It is Not the Homosexual Who is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives (1971)

Between the over-the-top caricatures of Christopher Guest comedies, the alarmist naturesploitation horror of The Hellstrom Chronicle, and the vile oil industry propaganda of Louisiana Story, I’ve seen the mockumentary format used for a wide range of tones & purposes.  As disparate as those movies are, though, they’re all decidedly insincere.  They imitate the methods and intellectual authority of documentary films to say things they do not really mean, whether for amusement or for profit.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a fully sincere mockumentary before recently checking out the 1971 political bombthrower It is Not the Homosexual Who is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives, which made it difficult to pinpoint the film’s intent in its early scenes.  It is so militant and inflammatory in its political rhetoric that I initially assumed the film was being flippantly ironic, contrasting its narrator’s attacks on the middle-class gays of 1970s Berlin against images that celebrated their lives & fashion.  By the time the film concludes on a lengthy, didactic call-to-action, however, there is no question that it is 100% serious in its seething distaste for queer ambitions to assimilate into “normal” society instead of radically reforming it.  It’s surprisingly convincing in its arguments too, even if its politics and its imagery feel self-contradictory.

It is Not the Homosexual is an explicitly Marxist call-to-arms that ridicules Berlin gays for wanting to assimilate into the bourgeoisie instead of organizing to tear it down.  It is incendiary enough to wildly overstep its bounds, frequently coming across as outright homophobic (and transphobic to boot) despite obviously being rooted in the community it’s critiquing.  True activism is often ugly & combative, though, and there’s something admirable about its willingness to throw punches for the sake of gay liberation even when they hit the wrong targets.  It’s easy to cringe at the narrator’s assertion that gay marriage is a “ridiculous imitation” of a heterosexual institution.  It’s even easier roll your eyes at the hardline stance that all art must be outright rejected by queer radicals, as it is a leisure activity of the wealth class (a stance that is in direct conflict with director Rosa von Praunheim’s background in fringe avant-garde cinema).  Getting indignant over those deliberate provocations would have you overlook legitimate calls for the gay men of Berlin to come out of the closet, or to establish political solidarity with the Black Panthers and the Women’s Lib movement.  In its broadest strokes, it’s making the same righteously leftist political maneuvers that Tongues Untied made nearly two decades later, or that modern Twitter activists make against the liberal assimilation politics of Mayo Pete in the 2020s.  It’s just willing to jab its own potential comrades in an attempt to wake them up and get them pissed.

The film also doubles as a genuine documentary of early-70s gay culture in Berlin, despite its intent to radically overhaul it.  Even while the narrator is deriding the over-the-top fashion, tea-room cruising, and drag bar pageantry of the scene, you’re constantly aware that the footage that illustrates those bullet points is invaluable documentation of gay culture at that exact place & time.  The flat, inflectionless delivery of the narration compounds the tension between image & intent, explaining how to live a more virtuous gay life in the style of a vintage 1950s hygiene reel.  It’s often been referred to as a “camp” film as a result, but I believe its political intent is sincere.  It was so sincere, in fact, that it’s credited for igniting the modern gay liberation movement in Germany, becoming a legitimate part of history beyond just being an incidental historical document.  So, here we have a mockumentary that is both a genuine documentary and a sincere political manifesto.  It’s too firmly tethered to a fictional narrative to be understood as an essay film—structuring its tour of Berlin gay life through the assimilation of a fictional character named Daniel—and yet it operates like no other mockumentary I can name.  Even if it weren’t for its record, rejection, and alteration of German queer culture a half-century ago, the film would still be highly significant for the way it toys with tone & form.  Rosa von Praunheim’s political convictions are just so furious & clearly defined that you have to confront the ideas before you can scrutinize how they’re delivered.

-Brandon Ledet

Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2011)

There was a point sometime in the past decade—at least as early as 2014’s Sharknado 2: The Second One—where I completely lost my appetite for ironic “bad”-on-purpose schlock.  Even retro broadcasts of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 have lost their luster for me, as I often find myself wishing I was just watching the B-movies being mocked without all the Gen-X sarcasm spoiling the mood.  Based on its title, its blatant Ed Wood homages, and its $10 budget, I was worried that Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same would be the exact kind of lazy B-movie throwback that I’ve lost my appetite for in recent years.  I was wrong. It’s incredibly funny & heartwarming, joining the ranks of the few rare examples of digital-era retro schlock that’s genuinely entertaining as the genre relics it’s parodying: Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, B.C. Butcher, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, etc.  Its cheap digital sheen & buzzing room tones almost scared me away in the very first scene, but by the end I was wishing it was a pilot for a What We Do in the Shadows-style sitcom instead of a standalone film.

