“Work” is the intersectional film from the 90’s that was almost lost to time

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New York City’s QUAD Cinema is celebrating Pride month with two film programs. Coming Out Again, a new series, focuses on lesser-known landmarks in LGBT history, and Underexposed, an ongoing monthly series that looks beyond the classics of American independent cinema and uncovers gems lost to time.

Rachel Reichman’s 1996 feature film Work will be screened this evening, and we can thank Quad Cinema for exposing the public to a film that captures a moment in time and illuminates a critical turning point in gay history and women’s history.

If you aren’t familiar with Reichman’s work or the film, from Quad Cinema:

The second feature by Rachel Reichman—also the acclaimed editor of Hitchcock/Truffaut—follows an unhappily married woman torn between her need for work and a budding romance with the college-bound woman next door. Told with a remarkable attention to the struggles and joys of everyday life, Work is a crucial, oft-overlooked entry into the canon of American regional cinema. Part of the ongoing series, “Underexposed.”

In many ways, Work is the quintessential intersectional film. Race, socio-economic class, gender expectations, and homosexuality are all inherent to the story, but those issues aren’t the defining or focal points. The film is first and foremost a poignant love story, as well as an ode to the constant human quest for meaning.

I was gifted the opportunity to speak with Ms. Reichman about her film, and she shared her inspiration for the characters, discusses the era, and what she’d like today’s audience to take away from Work.

 

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AfterEllen.com: Work was released in the late 90’s, when being gay was treated very differently than it is today. I feel that younger generations sometimes have to be reminded that the 90’s was not that long ago, and look how far we’ve come. What are your thoughts on gay identity and culture then vs now?

Rachel Reichman:  If you came from a liberal town or a loving, tolerant family you were fine. It was the wider culture that was the problem. This bigotry had a terrible impact on many gay people’s sense of self and livelihoods. Kids still carried the shame and hostility from  families who often thought of gayness as a depraved choice. There was a lot of pain being managed; being spurned by your family was pretty devastating no matter how loving and accepting and righteous your friends were. And because sexism was worse than it is today, I think lesbians were particularly disempowered.

“Kids still carried the shame and hostility from  families who often thought of gayness as a depraved choice. There was a lot of pain being managed; being spurned by your family was pretty devastating no matter how loving and accepting and righteous your friends were. And because sexism was worse than it is today, I think lesbians were particularly disempowered.”

However, in the 1990s people who were making art had grown up with the influence of many gay artists; Oscar Wilde, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Pier Palo Pasolini, Colette, Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, etc. And gender fluidity was everywhere; in the 70s and the 80s we had David Bowie, the New York Dolls, Klaus Nomi, Patti Smith, and the big drag scene at the Pyramid club. The art and fashion worlds were very gay; and you could occasionally see decent gay stories on PBS or in the movie theaters. One fantastic British TV series was Portrait of a Marriage about Vita Sackville West. And there was The Rocky Horror Picture Show! I saw it six or so years ago and was amazed at how moving and subversive it felt. I remembered it as being fluffy. And much of the art world was impacted by a growing queer perspective that invited us to question everything. I think the feminist critical theory of Laura Mulvey and others inspired this, too. I’ll never forget hearing Todd Haynes say Alfred Hitchcock made gay films! What a brilliant start of a great conversation! And in film school I remember Amy Taubin, a professor of mine,  saying that Frankenstein was about two men having a baby together. The class went nuts!! But I really sat up. That opened up an entirely new way of understanding everything.  

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AE: It seems to me that Work is actually a great example of intersectionality in its true, original sense. The film explores homosexuality, women’s issues, socio-economics, and race. These overlap, and the characters are affected by them, even in subtle ways. Are any of these coincidental to the story, or were all of these issues meant to be equally important when you were writing it? 

RR: But isn’t that what real life is like? One of the most challenging things I faced in the writing was that though I grew up with liberal parents in a racially integrated high school, I shared the script with a variety of people and things that could be considered cliches were pointed out to me. So I tried to listen to my gut about what was “real” and where I was trying to attach agendas to characters, always a dangerous thing to do. But I knew there was also a universality of the conditions I wanted to explore; be it the lapsed economy and how that put stress on families and individual’s choices. People really felt trapped. I was never intent on making an “issue” film; I just wanted to make a film about people and struggles that felt alive to me. 

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AE: Did you write the script based on any experiences in your personal life? 

RR: I would say the feelings were very real to me. I’ve been really broke a few times in my life and I’ve done years of restaurant work, sales clerk jobs, etc. And at times I’ve felt incredibly unhappy with my life, and desperately wanted to escape and be saved by taking a new lover. As a teenager I did have a secret girlfriend, while in my first relationship with a boy. At the time I think I felt guilty and entitled and ashamed and indignant and proud of myself. The inspiration for the script came when I read Madame Bovary, a book I love dearly. I was moved by Emma Bovary, and her inability to see clearly her impulse to destructively pursue an unobtainable love, her inability to find a world that works for her and her sense of powerlessness and agency to create that world. I was also smitten by the extraordinary way that Flaubert articulated things like the sound of Emma’s leather foot covering as it hit her wooden shoe when she walked. Being inside and outside the story, and the emotional impact of that is a literary device I don’t quite understand. I think formally the writing of the book is a little like Kubrick’s rendering of Barry Lyndon. I’ll have to investigate that.

AE: How do you think your film is relevant today, and what do you want your audiences to take away from it? 

RR: In many ways the film reflects a moment in time; when Jenny could not make choices that today might be easier. However I understand that finding meaning in our lives can be elusive and having power over circumstances and people is usually nearly impossible. Maybe validating that pain by encouraging people to just say, “Yeah it sucks!” can paradoxically clear out some of the grit and make us able to see the next glint of light. I think that how I feel now. Nothing like a good cry!  

Visit the QUAD CINEMA website to learn more about the Underexposed film program, as well as their ongoing programs “Coming Out Again,” which focuses on lesser-known landmarks of LGBTQ film history. Presented in collaboration with NewFest as part of national Pride month. Also part of Quad’s Pride Programming this month is Quadrophilia: Queer Edition. Quadrophilia is an ongoing series bringing back favorites from the Quad’s past, and this month they’ve selected all queer titles, from Cabaret to Ira Sach’s The Delta.
Work will be screened Monday, June 12, at 7 pm. Reichman will be present for a Q&A following the screening. If you’re in NYC, you don’t want to miss this.
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