The free raffle is causing uproarious laughter in the back room of San Francisco’s Alley Cat Books. Irwin Swirnoff, organizer of the queer film series my gaze///yr gaze, dips his hand into a bag to select the next lucky audience member. The items up for grabs include Queen Latifah’s 2000 autobiography Ladies First, a 45 of Gloria Gaynor singing “I Will Survive,” and a cassette of British R&B group Soul II Soul, featuring their 1989 single “Keep on Movin.’”
“And the winner is... ‘More desperate than Taylor Swift’!” he announces. A young woman sheepishly raises her hand and accepts the bundle of prizes to cheers and applause.
Over the course of the night, Swirnoff raffles away four more collections of odds and ends, setting a convivial tone for the night's main event -- a screening of director Tony Richardson’s 1961 film A Taste of Honey. On the first Sunday of every month (barring travel or sickness on the part of Swirnoff), a small crowd gathers in the back room of Alley Cat Books to watch and discuss a film chosen by a guest selector.
January's film pick comes courtesy of Brontez Purnell, choreographer, dancer, writer, filmmaker and performance artist with a deep and abiding love for A Taste of Honey. “Next to The Color Purple,” Purnell says, “this is is one of my favorite films.”
After the movie -- a gritty depiction of a young woman in working-class Manchester -- the conversation in the room is broad and energetic. Imagine returning to the best college film course you never took: discussions of queer theory punctuated by personal exclamations of “I loved it when—!” Swirnoff, a multidisciplinary artist and longtime DJ, also teaches film courses at Cal State Monterey Bay and USF; he occupies the role of seminar leader with ease.
This post-screening conversation is just as important to Swirnoff as the opportunity to watch interesting and often hard-to-find films. For him, it’s all about gathering a diverse group of people who wouldn’t normally bump into one another. “One of the most exciting parts of the series has been the intergenerational crowds,” he says.