The titular lovelorn Lesbian Space Aliens are basically a rehash of The Coneheads, complete with bald caps and robotic vocal inflections.  They’ve been exiled to Earth from planet Zots because their “big emotions” are eroding their homeworld’s ozone layer.  The plan is for the trio of romantic misfits to enter the dating pool in NYC, where they’re sure to have their hearts broken and return to Zots emotionally numb.  While one of the Zotsians is a shameless flirt seeking “hot alien-on-Earthling action,” the other two are just painfully lonely.  Their romantic mishaps on the NYC singles scene are mostly an absurd excuse to make tragicomic observations about the quirks of lesbian dating – the kinds of anxious “Are we being friendly or are we flirting?” observations that still routinely make the rounds on Twitter.  Every character in their orbit is oddly loveable in their downtrodden, softspoken misery – right down to the self-deprecating G-men who’re assigned to uncover their UFO launching site.  And when one alien does make a genuine romantic connection, it’s more satisfying than any mainstream romcom storyline Hollywood has produced in decades.

I’m not surprised to learn that Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same originated as a queer-culture stage play in the early 90s, nearly two decades before its movie adaptation.  Its writing & performances are much better defined than most backyard digi movies on its production level, and its retro-schlock patina is more of a launching pad for its humor than it is the entire joke.  The film was met with high praise when it premiered at Sundance & Out Fest in the early 2010s but hasn’t had much of a cultural impact in the decade since.  Anecdotally, it appears to have a low number of viewers but a high satisfaction rate, and director Madeleine Olnek at least went on to helm the more robust production Wild Nights with Emily (with Susan Ziegler, the actor who plays the codependent lesbian space alien Zoinx, in tow).  I totally get audiences’ general suspicion of low-budget, “bad”-on-purpose B-movie parodies like this, but it’s one of the good ones – meaning it’s one that has a sincere heart beating in its chest, just beneath its irony-coated novelty skeleton.

-Brandon Ledet

Wojnarowicz (2021)

Most documentaries about the lives & works of artists are majorly self-conflicted in their form & content.  The artist being profiled can be the most provocative, combative bombthrower in the history of their medium, and their retrospective documentary will still be the safest Wikipedia-in-motion overview of their life imaginable.  I don’t know that the recent doc Wojnarowicz ever matches the righteous fury of its own subject, but you can’t say it doesn’t try.  Fully titled (please excuse the incoming slur) Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker, the film clearly attempts to recreate the in-your-face political activism of its subject’s ACT UP-era queer resistance & art.  It’s nowhere near as inventive, shocking, or confrontational as multimedia artist David Wojnarowicz was in his own time, but it’s at least bold & propulsive enough to convey what made his art so vitally incendiary.

It helps that almost all of the documentary’s imagery was created by Wojnarowicz himself, supplemented by audio interviews with the people who personally knew him.  Paintings, prints, stencils, photographs, 3D instillations, audio journals, and a soundtrack from his post-punk band 3 Teens Kill 4 overwhelm the screen, often as David himself rants about the grotesque injustices of the world at large and of 1980s NYC in particular.  There’s a vibrant, purposeful anger to his visual art and his recorded monologues that especially comes into sharp relief in discussions of the AIDS crisis and the Reagan administration’s genocidal indifference to that epidemic.  There’s no shortage of worthwhile targets for Wojnarowicz’s fury, though, and he throws well-observed punches at the irresponsible vapidity of news media, the grotesque elitism of fine art collectors, and the economic disparity that led him to hustling as a runaway teen, among other social ills.  When he was alive, most of Wojnarowicz’s contemporaries likely would’ve reductively described his unbridled anger as a mentally ill artist sabotaging his own success.  Here, his work is properly contextualized as confrontational, queer activism in direct opposition to economic exploitation & respectability politics.

