In the fall of 2015, I read this perfect sentence: “Motion pictures are for people who like to watch women,” a line I have since repeated endlessly. It was written by Boyd McDonald (1925–1993); I discovered it while reading Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to Oldies on TV, a collection of the peerless critic’s columns for Christopher Street and other gay publications that had been recently reissued by Semiotext(e). The observation strikes me as the purest, simplest distillation of cinephilia—or at least one strain of it, mine especially. A master of beautifully and hilariously articulated bawdiness, McDonald advanced an aesthetic principle best encapsulated by this excerpt from his tribute to Steve Cochran, one of the many B and C-list actors who were the writer’s chief fascination: “But I have digressed from my topic, and digressed so far that it may be necessary to remind the reader what my topic is: the size of Cochran’s meat.” McDonald’s paeans to actresses, like Jane Russell and Gloria Grahame, are no less impassioned, yet they are always platonic. But the aperçus of this cock-and-butt-obsessed homosexual gentleman have irrevocably changed how this lez thinks (and writes about) movies.
In the fall of 1985, I went to see, for the first of five or six times, Norman Jewison’s Agnes of God. It was showing at a twin cinema offset from a mall within walking distance of my family’s house in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A teenager at the time, I always saw the film by myself; this was, I’m almost certain, the first instance of my solo moviegoing, a ritual that I still observe and cherish. My repeat viewings were mandated, of course, by lust: I was besotted with Meg Tilly, who plays the nun of the title, about to stand trial for murdering a baby she insists was conceived divinely. Yielding to the erotic, though completely unarticulated, pull that this actress had over me, I knew my repeat viewings were somehow “wrong,” which is why I lied and told my parents that I was going to the public library, located just behind the movie theater. I am embarrassed by the fact that such a middling movie held me in its thrall—and that it was Tilly, not Jane Fonda, playing the chain-smoking, tweed-blazer-and-leather-booted psychiatrist assigned to determine Agnes’s sanity, who I responded to (my Jane fixation would come later, after I saw Klute on VHS). But there’s something about the utter perversity of these bad object choices—of being turned on by this not especially significant actress in this negligible (but still freaky) movie—that makes me a little proud.
In the spring of 2000, I went, by myself, to see Robert Towne’s Personal Best, which was playing at a West Side venue as part of a series devoted to lesbian cult films. I was one of the few women there; most audience members were unaccompanied, trench-coated men, median age 55. One guy sitting behind me was jerking off. I can’t remember whether I moved my seat or not.
In the winter of 1996, during the last few months that I lived in Washington, D.C., a city that I’d leave for New York in August of that year, I read these words, in the New York Times Magazine: “No amount of mourning will revive the vanished rituals—erotic, ruminative—of the darkened theater.” For a period beginning about three year later, I would occasionally find myself in the same movie houses as Susan
Sontag, the author of that sentence, which appears in the essay “The Decay of Cinema.” My favorite of these encounters: a screening of Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown on a weeknight in December 2001 at one of the cubicle-size theaters of the Quad Cinema. I was alone; Sontag was with a friend, a man. They sat a row or two behind me. When the name Alain Sarde appeared during the opening credits, she excitedly said to her pal, “He’s the same guy who produced Mulholland Drive!”
In the fall of 2001, I saw, for the first of what would eventually be dozens of times (and counting), David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. I can date this initial viewing almost to the minute: The movie started shortly before midnight on October 7, 2001, the same day that airstrikes began in Afghanistan, the commencement of war without end. Roughly 12 hours later, I would return to the same theater in Chelsea to watch the film again. Over the next six months that Mulholland Drive continued to play in New York, I would revisit it at least twenty more times. My screening companion for these compulsive viewings was always my then girlfriend, each of us narcotized by the film’s impossible romance between Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla. Following a logic at once elusively oneiric and emotionally intelligible, Lynch’s movie excavates a whole shadow history of Hollywood: that of actresses who loved other actresses. The last time I saw Mulholland Drive was in December 2015 at Walter Reade; I went by myself. (I did not extend an invitation to my longtime darling, a woman who considers solo outings, both hers and mine, sacrosanct.) But maybe it’s not entirely accurate to say I was alone: I had just finished reading Boyd McDonald, who, in a way, was my date that night. •
Melissa Anderson is the senior film critic for the Village Voice.