Social Change through Failure:
An Interview with Chris Vargas and Eric Stanley
originally published in Make/shift, Spring/Summer 2008
In Homotopia, filmmaker Chris Vargas joins forces with academic/direct-action activist Eric Stanley to fuse the politics of political organizing with the techniques of DIY feminist videomaking and, perhaps most surprisingly, the clumsiness of gay relational comedy. Homotopia challenges the gay-marriage movement’s obsession with assimilation at all costs, yet it does so with a hilarity and a messiness that reveal surprising intersections among gender defiance, failure, and resistance.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore sat down with the filmmakers after their recent tour of universities, and got so caught up in the festivities that she neglected to ask why so much of her floral-themed purple coif got cropped out of her cameo in the movie. But on to the rest of the ideas the movie generates . . .
MBS: Let’s start with the beginning, where you have a manifesto that ends, “Love Revolution, Not State Delusion.” This invocation of revolution seems both critical and ironic. I wonder if you could talk about that tension between the serious politics and the campy sloganeering?
ES: I think, historically, that people have argued that a camp aesthetic is by definition apolitical—people like Susan Sontag in her “Notes on ‘Camp’”—and we started from [the belief] that camp has been and is a really important political strategy, especially in queer struggles and queer visual cultures. In San Francisco, camp is alive and well in direct-action groups like LAGAI–Queer Insurrection and Gay Shame. LAGAI, for example, had a “First Ever Mass Gay Divorce” back in 1996, complete with the Go Your Separate Ways Travel Agency and a plate-smashing booth.
CV: Yeah, camp is self-critical and also allows a lightness which offers an entry point into some serious political dialogue.
ES: And oftentimes historically, especially in ’70s movements, it was all about this masculinist dogma. You know: everyone needs to file in line behind the great male leader, and there’s very little room for playfulness or for love or passion or any of those things.
What made you think of using gay relational comedy?
ES: We knew that we couldn’t and didn’t necessarily want to dabble in the world of realism. And you know there’s nothing further from realism than romantic comedies. So I think our intentional distance from any kind of realism opened the space for some kind of comedic effect.
CV: Yeah, we took these potentially serious characters, serious about mobilizing the motley group to crash this wedding that’s about to take place, but who are having serious problems amongst themselves. It’s poking fun at the icon of the earnest militant. We also didn’t want to create one main character, or multiple characters that the viewer absolutely identified with the whole way through the movie whom you were rooting for at the end. It references this kind of feminist-film-theory work which doesn’t allow you to get totally lost in the medium but instead foregrounds the apparatus.
Both of you have very conceptual, activist-oriented, theory-based ways of talking about Homotopia, but the actual experience of watching the movie doesn’t really operate on that level. And so I’m wondering about that sort of choice—I mean, the conversations people have in the movie are not the conversation that we’re having here. But simultaneously the movie is stimulating us to have this conversation.
ES: Both Chris and I are fairly theoretical, so it’s interesting how much thought it took us to make something so clumsy. Hovering in the background of many shots you can see all sorts of radical books, from Fanon and Mbembe to That’s Revolting! and Das Kapital. We also used shot-for-shot reenactment to reference important films that influenced us like Battle of Algiers and Born in Flames . . . [Gay relational comedy is] one of my favorite genres of movie because those kinds of gay movies are so failed in a way, like even though they’re not trying to be campy, they’re just, like, so, so incredibly failed that they’re totally campy.
So, would you say that you’re making one of those movies but with the critical engagement actually in the intent?
CV: It seems that one huge difference is that we really avoid this moralistic and/or tightly packaged conclusion that all of these movies like Shortbus and Circuit try to arrive at, to try and make you think that a sexual liberation, or a really normative kind of love, is going to save you and the world and America.
Speaking of saving the world, this movie appears to be set in San Francisco, and obviously SF in the present day is awash with pro-marriage conversion fever, so it seems a perfect place for a dystopian fable. I thought you got some lovely shots in the gay Castro district that would be hard to plan, like Sing-Along Evita at the Castro Theatre. Or Pride Cleaners. You even managed to include those ghastly “Freedom to Marry” stickers, the ones with the stars and stripes in a heart shape that say, “We all deserve the freedom to marry!”
ES: Those stickers have been a keepsake of mine for some time; that kind of gay nationalism is something that terrifies me, actually—you know, what does it mean when this group of people that has been historically and still is incredibly terrorized by the United States government stands at allegiance with all the warmongers and every other horrible person in the United States?
CV: The rabidness of wanting to be aligned with that kind of colonial patriotism is totally scary.
Yeah, one of the characters in the movie invokes another one of those tired lines when she says, “I would never get married, but I do think other people should have the right to.” And then she goes on to point out that marriage gives some people health care, and the other character’s response I really liked. She says, “Why should only married people be allowed to live?”
