Criterion Crunch Time: Go Fish
When we watch a new movie and see something we rarely see, it feels revolutionary. This could be about representation, sexuality, even nonlinear timelines. But when we watch an older film, it is a bit of a different experience. There are usually only two reactions. One is one of quaintness, as in, “Wow, can you believe this used to be shocking!” For reference, any film in which “the bad guy” wins, which used to be outlawed by The Hays Code. The other reaction is much less fun. Sometimes, we see things made decades ago, and they still feel amazing. This is mostly negative because it feels like we should have gotten past all of this puritanical nonsense. And yet, here we are. Still. As a prime example, a film leaving The Criterion Channel this month, is 1994’s Go Fish, a seminal queer, but specifically lesbian, film that gives us exactly this reaction.
Go Fish, directed by Rose Troche, is very clearly a first film. I do not say this as purely an insult, one can see the talent, even with financial and performance limitations. In that way, and in the black and white filming, it is reminiscent of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. But Go Fish has essentially a simple plot. We follow Max (Guinevere Turner), who has gone nearly a year without having sex. The film, among other small plots, focuses on Max’s quest for a girlfriend. Go Fish does a wonderful job of normalizing lesbian sexuality and somehow making it still feel radical.
The radical part of the movie is also startlingly simple. Troche (who would also go on to be a repeat director of a similarly seminal queer television show in The L Word), fills the screen with lesbian women of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and styles. Think about how little we see this in mainstream (or even independent) film. Even in movies like Bound, the women are usually culturally acceptable versions of pretty. Here, we are not only given differences in presentation but there is not a single woman who is uniformly attractive to all of the other women. These radical moments absolutely stand out even nearly 30 years later. Sad? Definitely.
But the normalizing of lesbian love is arguably more important. The film opens with Max opining about how she will meet her dream girl, her soulmate. If one were to substitute genders and the way she describes this mystery person, it is not different than your standard heterosexual desire. Alongside this, the numerous side characters are actively rooting for this, all while carrying on full lives and relationships. They are never merely people in support of our leads. Kia (T. Wendy McMillan) is Max’s roommate, but also in a relationship with Evy (Migdalia Melendez). Their interactions are passionate, funny, and genuine; even without their connection to Max. Their gentle ribbing of the romantically hopeless Max also feels true to their lived characters and never mean-spirited.
In between beautifully framed shots of four women’s heads, discussing Max and Ely’s (V.S. Brodie) burgeoning relationship, which functions much like a Greek chorus, the screenplay (written by Troche and Turner) guides gently towards a dinner party that will hopefully force the two together. All of this works nearly seamlessly and builds perfectly in a romantic sense. There is nearly no actual filmed sex up until the final moments of Go Fish. It is heavily hinted at by supporting characters and constantly desired by Max, but Troche makes us wait along with her lead character. But when Troche is ready, she shows a distinct lack of fear or concern about showing the female form or lesbian sex.
Sadly, these scenes, even in 2022, feel startling. They are, of course, completely focused on female pleasure. They also never feel unnecessary or gratuitous. If a movie is going to be about a woman wanting sex (even in monogamous form), it feels appropriate to actually show it! The black and white cinematography (from director of photography Ann T. Rossetti) shines in these sequences. In earlier scenes, shot in bedrooms and cafes, it feels pretty standard for 1990s independent film. Even this lack of movement is not necessarily a negative as it is indicative of both Max and Ely’s stunted movement towards a relationship and inherent shyness. But when these two finally give in and are together, both they and the camera movement nearly explode in kinetic energy.
This is really the kind of movie I was looking forward to discussing on Criterion Crunch Time. A female filmmaker, combined with subject matter that challenges and even sometimes shocks the audience. If there was any justice, Rose Troche would have a lengthy filmography filled with features. Unfortunately, it seems the mainstream cinema world is not as accepting of this material as premium television is and has been. Hopefully, in another 30 years, this won’t be an issue, but in the meantime, there are still opportunities to watch important work like this, at least until the end of the month!