Back in the Day: “Go Fish”

original Go Fish posterIt
was the year figure skater Tonya Harding had rival Nancy Kerrigan practically
kneecapped, ER and Friends made their debuts, and O.J. Simpson
starred in the first low-speed police chase to be televised. But for lesbians
the most significant pop culture event of 1994 was the theatrical release of
Go Fish, an indie film made by and for lesbians had a surprising degree
of crossover appeal.

Queer and mainstream audiences alike flocked to see a girl-meets-girl love
story and listen to new (and loquacious) voices.

Go Fish tells the story of two young women in Chicago’s Belmont neighborhood: trendy Max, who describes herself as “a single lesbo looking for love,” and Ely, whom Max at first deems “extra crunchy” and even ugly. With encouragement and meddling from their friends, the two ultimately fall for each other.

Granted, it takes a strategic haircut for Ely to even get Max to take a second look. But the movie’s tagline is “the girl is out there,” and over the course of 84 minutes, Max grows and learns to open her eyes to the possibility of love where she never expected it, while Ely leaves her long-term, long-distance girlfriend for Max, trading in a fizzled-out relationship for a new lease on life.

Go Fish almost didn’t even get made. Filmmakers Rose Troche and Guinevere
Turner
(who also plays Max) enlisted their friends and acquaintances to
work behind as well as in front of the camera. No one was paid and production
stopped each time funds ran out. The onetime couple broke up halfway through
production yet retained their business partnership.

It took long years and a lot of blind faith for Go Fish to even make it from production to distribution.

But Go Fish made a successful tour of the festival circuit, getting
nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and winning a Best Feature award
at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. The little movie that hardly anyone
other than now-bigwig producer Christine Vachon and the filmmakers themselves
believed in found itself at the center of a major studio feeding frenzy before
Sundance was even over.

The Samuel Goldwyn company won the bidding war and the $15,000-budget movie
wound up grossing nearly $2.5 million at the box office.

Go Fish was hardly a shoo-in for commercial success. It’s a dialogue-heavy number, filled with philosophical musings on what it means to be a lesbian. It’s shot in grainy black-and-white and is interspersed with experimental montages. The acting is mostly amateur and the sound and score also reflect the film’s restrictive budget. Not to mention that more time is spent leading up to Max and Ely getting together than portraying their eventual hookup.

So why was Go Fish such a hit?

The movie certainly has artistic merit: The writing is bold and fresh and gives
voice to perspectives previously unheard. It manages to explore issues like
homophobia and bi-phobia yet remain lighthearted and entertaining. The direction
is laudable and the narrative is conveyed via creative use of limited resources.

It may look homemade but it’s just as obviously heartfelt and heartwarming.

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