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Ever since Clinton reneged on his gays-in-the-military campaign promise, it’s been open season on homosexuals. Other forms of bigotry have gone underground—the ascendant right cloaks renewed discrimination against blacks and Hispanics in the guise of welfare reform and abolishing affirmative action programs—but brazen, in-your-face gay-bashing spews forth at an unprecedented rate and volume from politicos (Helms, Dornan, Buchanan), the Moral Majority (Robertson, Falwell), and right-wing radio commentators (Limbaugh, Liddy). Media reactions to the recent Jenny Jones Show killing attest to the persuasiveness of homophobic sentiment. Responsibility for the coldblooded shooting has been deflected from the murderer himself to the talk show producers who allegedly exposed the heterosexual perpetrator to the “humiliation” of hearing the gay victim reveal his attraction on national television.

In such a poisonous environment, the arts provide voices of reason and tolerance. While the Republican “revolution” schemes to stifle gay artists by terminating governmental funding of PBS, NPR, and the NEA, pop culture remains an oasis of decency. Melissa Etheridge, Elton John, k.d. lang, and other musicians refuse to be silenced, and even television, usually the most timid of mediums, continues to feature gay characters on weekly dramas and sitcoms and, occasionally, as protagonists of made-for-TV movies like NBC’s Margarethe Cammermeyer biopic. Theatrical filmmakers, who should in theory be less affected by reactionary pressures, are running scared. Gay-positive features like Philadelphia and Boys on the Side have hedged their bets by desexualizing homosexual characters or, as in M. Butterfly and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, focusing on exotic transvestite protagonists. By comparison, The Boys in the Band, The Killing of Sister George, and other ’60s and ’70s features seem recklessly outspoken.

We must turn to independent and foreign movies to find forthright treatment of gay themes, but filmmakers working in this low-profile arena are faced with tough choices too. Are their productions aimed at general moviegoers (as most financial backers demand) or at the smaller, specialized audience that patronizes lesbian and gay film festivals? Are writers and directors speaking to outsiders or insiders? In other words, is the movie’s mission to depict the similarities between homosexual and heterosexual characters (that “love is love,” as The Sum of Us earnestly asserts) or to explore the unique dimensions of gay experience?

The former approach can be effective as propaganda; there is some merit to Jonathan Demme’s argument that his bowdlerized, nonthreatening Philadelphia is a more potent tool for social change than a grittier, more truthful film would be. But, as Nabokov observed, artists are concerned with distinctions and particularities, unlike scientists, who search for commonalties that can be developed into theorems and laws. The finest gay films—My Beautiful Laundrette, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Law of Desire, Mala Noche—make no concessions to outsiders. They present an undiluted, take-it-or-leave-it vision of their world, a bold challenge to audience prejudice and complacency.

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Which brings us to Marita Giovanni’s Bar Girls, an insider lesbian romantic comedy adapted by Lauran Hoffman from her stage play. Unlike pioneering Sapphic-themed movies whose protagonists resorted to suicide (The Children’s Hour) or were otherwise punished for their “unnatural” behavior (the phallic tree that squashes Sandy Dennis in The Fox), Bar Girls is a liberated and liberating experience. Wildly uneven, with lively, witty comic scenes undercut by cloying passages of psychobabble “seriousness,” it demands to be accepted on its own terms.

Giovanni has some difficulty setting the tone and tempo of this lesbian La Ronde. After an amusing opening sequence in which insecure, sarcastic Loretta (Nancy Allison Wolfe) exhausts her extensive leather-to-leopard-skin wardrobe in search of the perfect bar-cruising outfit, the pacing slows for some clumsily executed exposition. At West L.A.’s Girl Bar, Loretta, the co-writer of Heavy Myrtle, a cable-TV cartoon series, who is unsuccessful at managing her love life (“I trust people who fuck me over”), flirts with Rachael (Liza D’Agostino), an aspiring actress. Chastely, in Loretta’s bedroom, they swap details about their unfulfilling relationships—Loretta with Annie (Lisa Parker), “the psycho-athlete from Bakersfield” who is in love with a straight woman named Chauncy, and Rachael with Sandy (CeCe Tsou), an affair whose flames have dwindled to platonic embers.

After a cautious courtship, Rachael moves in with Loretta, but their relationship is threatened by flare-ups of jealousy and fear of commitment. Evenings at the Girl Bar heighten these anxieties. Glamorous, foghorn-voiced rookie cop J.R. (Camila Griggs) comes on to Rachael, who in turn finds Annie’s presence threatening. Before the fadeout, these characters and several more—dizzy Veronica (Justine Slater), Loretta’s straight friend who experiences a sudden shift in gender preference, and Kimba (Caitlin Stansbury), a wisecracking bartender—change partners with quicksilver recklessness in their pursuit of passion and tenderness.

Less a well-wrought narrative than an interlocking series of revue sketches, Bar Girls offers a kaleidoscopic view of contemporary lesbian culture. “Not,” as screenwriter Hoffman points out in the film’s press material, “like the lesbians on TV and film, who often appear unstable and ready to ice pick someone to death for no apparent reason. I could no longer stand by apathetically and watch as writers poked and jabbed at the surface of the lesbian experience.” Hoffman reveals a special flair for creating zingy repartee (“She’s been through more women than a speculum”), lampooning self-help and dietary therapies, and inventing comic grotesques like the flagrantly lascivious J.R. But her forays into seriousness are embarrassingly banal, particularly Loretta’s climactic mirror soliloquy (“All I wanted is love. Is that too much to ask?…You have to love yourself before anyone else can love you”). In the final scene, Hoffman even succumbs to making Heavy Myrtle, Loretta’s alter-ego, mouth the “love is love” bromide, a last-minute sop to outsiders who hitherto have been scrupulously ignored.

Considering the limitations of a low budget and a restrictive shooting schedule, Giovanni’s direction is efficient and unpretentious. (Stylistically, she only trips in Loretta and Rachael’s first lovemaking scene, awash in flickering firelight, lap dissolves, and other soft-core clichés.) She makes the most of a largely untested acting ensemble, all of whom appeared in the West Coast stage production of Hoffman’s play. Wolfe, Griggs, Slater, and Stansbury are first-rate, and Betsy Burke has a delightful scene as a café waitress who makes an audacious play for Veronica. D’Agostino, Tsou, and Parker are less effective, but their unaffectedness partially compensates for their lack of authority. As Noah, Loretta’s Heavy Myrtle writing partner, Michael Harris appears unthreatened by his role as the only rooster in this cinematic henhouse, though the cartoon subplot feels oddly underdeveloped, as though most of it had been jettisoned in the editing room. Chastity Bono has an unintelligible three-word cameo in a bar scene, which formalizes her long-awaited public coming-out and threatens to mark the simultaneous beginning and end of her acting career.

Despite its mawkish lapses, Bar Girls is a very entertaining comedy, much funnier than recent mainstream Hollywood fare. Although modest and self-effacing, it’s also a political statement of no small consequence, extending the fate of screen lesbians beyond the traditional options of victimization and self-destruction. As clouds of repression gather over the gay movement, Giovanni’s movie offers reason to take heart.