ES: We wanted to re-center the debate and actually talk about basic needs, like health care, like somewhere to live, like food.
I think another thing that the movie keeps coming back to is this notion of a medical industrial complex, whether you’re talking about AIDS deaths or pharmaceutical profiteering or marriage.
ES: It was really important to me to re-work and re-think what an “AIDS movie” might be—we didn’t want to recycle an old, tired narrative about someone dying with AIDS, and their friends rally around . . . And so I think what we wanted to do is make it really clear that the important things like health care, or universal health care, or access to any kind of health-care situation—historically this is something that has been argued by feminist movements and by early gay-liberation movements and queer movements. And now it’s, "We’ll work on that in the next four years; after we get gay marriage, we’ll come back.”
Hillary Clinton’s going to do it.
ES: Yeah, Hillary. I think she is. That was in her program.
Another way you challenge normative ideas of gender is by representing all of these different sorts of trans, genderqueer, gender-defiant bodies and identities without defining any of them. And I’m wondering if this is part of the love revolution that you’re invoking.
ES: At one of our showings a person in the audience asked, “Why are there only white males in your movie?” I mean, to me, obviously there’s tons of people that don’t identify as white and tons of people that don’t identify as male and whatever. And I think it was really interesting seeing how different people can either enter it, enter the film, or not at all. Like, it was just way too much for some people to even get there.
CV: I wanted to say something else about the AIDS genre of movies that ties in to the transgender genre of movies where there’s always this narrative of disclosure and revelation and then everyone has to come to terms with it, it becomes everybody’s issue. And also in the talking-head documentary that talks about how I’m dealing with my gender and how everyone around me is dealing with my gender. But none of those conversations happen in our movie. Surprisingly, a lot of people didn’t really address the issue of gender presentation on our movie tour; that was not even talked about. They sort of took everything at face value, made a lot of assumptions, or were too afraid to ask.
ES: I think a lot of people were totally confused, and I think that was kind of what we wanted. You know, it wasn’t the kind of transitional narrative . . . We didn’t have the before surgery, after surgery; we didn’t have—
CV: The sad face before, happy face after, and then the—
The baby pictures . . .
ES: Right, the mom crying about losing her daughter—yeah, there’s none of that. I mean, we had a fair number of people that identified as trans in a lot of the audiences, and I think even for them, they didn’t really know what to do.
CV: And sometimes they injected their own assumptions about certain characters’ anatomy, especially as it referred to safe sex practices. We were giving a talk at Smith College, and a person asked why there was not “visible condom use” in the sex scene. This question seemed to assume that a blow job without a condom is unsafe and that both people fucking in this scene were non-trans. These kinds of assumptions about people’s bodies, although well intentioned, also need to be placed into question. We recently went back and added a “female condom” in that scene just to secure the gender confusion. We wanted to address safer sex without deciding what that might be for these two characters.
And also in terms of race, you were saying, do you think they were perceiving both of you as being white and non-trans?
CV: Yeah. Actually, in the Northeast, it was really strange to be not legible as trans, and I’m not sure how my race was read at all. Based on that one comment, it seemed they just assumed that we were some regular white dudes up there telling them about something or other . . .
ES: Yeah, especially since there’s a large number of mixed-race people in the movie, and I think that most of them just got read as white.
CV: It’s counterintuitive, but for me being in mostly white spaces I often just get read as white and not mixed-race.
And I’m wondering also how you see the medical industrial complex playing a role in trans, genderqueer, and gender-variant lives?
ES: Unfortunately, in trans popular culture there is this push for medicalization . . . People should feel free to express their genders in any way that they want to—with surgery, without surgery, with hormones, without hormones—you know, there isn’t this one way to be trans, or this one way to be genderqueer, this one way to be whatever. And like we were talking about, in the trans genre film, most of the shots are people being pushed into surgery and then they’re reborn—it’s like Jesus rising from the cave.
CV: It sets up surgery and hormones as the end point—that one moment where one becomes a full-grown man or a full-grown woman. We didn’t want to condemn one’s participation in the medical industrial complex because they want their bodies to look a certain way or their genders to be read a certain way, but also we didn’t want to reproduce that commonly understood expectation that one must inevitably do so in order to be legible as the gender one chooses.
You mean challenging that as the one model of success?
And so in some ways do you think that you are invoking failure as a possibility, like maybe this is a place where there is a potential for liberation?
CV: Absolutely. This failure to pass, this failure to participate in oppressive structures—absolutely failure becomes this place of liberation.
ES: Yeah, I think that that’s where the revolutionary rhetoric and the camp aesthetic—I think that around failure that’s where it becomes really interesting. Because revolutionary rhetoric is all about winning, at-all-costs kind of winning, and camp is about failure, so it’s like, what would it mean to create social change through failure as opposed to success? Because success is already so incredibly soaked with every kind of oppression in the world that maybe we need to start thinking about other ways to create change.