Feature

The Story of the Girls & Looking for Langston

Mardi Gras Visual

Arts Program

By Em Size

15 March, 2018

This text is part one in Running Dog’s series covering the Mardi Gras Visual Arts Program. Written in the style of a closet drama, it considers Isaac Julien’s ‘Looking for Langston’ and Ben Mercer & Tom Pender’s ‘The Story of the Girls’. 

 

THE BELOVED is stoned, stretched out on the floor in the bodyline of gay history. Posing statue-still in his recline, his only movement is the flickering of his thumb on a half-hearted Grindr cruise. CHER sings on a Smart TV in front of him.

CHER

Do you believe in life after love?

THE LOVER (AN ART CRITIC) sits behind him, watching the microdrama of his libido play out and thinking about the cinema of it: HER watching HIM looking for MEN just as Cher is sing-realising that ‘love’ is an event, an era, a bookmark: something to recover from and something you can never return to not having felt.

CUT TO – INT. AGNSW’S DOMAIN THEATRE – VALENTINE’S DAY EVENING

AN ART CRITIC (THE LOVER) waits for THE BELOVED to arrive. He texts saying he might be late but the doors to Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston shut at 7.15pm sharp.

THE CAMERA WAITS BEHIND TWO SEATS IN THE THEATRE FOR TEN MINUTES, SHIFTING IN AND OUT OF FOCUS TO THE SOUND OF PEOPLE TAKING THEIR SEATS, AND –

THE BELOVED arrives just in time, reeking like a man does after he’s just sprinted from a train station. As he folds himself into a seat, he fans his shirt back and forth to aerate his sweat and THE LOVER (AN ART CRITIC) is ashamed to be aroused.

PAN OUT FROM THE COUPLE TO A WIDE SHOT OF THE CINEMA

AGNSW WEBSITE (V.O.)

‘Looking for Langston is a lyrical reimagining of the Harlem Renaissance and the life of its poet laureate, Langston Hughes (1902-1967).’

Isaac Julien, Stars (Looking for Langston Vintage Series), (1989/2017)
Courtesy Roslyn Oxley9

CUT TO – A RECREATION OF LANGSTON HUGHES’ FUNERAL

The film weaves found footage, theatrical tableaux, dance and poetry into a groundbreaking meditation on black gay desire, representation and memory.

CUT TO – BLACK MEN LOOKING AT EACH OTHER

The film is a seamless blend of archival and reconstructed scenes.

CUT TO – A RECURRING MOTIF OF SMOKE

It invokes photographic pasts—amongst others, the work of Robert Mapplethorpe—and participates in the critical interventions of the 1980s black British film movement.

CUT TO – BLACK MEN LOOKING FOR EACH OTHER

Julien, alongside members of the pioneering Sankofa Film and Video Collective, sought an ‘aesthetic of reparation’—a cinematic vernacular which explored ‘different ways in which one could redeem how the black subject was represented’.

CUT TO –THE POST-SCREENING Q&A WITH ISAAC JULIEN

ISAAC JULIEN [QUOTE REMEMBERED BY AN ART CRITIC (THE LOVER)]

Every black gay man I knew in London had a copy of [Mapplethorpe’s] The Black Book. It was loved but also read with a certain…criticality. But it was important in developing a visual language.

CUT TO – THE WAY TIME BUCKLES BETWEEN THE AIDS CRISIS AND RACISM AND LOOKING FOR BEATS AT NIGHT AND MEN IN FIELDS AND POETRY AND BEING NAKED ON A BED TOGETHER

AN ART CRITIC (THE LOVER) NEARING TRANSMASCULINITY (V.O.)

The process of having an ‘identity’ is the feeling of waking up in someone else’s dream; there’s an unexplained logic that makes this meaningful mess coherent in your brief suspension of disbelief.

CUT BACK TO – THE NIGHT BEFORE MARDI GRAS

THE BELOVED is still stoned, stretched out on the floor in the bodyline of gay history. THE OTHER PEOPLE IN THE ROOM are flicking through the gay canon of pop on the Smart TV. When they ask THE BELOVED to throw out a request, he waves them off. THE LOVER (AN ART CRITIC) squeezes his shoulder.