The purposeful, incendiary provocation of Wojnarowicz’s art reminded me a lot of Marlon Riggs, along with the more obvious No Wave contemporaries in his social circle (most notably Richard Kern).  If Wojnarowicz had survived the AIDS epidemic to make this film himself as a self-portrait retrospective, I imagine it might’ve come out as invigorating as Tongues Untied, Riggs’s magnum opus.  Director Chris McKim instead does his best to recreate that exact era of queer-activist video art with the clips, scraps, and completed works that Wojnarowicz left behind after dying at the hands of governmental indifference.  The result is one of the few hagiographic documentaries on an artist’s life that approximate the shock & awe of their subjects’ actual work: Sick, Crumb, Marwencol, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, etc.  At the very least, it leaves you infuriated that Wojnarowicz and his immediate community were purposefully abandoned & encouraged to die by their own government at the height of the AIDS epidemic; he likely would’ve been proud of that effect.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Equation to an Unknown (1980)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss the vintage, oddly melancholic French porno Equation to an Unknown (1980), which is cited as partial inspiration for the recent giallo throwback Knife+Heart (2019).

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherYouTubeTuneIn, or by following the links below.

– Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond

 

Rapture in Blue (2020)

It would be easy to dismiss Rapture in Blue outright for the blunt cheapness of its production values. Directed by an 18-year-old film nerd who just discovered David Lynch, it looks & feels like countless other D.I.Y. shorts that help pad out film fest schedules (and film festival rejection piles). However, to ignore the film’s merits based on its amateur quality alone calls into question who, exactly, is permitted to make movies in the first place. If Ryder Houston was the teenage progeny of an established millionaire filmmaker—like, say, Sofia Coppola, Oz Perkins, Brandon Cronenberg, or Jennifer Lynch—he might have the means to create something of “professional quality.” Instead, Rapture in Blue was partially funded through ad revenue from Houston’s own YouTube Channel and filmed on borrowed equipment. It’s incredibly cool that a teenager in Texas was able to complete a professionally distributed movie (recently picked up by the provocative queer media label Altered Innocence) outside the usual Industry channels of funding & production. To dismiss it outright based on its production values alone would only reinforce the financial gatekeeping that ensures this outsider-filmmaking miracle doesn’t happen more often.

In a way, Rapture in Blue‘s budgetary restrictions almost make its Lynch-on-the-cheap indulgences more bizarrely surreal – the very same quality that made last year’s Knives and Skin such a memorable oddity. This is a medium-length supernatural horror about the anxieties & pressures of being closeted. A straight-passing teenager becomes increasingly frayed as his girlfriend pressures him into having sex for the first time. Meanwhile, he finds himself hopelessly drawn to the bedside of a mysterious stranger who’s moved into his childhood home. Like in the unlikely queer cult classic Freddy’s Revenge, every near-sexual encounter he has with his girlfriend is punctuated by the emergence of a grotesque demon, a physical manifestation of his anxieties about being closeted. Likewise, his genuine attraction to the teenage enigma who occupies his childhood bedroom inevitably comes to its own violent crescendo, one of his own cowardly making. There’s a nightmarish menace to the story that’s constantly on the verge of breaking away from reality to fully commit to a supernatural phantasmagoria. Whether because of budgetary restrictions or first-film timidity, that full-bonkers payoff never really arrives, but the film’s off-kilter mood lingers despite that disappointment.

The most obvious signifiers that this was directed by a teenager is the film’s nostalgia for cultural touchstones Ryder was not even alive for: classic Lynch, 80s goth soundtrack cues, early 2000s flip phones, Polaroid cameras, a strategically placed Watcher in the Woods poster, etc. The overall effect is a 90s film festival mood presented in 2010s digi, which works in its favor in terms of its old-school genre payoffs and maybe works against it in its commitment to a traditional straight vs. gay binary in its exploration of closeted sexuality. The movie can feel a little rough around the edges and frustratingly inert, but there’s also something really exciting about its D.I.Y. arthouse horror tone. If this were a professionally crewed Hollywood production starring Andrew Garfield & Caleb Landry Jones as its sexually conflicted leads, people would be creaming their jeans over The New Face of Horror. Since that’s not the case, let’s at least hope that it does its job as a calling card for Ryder’s developing talents, leading to better funded and more fully bonkers queer horror oddities in the near future.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #115 of The Swampflix Podcast: Olivia (1951) & Lesbian Boarding School Melodramas

Welcome to Episode #115 of The Swampflix Podcast!  For this episode, Britnee & Brandon discuss three classic lesbian melodramas set at boarding schools: Olivia (1951), Mädchen in Uniform (1931), and The Children’s Hour (1961).   Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Ask Any Buddy (2020)

Austin-based genre aficionado Liz Purchell’s depth of knowledge for obscure, disreputable schlock has long impressed me as an online follower of her work. Purchell’s Letterboxd lists, Austin-area repertory programming, and contributions to the Rupert Pupkin Speaks film blog always seem to uncover some grimy, unsung genre gem that no one has yet to highlight as a forgotten trashterpiece. Watching her fall down one hyper-specific rabbit hole within that larger fascination with low-budget genre relics has been especially rewarding, though, and I selfishly hope that she never climbs out of it.

