"Chillin" means orgasm, "Gay Shit", Butch, Butch Lesbian, Criterion, Desert Hearts, Donna Deitch, Female Masculinity, Film, film review, Gay Movie Night, Homosexuality, Jack Halberstam, Lesbian sex, Lesbian sexuality, Lesbianism, Orgasm, Presentations of Lesbians in Film, sex, Sexual identity, Sexuality, The Producers, Vivian Bell, Women
The word “Chillin” is now synonymous with orgasm. That’s what happens when you watch movies with queer women.
I’ve recognized more and more lately that I have a problem with compulsive purchases, specifically when it comes to books. I always, always check to see if the book I’m looking for is on Amazon and I will always try to buy the copy that is a $1 or less because that way it feels like I’m getting a sweet deal even when I completely forget, or ignore, the shipping and handling fees. This can become a problem because at first I can have two, three, or maybe even seven books in my cart so that the total comes out to $3.99, but by the time the tax and shipping kicks in that $4 can quickly become $45, and by the time I figure that out I’ve usually built myself into a compulsive stupor and I then forget about the purchase.
The moral of this story is to shop local, that way the worst impulse buy you’ll have is a tasty, delicious Reeses that will melt in your pocket half-way home.
There’s also the issue of space lately. Because I work at the library, and because I’m always finding $1 books for sale at our yearly book sale, and because I always find six or seven books I tell myself I’m going to read, the space in my office is dwindling at a depressing rate. This is all just a way of leading into the fact that I’ve begun to steadily slow down on my book purchases and have instead set the new goal of slowly amassing a collection of Criterion Collection Blu-Rays. I have a small collection thus far, nothing impressive. The way I justify these $40 purchases is that they usually only occur once per month thus allowing my bank account a few weeks before there is another serious non-bill related drain, and the second is that I’m currently involved in two movie groups.
The first one came about through a friend, fellow-english major, and fellow co-worker who invited me to a bi-weekly movie group he and some friends were a part of. I can honestly say that these outings are the best part of my week and I look forward to watching films with my friends because, let’s face it, I have little to no life and I need an excuse to get out of my house. This has largely been my excuse for slowly amassing Criterion movies, but now I also have another excuse. One of my other co-workers Alia is a great friend to me because the pair of us are both unashamedly queer, and revel in being queer and regularly discuss what Alia refers to as “Gay Shit.” This can involve discussing gorgeous men, gorgeous women, LGBTQ politics, Queer sexuality, what
exactly our queer identity means to us, and sometimes discussing why it’s so damned difficult to find books about queer sex that are not academic or pornography. I recently bought another film from Criterion, Desert Hearts, and because the movie is about lesbianism Alia invited me to her place to watch the movie with her and our mutual friend Savannah. I accepted and now we’ve decided to begin a bi-weekly movie night, appropriately called “Gay Movie Night.”
The first thing that really struck me about Desert Hearts was Cay’s shorts. Specifically Cay’s legs. They were just out there from the start and my friends both accordingly went, “Damn, dem shorts.” I believe we all began to gently fan ourselves as Patricia Charbanneu continued to strut about with that crooked smile that left all of us a collected puddle.
If the reader has never seen Desert Hearts they are missing out because, while it is not a cinematic epic like Lawrence of Arabia or Star Wars, it is a beautiful film about two women falling in love. And to be perfectly honest it doesn’t need to be anything besides what it is. The film is about Professor Vivian Bell, a college teacher of Literature and language who has come to Reno Nevada to finalize a divorce. While she is staying in town she rooms in the house of a rancher named Frances Parker who, by her own admission, was the mistress of a rich man who left her enough money to have a farm of her own. On the farm is a ranch hand named Darrell, and a young woman named Cay who takes an immediate interest in Vivian. It’s established early in the film that Cay is a lesbian (Vivian walks into her cabin and finds a naked woman smiling at her with the implication that she’s Cay’s lover) and from this point the film follows Vivian as she tries to find herself and resist the growing attraction she has to Cay. The two women begin to spend more and more time together before a minor scandal forces Vivian out of Frances’s house. Cay confronts Vivian in her motel room and seduces her. From this point on, to the end of the film, the women struggle and argue and fuck until the end of the film when Vivian convinces Cay to come with her, “at least as far as the next station.”
Now as I start digging into this film I have an obvious conflict: I am not a lesbian.
This came as quite a shock to me as I spent most of my teenage years adoring and studying women from afar, wishing desperately that I could grasp the courage to even speak to one of those elusive and beautiful creatures. When I finally gathered up my courage and asked a woman out she said yes and I discovered, just a few months in, that I couldn’t possibly be a lesbian because my wife, according to her own admission, was only ever attracted to men. Oh well, such is life.
My pathetic attempts at humor aside, I do feel some hesitancy about writing about Desert Hearts, because while I am a queer man, I’m not a lesbian and so writing about the accuracy and legitimacy of the presentation feels suspect to me. I’m worried that my male gaze might seep through into my writing and it doesn’t exactly help that most of the quotes I have to work with are based in the sex scene of the film. I suppose it’s better to just admit your failings and jump in the pool.