THE LOVER (AN ART CRITIC)

How about High School Musical 2? I know THE BELOVED likes ‘Fabulous’…

THE BELOVED lights up as the one gay-ish tune he somehow found as a teen starts playing, and THE LOVER’s fears are confirmed: THE BELOVED has spent the last hour or so spectating his own life because he’s not literate in the nostalgia everyone else in the room is enjoying.

THE BELOVED

I wanted to be her so badly!

THE LOVER (AN ART CRITIC)

You literally are her!

CUT TO – INT. STACKS PROJECTS – EVENING OF AN OPENING A WEEK OR SO BEFORE VALENTINE’S DAY

[In a gallery the size of a closet, white gay males crowd around a linear narrative of Barbies, posed in a runway tableau on an LED-lit plinth.]

STACKS PROJECTS WEBSITE (V.O)

‘The Story of The Girls is a high-camp exhibition of artworks resulting from 25 years of creative play between two gay best friends Ben Mercer & Tom Pender.’

Ben Mercer and Tom Pender, The Story of the Girls (2018)
Installation view
courtesy Stacks Project

THE CAMERA FOLLOWS OVER THE SHOULDER OF AN ART CRITIC (THE LOVER) AS SHE ANGLES THROUGH A CROWD OF UNFAMILIAR GAYS, TRYING TO READ THE STORY BLU-TACKED ON THE WALLS. AS SHE CRUISES PAST DIY, PERSONAL REPORTAGE OF IDENTITIES MEDIATED THROUGH A FRIENDSHIP MEDIATED THROUGH DOLLS, HER INTERIOR MONOLOGUE RUNS OVER THE FAR RIGHT THIRD OF THE FRAME:

I can’t remember the last time
I saw art that had a social
function outside of the art
world. That’s not to say that
there isn’t art like that
happening all the time, I just
don’t see it. It’s nice to see art
re-producing a community that
isn’t ‘the art scene’.

Maybe I’m going soft now that
I have an eroticised affinity to
white gay men. But instead of
feeling angered or alienated
by this repetitive entry into the
cis-white-GAYtm canon of
Mardi Gras aesthetics, I feel
warm watching the gay gaze
tilt away from a homoeroticism
that desires ‘ideal’ bodies and
towards gay camaraderie that
makes alternative
masculinities.

CUT TO – A SMALL BAR IN THE INNER WEST WITH LOTS OF GAY MEN AND AN ART CRITIC (THE LOVER) – MIDNIGHT AFTER WATCHING Looking for Langston

GENDERLESS NARRATOR (V.O)

AN ART CRITIC (THE LOVER) is always and never in ‘her body’, always and never in love, always and never fine, always and never liminal. Being half in and half out of yourself for years and years unscrews the bed you never assembled.

CUT TO – AN INTERCUT SEQUENCE OF CAMERA 1 AND CAMERA 2 FOLLOWING HANDS MIMING IKEA FLATPACK ASSEMBLY

THE LOVER (AN ART CRITIC) (V.O)

It’s not that I don’t like hanging out with gay cis-men. There’s an…ellipsis, a possibility, in reading alternative social scripts for masculinity. But to share a language is to realise how unfairly ‘shared’ something can be.

CUT TO – MEN LOOKING AT EACH OTHER

When I’m with you and him and him and him, I understand what a drunk-hand-on-my-bicep versus a drunk-hand-on-his-neck means: your camaraderie is italicised with an inter-erotic grammar that I interrupt.

AN ART CRITIC (THE LOVER) NEARING TRANSMASCULINITY (V.O.)

We can exist in the same history in different ways, or we can exist in different histories in the same ways, or we can try to not exist at all but that doesn’t really work. Every option is a lot of work.

CUT TO – CLOSE UP ON HER WATCHING HIM LOOKING FOR MEN

[It’s implied that THE BELOVED remains oblivious as THE LOVER (AN ART CRITIC) looks at him with all the questions ever asked by love and desire and wordlessly mouths out her confession]

THE LOVER (AND ART CRITIC)

Loving you like a child, wanting to fuck you like a man, caring about you like a mother and wanting to buy you a crystal dildo like a daddy is [actor ad libs].

The Story of the Girls
Ben Mercer and Tom Pender
8 - 25 February
Stacks Projects

'Film Noir Angels' Looking for Langston
Isaac Julien
23 January - 3 March
Roslyn Oxley9

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