Shelf Life writer Liz Walber on everything.
By Charlotte Murtishaw and Liz Walber
July 14, 2019
Local filmmaker Liz Walber is the director of the in-progress indie production Shelf Life, a “dyke love story at the end of the world.” The movie follows protagonist Golda as she makes her rounds as a courier for a doomsday Amazon, dropping off tomb-trinkets for the all-too-human, all-too-damned residents of western Massachusetts on one of the last days of Earth. Walber wrote the script following their graduation from Smith College in 2016; currently, the crew is set to film at the end of the summer for a slated 2020 release. In the meantime, they agreed to sit down with the Shoestring to discuss staying local, being gay in Lesbianville USA, and living through the endtimes.
What has it been like to work on this movie in various stages [since 2016], especially since within the past six months this whole idea of apocalypse and human extinction has really hit the forefront? The media has been covering this, for those paying attention, but until recently it was all sea level rise and biomass reduction and terms that don’t really speak to people in the same way.
When I started writing the film, everyone I know was freaking out. So that has been a constant. I’ve had conversations with a lot of the people working on the film about how we need to take a lot of breaks because it feels way too real sometimes, even though it is (in a self-deprecating tone) an experimental interpretation of an apocalypse because it does feel like it hits too close to home.
When it started it felt like less a beast, whereas now — I saw the VICE article that was like it’s gonna be over in 2050 and I was just like, should I even do this? It almost feels like a joke sometimes. It’s like, is this going to be emotional enough and raw enough and entertaining enough that it’s worth the time? And right now my answer is yes and no one’s going to let me say no, probably.
How do you see the relationship between western Massachusetts as a specific cultural environment, and this ongoing climate collapse?
That’s something I’ve been grappling with a lot. It’s incredibly spooky and creepy and gross and strange all the time. I personally feel incredibly helpless but also charged to action, and I hope the NSA doesn’t actually read my text messages.
I don’t know, I wish everyone was angrier? I’m waiting for the point at which those of us who live in privileged situations, who will not be climate refugees, will fucking get good and start burning shit.
I’m constantly like, why do I do anything, the world is ending. But it’s become way too much of “a bit” for me. People say things and I’m like well the world’s ending and it’s not really funny. But I actually believe that, you know?
Yeah. But it’s also like – me and my art director Indie [Beare], I wish they were here, we have these conversations about how getting bogged down in that so the world’s ending, why can’t I do anything, is very divorced from the fact that for us climate change is oncoming, but for a lot of the world it’s already there, you know?
Yeah. Like the world has ended, and is ending, and will end.
Yeah, exactly. Like, I don’t know, the air quality in cities in China is so bad, and obviously we’re already seeing the way the U.S. government is prepping for climate change refugees. It’s a constant balance of trying to – especially with doing the specific work of making a movie about a perspective that I think is important, which is gay people in America – to hold many things at once.
To get back to the question about how we see the climate crisis here specifically, I feel especially sensitive to the neoliberal climate here, which I feel like excludes itself in some ways. I guess I wonder about the ways in which personally believing you’re a good person makes you feel like you don’t actually have to do anything.
Yeah, I guess I feel like it’s that. It’s so stupid to see the like, we all just need to recycle, and we all just need to become vegan, and Elon Musk probably invents a new house we can all live in, and it’ll have solar panels on the top, and life will remain the same and we can work from home on the days that it’s too hot.
It’s also something that I am finding kind of increasingly frustrating in our own context, which is such a fucking bubble, because we only know people who are like, we need to knock over corporations. This is entirely the case – –I think we should execute all the oil execs, et cetera – –but I also think the veganism thing is more so a preparation. Because if we fix everything that needs to be fixed, with the weight of the word ‘fix’, we’re not going to have beef, you know?
If you’re on the side of we can do it, then we should all be prepping a little bit, as far as like, eating less meat because you’re going to have to get used to it. My partner and I have started thinking of things we should stockpile, like ibuprofen. I’ve thought about stockpiling cigarettes for currency. (laughs) That’s mostly a joke.
I really like that idea of doomsday prepping – not as what are the individual things we should hoard to make sure we’re comfortable or whatever, but what are the behaviors we collectively have to develop to make sure there’s a post-doomsday? That’s something I haven’t seen explored a lot that’s more valuable.
