds and barely aware of each other while having it – and the way the boy immediately fixes his clothes, the girl folds her legs defensively under herself, and they go back to watching TV as soon as it’s over – feels very classically teenaged to me. I’m not sure I have a bisexual perspective on it at all.

We were also supposed to see Shady Bi (trailer here) , but permission was withdrawn at the last minute. Which is a shame, since it was the only explicitly bi themed movie on the agenda, apparently a spoof on biphobia. I’ll have to track it down somehow.

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening, and not just because I took the night off from packing for my move in order to go. Someone else commented during one of the discussion segments that he wished movies would portray bisexuality through means other than showing a character going from a male to a female partner or vice versa, and I agree. Too often that’s portrayed a journey from heterosexuality to homosexuality or back, and that’s frustrating. I’d like to see a character have partners of multiple genders simultaneously (although that might be partially my own poly bias!), or have their bisexuality understood through some other means but have them go from one partner to another of the same gender, or something else that doesn’t depend on the trope of the inconsistent, fickle bisexual. Clearly the solution is for me to make my own films, but, um, that won’t be happening. Creating my own blog, or even my own book about bisexuality, I can (and probably someday will) do – but filmmaking no. Anyone else want to volunteer?

2 Responses to “What makes a film bi, anyway?”

  1. 1 Max the Communist
    1 November 2008 at 4:19 pm

    I want films–any media, really–that can convey the mental and emotional state of being bi/fluid/queer as much as showing some bisexual representation.

    I really loved the film “Amy and Jaguar”, about two women who fall in love during Nazi Germany. One of them could be bisexual since she’s married to soldier, off most of the movie to the front, but the film is primarily about the other secrets women keep from one another in the course of their relationship.

    Jaguar is Jewish and, besides generally hiding her ethnicity from everyone to avoid the authorities, she worries how Amy–by all appearances an upstanding German–will respond to that disclosure. Amy is practically the Nazi poster child, since she is the perfect wife and mother, bearing children for the Fatherland while husband is fighting the war.

    For me, this parallels bisexual experience of how one comes out to one’s partner. Having disclosed your attraction to your loved one, when and how do you disclose the “something else” that has the potential to ruin the relationship. I’ve done the “tell everyone up front” approach, the “chat for ten minutes or so, then tell them”, the “tell them on the first date after they’ve gotten to know more of you, so maybe they won’t judge,” and the “don’t tell them, ever” approach. Not any one of these approaches produces predictable outcomes.

    But anyway, for my money, “Amy and Jaguar” says more about the bisexual condition than any other film I’ve seen to date.

  2. 2 Al
    6 January 2009 at 8:16 pm

    Sorry for bumping in, but one of my secret dreams is to earn enough money to start a production company that deal with bisexual stories but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I guess I’ll try to write fiction instead. 🙂

    I was looking for inspiration on bisexual movies but I kept coming up with porn and if I put in bisexual themed movies they apparently don’t exist on Google. Nevertheless I found this post instead and I am enjoying reading the rest of your blog.

    Reason I am here because I am still learning wordpress I decided to create a blog with movies that I watched last year and hopefully adding the books I plan on reading this summer. Eventually, I had to adjust my blog’s “manifesto” not all the stuff I watched have a bisexual slant because I am finding it harder than I’d even imagine. I thought I had in my head what would be considered a bisexual movie and go search and now I am wondering if I am readjusting some movies to find something that is close enough.

    If you interested in seeing what I saw last year, not all are bi but I would appreciate a comment on them or if you have any that I could find interesting at a later date.

    PS. I am glad I found this blog, since I know only a few active blogs or websites that deal with bisexuality that isn’t porn or technical/clinical that it’s refreshing.

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