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When Paris was lesbians

by Erin Blackwell

Scene from director Daviel Shy's "Ladies Almanack." Photo: Courtesy Roxie
Scene from director Daviel Shy's "Ladies Almanack." Photo: Courtesy Roxie  

There are so many lesbians running around now, it's hard to imagine a time when they were at a premium. As a warm-up to heterosexual coupling, of course, lesbianism has always been encouraged in libertine circles, but not as a goal in itself. Even today, children are seen as worth spending your time raising. Two women "alone" together are judged selfish, even or especially when they enlarge their couple to embrace transients. Such petit-bourgeois concerns didn't stop Sapphists in 1920s Paris. Au contraire. A new film, "Ladies Almanack," pays experimental homage to these unrepentant bohemians, June 30 only, at the Roxie.

Djuna Barnes (1892-1982) is someone it's always nice to have an excuse to contemplate and inject into conversation to raise or lower the tone. She wrote, illustrated, and self-published "Ladies Almanack" in Paris in 1928, the same year Radclyffe Hall published the polemical "Well of Loneliness." Hall got into trouble for pleading the cause of women who want to be married like normal people. Barnes escaped censure for celebrating women's proclivities for same-sex passion, adoration, scandal, heartbreak, folly, and dollies.

Both books are challenging reads for different reasons. Hall is maudlin, and Barnes is a crackpot, or to paraphrase her fan T.S. Eliot, more genius than talent. Certainly the native of Storm King Mountain, New York, had style. Her prose will defeat the literal-minded, which makes it strategic. If you make it through one of her sentences, you must be a lesbian, in spirit if not in flesh, being linguistically savvy enough to let ladies do what they will. Her tongue is allusively all-inclusive, transgressively digressive. Snippets do not suffice. Nonetheless, a sample:

"I would," she said, "that there were one Woman somewhere that one could take to task for Lethargy. Ah!" she sighed, "there were many such when I was a Girl, and in particular I recall one dear old Countess who was not to be convinced until I, fervid with Truth, had finally so floored her in every capacious Room of that dear ancestral Home, that I knew to a Button, how every Ticking was made! And what a lack of Art there is in the Upholstery Trade, for that they do not finish off the under Parts of Sofas and Chairs with anything like the Elegance showered upon that Portion which comes to the Eye!" (Capitalization as in original.)

To transcribe the High Priestess of Queer Hermetic High Modernity onto film, writer-director Daviel Shy chose super 8. The images were somewhat aquatic, less than crisp, in the online press screener. That's what makes it experimental, along with makeshift sets and costumes. Words spoken are not synched to lips. Barnes' immortal text, like the mortal women it celebrates, is merely the pretext for a mostly amateur cast to pose, parade, and declaim in vignettes arranged, as befits an almanack, by month. Several sequences are wordless, free-form dance rituals. Bosoms are bared, twerking happens, the aesthetic is awkward and austere. Impenetrability is a lesbian trope.

Sometimes the point of a film is to relish the opportunities such a project affords to gad about Paris and rub elbows with Eileen Myles, Hélène Cixous, Terry Castle, Guinevere Turner, Deborah Bright, and other lesser-known queers. The metaphysical imperative to transpose lesbian genius for a new generation has never been more urgent than in today's low-brow cultural moment. Alternatives to assimilation are life-enhancing goads to self-determination since, as Monique Wittig wrote, "A lesbian who does not reinvent the world is a lesbian going extinct."

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