Mental Case: CineMental’s experimental queer films

by Scott Kearnan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday December 14, 2007

If you thought weekly showings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" were the only outlet for cult film in Cambridge, think again.

While we wouldn't recommend throwing toast or toilet paper at the screen, CineMental is doing its part to enliven the subversive celluloid scene. Produced by Truth Serum Productions, CineMental is a monthly screening of alternative, experimental and queer-friendly films.

For this month's dose of programming, appropriately titled "Dirty December," four short films will turn the cinematic spotlight on an alien dildo from outer space, lesbian leather bondage and a host of other curious phenomenon for which an Academy Award category has not yet been allocated.

But then, that's fine with Truth Serum's founder.

"In a world where 'The Gay' is becoming mainstream, we celebrate the radical," says Aliza Shapiro. Formerly a record label manager, Shapiro began Truth Serum Productions to give queer artists a space in the local arts scene.

"Political queers, kinksters, transgender folks, and to some extent lesbians are left out of what is seen as the progress created by the mainstreaming of gay culture," says Shapiro. "We are not interested in progress at the expense of the fringe. Creativity and agitation happen at the fringe, and we want to celebrate and create a home for that."

Indeed, CineMental is geared to the radical voices of queer culture, indie film and experimental art. Though Shapiro and her CineMental cohort James Nadeau have helped program the Boston Gay and Lesbian Film/Video Festival for the past six years, CineMental offers more challenging, avant-garde fare.

"There are a number of restrictions that come along with doing the Boston Gay and Lesbian Film/Video Festival at the MFA [Museum of Fine Arts]," says Shapiro. "This made it difficult to show the kind of edgy, experimental, challenging and possibly sexy material that we wanted to screen there."

In other words, don't expect CineMental to screen sappy coming-out tales of impossibly attractive actors, the humorous exploits of lesbian bridal registry (starring Chloe Sevigny!), or the dramatic import of One Man's Struggle in the Closet.

"CineMental presents films, videos and performances that you won't be able to see any other way," says Shapiro. By scouting for films at other festivals, maintaining connections with other indie programmers and keeping her fingers on the pulse of the uber-edgy, Shapiro assembles a hodgepodge of programming that keeps her audience active and engaged with the queer arts scene.

"There's always a great crowd of interesting and adventurous people," she says. "If you're looking to meet folks, it's a good place for that. We often go out for drinks or discussion after the shows."

Judging from recent CineMental productions, there's plenty to discuss. At one recent evening, CineMental screened "The Odyssey," 24 continuous short films by 24 different groups of artists, each expressing one of the 24 chapters of Homer's Greek epic in a completely unique style, format, and presentation.

"We are not interested in progress at the expense of the fringe. Creativity and agitation happen at the fringe, and we want to celebrate and create a home for that."

In the true spirit of modern convergence and mixed media, one of the filmmakers was even on hand to accompany her film with live music.

That she performed. With an accordion. While dressed in the skin of a deer.

Did we mention: Challenging?

"When we have discussions after [the screenings], they've been lively... which proves there is a need for what we're doing," says Shapiro. Perhaps more importantly, Shapiro is sating her own desire for queer art and cultural events that challenge conventional demarcations.

"I was motivated by both a void in the [queer] scene and a void in my own cultural experience of Boston," she says. "Truth Serum also produces film screenings, literary events, spoken word shows, burlesque, drag [events]."

This month, Truth Serum's CineMental production will continue to brand its own style of wild, edgy programming. With the "Dirty December" theme focusing the celluloid lens on sexually charged selections, viewers will be treated to a quarter of kinky flicks.

Georgia B. Wright's "Stellium in Capricorn" provides a provocative glimpse of lesbian bondage; Michelle Johnson's "Triple X Selects" follows the girl-on-girl trend with a smattering of lesploitation (as in, lesbian exploitation) film clips; Szu Burgess' "Is Your Wife a Secret Lesbian?" weaves lesbian porn with propaganda; and as for Burgess' other featured work, "Harigata: The Alien Dildo That Turned Women Into Sex Hungry Lesbos"... well, it seems the title says it all.

If the subject matter sounds dauntingly radical, that may be the point. But Shapiro assures audience members need not be intimidated; if they take the plunge into deep, murky waters, they may be surprised at how fun it is to swim with fetishist fishes.

"They can expect to be blown away by challenging creativity that gets them hot, flustered and inspired," says Shapiro. "They'll also leave with a date, their mortgage paid off and a full stomach," she jokes.

"Or they might just have a nice time, meet some nice folks and see some cool stuff. It's way better than sitting in front of the television."

Besides, you won't see alien dildos on NBC. They usually save that stuff for sweeps.

("CineMental presents: Dirty December" will screen at 9:30 p.m. on December 19, 2007 at The Brattle Theater; 40 Brattle Street, Harvard Square, Cambridge; $10, 18+; for more info or updates on other Truth Serum productions, visit www.