Monday, November 4, 2013

Go Fish (1994): Lesbian's Gotta Have It

Go Fish (1994)
dir: Rose Troche

Upon watching Go Fish for the first time, 2 decades after it came out, I'm struck by the similarities it has with Spike Lee's 1986 breakout She's Gotta Have It, not just in low budget black and white, but also in style and structure. Both films are breakthroughs for minority groups to come out from the dredges of tokenism and come into their own with films of high art that have strong urban underpinnings. Both also have a tendency to ramble about topical discussions directly related to their community.

1994 was sort of a big year for indie films. Pulp Fiction blasted onto the landscape. Clerks snuck in unnoticed only to become the best movie ever (I remember trading video tapes of it). Peter Jackson was just becoming a name after 1992's Dead Alive, by releasing Heavenly Creatures, which was a great film nobody heard of until after The Frighteners. There was Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and S.F.W. and Hoop Dreams. Kevin Smith wasn't only first director of note to start in 1994. Both David O Russell and Danny Boyle released their first features, Spanking the Monkey and Shallow Grave in 1994. Terry Zwigoff directed the documentary Crumb. And, then there was Go Fish, which, although it was a kind of a landmark lesbian community movie in 1994, it was also small and intimate and kind of homemade feeling. So, its a little understandable that Go Fish was slightly lost among all of these other movies which have become relative landmarks in their own right.

Go Fish is a smaller, intimate, movie which works with its completely low budget and high aspirations. It wanted to get the lesbian experience of an urban, San Franciscan, dyke down pat. It isn't much of a big plot, mainstream-aiming, movie, so much as an exploration of a community and its fears. It is for lesbians, by lesbians, but without alienation. Go Fish is a bit of a love story, but that's not really the point of the movie. It feels very much like Clerks at times, in that it is more of an verbal and stylistic exercise of day in the life of a certain culture, though Go Fish has more artistic inspirations than Clerks ever did.

The most central characters are Max and Eli. Max is a baby dyke who is still is rather immature and needs an older woman to guide her. Eli is an older lesbian who had surrounded herself in old-fashioned hippy trappings as a guard against others, and was also partnered with a woman who moved to Seattle 2.5 years earlier. At first, they're antagonistic towards each other, but eventually they let their guards down and go on their first date.  Along the way, they're commented on and guided by an ever changing collection of friends and friends of friends in a morphing Greek chorus of lesbians, who also have their own lives too.

One friend is dating a Hispanic girl, who isn't out to her parents (claiming she's working doubles when she's spending the night). The hispanic girl gets ratted out and kicked out of her home. Another friend has a hookup with a guy, which causes a mental anguish of "OMG, are you not a lesbian?!" represented by a trial. Other friends and people swirl in and out and around to give Go Fish more of a community painting than the character study of either She's Gotta Have It or Clerks.

Go Fish wears its small community effort style on its sleeve.  The credits are community styled drawings of suns and swirls that remind you of children's sketches. Troche uses long takes where characters occasionally flub lines, but the performances are totally cute and even the flubs express a "we're all in this together" community vibe. The vibe constantly reminds you that this is totally something created, and what's being presented is not a complete picture of lesbian life, even though many lesbians agreed it was good enough to participate in. The acting is as capable as the acting in Clerks, and the language is styled very similarly, though without the testosterone-laden reference-filled nihilistic tonality.

Much like Clerks, the lesbians ramble on about things consequential and inconsequential. The characters ponder whether clipping each other's nails counts as a valid source of foreplay (think for a minute). They debate whether lesbian filmmakers have a duty to create honest portrayals of lesbians instead of creating melodramatic, mainstream-aspiring, all-too-earnest films. Go Fish opens with a bunch of college students listing of lesbian fictional characters (very Linklater). They have a discussion of preferred names for pussy. They talk about gender roles, butch/femme dichotomies, and the role of traditional gender roles in the lesbian community. All of this is delivered in a playful manner that belies the political underpinnings that these discussions actually possess.

Rose Troche would go on to make the underwhelming Bedrooms and Hallways, whose only claim to fame is having Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) be a gay real estate agent who loves fucking in empty houses with expensive things. She also did The Safety of Objects, and then directed a bunch of television episodes.

Go Fish is the ambitious work of a community that needed to start portraying itself the way it wanted to be seen. Not as a bunch of angry man-hating bulldykes. Not as lipstick lesbians in pornos. Not as aggressive-as-fuck activists who needed to be accepted. But, as the usual gang of lesbians with lesbian issues that you might be able to understand if you saw them in an unassuming little movie, like this. Highly recommended.

Ed's Last Words: This really is so much better than what I was expecting. I was thinking this was another cliche gay movie, only replacing gay men with lesbians. But, I should have known better considering that it was part of the New Queer Cinema movement. It's not nearly as abrasive as the male films of that genre (I'm looking at you, Swoon), but it still possesses the avant garde's just not nearly as angry about everything.

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