Tag Archives: Cheryl Dunye

Greetings from Africa (1996, Cheryl Dunye)

In Greetings from Africa writer, director, and star Dunye mixes formats. Her first person comments to the camera are black and white video. The dramatized story is color film. Very, very colorful film. Dunye and cinematographer Sarah Cawley have some affected, formalist shots–even though Dunye’s the only one giving first person narration, Nora Breen (as Dunye’s romantic interest) gets some emotive and stylized close-ups. But then there are the more realistic sequences, where the sets are fully adorned–both the first person video shots and the stylized sequences with Breen and Dunye flirting in private have mostly blank walls. Even when Dunye and Breen have scenes in regular sets (Dunye’s apartment’s bathroom and kitchen), the composition emphasizes the actors, not the scenery.

The short runs about eight minutes, with Dunye recounting her time spent with Breen. They meet (off screen, but with the some of the audio played over, in some of Greetings finest editing), hang out a bit, then Dunye discovers Breen has some secrets.

There’s the scene in the kitchen, which has multiple conversations overlaid in voiceover, all with Dunye and Crawley’s stylized composition and colors and with Joan Caplin’s fantastic editing. Greetings is short, but full of content. Between Dunye’s first person exposition expanding it and contextualizing it, there’s also the technical stylizing in scenes to make it bigger. It’s great.

Greetings is mostly comedic; well, it’s not entirely anything, but it’s more comedic than anything else. Dunye’s got a wry sense of humor, not just in her performance, but in the dialogue and plotting of the short. She’ll cut away from a scene for maximum comedic impact. The short’s exquisitely made.

Dunye gives the best performance (there are three other actors) thanks to her silent expressions as she takes in the events, as well as her recounting of them for the first person. With the video to film and film to video changes, there’s a visual cue to differentiate between Dunye the narrator and Dunye the protagonist. Neither is unreliable or so much contrary as Dunye establishes a different narrative distance. It’s very cool.

Breen’s also good, though she really only gets a few scenes and they’re short ones. She’s playing an enigmatic character but not enigmatically. Again, Greetings excels in its subtle disconnects.

There’s a lot of subtlety to the short overall–it plays very much like a culmination of two of Dunye’s previous shorts. Being familiar with them probably makes the quiet jokes funnier, but seeing them isn’t necessary. The film’s more strong enough on its own.

The editing and cinematography are phenomenal. Perfect score by Glorified Magnified and Rebecca Coupe Franks–and perfectly cut to the action. Greetings from Africa is confident and boisterous and confident in its boisterousness. Dunye, her cast, and her crew, all do excellent work.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Cheryl Dunye; director of photography, Sarah Cawley; edited by Joan Caplin; music by Glorified Magnified and Rebecca Coupe Franks; produced by Dunye, Mary Jane Skalski, and Karen Yaeger.

Starring Nora Breen (L), Cheryl Dunye (Cheryl), Jocelyn Taylor (Dee), and Jacqueline Woodson (The Girlfriend).


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An Untitled Portrait (1993, Cheryl Dunye)

When it starts, An Untitled Portrait is about Dunye’s brother. But it’s also going to be Dunye’s family in general. But it’s also going to be about Dunye herself. The short runs three minutes, Dunye’s narration set to home movies, old film clips, but also some stylized original footage of shoes.

Dunye’s recollection starts with her brother’s shoe size (but really her family’s shoe sizes). With memories of his shoes as the frame, Dunye gets to her father, her mother, herself, while still keeping her brother (and her relationship with him) at the forefront of Portrait.

It’s short–three minutes is very short, with only enough time for a couple distinct anecdotes–with the visuals shifting in style as the film progresses. The visuals of shoes, active and still, are where Dunye does the most stylizing. She doesn’t shy away from the videotape medium, even doing the squiggly rewind at one point. She also finds a way to edit videotape sublimely, with the action pausing and then restarting, but with a calm flow. Videotape editing is often herky-jerky (it’s just a “feature” of the medium). Not here.

The film clips (formal parties with Black Americans) change the scale and context of some of Dunye’s rememberences. Her brother goes from being an unseen “Star Trek” nerd to a classic film action hero (there’s the possible additional layer of Black men not getting to be classic film action heroes very often, and certainly not in mainstream Hollywood productions).

At the end, Untitled Portrait gets positively playful. Joyous. After zooming in so close on her specific subjects, Dunye pulls back and–thanks to a jarring shift in music set to a familiar visual motif (shoes)–captures (or creates) an entirely different emotionality for the finish.

