I have seen “Without You I’m Nothing,” the 1990 movie based on Sandra Bernhard’s standup routine/performance art piece/one-woman show, many, many times. I used to love it. It used to define me. My mid-20s would have been a very different time for me if I’d never seen this movie.
This time, nearing my 50s, I did not love it at all.
Note: most of the times I have seen this film were in a tight cluster of months shortly after it was released to home video. My college buddies and I thought it was the greatest thing ever. Queer cabaret culture generally had a vibrancy to it back then. This was the era of Phranc and Paris is Burning and Wigstock and whatever. It was also the era of George H. W. Bush. We had never heard a president of the United States utter the word “gay.” We had been on the outside for a long, long time, but we felt the change coming. That our culture was starting to move into the mainstream — and Bernhard, her lesbian bona-fides just barely held out of our view, but hinted at often, represented a move of our culture into the mainstream, believe it or not, despite how far she was from the mainstream, because we were even — this sentence is too long! — farther from it still — gave us a sense of inevitability and conquest. That growing power and relevance culminated, I think, in the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, and then crested and fell afterwards, when he broke his promises to us. This week was the first time I’ve seen “Without You I’m Nothing” since then.
Which is maybe why I don’t like this movie anymore. It makes me miss those days, when we thought we were on the verge of taking over the world, and yet it also points out to me their hollowness, the emptiness of our aspirations, via the thinness of Bernhard’s own commitment to her poses. Her rendition and rehabilitation of Sylvester’s “Do You Want to Funk” as a liberation anthem was revelatory after almost a decades’ worth of “Disco Sucks” backlash and AIDS hysteria, for example. I literally jumped out of my chair and pointed at the screen, the first time I saw it. (I was a silly queen in my 20s; I know this is difficult to believe.) Now it just sounds a little bit off-key, a little bit desperate, a little too easy. Its primary targets — Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart — had already been the targets of late-night television comedy for four or five or eight years by this time, made into easy targets precisely because of the thousands upon thousands of jokes that had already been made about them by people who had no political agenda at all. These three television preachers were certainly the enemy, don’t get me wrong, but they were the individual examples of the enemy who had already been personally defeated. The real enemy remained untouched by Bernhard’s song. That’s a fairly moderate form of liberation.
My friends and I didn’t notice the offkeyness and the emptiness before because the very act of celebrating that particular song, at that particular time in our history, was enough for us.
Queer stuff has to speak to a higher standard now, I think. It has to go a little deeper. It’s not enough just to wave at its queerness. And even Bernhard’s waving at queerness comes off as a little too subtle, nowadays, come to think of it anyway. Was she, or was she not? Do we even need to know anymore? Probably we don’t.
None of what I have said should be taken as a minimization of the movie’s importance for its time. But it is of its time, is what I’m finding myself believing — and is sort of stuck in its own time. Which may simply be a function of cabaret generally. Or maybe I’m just too close to it, and too mired, myself in its time, to see what this movie is capable of inspiring in anybody today. That’s always possible.
Go see for yourself, and let me know what you think.