Starting with an Instagram account (and most recently evolving into a weekly podcast), Purchell’s multi-media project Ask Any Buddy is an archival, celebratory effort to gather as much vintage ephemera she can find from the golden era of hardcore gay pornography. Like with the (mostly hetero) Rialto Report podcast & blog or HBO’s dramatized The Deuce, Ask Any Buddy sets out to highlight the underdog circumstances of independent filmmakers who produced vintage pornography in the days when it had delusions of Going Mainstream. There’s an academic, documentarian quality to this work, which seeks to preserve the real-life stories of an outsider film industry that was effectively outlawed in its time, making the allure of its circumstances irresistible to fans of low-budget, transgressive art. Purchell’s focus on the gay hardcore of the era offers an even more distinct POV within that vintage pornography academia, though. Through the Ask Any Buddy project, she’s effectively arguing against the fallacy that there was no solid queer filmmaking identity preceding the New Queer Cinema boom of the 1990s, as posited in works like The Celluloid Closet. In Purchell’s view, queer filmmaking already had its own established tones & tropes long before folks like Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki, and Bruce LaBruce arrived to the scene to greater critical acclaim; the earlier films just needed to include unsimulated blowjobs to secure financial backing and a guaranteed audience.

The centerpiece of this Ask Any Buddy project is its incarnation as a feature-length film. Currently making the “theatrical” rounds through online film festivals (after COVID-19 fucked up its initially planned distribution through AGFA), the movie is both a transgressive piece of D.I.Y. outsider art and a vital work of archival academia. A post-modern mash-up piece, Ask Any Buddy is composed of pre-existing clips from 126 gay porno films from the genre’s golden era in the 1970s & 80s. Rather than contextualizing these clips with any narration or talking-heads interviews, Purchell has simply edited them together in a linear, remarkably cohesive narrative that highlights the various tropes & collective fixations of vintage gay hardcore as a genre. The film loosely constructs a morning-to-night day in the life of an urban, post-Stonewall gay male archetype with an incredibly bustling sex life. With characters from over a hundred films taking turns amalgamating a single protagonist, we watch “a” gay man awake from a loopy wet dream, brush his teeth in the bathroom mirror, venture out into his city’s various cruising spots (bathhouses, the docks, drag clubs, porno theaters, etc.), celebrate with his local community at a house party, and then return to bed with his long-term partner to repeat the loop again. If vintage porno is supposed to have a documentary quality built into its unpermitted, renegade filmmaking style, here’s proof that you can repurpose that effect to loosely construct a typical day in the life of one of its subjects (one with an incredibly high libido and an incredibly short refractory period).

Approaching this film from a purely academic, documentarian lens is actually selling its merits short. Its deliberate inclusion of vintage Pride march footage, mapping out of glory hole etiquette, and illustration of what public cruising looked like in the 70s & 80s land it squarely in the realm of academic discourse, but that framing doesn’t fully capture how it works as an in-the-moment cinematic experience. By removing the typical signifiers of a documentary or essay film and instead assembling a found-footage tapestry narrative, Ask Any Buddy leans into the dreamlike, surrealist quality of cinema as an artform. In that way, it’s more akin to Kenneth Anger’s incendiary landmark short Fireworks than it is to anything like The Celluloid Closet, even though it is directly commenting on the history of queer identity & queer sex onscreen. Its disorienting match-cuts, its interchangeable characters & locations, and even the intentional surrealism of its source material all make the film more of a sensual, cerebral experience than a coldly academic one. By the time the “protagonist” reaches the celebratory house party at the film’s crescendo, the shared lived experience of the larger narrative comes into sharp detail, making the whole picture feel like a communal vision of political defiance & erotic imagination rather than anything as pedestrian as a mere documentary. Its overall effect is more hypnotic & psychedelic than it is intellectual.

