Go Fish

MGM Home Video,

Rose Troche

Guinevere Turner,
Rose Troche

Guinevere Turner,
V.S. Brodie,
T. Wendy McMillan,
Migdalia Melendez,
Anastasia Sharp

Rated R, 83 mnutes

The Learned Ladies
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, May, 2009

Gay films got a make-over in the early 90s as what came to be known as the New Queer Cinema was born. The new crop of filmmakers pushed the envelope and made movies that challenged the very notions of what was once deemed acceptable on the lavender screen. Gay men and women were no longer victims; anger spilled onto the screen and the new directors no longer cared about such "quaint" notions as saintly role models. Tom Kalin's protagonists were Leopold and Loeb, Todd Haynes was channeling Genet and John Greyson made a musical about AIDS. I hadn't seen this much agitprop since Godard's heyday during the 60s.

Something else began to happen too. Queer films were no longer about being gay; they just happened to be about characters who were gay. A good example of this new phenomenon was Rose Troche's 1994 film, Go Fish. Here was a very personal film about a group of lesbians for whom coming out issues was ancient history. Suddenly it was possible to make the very films that Vito Russo longed for when writing The Celluloid Closet - films that were simply about gay people living their day to day lives. Go Fish was one of these films and it is widely considered to be one of the milestones of lesbian cinema.

Go Fish is a simple and almost old fashioned love story in the trappings of an art film. Max (Guinevere Turner) is a young student who hasn't had a girl friend for ten months and is ready to leap back into the dating scene. Her real name is Camille but she prefers to be nicknamed after the boy in Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, Where The Wild Things Are. Her roommate is an older lesbian of color named Kia (T. Wendy McMilan) who teaches women's studies at the university. She tells Max to stop looking for "hip hop Barbie" and tries to fix her up with Ely (V.S. Brodie), a hippie-ish granola lesbian whom they see every day at their favorite coffee shop.

Ely is older, wears dorky glasses and her long hair is stuck in the 60s. At first, Max shows no interest in Ely at all. Max, who looks like a hip tomboy and usually wears a backwards baseball cap, jokes about Ely's cupboard being filled with infinite varieties of tea, all of it decaf. Ely also doesn't seem interested. She has a long distance partner whom she hasn't seen in two years and uses this as an excuse to avoid intimacy. Ely insists that she is being faithful but her friends tell her that she isn't being monogamous if she's not having sex.
Drastic measures are taken. Ely is talked into getting her hair cut to a more stylish and butch jarhead crewcut and it succeeds in getting Max's attention. Now it's just a matter of time. Eschewing all cliches, Max clips Ely's fingernails and this turns into foreplay and finally fireworks between the two ladies. Inbetween the scenes that develop their offbeat romance, Kia and her friends - their heads filmed side by side and filling the screen - play matchmaker and function as a Greek chorus.
But this isn't When Harry Met Sally, or even When MARY Met Sally. The love story follows none of the usual formulas and it's broken up by a number of discourses, both serious and comic, that address various lesbian issues. Go Fish begins with a classroom discussion in which Kia asks her students to add to a list of women known, or believed to be, lesbians. The responses includes Sappho, Lily Tomlin, Peppermint Patty, Endora from Bewitched, and the cast of Roseanne. Kia's Latino girlfriend, Evy (Migdalia Melendez), is outed to her old-world mother by her ex boyfriend. Ely's bed-hopping roommate, Daria (Anastasia Sharp), sleeps with a man and faces a Kafka-esque trial in which her hostile peers question her identity as a lesbian. A dream sequence involves a wedding dress and satirical observations on societal expectations of women. Max and Ely discuss the responsibility of queer filmmakers and whether all gay characters they present on the screen really need to always be positive ones.
There is a charm to this film that is infectious. There is nothing contrived about the road that Max and Ely take from being awkward friends to passionate lovers. It's rather touching to watch Ely transform from a wallflower into a woman who is reconnecting with emotions she has kept repressed for too long. The fact that her glasses still make her look geeky even after she gets her new punk haircut is unimportant because of her newfound confidence. This subtle realism allows the film to resonate with its audience. All of the leads are superb. Kia functions as a wise den mother to this circle of friends and Daria seems like an early forerunner of Shane on The L Word.
I suppose that Director Troche's approach to this film can be summed up when Kia asks "What would you rather our collective lesbian image be? Hot passionate say yes to sex dykes or touchy feely soft focus sisters of the woodland?" Say goodbye to Maxfield Parrish paintings and say hello to the 90s. A number of the women in Go Fish wear very short haircuts and their hybrid fashion statements are more butch than femme. Max announces that she dresses the way that she does in order to look "fashionable" and these women create their own gender identities. There are a lot of close-ups of suspenders and legs wearing long shorts, not to mention masculine names. Women of all types, and races, populate the cast and all this adds to the film's honesty.
Go Fish is a true piece of guerrilla filmmaking. A low budget labor of love, Troche spent three years making and editing her very personal movie. Filmed in black & white and composed with frantic cutting and dream-like camera movements, Go Fish is a punkish and artsy film that still seems fresh more than a decade later. Sexy without being prurient, Troche likes to be playfully suggestive and edgy - consider, for example, the close-up image of a hand digging into a round bread and puling it open during a cooking scene. Troche's next film, Bedrooms & Hallways (1999), would examine straight and gay male insecurity and, of course, she later went on to be a producer and frequent director on The L Word (in fact, she directed the pilot).

Watching it 15 years later, I got the impression that Troche was trying to squeeze in as much as she could into her debut film but there's nothing wrong with that. In 1994, Go Fish was a first in so many ways and she wanted to speak to as many lesbians in the audience as she could. There is comedy and there is drama. Academic discussions trade places with pajama sleepover party talk and all of it works. Quite simply, Go Fish is a cool film. Highly recommended.

One last thought, after all you have just read... Why did someone in MGM's art department make the DVD box of Go Fish look like a publicity still from Valley Of The Dolls?


More On Rose Troche:
Bedrooms & Hallways
The L Word

Guinevere Turner also appears in:
The Watermelon Woman
Chasing Amy