It took 15 years for one writer to reconcile her formative viewing experiences of the Wachowskis’ debut film, Bound. Catherine O’Sullivan reflects on the film through the prism of two distinct points in her life.
It’s 2004. Or it’s 2003, or maybe it’s 2005: the exact year doesn’t matter. What matters is that I am a teenager. What matters is that I am nurturing a budding interest in cinema, while simultaneously attempting to suppress certain other nascent desires. What matters is that Bound is playing late one night on Channel 4, and I am lucky enough to have a VCR built in to the small, bulky TV I have in my bedroom.
Bound was the Wachowskis’ first feature, an achingly stylish neo-noir starring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon. Set almost entirely within two adjoining apartments, the film depicts two women meeting by chance, falling in love, and plotting to get one over on the mafia. Upon release, Roger Ebert gave the film a salivating review which breathlessly categorised it as variously “a caper movie, a gangster movie, a sex movie and a slapstick comedy”. More notable still was the film’s insistence on portraying a genuine queer sexuality. Pre-transition themselves, the Wachowskis drafted in ‘sexpert’ Susie Bright to act as the film’s lesbian sex consultant. It was this latter aspect, rather than the film’s genre-blending virtuosity, that set a little alarm pulsing in my head when I read the blurb in the TV guide.
I set my VCR to record, surreptitiously. Later, I sequester away some time to watch it, even more surreptitiously. For this viewing, I turn the sound down very low. It’s so quiet that I have to sit inches away from my tiny TV screen in order to make out any dialogue. This renders the film almost inaudible, but it seems like a necessary precaution at the time. Sitting this close also means I can hurriedly switch the TV off if anyone walks in.
This is not an optimal way to watch any film. Accordingly, I find myself unable to take in much of the plot or even to enjoy myself. All of the things I recall – a relentlessly dull colour palette, all blacks and greys and whites; a dripping tap; Gina Gershon’s grubby, pouting face – frighten me for reasons I can’t articulate. The entire viewing scenario feels degraded.
It’s 2018. I’m no longer a teenager. Bound is screening as part of the Overnight Film Festival, a repertory festival which takes place in the environs of a Victorian-era hotel on the Eastbourne seafront. All of the screenings take place in the hotel’s ballroom, many of them screened from 35mm film. Bound is one of these. It’s projected huge and played loud. The audience are loud too, cheering and calling out with delight throughout. I watch the film, as if for the first time. I follow the plot. I enjoy myself enormously.
Despite being engrossed in the film’s narrative, I can’t help being very hyper-aware of the viewing experience itself. Here I am, sitting among half a dozen friends. My girlfriend is beside me, squeezing my hand during the tensest moments. The entire packed ballroom is thrilling to the plot, rooting for the women. If I were to have been asked how I felt at the time of viewing, I could say that I feel loved, seen, securely part of a community.
Afterwards in the hotel bar, I regale my friends with the circumstances of my first viewing of Bound. In the telling, I exaggerate the titillation, downplay the disgust and fear I felt at the time. The story sparks reminiscences from other people about their own formative viewing experiences. The way I tell the story isn’t exactly a lie, but it doesn’t reflect the whole truth of either. Something has been avoided. Something has been elided.
In the weeks and months that follow the festival I can’t stop thinking about these two distinct viewings. What has taken place between them?
15 years, or thereabout, of course. A growing up, a coming out, a moving away. Measured against almost any metric I can think of, the festival screening is inarguably better: audio-visual quality, comprehension, enjoyment, company. Yet it seems too easy to place the furtive grubbiness of that first viewing beside the joyful communality experienced at the second, and to definitely say that the second was better.
I can’t let go of the suspicion that there is something to cherish in the memory of that initial viewing. It’s something to do with glimpsing myself in a state of eager innocence. Something to do with the thrumming push-pull of desire; my hunger to seek out films that might show me a version of myself, my fear of actually being seen. A testament to cinema’s power to unsettle, its ability to provoke an identification, even when one is perhaps not quite ready to accept what is being offered. This tangle of competing desires lent an urgency to the first time I watched Bound, a snarl of fear and possibility and excitement that flattens out into the far simpler pleasure felt during the second.
Bound is famous, and rare for a film about queer love, for affording its protagonists a happy ending. The heist is successful, the villains are disposed of, Corky gets the girl, and the pair of them screech off in a freshly-painted Chevrolet, Tom Jones’ ‘She’s a Lady’ filliping us joyfully to the credits. I didn’t remember this ending from my first encounter with the film. This is perhaps odd. I wonder now if I didn’t in fact make it all the way through that first time, too attuned to the possibility of being caught to follow the intricacies of the plot, too alarmed by the potential of being aroused to actually enjoy it.
I wasn’t ready then, but I did get there eventually. Like Corky, I got the girl in the end.
Catherine O'Sullivan lives by the sea and works in arts administration. She's very glad to no longer be a teenager.