The sex scene of Desert Hearts is beautiful to observe however because the film is directed and written by a woman who was gay herself. Watching Vivian and Cay make love in the film I recognized that I was a participant in the “male gaze,” but my own desire aside the director Donna Deitch was able to shoot a moment between two women from a position of ethos. I watched some lesbian films that were directed by men and watching the sex between the characters I was left feeling awkward and wondering, “did the man actually consult with any real lesbians” or “he knows lesbians trim their finger nails right?”
When Cay confronts Vivian at her hotel room the sexual tension has steadily been built up to that point, but so has the emotional connection between the two women. Cay has more or less confessed her attraction to Vivian who has never questioned her sexuality, and when Cay arrives at her door she rejects Cay’s initial attempts:
Cay: I want you to open the door.
Vivian: And I want you to leave me alone.
Cay: I can’t! Honest.
Vivian eventually lets her in and the women talk. Vivian steps away to speak what’s in her heart for a moment and when she turns around Cay is naked and in the bed waiting for her. What follows is a slow seduction of Cay refusing to leave and gently pushing Vivian to just let go. Looking at the dialogue one can see the way it’s Cay making the advances and being the active partner:
Vivian: I wouldn’t know what to do.
Cay: You can start by putting the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door.
This is followed by:
Vivian: I won’t take off my robe.
Cay: Well, we all have to draw the line somewhere.
Which is followed with:
Cay: Take your hands out of your pockets and come here.
And once the pair of women kiss for a few seconds, and Vivian’s desire is becoming more and more obvious, there’s a small moment when she says:
Vivian: [while kissing Cay] I don’t usually feel this way at 11 o’clock in the morning.
What follows after these lines are a few minutes of Cay and Vivian kissing, gently suckling each other’s nipples, holding each other, laughing, and eventually the scene culminates in Vivian’s body rocking as she experiences an orgasm. This of course created it’s own discourse as my friends and I tried to understand how she was able to arrive so quickly, seemingly without cunnilingus or clitoris stimulation. We eventually settled on the phrase “just chillin.”
The sex between Vivian and Cay however never feels gratuitous, and in fact my friends and I were cheering when the sex finally came. This is largely because by the time Cay seduces Vivian both women are clearly attracted to one another and the scene becomes not just an excuse to show tits and ass, but as a way of progressing these characters emotionally. It’s been clear thus far in the picture that Cay is a sexual being who regularly seduces and fucks women. In fact one of the ranch hands observes this behavior in traditional cisgender, heterosexual male fashion:
Buck: [to Cay regarding her number of female visitors] How you get all that traffic with no equipment is beyond me!
There’s an entire essay about men not understanding how lesbians can fuck and enjoy it, and I can’t wait to write that essay, but for the time being I need to stay focussed on Cay herself. The reader over the course of the film observes that Cay is a woman who feels like a fuck-up. She’s a cash handler at a casino and early in the film we get a scene of her being hit on by some random drunk before she’s saved by a boutcer who we realize later is in love with her. Cay is also dealing with Frances’s contempt for her sexuality and so when we see Cay sitting naked in the bed we are able to see how desperate she is to be with Vivian. It’s not about fucking this woman, it’s about being close to love.
But if the reader wants a real insight into her heart they need only observe a brief exchange between the two lovers, not long after they’ve had their first experience together:
Cay: Come on. I’m used to this.
Vivian: Well, I’m not!
Cay: Listen, you’re just visiting the way I live. I guess it would suit you find to hide in that hotel room until your train leaves.
Vivian: Oh, then let’s hire a float. You are so insistent on making everyone think the way you do!
Cay: Oh, yeah. You’re making real headway in that department!
Vivian: No fear, no confusion, so self-assured.
Cay: I don’t act that way to change the world. I act that way so that the goddamn world won’t change me!
Cay appears throughout the film very wild and strong and confident, and looking at her outfit of just her blue-jean shorts and open top one might be tempted to use the dreaded b-word: butch.
There is no figure which seems to have inspired so much dread and bad jokes in the minds of straight men as butch lesbians. The most immediate example that comes to mind is the lighting director in The Producers movie who belts out a half-assed soprano
during the “Keep it Gay” song before giving Bealistock and Bloom a slight upward nudge. The scene is purposefully designed to heighten her obvious masculinity, and while the joke is still funny when compared to the camp of all the previous male singers, it’s clear from this brief presentation that Shirley’s sexuality is supposed to be a joke on the male response. Butch lesbians have often been employed and likewise attacked by straight men who seem to view them as some sort of sexual challenge to their own sexuality. The butch lesbian isn’t a woman, but some sort of malesque creatures who exists purely to steal women away from them.
There are plenty of female queer theorists and writers who have explored this idea better than I have, and so I won’t dig too deeply especially since I want to understand Cay’s character. But the word “butch” haunts her character, and I needed an excuse to dig back into my collection of queer theory texts and so I pulled out one of my favorite books Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinity.
