As lesbian space alien as it gets
Selina Robertson reviews New Yorker Madeleine Olnek's debut feature and chats to the director about sci-fi B-movies from the 1950s and the advantages of video over film
Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same is about the urban escapades of three bald aliens: Zylar (sexually hungry and precocious), Barr (codependent and clingy) and the easygoing Zoinx. They find themselves fast-tracked to planet NYC in order to rid themselves of “big feelings” their leaders insist are destroying the ozone layer back home on planet Zots.
Their mission is to have their hearts broken in a human fashion. While Zylar and Barr end up courting each other over cheesecake, Zoinx’s path proves more complicated. Walking into a stationery shop, she meets shy, flannel-wearing, bespectacled Jane, whose life revolves around stock checks, dealing with geriatric customers and regular therapy sessions (her therapist insists she has a “rich fantasy life”).
Zoinx and Jane start to date as only Manhattanites in the movies can, which includes a nostalgic trip to Coney Island, midnight chats and ice cream under the Queensborough Bridge (reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Manhattan) and the obligatory visit to Cubby Hole, Greenwich Village’s legendary lesbian bar.
Zoinx’s baldness, eagle-staring eyes, flat monotone voice and freaky dancing only seem to increase Jane’s fondness of her gal. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that she is dating an alien, Jane finally decides to leave planet Earth to start a new life with her sweetheart on Zots. When Zylar points out that Jane will be considered a freak on her planet, Jane happily exclaims: “If it makes any difference, I never did that well here.”
Olnek’s delightfully spoofy screwball comedy hits the ground running with an abundance of wise-cracking jokes about life as a queer outsider, falling in love, lesbian stereotypes and dating habits. More Go Fish meets Flash Gordon than Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, Olnek’s fondness of the 1950s sci-fi B-movies is evident in the film’s minimal special and sound effects. It doesn’t get more retro than a spaceship made of silver foil takeaway cartons, matched with the mysterious sounds of the Theremin.
Surreal car chats between two Men In Black-style agents set with the task of alien surveillance are pure Jim Jarmusch (a big influence on Olnek’s work). In fact, the film’s most subversive queer interventionist joke comes from one of these exchanges between the spooks. Olnek’s cast is uniformly excellent, delivering their punch lines with cool precision. Lisa Haas (Jane) and Susan Ziegler (Zoink) are especially cute as the odd couple who fall in love despite their galaxy differences. This is a sweet-hearted, campy, old-fashioned, but utterly original lesbian love story that gives a whole new meaning to “queer me up, Scotty”.
The F-Word exclusive Q&A with the director
Madeleine Olnek (below) is a prolific writer and director who honed her skills in downtown New York City venues, writing and directing over 20 plays, all comedies. At the time, works that took lesbian presence as a given were unusual, so frequently Madeleine’s work was consigned to performance spaces under difficult conditions. Drawn to the independent film scene for its more cutting edge approach, she produced several short films between 2006 and 2009 (Hold Up, Make Room For Phyllis, Countertransference). Her comedy Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, which world premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, is her first feature-length film.
Selina Robertson, who prides herself on being ahead of the queer-fem film curve, gave herself a big feminist fail for missing two festival screenings of Codependent Lesbian Alien. To redeem herself, she interviewed Madeleine for The F-Word via email. The process was “all very clinical”, but worry you not: the interview remains entertaining and informative at the same time!
Q: Your background is in theatre, when and why did you make the transition to short filmmaking and eventually your first feature film?
I did theatre because it was the most immediate of art forms – no waiting for years to get your play up and no censorship of subject matter or dictation of aesthetics. I worked in New York’s East Village, where you could book a performance space with only a title of the show and then get it written later. The shows we were presenting were years ahead of what was being shown in movies and on TV.
But then a funny thing happened, as theatre – even performance art – became more and more institutionalised. Once dramaturges (who give notes on your work) started being a mandated part in some performance spaces, I thought: “What is happening here?” That was my whole fear of Hollywood, that you would be involved in making a movie and all these people from the studio would come in and give you notes that you had to take.
Many people are often frightened to see ‘gay’ work, so straight audiences need to be reassured they will see something they will understand and be able to relate to
At the same time, technology advanced and everyone could get access to a decent camera, the indie film world exploded and became the form that was immediate. You could tell stories that you cared about right now, that were immediate, without having them watered down in any way. Also, there were so many female writer/directors I admired in film, but the culture in theatre (at least in the US) is that the playwright should not direct their own work, that is seen as suspect. When I would have a script that would start to move up the ladder in the theatre world, the first thing I was expected to do was to give it to someone else to direct. I think the auteur approach in film makes the voice connected with the ideas come through more successfully.
Q: The title of your film is fantastically bold – can you talk about what made you choose it and why, at a time when many filmmakers do not want their films boxed as ‘queer’, you decided to claim its lesbian credentials?
I think that whole “it’s not a gay film” thing has been going on forever, it’s not just now. To turn the pages of the art section in any gay magazine, going back 20 years, is to read that statement over and over, as if all those artists had been programmed by the same publicist. The artists would be so paranoid about their work being classified as gay that they couldn’t put saying that on hold even for a gay magazine, despite the fact that readers of gay magazines are actually looking for work that would be boxed as gay.