We should be thinking communally! My current plan, this is my ten-year plan, is saving up to buy a house with land in the Valley. I want it to be big enough that it can house a bunch of people and I want to learn a lot about specific homesteading practices.
Because that’s the other thing, I think because of the neoliberal American consciousness we’re all very afraid of each other, and we need to get over that. Especially in this area. The queer community of western Mass is so self-important, and has self-defined the concept of community for themselves. If you say, you need to think communally for the end of the world, I think we could do it.
Ok, let’s talk about gay people in the Valley. In the bits of the script that I’ve read, you do provide some critiques and parodies of different types of queer people you encounter around here, and it is interesting because you’re saying there’s this real idea and feeling of this monolith of the gay community here. But also, you know – I’m like, how much do I get into [the local community facebook group for LGBTQlgbtq+ people in the Valley] Queer Exchange? When do we get into Queer Exchange?
I feel like Queer Exchange is a reminder that it’s really brave and imperfect work to try to do that [create and maintain communities], and it’s full of potential for failure, and that’s really cool in its own way but also – there’s such political range in the queer community here, in terms of like, there are some very happy neoliberal gays, you know?
The big Queer Exchange drama I think about recently is when someone said a bartender was homophobic, and it turns out the bartender was gay and that person was just drunk, and everyone had been up in arms and ready to get at them. I don’t like when people are like, well you live in the Valley so homophobia doesn’t happen, but sometimes we could be a little more – skeptical? I think I’d like us all to start living under the idea you can give someone a chance to explain themselves before you knock them down a peg. We’ve all done fucked up stuff and really appreciate it if someone gives us a second, you know? I think it’s good to be the one who provides that.
But yeah, you know, especially when you look at the way Northampton Pride is, I don’t know what people have in common any more. But that’s really sad, and there has to be a commonality. But also, why can’t we think smaller?
I see a situation all the time – this is why Twitter is fucked up – when there’s a big national story about like, Dyke March in DC is anti-semitic! everyone I know has to have a take. And it’s like, there’s no reason for us to stick our fucking noses in it. Because that happened last year, where a dyke march in another city banned the Magen David, the symbol on the Israeli flag, everyone was like, they’re fucking anti-semitic.There was a whole campaign to yell at them on the internet, people all over the country, and it turns out, the reason that they’d done that is that a gay Zionist org in their city had threatened to show up with an Israeli flag – it was an internal thing! It was none of our business.
Yeah, the communities close to that should be managing that and everyone else should mind their own business.
Yeah, exactly! Like you can never know. You can never know.
And also I feel like there’s a real tendency, in an “identity politics can be limiting” kind-of way to be like, as fellow queer people, we don’t need to speak to each other and try to understand the different facets of your identity that’s not just being gay. Even “being queer” [as a single category of identity] — I’m sorry, what? There’s a lot going on there.
Exactly, and even down to just like, where you live, you know? There’s gay people everywhere, and you don’t know more about what it’s like to be gay in the South, or in Alaska, or in the DC Pride march meetings – you have shit to do here.
Yeah! I’m super into people tending to the space immediately around them. It’s just impossible to do everything. Just do a really good job on the stuff right around you for at least a little while.
Yes! Things would be so much better. It just reminds me of when the PWR BTTM stuff happened and all these queer kids on the internet who are wonderful and deserve all of our respect and admiration were like, What do I do? Who are the queer musicians I should like? How do I know if people are ok? How do I know if people are safe?
And it’s like, your favorite band should be people you know. You don’t need your favorite band to be these incredibly self-branded (cuts self off)–I mean, think it’s fine to like that stuff. I’m not saying that I don’t like mass media; obviously I fucking do, I watch Youtube all the time. But your favorite musicians should be people you know, your favorite fucking paper should be the Shoestring! Why don’t people know what’s going on around them?
Yeah! I mean I’ve lived a lot of places and feel like I’ve always experienced people being like, I’m bored, there’s nothing to do – but like, you don’t even try! There’s so much.
Everywhere in the world, people are already doing what you want them to do. My friend Indie, who’s also art directing Shelf Life, is working out of their dorm room to make a small online press just for lesbian writers. They have like, 100 followers on instagram. And my fucking meme page for the Valley that just makes fun of people has like 1000 followers and it’s memes for dykes so I’m like, Why don’t you guys submit to this? Why don’t you guys read this? If you’re like, why isn’t there a poetry scene for queer people in the Valley anymore…
It’s like, go to this, go over here.