I knew the book had at least two chapters about presentations of butch identity in films, and looking deeper there was even a brief mention of Desert Hearts. Halberstam explores the presentation of butch in the film, noting the differences that exist between the film and the novel that it is based on. While discussing how Evelyn and Cay’s relationship in the novel becomes a kind of pseudo Oedipus complex with Evelyn being older and almost a kind of sexual parent, Halberstam notes a key point in the film which is that Cay’s butcheness is softened.
In the film Desert Hearts (1986), director Donna Deitch transforms the adorable butch child Ann from the novel into the groomed and model-like Cay. Cay is loosely compared to her brother, which is perhaps all that remains of her butch origins […]. Because Ann has become Cay, the mother-butch dynamic is also dampened and replaced by a barely butch-barely maternal dynamic in which all that remains of Ann’s Oedipul complex is a vague sense of sexual aggressive, and all that remains of Evelyn’s maternal presence is some gray hair and chronic shyness. The translation of this novel to film brings home the real stakes in 1980s lesbian cinema—the eradication of the butch and her desires. (220).
At first I was tempted to disagree with Halberstam’s conclusions, but looking at this passage and really considering it I realize that in fact they have a real point as far as the role of butch lesbians in film are concerned. The film Desert Hearts softens Cay into what is more commonly known as femme so that when Cay and Evelyn do finally have sex the reader is able to view two “soft” women making love rather than a masculinized butch seducing a femme woman who before this sex scene, considered herself straight.
I’ll leave it to the reader to determine for themselves if they think this weakens the film. For myself, I didn’t really feel that this dynamic weakened the overall narrative. By the time Cay and Evelyn finally make love I had seen the sexual tension between the pair of them steadily build, and so when they did finally take the next step I wasn’t concerned about the presentation of butch vs femme. Both women had been fleshed out as women and real individuals who felt lost and isolated in the world, and while they had found some sort of identity in this life, there was something empty in them both, emotionally speaking. Evelyn was a woman who felt lost after her divorce, and Cay was a woman who felt like she was going nowhere. Watching them interact, talk, and even kiss, I became aware that both of these women were completing one another emotionally. The film was simply about watching two people take the next step in their relationship.
Desert Hearts is a beautiful film, not only for the romance, but for the fact that Deitch regularly tries to capture the real landscape of Reno Nevada. The film is almost a Western in the fact that the land becomes this great empty space, an almost tabula rasa in which she is able to show two people who are trying to make themselves into what they would like to be. Like the Western authors of the late 1800s, Deitch is using the West create a new idea, a new model of identity, and both of these women are able to find it in each other.
And while I usually detest overly simple arguments, the honest appeal of Desert Hearts is that the movie does not dissolve into melodrama. By the end Evelyn and Cay find some kind of happiness.
The film ends with Evelyn on a train asking Cay to come with her, offering out her hand and the following exchange:
Vivian: Come with me. Ride with me to the next station.
Cay: What are we gonna get settled in 40 minutes?
Vivian: I’ll talk fast.
Cay: Send me a postcard when you get there. What is it you want?
Vivian: Another 40 minutes with you.
Cay joins her on the train, and as I watched the scene with my friends we all cheered and uttered a familiar sentiment, “Yes, thank you!” The implication was that we had actually watched a film in which two queer people actually wound up together.
This feels important enough to make it my last point in this essay, because as a queer man I’m getting a little sick of the “love that dare not speak its name” narrative trope. I understand that for a great many queer people, this wasn’t a trope. Before the internet, before smartphones, before whippersnappers like me could just arrange some loving and “chillin” through apps like Grindr, queer people actually had to suffer in this life to find someone they could love. It’s not that homosexual existence was one long series of pains and frustrations, but in this life representation is important. Lesbians and Gay men were often portrayed in films, in novels, in comics, and so on, but because their behavior and lifestyle was “deviant” then any sort of narrative that dealt honestly with their life and existence usually had to end in tragedy. I’ve written before about lesbian pulp fiction novel covers, and the bitter tragedies that were their stories, but looking at Desert Hearts then I’m amazed at a film that had the audacity to show homosexuality not as some hopeless tragedy, but an actual possible lifestyle.
Talking with my friend Alia about this we came to a real conclusion that, I think shows where queer existence is at and where it’s heading. We’re both tired of the “love that dare not speak it’s name” story types because it distracts from being able to just figure out what being queer actually is. If you spend your time worrying if your life, and by implication desire, is decent or clean or grotesque then you won’t be able to actually live it.
Queer cinema is a genre that is growing steadily because there is a new generation of queer directors, screen writers, and actors who are interested in just digging into desire, but more importantly, about just digging into life. It’s a testament then, that a film like Desert Hearts left me happy and charmed rather than shocked and surprised. I knew that being queer could have a happy ending, and so seeing two women ride off to the east hand in hand wasn’t a chance to dwell on whether or not my existence was some sort of discourse. It was just a chance to be gay with my friends and have a fun time.
It was also a chance to come up with a new word, and marvel about the strange sexual powers of lesbians who can apparently make their partners climax with just a kiss, and a bit of nipple-play.