Dirty Looks in Montreal : An Interview with Bradford Nordeen
Bradford Nordeen is the founder and creative director of Dirty Looks, a Los Angeles-based collective dedicated to the showcasing of queer-made moving images. He was in Montreal this October (19th) to present two programs of short films and videos: 8 Years On (at Never Apart), an eclectic celebration of the collective’s eight years of existence, and Hardcore Home Movies (at La Lumière), investigating the “archives” of the queercore movement. In the afternoon preceding the second event, we met at Notre Dame des Quilles to discuss queer curation and cinephilia.
Offscreen: For last night’s program at Never Apart, you chose eight films to summarize eight years of Dirty Looks. How did this program come together?
Bradford Nordeen: We’ve done greatest hits programs a couple times in the past. We had this program in 2012 called Yesterday Once More that was not exactly a “greatest hits,” but the Mariah Garnett film was in that, [Encounters I May Or May Not Have Had with Peter Berlin, 2012] and then there were three other films that were about intergenerational embrace of queer iconography. At three years, we had done an anniversary program that we toured. But with this one, we actually got a commission that fell through laugh. It had a quick turnaround, but it was kind of supposed to be significant, so I was like, “okay, I’ll give them their money’s worth.” So, I sat down and wondered: what could we do that’s both a “greatest hits” but also something a little more cohesive and thematic? When we were talking with the folks here in Montreal, I told them I had just curated this program that was supposed to screen but didn’t, and that perhaps we could do that. We’ll screen it actually in Los Angeles, on our actual eight-year anniversary [in January]. This program was very consciously about people who’ve been involved in the project from year one. Michael Robinson, Mariah Garnett… these two in particular have been involved since the first year. I’ve been working with Brontez [Purnell] forever. We gave Chris [E. Vargas] his first mid-career survey in 2013. It’s people that we had investments with in the long haul. There’s nobody new to the program.
Encounters I May or May Not Have Had with Peter Berlin (Mariah Garnett, 2012)
Offscreen: Can you remind me which film last night was Chris’s?
BN: Liberaceón, which I just think is a fucking masterpiece.
Offscreen: I loved it. Though, I didn’t know who Liberace was.
BN: You didn’t know Liberace? Oh my God! The movie is like a lie, you know? What Chris does is he takes these trans or queer icons who maybe aren’t the best role models and he’ll amend their narrative to kind of spin them as good role models, and so that’s what Liberaceón was. He’ll revise people like Thomas Beaty, the first pregnant man. That’s probably his best video. It ends with a direct address at the camera, with him saying, “if I failed you, or if I failed to represent your masculinity or your ideals of manhood, well, you’ve also failed me, America, so go fuck yourself – and buy my book.” He did that, he did a supercut with RuPaul called Sashay Away that’s like a duel channel, and it’s RuPaul saying “sashay away,” and the queens’ faces as they’re being told to sashay away. He’s also worked with Reed Erickson, who said he was going to give ONE Archives in Los Angeles his mansion, and then didn’t. He was a trans guy –who was super rich, and who was experimenting with psychotropic drugs as a means by which to communicate with animals… Yeah, that’s like, a lot, you know? laughs And Chris does this larger project called the Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art, and this one large project that is happening right now, going from museum to museum, called Trans History in 99 Objects or Less. It’s pop-up exhibitions that discuss the history of trans culture through specific objects and their correlation to the people, or events, etc.
Offscreen: You demonstrate a strong interest for queer history yourself. The 8 Years program was a constellation of works that spanned several decades, from contemporary videos all the way back to Amphetamine  by Warren Sonbert…
100 Boyfriends Mixtape (the demo) (Brontez Purnell, 2017)
BN: …in collaboration with Wendy Appel, but Sonbert was the one who moved forward with his career, probably because he had a penis. But, ahem… [pause] what’s the question?
