There’s a scene in Tom Kalin’s 1992 film Swoon where accused killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb appear to make love in the middle of a courtroom. Amid a backdrop of documentary footage layered with high-contrast imagery, the young men are scrutinized. But as the camera backs away to display a wide-angle view of the courtroom, neither the bed nor the two men are there. The bed shot is only intended as an aside to the viewer.
Just a few years before Kalin wrote the script for Swoon, the Supreme Court case Bowers v. Hadrwick upheld the constitutionality of a Georgia sodomy law criminalizing oral and anal sex in private between consenting adults, specifically, between homosexual adults. The national consciousness had become one of critical observation bordering on invasion of privacy. Much like the prosecution, in his film, Kalin was bringing the bedroom into the courtroom.
As an artist and filmmaker, Kalin is constantly looking to history, to the factual realities of the world we live in — whether far off or recent — for answers. With Swoon, Kalin wasn’t just alluding to 1920s standards of sexuality and sexual behavior, but rather to something very real and relevant, something he feared would impact his own life. As an early and one of the youngest members of AIDS activist artist collective Gran Fury, he helped conceptualize a number of public art and video works, like 1989’s “Kissing Doesn’t Kill,” and two versions of 1988’s “Read My Lips.”
While a member of Gran Fury, Kalin wrote and directed his first feature film Swoon, ultimately becoming an early pioneer of New Queer Cinema, a stylized and subversive genre of filmmaking which captured the LGBTQ experience. Today, Kalin is a Professor of Film at Columbia University’s School for the Arts and remains engaged in film work, and activism (mostly in the form of political canvassing). He spoke with Hyperallergic about his feminist influences, finding optimism in activism — whether that takes the form of fighting AIDS or fighting Trump — and the important of radical form in queer movie-making.
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Hyperallergic: Given Bowers v. Hardwick and the AIDS crisis, did making Swoon feel more necessary in 1992 than it would at a slightly earlier or later time?
Tom Kalin: I think back on that time, when I made Swoon and how completely dire it seemed on so many levels — that we were in the later part of the 20th century and sodomy was being made illegal. I had gone to Washington to the protests after the supreme court ruled that sodomy was illegal and there was this consciousness of “putting the bedroom in the courtroom.” So I was essentially an American feeling like the Supreme Court of the United States says that I fundamentally did not have the right to have sex in a private bedroom if I lived in the state of Georgia. It was just jaw-dropping.
H: With early New Queer Cinema, it seems like form took precedence over content because it was simply a way to get people’s attention. Now form is coming back in such an interesting way. Someone might even look to your films as a compass. What sparked your own fascination with form?
TK: I have a debt to somebody like Andy Warhol. Swoon was very influenced by Warhol’s films, and you know key avant-garde figure of the ’60s. The things he did that were cutting edge. He would make an independent movie and sort of adapt and synthesize some of those huge cultural ideas and movements. I’d argue that that cycle goes on and that thing is happening even more in today’s culture.
H: You made your first couple of AIDS films before you even got to New York while still a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Who were some of your early influences there?
TK: There was this critic named Craig Owens who taught a semester-long seminar at the institute when I was in my second year of graduate school which was really, really influential. It was mostly his influence which led me to the Whitney program. He died of AIDS before 1990. He was very much an important figure in thinking about other people’s art work. I also met Barbara Kruger at The Art Institute of Chicago and then in the Whitney program. I actually asked her where she got her type set so we could use the same typesetter for Gran Fury. She knew how directly we were responding to her work.
H: Much of your work conveys strong feminist messages. Where does that come from?
TK: It was mostly my mother frankly. My parents had 11 children together and my mother had 13 pregnancies — one was a stillborn and one was a miscarriage — and I was the youngest of those kids. My mom was an amazing parent, she made me feel like anything was possible. I also had mostly strong, female teachers. As a student, I was very interested in working with language-based feminist artists. There’s always been a connection between feminism and the gay rights movement at that time, because society’s attitudes toward women are connected to sexuality, especially when thinking about power.
H: Do you feel that feminist played an important role in the work you were doing with Gran Fury?
TK: Gran Fury took the same aims of ACT UP to be as inclusive about women and people of color as it could be. Gran Fury was mostly white and male — that’s the truth of it. But I think in that way of trying to challenge societal power structures and challenge that argument cause in fact a lot of women were dealing with HIV and AIDS and the epidemiological studies and drug trials often excluded them.
H: Given the proliferation of protests today, what we can we learn from groups like ACT UP?
TK: It was a different kind of motivation that brought people to an ACT UP meeting, you were scared you were going to die, so you went there. I often ponder over this because the stakes are even worse now. We can’t understand as humans that global warming is coming and it’s going to crush us all because it’s such an abstract idea. It isn’t the same thing as AIDS. It’s helpful to have a visible antagonist in some ways. To see people getting sick with something and dying, it caused us to leap into action, whereas taking action on global warming is so much more difficult and more complicated. I also find that a little too melancholic, though, because I really truly feel optimistic about the 2020 election. I think people are really sick of living in this wrath.
H: Did you feel this same optimism when you were younger and in ACT UP?
TK: From around 1981-83 until I came to New York and ACT UP — all I felt was fear of dying. But ACT UP was unbelievably sexy and fun, going to an ACT UP meeting was a blast, it was not like some leftist bore. You felt empowered. But I only really felt that way until the early part of the ’90s. Mark Simpson (Gran Fury member) died in 1996, which was very devastating to me on a personal level. He’s the only Gran Fury member that’s died to date and his death corresponded with a general fatigue for people. That year was the introduction of general antivirals, but by then a lot of us had already lost so many people.
H: What does activism look like for you now?
TK: When Trump was elected, I realized I had incredible body memory for activism. I had been doing stuff all along anyway, that would always stay. It wasn’t necessarily at the same level, not as many hours, but it’s in me. Going to protests felt natural. I’ve also shifted a lot of my activism in the past few years much more strategically toward getting people elected. I’m very good at canvassing and going door to door and I’m not afraid to talk to Republicans or whomever. Some of it’s been creepy and scary, but a lot of it’s been so moving.
H: Who influences you now — both as an artist and an activist?
TK: There are people you never meet like James Baldwin or Angela Carter or Jane Bowles, who you read. I know them as novelists and essayists, and they’re a huge part of who I am. And then there are people like my students at Columbia. I’m teaching a lot now and many many young women from China and Taiwan and Korea — young women who want to tell stories about abortion in countries where they couldn’t make a film about abortion, who come to the US to write those kind of scripts. I think of that as part of my activism — instilling students with that sense of empowerment. It’s like, “Well, it might be difficult to go back to your country but you should certainly write the story.”
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