Valencia the book, written by Michelle Tea, was something of a game-changer when it came out in 2000. Encapsulating the glory, the burn out, and the guerilla punk aesthetic of ‘90s queerdom in San Francisco, Valencia captured the literal and metaphoric spunk of an era, which was especially welcome since prior lesbian lit was too often relegated to the pulpy (Rubyfruit Jungle) or the depressing (Well of Loneliness).
Valencia: The Movie/s took the pioneering spirit of the book and gave it a drag queen makeover. Experimental, ambitious, and BIG, Valencia brought together a whopping 20 queer filmmakers who each contributed a five to seven minute short (18 total) based on a chapter from the book. Frontlined by Tea and producer/director Hilary Goldberg, some of the filmmakers included Cheryl Dunye, Courtney Trouble, Silas Howard, Michelle Lawler, Samuel Topiary and Cary Cronenwett. Each short stars a different “Michelle” as well, who changes race, gender, size, and style as easily as she changes hairdos. One of the chapters even features Michelle as a blow-up doll.
Valencia: The Movie/s premiered on June 21 as part of Frameline, the LGBT film festival, at the gaymous Castro Theatre in San Francisco, and by the length of the line out the door, you’d think just about every queer in the West Coast was in attendance. Queer mainstays like Lynn Breedlove, Annie Danger, and Lil Miss Hot Mess were both onscreen and in the audience, and my companions and I couldn’t help taking turns playing spot the celesbian, from Eileen Myles to Crash Pad Series porn performers to the former Lexington bartender everyone still has a crush on. I half expected Tracy Chapman to waltz in with whatever hot babe she’s dating at the moment.
Having read the book three times (it was one of the reasons I wanted to move to San Francisco in the first place), I expected the shorts to be pretty easy to follow. And for the most part, they were. The bulk of the plot hinges on Michelle’s relationship with Iris, the mercurial butch Pisces whom Michelle breaks up and makes up with, then gets over, then gets under again numerous times throughout. While that central heartache provides a narrative thread for moviegoers to clasp onto, since every “Iris” and every “Michelle” is a different actor, the first few minutes of every chapter is spent trying to figure out who is who, which is a precious long time when each chapter is only 7 minutes long.
Fans of the book will be happy to know that many of the provocative and delightfully weirdo scenes made the cut. Petra the knife-wielding fistee gets a role, (actually there are two knife sex scenes!), and Amateur Porn Michelle, who slowly pulls a roll of film out of her vag, takes a turn in the spotlight, as well. There’s also Sex Worker Michelle, Introspective Tarot Card Reader Michelle, and perhaps as a nod to all the drugs in the book, a Mushroom-Induced, Claymation Buffalo Michelle makes a brief appearance in Chapter 5.
My favorite short was Chapter 9 by Silas Howard, where Michelle and Iris travel to rural Georgia for Iris’s sister’s Baptist wedding. At turns slapstick (a butch in a bridesmaid dress!) and grotesquely funny (the wounded, dangling eye of a dog brings the lovebirds closer together), Chapter 9 dealt with family and homophobia and escapism in ways both subtle and sledgehammer-esque. The scene where Michelle yells at two pre-teen girls who tell her and Iris to “go commit suicide” is especially endearing.
Another of the funniest shorts was Chapter 20 by Chris Vargas and Greg Yeoman, which dubbed over Angelina Jolie movies of the ‘90s (many where she played a queer and/or insane person, a la Gia, Girl, Interrupted, and Foxfire). Even better were the cartoonish, bouncy glasses added to Jolie’s face to “cast” her as Michelle, and footage clipped from The Doom Generation, the pop-stylish, drug-happy cult film that some of the Valencia shorts seemed to emulate.
The one crutch of Valencia: The Movie/s was that it tended at times to get bogged down in its own self-awareness, as if it were trying to take the concept of “meta” to Inception levels of meta-ness. Michelle Tea books were strewn about sets. Newspapers that the characters read contained giant pictures of Tea and were titled after books she’d written. Tea also played cameo roles, in addition to narrating one of the shorts herself, which included Pride and Dyke March footage from the ‘90s, as well as old pictures of Tea in all her blue-haired glory and an interview with Real Life Iris (which added yet another layer to the Iris hodgepodge. And did you know “Iris” is from the Greek word meaning “rainbow”?). After a while, the self-referential cues became distracting, like I was being forced to play an “I spy” game against my will.
But for all of its discontinuity, conventional film fuckery, and attempts to make getting drunk and eating donuts “artsy,” Valencia: The Movie/s succeeds because it never takes itself too seriously. It professes a midnight movie sensibility sprinkled with glittery camp. And it’s good fun, with plenty of steamy sex scenes, odd grrl ambiance, and an intense love of queer community.
For screening information, interviews, and other goodies, check out the Valencia website.