Offscreen: Yes. You had two films yesterday that were from the twentieth century, right? You had Amphetamine, and you had Frenzy by Jill Reiter, and tonight’s program Hardcore Home Movies looks back at the 1990s, which was queercore’s heyday…
BN: I think that something that’s really tantamount to Dirty Looks, especially in its beginning, was my desire to see things, and the issue of access in experimental film and video. The first two or three years of Dirty Looks was a combination of me, sort of working from my knowledge base and hoping to share with audiences, but also me asking myself, “what’s out there that I don’t know, that I can try to look into.” I hadn’t seen Amphetamine before we did a screening of Warren Sonbert’s work. I’d been able to preview the later stuff because it was at the Filmmaker’s Coop in New York, where I was living at the time, and I think Canyon Cinema is the only place that has a print of the film. Now, it’s digitized – well, low res digitized – on Light Cone, which is in France. So I watched it for the first time with the audience and thought, “oh my God, this is incredible.” Getting my hands on Amphetamine wasn’t really archive work. Jill was a little bit different because we found her through this commission to celebrate the Mix Film Festival in New York, and I proposed doing a two parts program that was a film that screened every year in Mix leading up to their twenty-fifth anniversary. Chris Straayer had written about Frenzy in Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies, which is her magnificent book about lesbian and queer video art in the 1990’s, and I saw Frenzy in the Mix catalogue. They had a U-Matic tape that wouldn’t play. I don’t know what the issue was, but I couldn’t watch it. I sent Chris Straayer a piece of writing, and in my gut, I thought, “this is the one.” The director of the festival at the time was trying to persuade me into doing a different, “safer” choice, but I couldn’t care less.
Offscreen: So how did you show it?
BN: Either they digitized it, or we showed it on the U-Matic tape. They must have digitized it. I don’t remember, it was in 2012, I think… but it lit the room on fire. Everyone was like, “what is this?” Tom [Thomas Waugh] said in the Q&A yesterday that the films are somewhere between documentary and experimental film, and Frenzy is very much that. It is a fiction, it’s a staged performance, but it’s also a document of that moment. It’s so genius because there is very little story, it’s just people fucking, and that opens out to more ethos I think.
There was so much excitement around Jill’s film at MIX that we decided to build a whole riot grrrl 1 program. In the catalogues, we found a listing for a film called Dirty Girls. I couldn’t find any other films that the filmmaker, Michael Lucid, had made, but I did see that there was a Michael Lucid online who was a drag queen interviewer for World of Wonder, so I reached out to him and asked him, “did you make a movie called Dirty Girls in 1996?” He was like, “yeah! I’ll send you a link.” He uploaded it to YouTube and I watched it. It was incredible. It’s about riot grrrl culture in a private Santa Monica college in 1996. I took our materials to our designer and showed her some of the film’s images, and she said, “oh, you should totally go with that one because that looks like that Tumblr meme about that girl who hasn’t showered since Kurt Cobain died”, and I told her that it was actually from the film. She told me I needed to Google it because it was a thing right now. So I Googled it. In the week after which Michael had put up the video, it had racked up over 250,000 views. Our screening at The Kitchen in NYC was flooded with 16-year-old girls. It was just a crazy thing! Even at that time, Michael was talking with Dreamworks about potentially turning Dirty Girls into either a movie or a TV show. This is not what you expect the archive to behold, or whatever, but those are some of the weird, amazing situations that you can find yourself in.
Frenzy (Jill Reiter, 1993)
Offscreen: You worked with pornography in 2015…
BN: I’ve been working with porn pretty consistently from 2015, to, like, a week ago. We did a porn cinema in New York.
Offscreen: In comparison to the conservation and institutional status of the “art films” you presented yesterday, how would you describe the archival situation of these pornographic films?
BN: Well, I don’t think that’s necessarily 100% accurate, because a lot of these works [the “art films”] have not been archived. I don’t even know if the filmmakers knew it before three or four years ago, but MIX kept everything at the Fales [Library], which, to me, is amazing. When somebody sent in their film, they wouldn’t send it back; instead, they would just keep it. For me, that’s genius. I guess that is an archive, but I think we like to talk about archives as sanctified spaces of approval. The Fales, which has that collection, is sanctified and glorious and wonderful, but nothing’s ever that cut-and-dried. When we were commissioned to do [the Frenzy event], the director at the time gave us the entire history of programs from MIX. That was a really wonderful resource for our organization. When I’m trying to figure out what the next year of Dirty Looks is going to look like, one thing I like to do is looking through those catalogues and be like, “what was playing in 1995?” Especially the years during which MIX was largely active [the end of the 1980s, the 1990s], the way of distribution of these works was through festivals, so those catalogues are a pretty good testimony of what was going on at that time. With the porn stuff, we did this project called Sesión Continua, which is a twenty-four hour porn theater. For three of the four years, the project was structured around pre-VHS content. It was organised in that way because there is no archive, and there is very little information on the internet about what was, on its heyday, the only commercially viable representational format for queer people – well, mostly gay people.
