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.
“For an entire decade plus, there was no bandwidth in the queer community beyond ‘How am I going to help my loved one stay alive another day,’” Swirnoff says. “We’re no longer in crisis, and that’s allowed us to be able to have these other conversations and think about progressive things like gender identity and fluidity.”
Swirnoff moved the series to Alley Cat in 2015 (it started in 2013 at the now-defunct Oakland gallery n/a), the same year the Lexington, San Francisco’s last lesbian bar, closed its doors. Against this backdrop of community erasure, Swirnoff says, “It felt doubly important to create this space.” And while bars and clubs are crucial hubs of queer culture, he saw the value in fostering different kinds of interactions -- not just dancing and drinking -- without the involvement of money or commerce. When there’s an admission price, he notes, an event immediately excludes certain members of the community.
Past screenings range from major motion pictures (John Carpenter’s 1988 horror flick They Live) and art house favorites (Gregg Araki’s 2004 film Mysterious Skin) to experimental films (Charles Atlas’ 1994 Superhoney) and foreign LGBTQ cinema. Guest selectors include Bay Area luminaries like Michelle Tea, Sophia Wang and Davia Spain.
The next my gaze///yr gaze screening takes place Sunday, Feb. 4, with Dark Entries Records founder Josh Cheon introducing Pedro Almodóvar’s 1987 film 'La Ley Del Deseo (Law of Desire).' According to the event announcement: “Using melodrama to perfection, the film is a sizzling exploration of passion and desire."
“One month it might be super challenging avant garde, super campy and playful, serious, or a weird sci-fi,” Swirnoff says. “It takes us to different places each month and brings a different audience each time.”
And if the post-screening conversation proves too lengthy and energetic for Alley Cat’s back room, there’s always Taqueria Vallarta. “Sometimes people carry on across the street -- they’re really fun nights,” Tedesco says.
After A Taste of Honey and a conversation about sexual politics in 1960s England, Swirnoff asks the room if anyone has any events coming up. It’s his way of broadening the connections created over the course of the night.
Talking about what’s been lost in the queer community -- and in the Bay Area at large -- isn't enough, he says. “What are we doing to maintain what’s great about San Francisco?” Swirnoff asks. “It’s easy to mourn things when they’ve gone, but I try to emphasize that we have to support and champion the things that we still love here. Because if we don’t, they’ll be taken away.”
The next my gaze///yr gaze screening, of Pedro Almodóvar’s 1987 film 'La Ley Del Deseo (Law of Desire),' takes place Sunday, Feb. 4, 6pm at San Francisco's Alley Cat Books (3036 24th St). For more information, click here.