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  • Jaka Lombar

“Brilliant Pinkish Flare”: Cataloguing Queerness in Experimental Film

Updated: Aug 16, 2022

This blog post is the result of the work carried out on the CFMDC’s collection in relation to the Archive/Counter-Archive (A/CA): Activating Canada’s Moving Image Heritage project. In order to learn more about the case study in which CFMDC is participating, click here.


Imagine that you are viewing a work from the CFMDC’s collection which might fit into Archive/Counter-Archive’s case study: it is undigitized and from 1996, so it falls within the general period in which queer body politic is (in)formed by the unravelling of the AIDS epidemic but not yet affected by the arrival of the antiretoviral drugs or other developments in the social sphere since the early 2000s. The filmmaker’s characteristically rich description of the short film describes in detail the hand-painted effects of floral shapes on dense blackness, the white sections covered with brushstrokes and lines, before, as the closing paragraph triumphantly states, “there is a brilliant pinkish flare veined with curled blue lines which engenders a resolution between … alternating modes.” It should be fair to disclose that the author of the film, entitled Beautiful Funerals, is not an unrecognized Canadian queer artist, but a titan of the avant-garde film, Stan Brakhage. This example is singled out because Brakhage’s biographical details are extensive, the reach and ubiquity of considerations on his work well known and thus there is less speculation to be had on either the (non-)queerness of the artist or his work. Beautiful Funerals should not be catalogued as queer or be part of the Archive/Counter-Archive’s focus. And yet … Perhaps some of the queerness of the other film cans that hold LGBTQ2 works has rubbed off on Beautiful Funerals? The image on film is so invitingly open to theorizing and speculating on the nature of abstraction and queerness. May we consider a kind of mutual contamination that nonetheless respects the specificity of particular titles—could an experimental film not offer a constructive forum where “the dynamic potential of queer stances can be manifested without recourse to the representation of bodies”?[i] What better way to contemplate the topoi of desire and its perseverance in conjunction with queer negativity than by viewing a “brilliant pinkish flare” stretch across black and white abstractions?

Beautiful Funerals (Stan Brakhage, 1996)

Classifying works as experimental, abstract or queer can be an intricate endeavour where every choice an archivist makes might facilitate access to the catalogued works in the future, or potentially even stifle access through engendering too unrestrictive, boundary-crossing and unwieldy field within the catalogue. Each work is deserving of the archivist’s attention, who must pay respect to the various characteristics that will determine which categories it will be tagged under, despite the fact that some of the characteristics, in different parts of the film, might be in contrast to each other. Yet when the part of the collection under review includes hundreds of moving images with varying lengths, the task may begin to seem administrative and unwieldy. After a time, the categories seem to dissolve into porous mass that fails to properly distinguish films that can be so distinct from each other. In other respects, tags as queer and experimental remain critically and materially essential not merely in the archive but the wider media environment. The interactions between abstract film and queerness or queer films and abstract art are manifestly crucial in how the art world, the financial structures and critical reception operate. For example, Jack Halberstam writes that “while experimental film is still closely associated with independent, alternative, and often queer cine­mas, abstract expressionist work is quite likely to find a place on the walls of a bank or a corporate office.”[ii]

The works by Barbara Hammer, a giant in the experimental film who is also a lesbian feminist, are appropriately rarely separated by the critics as being representative of only one of the respective fields. Still, the intersectionality between queer moving image artworks and the avant-garde film is not always intuitively apparent.[iii] One possibility is to approach the works through their authors, so that when a queer filmmaker creates an abstract film, it could be classified as queer abstract film. This seems to be a fairly clear method to determine the queerness of films that feature no other characteristics that are most often associated with queer themes, but as soon as the information on the artist becomes scarce, or the reliability and provenance of that information become questionable, this method comes perilously close to the possibility that information which is either inaccurate, or hurtful if revealed, may be ascribed to the artist through the classification of their work. Robb Hernández identifies a “familiar obstacle” when archivists and scholars are faced with indeterminacy of an artist’s sexual biography: “[s]uspect sexualities have profound effects on artist biographies, careers, and art-market valuations and inform the perception of the work.”[iv] Furthermore, the ambiguity may be the intended purpose of artists, and their wish may in fact be that their work be perceived and received in such ambiguity. Teresa de Lauretis goes as far as to suggest that “a queer text carries the inscription of sexuality as something more than sex” irrespectively of the queerness of the text’s authorial persona.[v] This crucial point suggests that even while a reasonable assumption that many queer artists will create queer works can be made, it should not be used as a format to determine the queerness of the work. The issue of authorial determinism over the artwork also presents challenges the other way around: could an artist create a queer abstract film even if they do not identify as queer but explicitly identify one of their abstract films as inspired by or as commenting on a queer subject, displaying an “inscription of sexuality as something more than sex,” as de Laureatis put it?

It may well be worth turning to Brakhage once more, particularly to his 1996 film, entitled Two Found Objects of Charles Boultenhouse, which is also stored at the CFMDC collection. In the 1950s, Br