Director Catherine Pancake’s documentary film Queer Genius is a fascinating and thought-provoking exploration of the lives of four visionary and genre-defying artists. The film was featured at NewFest, New York’s LGBTQ+ film festival, which ran from the 23rd to the 29th of October, 2019.

Breaking It Down

Queer Genius is a documentary that covers the lives and works of four artists/movements: Eileen Myles, Black Quantum Futurism, Barbara Hammer and Jibz Cameron. The footage is raw, visceral and expansive, covering not only the innovative work of these artists but also capturing their reflections and vulnerabilities in beautiful ways. Scenes of artistic performance and creation are juxtaposed with footage of the artists in their domestic habitats. Throughout the film, Pancake is careful not to reduce these artists to tropes, symbols or mere vehicles for their art. Watching the film, one is always keenly aware of the fact that these are personas that possess multiple layers of complexity. It is this capturing of personal lives that makes the film so engaging.

Speaking at the panel that took place after the film, director Catherine Pancake said, “I know these people very well, so, when I was showing them to external reviewers, they were sort of like, ‘you know them very well, but can you show them a little bit more about their personal life?’”

The very fact that Pancake is on personal terms with several of these artists that provides us with a nuanced level of depth and understanding regarding not just the outer but also the inner lives of these artists. Once we are able to gain an understanding of the personalities of these artists, their art becomes even more dynamic and radical than it already is. Consequently, the film is a documentation of enigmatic personalities who refuse to be confined to traditional labels or, for that matter, traditional mediums of art.

The Black Quantum Futurism movement is highly unique in terms of its radical combination of sound, performance and poetry. Barbara Hammer is similarly revolutionary in terms of the installations that she creates. Both are captured in all of their subversion and their complexity, especially in terms of the hegemonic structures that they are trying to combat through their art.

Jibz Cameron, who performs under the slapstick, tragic yet endearing alter-ego of Dynasty Handbag, combines absurdity with explorations of sexuality. We watch Cameron explaining the outfits and accessories of Dynasty Handbag in a very personal setting. We are then treated to outlandish and tragically bizarre performances by Dynasty Handbag that drew peals of laughter from the audience. The film is also effective in terms of its interweaving of the humor and bravery of these artists with the physical and psychological consequences of living with oppression, confusion and discrimination.

The poet Eileen Myles, who is arguably the most renowned personality on the show, is also captured with similar humor and intensity. Myles is known for their accessible and intense poetry as well as their novel and subversive jabs at the establishment, one of them being the campaign for the presidency and, most recently, their involvement with the television show Transparent.

In the film, we follow Myles walking their dogs throughout New York City and across their chaotic, artistic yet unassuming apartment. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film is the insightful tidbits that artists like Myles proffer.

“Dog is queer…when I think about when I was running for president in 1992, and I posed with my Pitbull Rosie, not with my girlfriend; what that meant was that upset the binary of Mr. President and his wife more than two dykes sitting there….”

Myles is a particularly fascinating subject because their life itself, through acts such as the 1992 campaign for presidency, has been a riveting performance piece. Ultimately, this is a film about transcending narratives, to refuse the convenience of boxes such as straight and queer and to situate us in the fluctuating uncertainty that is the realm of personal and social identity. In the words of Myles, speaking in the film:

“Whether you like it or not is you are permanently contextualized as being queer and other…lesbian poet …the level of attention and fame I have been experiencing in the last 5 years has busted that, but it took so much attention to make me be more than a lesbian poet…even though my work is about so many things beside pussy.”

Speaking at the panel after the show, Pancake emphasized that in spite of the level of fame that they have received, Myles did not “want a success narrative.” Similarly, Pancake spoke about how Barbara Hammer was battling cancer on and off during the filming, but, in spite of this, insisted against the depiction of “an illness narrative” in the film. It is this brave notion of transcending traditional narratives that lies at the crux of the film and makes it as dynamic and alive as the subjects that it captures.

While the defiance of narratives in the film is commendable, one is left wondering, regarding the definition of this elusive notion of “genius.” But, then again, perhaps that is the intention of the film. These artists are not exalted in the film; they are complex, and they are animated. Perhaps their genius is their defiance, as combined with the level of their subversion. Mostly, it is the refusal to accept any specific notion or narrative of their personalities or their art.

So perhaps, genius is not a box or a notion but the very opposite, a boundless expansion, creation without the confines of labels. Ultimately, this is the message of the film, the sheer defiance of these characters from traditional narratives. The genius of queer genius, it that it rises and goes far beyond the scope and confines of the title.