An Untitled Portrait is thoughtful and well-executed throughout and more than worth it regardless (it’s three minutes and Dunye’s masterful with the medium), but its entirely unexpected capstone makes it a delight.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Cheryl Dunye.


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Vanilla Sex (1992, Cheryl Dunye)

Vanilla Sex is the combination of a short anecdote from director Dunye, which she recounts to someone else, set (mostly) to a series of photographs scrolling up the screen. Occasionally, the footage changes to what seems to be home movie of Dunye and some other people playing around, nude (until Dunye shows up, it almost seems like it’s historical nudist footage), in the great outdoors. Fun playing not sexy playing. Fun non-sexy playing.

The photographs are of Dunye and a couple other women. They appear to be process photographs–they’re trying to stage, presumably, another photograph or installation piece–but it’s not clear it doesn’t matter. What matters is how they relate to the anecdote, which is about a time Dunye went to California and heard the white California lesbian definition of “vanilla sex”–no toys–versus her own, East Coast, Black lesbian definition–a Black person with a white partner.

At least one of Dunye’s friends in the photographs is white–the other appears to be Gail Lloyd, because even when Dunye’s short subjects have no narrative (or even titles or credits), there are familiar faces–and the anecdote echoes off the imagery. Same with the home movie footage. It doesn’t directly relate, other than showing how Dunye’s community, but it does echo with that anecdote.

Vanilla Sex doesn’t have a narrative (at all, even as the series of photographs gets more and more interesting, they don’t have a conclusion); instead it’s a visualized musing, with its three elements–the monologue, the progression of photographs, the wilderness party footage–playing off one another, informing one another. Dunye’s got a superior sense of filmic narrative, even when she isn’t doing narrative.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Cheryl Dunye.


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The Potluck and the Passion (1993, Cheryl Dunye)

The first sequence of The Potluck and the Passion, with director Dunye (also acting) sitting down and talking with girlfriend Gail Lloyd about the dinner party they’re about to throw. They go over the guest list as the opening titles run, who’s invited, why they’re invited, why Dunye and Lloyd are throwing the party (it’s their one year anniversary but Lloyd isn’t really comfortable with saying they’re dating).

Dunye and Lloyd are basically playing the same characters from Dunye’s previous short, She Don’t Fade, but it turns out there’s zero continuity between the two films. It also doesn’t matter because after Dunye and Lloyd have the first post-titles scene–Dunye’s trying to give some guests directions, Lloyd’s getting the apartment ready with help from friend Robert Reid-Pharr.

It’s Reid-Pharr who gets the film’s first aside, where–in now familiar Dunye fashion–sits and talks to the camera. He’s talking about his character, not talking as his character. His monologue has a lot of personality; better than his performance, but he’s still effortlessly likable sidekicking for Lloyd.

Potluck then cuts to the guests who need the directions–Nikki Harmon and Myra Paci–whose delayed, overly complicated journey to the party is the film’s only subplot. And Harmon and Paci never get monologue moments, their story is solely dramatic. Though comedic.

Once the party starts, Dunye and Lloyd become background to the main plot–guest Shelita Birchett decides she maybe likes other guest Pat Branch (who also co-wrote) far more than she likes her awful girlfriend, Nora Breen. Birchett and Breen get frequent monologues, mostly in character, but starting with the actors talking about the parts. The very clear subtext is Breen is dating Tracy because she’s a Black woman (and Breen is a condescending, controlling, culturally appropriating white woman). Branch isn’t just a Black woman, she’s an older woman with very different experiences than Birchett, who–in addition to dating a white woman–has always tried to live in a white world.

The chemistry between Branch and Birchett is electric–their performances are excellent–and having Breen directly address the viewer lets the character be terrible, but always realized. She’s never thin, because of how the monologues support the dramatics.

Dunye’s shooting on video, so the lighting is always off. She’s got some great composition, which embraces the video medium and is ambitious with it–there’s just no way to light it. It’s not Dunye’s fault, it’s the medium. It’s video.

Dunye’s direction of the actors in the dramatic scenes is fantastic, as is her editing of their monologue delivery scenes. And she and Branch’s writing is excellent.

Potluck and the Passion is occasionally cringe-inducing, often very funny, and always inventive. Dunye’s direction and Branch and Birchett’s performances are superior.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Cheryl Dunye; written by Pat Branch and Dunye; edited by Antoine Bell; released by Third World Newsreel Film Collective.

Starring Shelita Birchett (Tracy), Nora Breen (Megan), Pat Branch (Evelyn), Cheryl Dunye (Linda), Nikki Harmon (Lisa), Myra Paci (Kendra), and Robert Reid-Pharr (Robert)


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