Fiend (Jonesy, 1992)
Offscreen: I’m thinking of something that queer theory scholar Tim Dean states, about how porn archives can represent a form of cultural memory for sexual minorities.
BN: For the longest period in Dirty Looks history, I’ve worked closely with two collaborators, Karl McCool and Clara López Menéndez. Both were very interested in porn. I was mostly into 1960s and 1970s American avant-garde stuff, but I was like “cool, whatever, let’s do that too,” because porn sells. I understood then, to some degree, that pornography had merit, but as I continued working with them and seeing more and more content, I realized that [what Dean states] is 100% accurate. These pornographic films are actually among the best documents of queer life at that time; beyond sexual pleasure, they depict living spaces, living conditions, aspects of sex cultures, etc. Because of the nature of that format, the almost entire output is by and large erased from cultural memory/the Internet, because it’s inappropriate, or outmoded. Porn is like an iPhone; once there’s HD, because porn is largely regarded as practical, people prefer to get off to the HD thing at home rather than the 16 mm thing in the theater. The Sesión Continua project is about being in the theater; it’s about pre-VHS work. We started working with porn collector Joe Rubin, who has over fifteen hundred original 16 mm hardcore films. The films were positioned in the theater without schedules. I can be a sort of headstrong individual and decide that an aspect of the programmatic rationale is essential. While I still believe that, one of the thing about the twenty-four hour theater that’s consistently been an issue is I strategically do not announce the program so that people entering the space can engage with what they see at its face value. But sometimes, there’s only so much that you can do to combat capitalistic impulses within contemporary cinephilia/pornography. My intention is to create a situation wherein people are not going to a title based on actor, title, scene, which is kind of what contemporary pornography has been producing: “I want to see X get Y in his blank, for ten minutes.”
Offscreen: Pornography can be subversive, but it can also easily become an agent of sexual regulation.
BN: Yes. So, I wanted to do something different, but it [not announcing the program] isn’t working. I mean, maybe it’s working, but people aren’t going with the flow, for a myriad of reasons. I think this is probably be the last year that we do the twenty-four hour format. We spend a lot of time doing research around what should screen and what’s appropriate for the context but, you know, there’s not a ton of people there at 6 AM, but there could be something very valid playing at 6 AM. I don’t know what it will transform into, but I probably won’t do the all night thing anymore. You’ve got to switch it up, you know?
Offscreen: You have another project called On Location where you present programs of films and videos in historically queer spaces. Cinema is often confined into designated locations and institutions – what does it mean to take it out of the theatre, and what does it create?
BN: I did a tour in 2012 and saw a program that I screened multiple times in a big nice theatre on a Sunday, and I didn’t recognize what I saw on the screen. At that point beforehand, Dirty Looks had been exploring what Kembra Pfahler calls “availabism” 2 . I’ve been very acutely aware of how the film on the screen and our perception of it is cast by a myriad of experiences. The first time I ever saw Johnny Guitar – the Nicholas Ray film starring Joan Crawford – was in the New Beverly Cinema before Quentin Tarantino bought it. It was a double feature in 35mm, and it was raining outside, and there was rain pouring down the walls, because it was a very ragtag theatre. The rain pouring down the walls, and the unbridled desire and passion that were on the screen became an experience, you know, which is the same thing as getting high and going to see Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again in a first-run theatre. You create these contexts in the way in which you engage with something, and so a lot of retrospective screenings at institutional spaces, for me, and particularly with queer-made content, remove the space in which it emerged. Manny Farber writes an essay in the book Negative Space where he’s revealing the universe of 1960s and 1970s underground cinema, but he doesn’t talk about any of the films – he talks about the theatres. He talks about the paint cracking on the walls, or he talks about the fact that it’s all second-run cinemas or church basements. I’ve sort of just put all these things together. I also just think that the idea of considering space within the context of film culture is not engaged enough. We work with a curatorial team, and we have something like three meetings before anybody submits a proposal [for a location] or anything. It’s a little bit of a learning curve to come to work with the idea that the film is meant to be an element of the history that this space contains. It’s theatrical in this way. Yesterday, during the conversation about media specificity that Tom had with me on the stage in a kind of, let’s say confrontational way…
Offscreen: Can you remind me who this Tom is?