The bottom line is, many people are often frightened to see ‘gay’ work or find the idea off-putting, so straight audiences need to be reassured they will see something they will understand and be able to relate to. That’s where that impulse comes from. But I will say that any good work that resonates, no matter what the sexuality of the protagonists, is going to be a universal and relatable experience. And bad is just bad, gay work does not have the corner on bad. I’ve seen a million horrible films and plays about straight people, their sexuality did nothing to soften the experience, believe me. In terms of the title of my movie, I see it more as claiming the film’s comedy credentials: anyone so homophobic as to not think it was funny shouldn’t come see it anyway.
I work in video because it allows me to put the performers first and do as many takes as we need, which is a huge luxury
Q: When I first watched your film, it reminded me of Kevin Smith’s Clerks and those early 1990s low-budget black and white indie films. I know that you have spoken about the influence of Jim Jarmusch on your work – what is it about indie filmmakers like him that you find so appealing?
Stranger than Paradise – I sometimes think is the most wonderful movie ever made. Before I saw it, I had never thought that quirky sensibility, so present in the subversive performance in the East Village scene, could ever be in a film. When I saw it, that was the first time I thought: “I’d like to make a movie, if a movie can be like this.” Indie film is appealing because it retains its individual voice (something of course the great film masters do as well). Also, I find the comedy funnier.
Q: Technical question: why shoot in black and white and why choose video over film?
As you mentioned, I did want to remind people of early ’90s low-budget black and white films, especially films like Go Fish, as well as having it exist in the black and white world of sci-fi B-movies. Black and white also seems true to New York; think of how many Woody Allen films have been shot that way.
I work in video always, not just because it of course is way, way cheaper than film, but it allows me to be able to put the performers first and do as many takes as we need, which is a huge luxury. I also have some thoughts about video being truer to life, which is flat and ugly, but the bottom line is most cinematographers are always trying to make video look like film. I think Codependent…, shot by Nat Bouman, looks pretty great.
To me, subtext is what makes a story have depth and it absolutely has inspired my filmmaking
Q: You have spoken about being a “lifelong mental health consumer”, apart from being in therapy a lot. Can you talk about how this has inspired your filmmaking?
Literally – and I know this is bad – I have sometimes segued from working on my personal problems in therapy sessions to discussing and questioning what would be the actions of my characters in the latest draft of a script I’m working on.
One of my primary interests as a storyteller is in psychology and why people do the things they do. That’s all subtext and understanding the subtext to action is something both therapists and writers/directors are supposed to do. To me, subtext is what makes a story have depth and it absolutely has inspired my filmmaking.
Q: Lisa Haas, who plays the film’s heroine Jane, has incredibly funny bones. How did you cast the film and how do you work with your actors? Was there a lot of improvisation or was everything carefully rehearsed? I am particularly thinking about the dance sequence…
The dance sequence we had a lot of rehearsal for and it was choreographed by Stormy Brandenberger, who is a professor of dance at a university here. It was actually one of our few locations that were closed to the public. The film is largely made up of actors (Susan Ziegler, Cynthia Kaplan, Rae C Wright, Dennis Davis) that I have worked with on my plays and films for many years. So we have a makeshift stock company of sorts, which is so helpful, especially working in such rough conditions, because you develop a shorthand way of communicating.
I think women are making challenging films, it’s just that sometimes they don’t get as much attention
I was lucky that we were joined by comedian Jackie Monahan and indie film star Alex Karpovsky. Codependent… was previously a play (where Susan had originated her role) and there was a lot I understood from the many rehearsals which helped me work more quickly as well. However, sometimes we would just do the scene over and over until we felt that we really got it. And then the editor, Curtis Grout, did a wonderful job of sifting through all that material for our many different cuts of the film.
Q: In the UK there has been a lot of recent press about a queer new wave with films like Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend being name-checked as films that tell very naturalistic stories about being gay today. However, just like New Queer Cinema 20 years ago, this is really a wholly male phenomenon. Do you think that it’s economic factors and a lack of access that is stopping women from making equally challenging and compelling 21st century stories like Ira’s or Andrew’s films?
No. I think women are making as challenging films, it’s just that sometimes they don’t get as much attention.
I think currently women have made a great place for themselves in the doc world, and that’s often where you can see the strongest films by anyone. I’ve spent a lot of time on the festival circuit – several years actually – and I’ve seen many amazing films by women. So we are making them, there’s no question in my mind about that.
Q: You have said you are a “comedy filmmaker through and through”. What is it about writing and directing a lesbian feminist comedy rather than drama that you find so fulfilling?
I think to make a comedy is to give something back to the world. A drama, not so much. Life is already dramatic. Comedy gives people joy.
Q: I hope that all types of audiences, not just queers, will go see your film. How do you think your humour will go down in the UK? You know how we love our irony!
I love all types of audiences, but I love queer audiences as well. Everyone is welcome at my motion picture: come laugh and forget about your miserable lives for an hour (that’s what I wanted to put on the poster, but they wouldn’t let me).
All images courtesy of Peccadillo Pictures.