The Ask Any Buddy film could easily have been tediously academic or pointlessly provocative in the wrong hands, but it instead comes across as a playful, genuinely loving catalog of tropes & narrative throughlines clearly assembled by a true fan of this supposedly low-brow, disreputable genre. As a stand-alone specimen of transgressive outsider cinema, it has plenty to offer its drooling spectators, including out-of-nowhere fistings and stunt “celebrity” cameos from the likes of “Gene Simmons” & “Marilyn Monroe”. Obviously, it also functions as commentary on pre-existing transgressive cinema from outsider artists of the past, whose contributions to the queer cinema canon Purchell argues have been undervalued. This film is a strikingly surreal, hallucinatory correction to that oversight, as much as it is an academically crucial one.

-Brandon Ledet

Tongues Untied (1989)

The most impressive, inspiring films are always the ones that achieve a transcendent artistic effect with subprofessional resources or distribution. By that metric, Tongues Untied is one of the most impressive films I’ve seen in a long while. Its means are severely limited by its VHS aesthetic & camcorder-level resources, which makes it initially register more as D.I.Y. video art than legitimized Cinema. Still, it pushes through that financial gatekeeping barrier to achieve a fantastic poetic effect that’s frequently surreal, furious, grief-stricken, hilarious, and erotic, sometimes all at once. The film’s distribution was controversial to the point of near-extinction, sparking a highly-publicized national debate about whether or not it should be allowed to be broadcast on the PBS network because of its explicit sexuality (no doubt largely due to that sexuality’s homosexual orientation). Still, it lives on decades later as one of the most vital, fearless documents of American gay life in its era, legendary on the same level as more frequently canonized works like Paris is Burning & The Queen. Tongues Untied is D.I.Y. filmmaking at its most potent and least timid, throwing stylistic & political punches far above its budgetary weight class and landing each one square on America’s crooked jaw.

At its core, this is an essay film about black gay life in the United States during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. Building off the thesis that “Black men loving Black men is a revolutionary act,” a small sample of interviewees (including director Marlon Riggs himself) intimately share their life experiences as a kind of collective Oral History. They start by explaining how they’re outsiders in every community they inhabit, demonized & othered either through racism or through homophobia in every direction they turn. These confessionals gradually give way to an overt call to action as the film continues. They demand that more queer black men untie their tongues and become vocal about their own sexuality, so that their shared identity can become more normalized and less of a shamefully hidden peculiarity. The direct-to-the-camera messaging, photoshoot backdrops, and VHS patina of these interviews often recall a 90s anti-drug PSA or a local doc from a PBS affiliate, but the raw pain & sensuality of their stories smash through any potential aesthetic roadblocks. This is a doubly marginalized group who have to muster all of their collective strength just to be able to proclaim “We are worth wanting each other,” a revolutionary act after centuries of being told from all sides that they are worthless.

Even if it were just limited to these oral history interviews & editorials, the film would still be an essential document of black homosexual identity in late-80s America. Marlon Riggs pushes his work far beyond that humble act of self-anthropology, though, and instead aims to achieve pure cinematic poetry. Collaborating closely with the poet Essex Hemphill (who appears onscreen just as often as Riggs), he abstracts the interviews & essays at the core of the film by warping them into a layered, rhythmic vocal performance – as if all onscreen subjects were sharing the same artistic voice. The effect can be surreal or literary, making direct allusions to Ralph Ellison & Langston Hughes to tie the film into a black poetic tradition, and using a Gertrude Stein-style punishing repetition of phrases like “Brother to brother, brother to brother” to completely obliterate the audience’s senses. It can also be hilarious in a sketch comedy way, allowing for out-of-nowhere tangents into the sassy art of snapping or the playful sleaze of 1-900 dial-up phone sex. Most importantly, it unlocks the film’s full potential so that it’s not just a vocal diary of black gay men’s lived experiences but rather a soul-deep expression of all the pain, anger, lust, and joy they feel all at once within a society that would prefer they didn’t feel anything, or exist at all.

Tongues Untied uses the vocal rhythms and subliminal associations of poetry to crack its videotaped oral histories wide open, unlocking something much greater and more resonant than its means should allow. It is a transcendent work of art just as much as it is an anthropological time capsule, which makes it uniquely valuable to both cinephiles & political academics. There are plenty of examples of video art that pushed past the boundaries of fringe D.I.Y. experimentation to genuinely achieve cultural significance. However, I doubt there are many that could legitimately claim to be one of the greatest films of all time the way this scrappy, urgent VHS poetry relic could.