BN: Thomas Waugh, who is a very significant Marxist film figure in this city. He’s sort of the “goddaddy” of Montreal queer film. He was saying that doing something like this in a community space, and demanding these projectors, maybe isn’t appropriate for the financial realities of the space. I requested Tom to be on the panel, because I just think the world of him, but I think that’s bullshit! I bought a 16mm film projector on eBay for $100 and I started Dirty Looks with no money in my pockets. We screened everywhere, in every space you can probably imagine. If it’s on 16, you show it on 16. [Right on! Ed.]
Vaginal Davis and Bruce LaBruce in “3. Dr. Chris Teen Sex Surrogate” (from Three Faces of Women: a feminine trilogy) (Rick Castro, 1994)
Offscreen: Since I moved to Montreal a few years ago, I sometimes find it hard to reconcile my cinephilia with my own queer identity. As much as I aspire to be a part of my city’s film communities, there’s no denying how prominently heterosexual these spaces can be. That is one of the reasons why I’m interested in your project.
BN: That is sort of why I started Dirty Looks to begin with. I moved to New York and was really excited to be part of a community that is consistently extending or expanding a conversation around queer moving image production in an experimental way. There are still venerated spaces, like Anthology Film Archive, or The Industry, or once a year MIX, but there was no place where people were meeting up on a regular basis.
A lot of contemporary cinephile culture is so, yes, heteronormative. As I said last night in the Q&A, there is this masterdom vis à vis auteur studies, which is still incredibly prevalent. I was just at a screening of David Cronenberg’s four first movies in 35mm in this white dude’s festival in Los Angeles. I hadn’t seen Scanners since I was in college, and I remember thinking it was bad, and it is bad! There’s a really realistic shot of a head exploding in it, and that’s all that matters? This is it? Somebody’s head blows up, and it looks real, so let’s put that on Criterion? It’s not good! When the head blows up, the entire audience – which is sold out – erupted in applause. Did they do that when Samantha Eggar revealed her brood [in Cronenberg’s The Brood]? No! It is this very phallocentric and heteronormative way of congratulating your own knowledge of what is taking place on the screen. I’m much more interested in being shocked or surprised by something that I see, and maybe even uncomfortable.
I think it can be a tricky thing about this program that I presented last night, where it’s not predicated on being surprised by anything. I can recite a couple of the films or videos shown last night. I can recite the Chris Vargas… and I’m always waiting for that minute where Peter Berlin asks, “have you seen Avatar?” I just think that’s so funny and cute. When I find something new, that’s all the better and exciting. It just begins a new research process. I just found something that’s just really remarkable in the porn screening last week in New York. I know it will be a big part of my next year.
Offscreen: Can you talk about it, or do you want to keep it a surprise?
BN: [hesitates] I won’t say what it is, but I found a 16 minutes documentary from 1974 about a black trans prostitute living in rural Ohio, and it’s amazing. From what I can tell, it only screened in the year that it was made. I’m totally going to build a program around that. What’s exciting to me is finding these moments of impetus. With Hardcore Home Movies, that was the most intensive archival project that I ever done. Frenzy: A Riot Decade, the program that we did at The Kitchen in 2013, was so successful, it made me want to pursue a similar approach with the next program. I quickly drifted to queercore, because I’m a huge fan of G.B. Jones, Vaginal Davis, Bruce LaBruce and Greta Snider.
