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Queer Cinema Zine 'Little Joe' Is Erotic, Rebellious and Inspirational

Sam Ashby, designer of artwork for Tangerine and Weekend, has made a diminutive film magazine that offers a history of cinema from the margins.

by Amelia Abraham
16 February 2016, 8:00am

Issues 1-4.

Print zine Little Joe is the queer cinema bible – and would no doubt revel in such a sacrilegious accolade. A sense of mischief runs through its pages, whether in the form of erotic stills from long-lost gay movies, the platforming of marginalised filmmakers, or the rebellious act of challenging cinema's heteronormative status quo.

Little Joe is the offspring of Sam Ashby – a London-based cinephile and the designer behind the memorable posters and artwork for recent film releases like Andrew Haigh's Weekend and Sean S. Baker's Tangerine.

To delve into Sam's motivations for starting Little Joe, we asked him about why it's necessary, or even just compelling, to continue to map and remap cinema's illustrious queer history. It's a potted history, and one that dips proverbially "in" and "out" of the closet – which is to say that, while some films are overtly LGBT, others have the potential to be read that way. Here, Sam shares some insight into how we can learn to read them.

VICE: When did you first have the idea for Little Joe?
Sam Ashby: I was watching Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey's Flesh with some friends one drunken summer night in 2008. I couldn't understand why I hadn't seen or heard of the film before. I'd wanted to create a magazine for some time, and here was the concept: a film publication that instilled a sense of discovery in the reader.

The unforgettable sight of 'Little Joe' Dallesandro's bare arse as he lay face-down in bed gave the magazine its name. It's a wink to those who get the reference and a point of discovery for those that don't. It also gives the publication a certain personality, and defines its diminutive format.

What was your initial vision with the design – and how has it evolved over the years?
Little Joe started out as a fanzine really, albeit one with academic articles! I wanted it to feel familiar, nostalgic, like an object of the past. At the time of producing issue one, I was photographing an old cathode-ray TV screen showing VHS versions of films like Cruising and American Gigolo, and was playing around with layering found images and turning GIFs into print. Due to budget constraints I printed the first issue in an edition of 500 copies on a risograph machine with Ditto Press. It is mostly two colour throughout, and the print effect is wonderfully low-fi, further imbuing a VHS aura. The second issue was influenced by the 70s, in particular the book 'Film as a Subversive Art' by Amos Vogel.

As Little Joe became more popular and we began to print more issues, the risograph became less cost-effective so we made the difficult decision to start printing with a lithograph printer. This has partly led to the magazine's shift from fanzine towards the more 'legitimate' journal, although I think it still sits somewhere in between.

You have quite the contributors list, including the academic Douglas Crimp, MoMA curator Stuart Comer, author Abdellah Taïa, and writer and activist Sarah Schulman. How do you go about soliciting such talented people?
When I started I was amazed by how responsive people were to the project. I was just an eager fanboy asking nicely! The way in which the magazine has grown and gained such respect means that the whole process has become easier in a way because people understand what Little Joe is.

What do you think has been the biggest coup for you?
I think getting to work with Mike Kuchar, who is one of my all-time favourite artists and filmmakers, has been the most exciting for me. Johnny Ray Huston interviewed him for Issue 4 and for Issue 5 Kuchar designed a selection of lurid temporary tattoos that we have slipped inside each copy. I'm almost tempted to get one of them for real.

Little Joe is obviously a geeky place, and yet, it's also a friendly place; to me, it's almost been a guidebook. How do you maintain the balance? Is it something you think about?
Absolutely. The project is about inspiring discovery, so that's why you'll rarely find articles about films that are very well known or in some cases accessible, even. Some of the films you will never be able to see, because they are locked up in an archive somewhere. This is an interesting tension for me. In an age when people expect everything to be accessible online, I have created a magazine that is print-only, and printed in a limited edition, which talks about films that are difficult to find. I want our readers to come to the magazine by chance or word of mouth. I want them to spend time with it, and get involved in that process of discovering the films for themselves.

Little Joe isn't just about discussing the work of filmmakers whose work is queer on their own terms – sometimes you actively queer movies.
There is a long and rich tradition of this, simply because we queers have always been underrepresented on film, meaning we work especially hard to read between the lines. I was amazed by how many people's formative sexual experiences were the result of watching films, and that these were almost entirely lacking in queer sexual content. Asking people their personal tales of filmic identification is so enjoyable to me that I do it for every issue under the section 'Visual and Other Pleasures'. We don't need queer content to identify, but rearrange 'subtext' and what do you get?

Issue 5.

Good point, but do you think there's less of a need to search for this queerness on screen now, because – for our generation, at least – it is more overtly present? In Issue 5 there's a piece on Boyd McDonald who conducted queer readings of "oldies" in his book Cruising the Movies. The writer William E Jones, in looking back at McDonald's work, refers to a certain type of "cinephilia in which past [gay] generations indulged". Is that something Little Joe aims to preserve?
It's an interesting point. I think Little Joe is actively trying to preserve something that is absolutely being lost but, that said, since the publication first launched in 2010 I've witnessed a growing interest in these subjects and, due to the explosion in online journalism, seen so many more people writing about queer film. Obviously we are watching films in an entirely different way than our queer elders did when they were our age – there are so many more films being made with a wider variety of subjects and representations today.

We don't need to search for queerness on screen anymore because, as you say, it's just more present, but that doesn't stop us searching for queerness that we actually identify with, and I think for me this is still something difficult to come by. Gay, lesbian and trans folk are now ten-a-penny on TV and in film, which is obviously worth celebrating, but I still seek out the films, people and artefacts that complicate or question, and these are frequently harder to come by. I hope Little Joe helps to point the way towards a messier, seamier, and altogether more interesting history of film from the margins.

Buy Little Joe here.

@MillyAbraham

More in the series Ink Spots here.