-Brandon Ledet

The Celluloid Closet (1995)

It’s not an especially unique observation that historical works are usually more indicative of the time when they were made than they are of the time they intend to represent. That quality of the mid-90s Gay Cinema documentary The Celluloid Closet still took me by surprise, though. The film still stands as an important work a quarter-century later, but the further we get away from its time of production the more peculiarly (and encouragingly) antiquated it becomes. Adapted from a critical text of the same name, The Celluloid Closet is intended to function as a history of onscreen gay & lesbian representation in Hollywood movies. In practice, it’s more of a documentary about how desperately starved queer audiences were for positive onscreen representation in the 1990s in particular.

As gay filmmakers & commentators walk the audience through the sordid history of Hollywood’s first century of homophobia (guided by a Lily Tomlin narration track), I found myself actively disagreeing with a lot of their opinions on what constitutes The Wrong Kind of Representation. I gradually recognized that I was feeling that way because of a somewhat spoiled vantage point of having a lot more variety in Queer Cinema to choose from decades after its sentiment had taken hold. At large, The Celluloid Closet is extremely dismissive of transgressive, morally troubling, or even actively villainous gay characters, the kinds of representation that generally creep up in movies that I personally tend to love (thanks to my bottomless thirst for low-end genre trash). Friedkin’s forever-controversial works Cruising & The Boys in the Band were singled out as especially toxic hallmarks of The Wrong Kind of Representation in the film, a poisoned leftover of Hollywood’s long history of unmasked homophobia. I love both of those movies; I’d even cite them among some of my all-time favorites. That’s an experience colored by a life lived when Normalized gay representation has since been achieved in popular media, even if it is still too rare to fully declare victory. In the 90s, transgressive, destructive creeps were the only gay characters who were allowed onscreen since the invention of the medium, which I totally understand would sour the thrill of their flagrant misbehavior.

Cataloging the censorship of The Hays Code era, the de-sexed caricature of the Sissy archetype, the villainization of “deceitful” trans characters, and so on, The Celluloid Closet mostly now served as a reminder of just how far gay representation has come in the couple decades since it was released. A lot of its searching-for-crumbs sentiment in its quest for positive onscreen representation sadly still resonates today, especially when looking for any prominent gay characters in big-budget media from corporate conglomerates like Disney. However, its push for cleaned-up, all-posi gay representation now feels extremely dated to me. I no longer believe we’re in a place where every gay movie has to be a sanitized Love, Simon-style journey of sunny self-discovery. I want to live in a world where Hollywood can catch up with the transgressive queer freak-outs of foreign indie releases like The Wild Boys, Knife+Heart, and Stranger By the Lake. In the 90s, when all the gay characters you’d ever seen were minor roles played for “comedy or pity or fear” we obviously weren’t there yet. Revisiting this documentary is a nice reminder that things have changed, however incrementally.

Documentary filmmaking itself has also apparently changed in recent years. I was shocked that The Celluloid Closet doesn’t label its films or its talking heads for the audience’s reference. You either recognize Quentin Crisp or you don’t, which would be highly unusual in a modern doc. We can refer to user-generated Letterboxd lists & IMDb cast lists to clear up any confusion or gaps in knowledge, though, so the real hurdle is just in understanding & reckoning with the film’s dated POV. As one of the talking heads explains (I wish I had caught their name, dammit!), “Nobody really sees the same movie.” Our personal biases and life experiences shape the way we internally experience art. The Celluloid Closet’s greatest asset is in documenting the biases & life experiences of gay audiences in the 90s in particular, since the history of onscreen representation in Hollywood is obviously an ever-evolving beast so no one documentary on the subject could ever be a definitive, everlasting work.

-Brandon Ledet

Pride (2014)

Sometimes political action looks like putting a brick through a window or spitting in the face of abusive cops who could (gladly) do much worse to you in return. We’re currently living through such urgent times, where the public execution of George Floyd has incited mass #BlackLivesMatter protests around the globe, which have been needlessly escalated by police. This is coincidentally happening at the start of Pride month, when political protest annually takes the form of parades & parties, a celebration of communities whose mere existence is in opposition to oppressors who’d rather see them dead. Both of these grandly conspicuous forms of political action are valid – vital, even. That’s a point that’s worth remembering in a time when major media outlets & self-appointed pundits at home will actively attempt to discredit them for demonstrating in “the wrong way.”