Either that or make it happen.
Complaining’s only so good.
Complaining’s just an excuse to move to Philadelphia, is what I just realized.
To toggle to another major theme, what relationship does the apocalypse have to queer identity? There’s a lot of queer art that engages with apocalypse in a much more genuine way than say, mass-market explosion porn movies. For instance, I don’t think Michael Bay understands the apocalypse, but I think Megan Fox probably does.
The queerness of the apocalypse, to pretend to be a film professor at Smith College – I mean, we’ve talked about this a lot in the Shelf Life circles. It’s an incredibly complicated thing, but gay people have already had an apocalypse, and already made art about a similar cultural feeling. That’s an incredibly big part of being able to self-mourn, to have context and an entire canon of art already made about self-mourning. One of the biggest inspirations for the film is The Living End, and also the film Safe, and those are both AIDS era films. Safe in particular is a film by Todd Haynes about AIDS that isn’t about AIDS.
Yeah, just – doom and everyone you love dying.
And the state not caring.
And the state not caring.
Well I think that’s what a lot of the recent – well – well ok, so we were living with this big kind of glorious sci-fi revival for a while that is like, Black Mirror, which I have not watched most of so whatever I say isn’t really valid, but – I remember I watched this episode that was set on a spaceship that was this guy controlling women, – and it seemed to me that all of the money that the TV studios were pouring into sci-fi, and even Game of Thrones, it’s really just cosplayed misogyny. – Iit’s not actually radical, it’s not actually science fiction, it’s just an elaborate set-dressing for the things people want to see but don’t want to admit to themselves they want to see.
And even more recently, probably with Ursula K LeGuin’s passing and more attention to Octavia Butler, you have people engaging more with what science fiction gives us, which is not the ability to imagine our own tired political tropes in outer space but something that’s actually completely different. Earlier you told me you’re not a science fiction writer, but I think any sort of queer future is science fiction. The idea is that we can leave this behind. And that’s kind of the whole neoliberal nightmare, right? It’s like, how do we work within this system to give tax credits on carbon – but it’s not about tax credits, you know? We need corporations to cut out fossil fuel production entirely.
Yeah, oh god, well I saw a tweet that was some kind of quote from Pete Buttigieg, which is kind of ironic if we’re talking about neoliberal gay people. It was about how the neoliberal mindset refuses to imagine there’s anything beyond compromising with your sworn enemy. That you can’t think outside of the concept: Well, we’ll have half the Supreme Court be horrible people and half the Supreme Court be the good guys and through the power of that clash, eventually something will get done. It’s like, just take a second and imagine, just imagine that there is nothing. What would you do if there was nothing?
I watch Black Mirror. That episode was incredibly scary, and I think Hollywood just uses the same four texts over and over again. And they have so much money.
I did want to ask about the funding of this project, and how that’s coming together. In terms of local grants and especially local arts grants, have those been helpful and accessible?
We got a Northampton Community Television Grant. I’ve been putting almost all my money that is expendable into the movie, that’s really where most of the money is coming from. When we started, there was a thought of, do we want to do a crowdfunding campaign? I hate crowdfunding, I think it’s for grifters. So I said, we’re not crowdfunding, what we’re doing is we can make things people can buy if they want. So we made zines and patches and stickers. We now have a donate button on the website. But most of it is that I just rebudgeted my whole life around having enough money to make this, and buying stuff slowly.
I think people should apply to local grants before they tell you to apply to stupid big grants that are going to tell you to change everything. Local grants are sick, I wish there were more.
Did going viral on Twitter help your film at all?
Yeah, we got a couple hundred followers on Instagram. Two people bought patches, that was sick.
One question I really wanted to ask was: What can your immediate communities, in terms of the local arts scene or even the region or even just people online who are into the same weird shit, do to support the movie?
If they want to buy a patch or zine at Looky Here or Grapefruit in Northampton, that’s cool. If they want to donate on the donate button, that’s cool too. If they have time and artistic skill sets they want to offer, that’s a big help. We’re looking for extras for the party scene in the movie. I can’t pay extras, but it’s one hour, and it’s at the end of August, and we’ll feed everybody. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to be in the party scene or if you have ever held equipment before and want to hold equipment. And like us on social media.
And if you know any gay celebrities, tell them to send us time. Or money. Or love.