Hip gay aunt, hot gay niece: family resemblance: filmmaker Lisa Udelson and her niece, punk rocker JD Samson, make big artistic waves – Culture – Brief Article – Interview
Lisa Udelson and JD Samson have a lot in common. They’re both from Cleveland. They’ve both been quite hot, culturewise, this past year: Udelson directed queer film festival favorite Lifetime Guarantee, a documentary about flattopped folksinger Phranc’s startling transformation into a Tupperware lady, while Samson’s rising feminist punk rock band, Le Tigre, released a well-received new album, Feminist Sweepstakes. Both Udelson (who came out at 20) and Samson (at about 15) are lesbians. Both appreciate provocative art, music, mad visual aesthetics (Udelson majored in film, Samson in studio arts). Finally, they celebrate Thanksgiving together, since Udelson, 42, is 23-year-old Samson’s aunt.
“I remember when I was very young being totally into my aunt because she was still young and lived in cool urban places, while I lived in a Midwest suburb,” says Samson, who now calls Brooklyn, N.Y., home when she’s not touring the world with Le Tigre.
“I kind of straddle the world of my three older sisters and my nieces and nephews,” agrees Udelson, who has lived in Los Angeles since 1985. “I’m the hip aunt. In a way, I have a lot more in common with my nieces and nephews because I pay attention to popular culture and listen to the same music.”
She especially shares a bond with JD–nee Jocelyn–around their sexuality. Udelson came out to her family after attending the University of Michigan. Samson, then in seventh grade, remembers the big deal made over Udelson’s bringing her girlfriend home for Thanksgiving. “I felt so bad the way people were looking at them,” she says. “But I looked at them like, Wow, they’re really happy!”
At about that time, Samson felt the first stirrings of her own lesbian identity. “I remember crying hysterically to Lisa when I was 16 because I’d fallen in love with my best friend in high school,” she says. “My aunt became an integral part of my coming-out, in a huge way.”
“I had the idea that she was gay,” says Udelson. “I recognized in her certain things that I saw in myself–mannerisms, the way she dealt with people, her humor, what things attracted her. In a way, I feel that she’s my kid.”
Udelson speaks of her niece in a proud parent’s tones: “She can do anything. Before the band, I didn’t even know she could play an instrument. Now she’s onstage playing keyboards, guitar, trumpet, and singing.”
Le Tigre (oh Mr. Lady Records) was formed in 1998 by ex-Bikini Kill leader Kathleen Hanna, video artist Sadie Benning, and Johanna Fateman. Samson, who knew the women and hung out with a musical crowd–as had her aunt when she was that age–first entered their circle as a slide projectionist in early 2000, but in a few months Benning had left the group and Samson had learned enough instruments to fit right in to its multimedia, politicized, dance-oriented aesthetic.
“People wonder how we can make art that’s happy, because punk is so connected to being angry,” she says. “But we just want to make music that makes us feel good.”
Considering the similarities between the kin, it’s little surprise that the themes Aunt Lisa dramatized in her last two films also focused on the brighter side of human nature. “They’re about what’s right with the world instead of what’s wrong,” she says. In her much-shown 1995 short, Party Favor (featuring Friend David Schwimmer), a brother agrees at his bride-to-be’s shower to be a sperm donor to his lesbian sister’s mate. In Lifetime Guarantee the butch-appearing Phranc disarms Tupperware sellers and buyers with her sweet, endearing personality.
Yet homophobia rears up in the film’s climax, when Phranc receives a devastating snub at Tupperware’s annual convention. Similarly, Samson–who unapologetically maintains an androgynous, short-haired “herm” style, as her friends call girls who look like boys–has been told at truck stops to get out of the women’s bathroom.
Udelson says she’s touched by both women’s gender-bending bravery. She herself feels more assimilated into mainstream culture, even as she explores its edges in her films. “I don’t relate to butch and femme, but I find it really interesting,” she muses. “Just because I’m the aunt and was influential in JD’s coming-out doesn’t mean there isn’t a reciprocal amount of learning. I learn volumes from her, not the least of which is what’s going on in her world.”
Seems like a great trade-off: A lesbian aunt provides a safer path for her budding lesbian niece, while the niece runs with fresh legs further along it, thus giving her aunt greater hope for a progressive future.
Kort is author of Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro, coming in April from St. Martin’s Press.
Find more on Lisa Udelson, JD Samson, and links to related Internet sites at www.advocate.com
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