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Pride Month Doc Corner: 'The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin'

For pride month, we're looking at a new queer-themed documentary each week beginning with The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, which continues to play festivals around America.

“I’d like to tell you about the first time I had sex.”

This is a like spoken by the one and only Armistead Maupin in Jennifer M. Kroot’s documentary The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin. It’s spoken by him as he sits in a relaxed chair on a plainly adorned stage in front of a crowd of predominantly gay men. It garners a laugh from those in the audience there (as well as presumably the audience at home; I did), but it’s a moment that is quite indicative of the film around it.

Kroot’s film is not one that is shy about sex. It couldn’t possibly be. To do so would be to deny the essence of what made Maupin such an important figure in both literary and queer history. Sex was an important part of him and his work. To hear it spoken of with such ease in this documentary is a relief – and that’s before even getting to the part where he details where and how he met his future husband, a moment that adds a wonderful dash of gay modern reality to a story so rooted in the allure of 1970s gay life.

This openness, however, is tempered by an uninvigorating visual pallet. Recalling similar queer icon docs by Jeffrey Schwarz (I Am Divine, Tab Hunter Confidential) and Kroot’s own To Be Takei and It Came from Kutchar, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin offers little of any visual dimension beyond the occasional animated divider that aim to replicate the style of Maupin’s Tales of the City books, but which instead simply come off as dated and a concession to commercial breaks on TV airings.

Yup, that Laura Linney and Armistead Maupin at PrideMore interesting is the editing of Bill Weber, who in some respects takes inspiration from Maupin’s own writing and cuts with a determined ease. Single sequences flit between talking head interviews, narration, on-stage recitings and film clips, the words from each coming together in a collage. Interview subjects are numerous, with new faces popping up even in the final stretches, offering a litany of voices that feels in tune with Maupin’s community-centric writing. Familiar names like Laura Linney, Ian McKellen, Neil Gaiman, Olympia Dukakis, Amy Tan, Margaret Cho, Amanda Palmer and more give the film the sort of warming vibe that one could often get from Maupin’s writing. When the visuals feel disappointingly secondary, this element of the film at least comes across as thought out and specifically designed. A rush of wonderful archival footage of Armistead and the queer community of San Francisco is also well-implemented.

Of course, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin isn’t the sort of documentary one watches for warts and all. There are warts, sure, but they are largely covered up. Little time is spent detailing the author’s part in the controversial public outing of Rock Hudson, for instance. Or any of the others he outed, willingly or otherwise, for that matter. No time is spent on the downturn of his career that we briefly see is responsible for a (minor, in the grand scheme of things) downsizing of his lifestyle in the hills of San Fran. It might have also been curious to devote more time to how his experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War influenced his work, if at all.

Despite its title, fans of the man will probably be well-versed with much of what Kroot’s film offers up and it’s unlikely that anybody sitting down to watch need to be reminded of what his worked meant at the time it was in the cultural forefront. But as a history lesson it is effective, filling in another piece of queer history puzzle.

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Reader Comments (3)

I'll be watching this one next week. I had no idea he outed Rock Hudson and now I'm intrigued.

June 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Peggy, I'm glad you had plans to see it.

June 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Does the documentary mention his working relationship with boss and family friend Jesse Helms? It almost has to. Amazing that two people who ended up so far apart on the political spectrum could have collaborated back then.

June 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrevity

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