The 2014 film Pride opens with depictions of similarly conspicuous political action: a mass of ruthless bobbies beating down a crowd of working-class joe-schmoes for daring to stand up for themselves during the 1980s U.K. miners’ strike, followed by a dramatic recreation of a 1980s London Pride march. To its credit, though, the film doesn’t fully glamorize political organization & protest as romantic, action-packed heroism for the majority of its runtime. It instead paints an honest picture of what the bulk of political action looks like on a daily, boots-on-the-ground basis: it’s tedious, thankless, and mostly uneventful. Pride is realistic about how unglamorous the daily mechanisms of year-round protest are. It focuses more on the distribution of pamphlets, the repetitive collection of small donations, and the under-the-breath verbal mockery from passersby that make up the majority of political organization, rather than extraordinary moments like now, where more drastic actions are necessary. And it manages to make these well-intentioned but mundane routines feel just as radical & punk-as-fuck as smashing in a cop car window. It proudly blares Pete Seger’s union organizing anthem “Solidarity Forever” in the background as a rousing call to arms for a life decorated with chump-change collection buckets & hand-out leaflets that are immediately tossed to the ground.

Where Pride is incredibly honest about how mundane most political organization is, it’s shamelessly artificial & schmaltzy about the messy lives & passions of the human beings behind those collective actions. This is a feel-good historical drama about gay & lesbian activists in 1980s London who stuck out their necks to show solidarity with striking coal miners in Wales, modeled after the real-life organizational efforts of the Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners alliance. It’s basically an improved revision of Kinky Boots that genuinely strives for authentic, meaningful political observations about the overlapping struggles of queer urban youths and the working-class townies who are socialized to bully them instead of recognizing them as comrades. The only hiccup is that it’s ultimately just as safe (and weirdly sexless) as feel-good queer stories like Kinky Boots that erase the personal quirks & humanistic faults of its gay characters to smooth them out into inspiring, inhuman archetypes. There is no sex, nor sweat, nor unhinged fury in this film – just politics. And it remarkably gets just by fine on those politics alone because it actually has something to say about class solidarity & grassroots political organization, especially in the face of stubborn institutions who’d rather die than acknowledge your comradery.

Part of what makes this vision of community organization in sexless, tedious action somehow riveting is the collective charms of its cast, which is brimming with recognizable Brits. Dominic West is the closest the film comes to allowing a character to fully run wild, as an elder statesman of his queer political circle who’s prone to partying himself into a mad state of debauchery. Bill Nighy is his polar opposite, playing a bookishly reserved small-towner who’s so shaken up by the political yoots who invade his union hall that he comes just short of stammering “Wh-wh-what’s all this gaiety then?” Andrew “Hot Priest” Scott carries the cross as the film’s Gay Misery cipher—suffering small-town PTSD in the return to his childhood stomping grounds in Wales—but he gives such an excellent performance in the role that it somehow lands with genuine emotional impact. A baby-faced George MacKay is deployed as the bland, fictional, fresh-out-of-the-closet protagonist who makes gay culture feel safe & unalienating to outsiders who might be turned off by someone less “accessible”, but he somehow manages to mostly stay out of the way. We check in to watch him gay-up his record collection with Human League LPs and experience his first (and the film’s only) same-gender makeout at a Bronski Beat concert, but he’s mostly relegated to the background. The film’s class solidarity politics are always allowed to stand front & center as the main attraction, and the cast is only there to be charming enough to make standing on the sidewalk with a small-donations bucket seem like a cool & worthwhile way to spend your youth, for the betterment of your comrades.

A lot of Pride‘s historical setting dissociates its political messaging from our current moment. George Floyd-inspired protests aside, gay pride marches meant something completely different at the height of 1980s AIDS-epidemic homophobia than they do now, and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative tyranny has since become more of a political symbol than an active threat. The mundane day-to-day mechanics of community organization have largely remained the same over the decades, however, so the film chose a fairly sturdy basket to store all its eggs in. It’s difficult to make the daily routines of political organization seem sexy & cool, because the truth of it is so draining & unglamorous (until it’s time to throw a brick). Pride doesn’t bother with the sexy part, but it’s got plenty of energizing, inspiring cool to spare, which is at the very least a more useful achievement than what you’ll find in most feel-good gay dramas of its ilk.

-Brandon Ledet