Archival work… what the fuck does that mean when it comes to queercore? Reaching out to pornographers, people who were in bands who don’t remember much, looking at local rockers music videos and asking them, “what else you got?” The first film is Jonesy, from the band Fagbash, jerking off, which is a Super 8 reel he made for a sex party called Fiend. He was showing me videos – proper music videos and stuff – and I was like, “dig deeper.” Then he said, “oh, I think I got it”, and he sent me this three minutes silent film he made with his band of him jerking off in black and white. I thought to myself: we found our opener! This is the most hardcore film. The name [of the program] is kind of a misnomer. It’s not really that hardcore. That was like the “archival” – airquote – experience, but then, I also knew what I was going to find. It was totally wrong. I was looking at G.B. Jones, and I was looking at Greta Snider, and in Greta Snider’s work, there was this malleability of sexual representation. G.B. comes out of a lesbian counterculture, and Greta’s kind of all over the place, but they’re both working really closely with gay men. In Greta’s case, she’s filming gay men making out and having sex; in G.B.’s, it’s gay men talking about having sex, or simulating it. I was really idealistic – I thought that queercore was this time when everybody was fluid, when men were filming women fucking and women were filming men, but it didn’t quite work out that way. I was asking everybody where were the men shooting women having sex, and the closest you get is the second-to-last film in the program [“Dr. Chris Teen Sex Surrogate” by Rick Castro], which is “Fonda LaBruce” – Bruce LaBruce in drag – and Vaginal Davis as drag queen lesbians and they fuck – sort of, not really. I did the whole program, doing these researches, and failing to find what I was looking for, and then I watched Greta’s film again – Our Gay Brothers. I hadn’t seen it since 1998 and had forgotten what it was, but I knew I wanted to put it in the program. It’s gay men talking about how creepy they find women’s reproductive organs. I was like, “right, okay, you were being Pollyanna about this.” Queercore was really cool, it was really exciting, but the power structures therein weren’t necessarily being destroyed.
The Troublemakers (G.B. Jones, 1990)
Offscreen: We come back to “revision”, and to what Chris Vargas does with the controversial figures he impersonates in his videos.
BN: I don’t know. I come out of a visual queer culture that is just barely pre-Internet. I had to go to the video stores and see everything. That was a social network in an offline kind of way. That was how that world worked exclusively. So, I don’t know, for myself, because of that, I think my politic is a little bit more appropriation-based and subversive. What Chris and Mariah [Garnett] are doing, taking on these roles as a way of literally queering them… you know, Liberace was not an out homosexual, but watch Behind the Candelabra and try to figure that out. Everything moves very quickly now in terms of language. I was meeting up with a friend of mine and she told me that one of her undergrad students wouldn’t let her use the word “queer” because they said that it was a term that comes out of a socioeconomic privilege. And I’m like, sighs deeply.
Offscreen: What do you think about the idea of safe space? We were talking earlier [off record] about the toxicity of Grindr, and about how uncaring gay men can be to other queer people. Do you think of Dirty Looks as a way to build – or to contribute to the building of – a safer, healthier LGBTQ community?
BN: The attitudes that are expressed on Grindr have always been there. Now they’re being brought into language 3 , and the rise of that is also analogous to the rise of a need and demand for safe spaces and permissive queer communities. I think that’s not something that should be ignored, the fact that both divergent issues are occurring at the same time. I don’t have an opinion as to why that has transpired, but I’m not actually somebody who would necessarily believe in safe space. I grew up as a gay kid in Saint Louis, Missouri. In a school of sixteen hundred, I was the only [openly] gay one, and I got beat up and all of that shit. It wasn’t great, for sure. But I don’t do trigger warnings – I’m not interested in engaging certain aspects of that culture. If an older object is problematic… one thing I find really fascinating is, Chris put out a series with his partner, Greg Youmans, that was a parody series called Falling In Love…with Chris and Greg that was about a trans radical who falls in love with a cis gay liberal. This was shot in 2009. The irony and playful use of language as part of the gay/queer (well, queer more particularly in the instance of this object) experience in a historical understanding of the way in which queer language is utilized, camped, and interplayed with dominant culture, has been supplanted by a language that is purportedly inclusive and safe, rendering objects that got “us“ to this moment “wrong“. That’s absurd. Which is why I show something like the Brontez movie.
Offscreen: Thank you for reminding us that there’s more to queer culture than RuPaul.
BN: By the same token, Chris made that RuPaul movie because he loves RuPaul. I love RuPaul too. I think that show RuPaul’s Drag Race has become horribly racist, and you know, the transphobic stuff is horrifying, but it’s a fucking TV reality show. What do you expect from the world? Everybody can’t be SZA.
Feature image from Liberaceón (Chris E. Vargas, 2011)
Dirty Looks official website
8 Years On program
Hardcore Home Movies program
- A feminist punk movement and subculture from the 1990s. ↩
- An art movement based on the idea of working with resources that are easily available. ↩
- We were talking about formulations that emerged from the gay dating app, such as “masc only” or “no fats, no fems”. ↩