Avant-garde is not an excuse to create trash and label it as art. Apparently, the makers of “Dirty Looks: A Long Distance Love Affair” didn’t get that memo — and I don’t think this a particularly harsh assumption. While I don’t expect a linear narrative in this “avant-garde” mash-up of 11 clips or a theme that is clearly identifiable, I do anticipate there being a sort of concept, a sort of thoughtful connection with the film, a sort of maturity. Unfortunately, there are few to none of the aforementioned qualifications in this film. It is, frankly, utterly ridiculous.
“Dirty Looks” is intended to be a roaming screening of queer works from coast to coast. It opens with what are presumably two drag queens flopping around over a scantily clad man. The film is silent at this point, moving in slow motion as the camera zooms in on each drag queen’s face as they roll around and smear their make-up. They proceed to roll around together for a good ten minutes. Then the screen awkwardly blanks out as the film changes from one clip to the next. The following segment features what appears to be a blonde woman staring out a window into Manhattan with a voice-over and big, bolded captions in the center of the screen. Drug tests, uncontrollable vomiting and a sick girl named Jane are mentioned, and before any plot or clarity crystallizes, it’s the blank screen again.
The following few scenes consist of literally porn with a background track followed by literally porn minus the background track. This, perhaps, drew the greatest response from the audience, simply because of its crude and juvenile humor: in one episode, ostriches observe multiple sex scenes occurring in the outdoors. The birds poke their heads in intermittently in what seems to be an act of curiosity. The camera occasionally alternates from a wide zoom view of the sex to a close up on the ostriches’ buggy eyes, open mouths and clueless expressions. It is now that I am absolutely convinced that this screening has been a waste of my time. Not only is this work offensive to real experimental filmmakers with actual purpose and intent, it also trivializes the queer community into a collection of overweight drag queens, G-string wearing men and androgynous women.
But perhaps this distaste could have been anticipated. Before the screening, one of the filmmakers noted that due to the use of different types of film stock, there could be focus issues when switching clips. But if it didn’t go well, he said, then the poor transition would “just be experimental” — a hint that nearly anything could and will be swept under the cover of avant-garde and be called a work of art.
For a film that advertised itself so uniquely — to position “contemporary queer avant-garde work alongside more historical work as a way of tracing aesthetic trajectories” — it is a thorough disappointment that fails to meet the filmmakers’ goal. Where are the historical trends — the conceptual elements, social relevance, surrealism? All I got was the most obvious, commonplace psychedelia of the 1960s. The film, too, failed in its further aim of combatting “canonization,” that is, the tendency to put non-experimental cinema on a high pedestal. But by offering the audience an unconvincing piece of experimental film, we have no choice but to further appreciate these kinds of standard-made films.
Ultimately, “Dirty Looks” was not worth my time, and I don’t think it will be worth yours. For those interested in avant-garde, there are films that do the genre more justice.