Tag Archives: Cheryl Dunye

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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She Don’t Fade (1991, Cheryl Dunye)

She Don’t Fade opens with Zoie Strauss sitting down in front of the camera and directly addresses the viewer. She talks about how we’re going to see a video from the director, Dunye, and then Fade cuts to a shot of Dunye cleaning up a sidewalk vending table. The title card gradually comes up.

Then director–and soon to be star–Dunye sits down and talks about the video, what it’s about and who she plays. She’s a woman a year out from a breakup who’s getting back into dating, but she’s got a new style she’s going to try out when meeting women.

Then either there’s another scene with her in character, or it’s photographer Paula Cronan appearing onscreen to talk about the video. And her character. Scenes play out, Dunye talks about them. Dunye meets a woman–Wanda Freeman–and they go on a date, which doesn’t get much interruption, only for the subsequent sex scene to just be raw footage of them shooting the sex scene and Cronan directing them.

Oh, I forgot: Dunye sometimes talks, in character, directly to the viewer. Sometimes she and Cronan will come up with scene ideas. For a while, Fade is very much about seeing the conceptual process behind the video. Though not the filmmaking itself.

Dunye soon meets another woman, Gail Lloyd, and starts pursuing her. But off-screen. In the first-person, looking in the camera narration about it, however, it’s never clear if Dunye’s in character or not. Not really.

And all the scenes with Dunye (in character) and Freeman and Lloyd are without diegetic sound. We never get to hear what Dunye’s new approach to dating sounds like.

The finale is just the narrative, no more talking about how the video is going to go or work. It’s well-executed, but nowhere near as engaging, confusing, or compelling as the earlier scenes. During the oscillating “reality” and narrative, Fade is urgent. It loses that urgency as it goes on.

Still quite good, Dunye just doesn’t go anywhere with the narrative format, which has been distinguishing Fade since the first shot.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written, directed, and edited by Cheryl Dunye; director of photography, Paula Cronan; released by Third World Newsreel Film Collective.

Starring Cheryl Dunye (Shae Clarke), Paula Cronan (Paula), Wanda Freeman (Margo), Gail Lloyd (Vicki), and Zoie Strauss (Zoie).


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