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« Linkgame | Main | "The Prom" gets a starry cast for its film version. »
Wednesday
Jun262019

Pride Month Doc Corner: Four restored queer classics in re-release!

by Glenn Dunks

The Film Experience and Doc Corner is celebrating Pride Month with a focus on documentaries that tackle LGBTIQ themes. In this final edition we're looking at four classic documentaries that have now been restored and are back in theaters (in select cities), waiting to be (re-)discovered: The Queen (1968), A Bigger Splash (1973), Before Stonewall (1984), and Paris is Burning (1990).

We will begin with the earliest and move forward through time. I was lucky enough to see The Queen on the big screen at a repertory screening in New York several years ago... 

One of the many benefits of living there as a film-lover (and a gay one, especially). It was a title I had been previously unaware of and only saw because of a one-time screening at the city's much-loved Queer|Art|Film series. Frank Simon’s The Queen predates the somewhat similar Paris is Burning by over two decades and is just as entertaining, just as quotable, just as much of a vital queer time capsule as that movie and one that ought to have a place in at least the LGBTIQ culture if not the wider one with its broadening understanding of scenes like the one it portrays.

It’s relation to Paris is Burning, however, is not just in its familiarity as a work of non-fiction about the lives of gay drag queens and trans individuals. In fact, to truly appreciate Paris is Burning and the world that its subjects inhabit, familiarizing oneself with The Queen is absolutely essential. The earlier film’s most significant identity is that of Crystal LeBeija, a rare queen of colour in the world of drag pageantry. Her vocal condemnation of the blatant racism she saw and experienced first hand lead directly to the founding of Harlem’s ballroom scene as a means of honouring the sort of people for whom the fantasy of American femininity was, by virtue of the colour of their skin, a distinct non-reality.

LeBeija’s volatile eruption remains a powerful symbol of the fight that sadly continues to this very day as is evident by anybody with an eye towards the stagnantly white world of gay culture (RuPaul notwithstanding). It may be easy to view this sequence along with the rest of Simon’s oughta-be-iconic documentary as hilarious and camp and a finger-snapping example of yaaas queen divadom, but underneath it is a stomach-churning agitation at the racist status quo. In 2019 it feels as ripe as ever as a way of opening our eyes to the realities.

Adding to The Queen's curiosity factor are appearances by Truman Capote and Andy Warhol long before their legacies as pioneers of queer identity among the American mainstream were solidified. They add electricity, as do the variety of personalities peppered throughout, to a film that ultimately places a fly firmly on the wall of a conversation that remains relevant and vital. Visually, its style is of its day, but the restoration is a treat and allows for every sparkling rhinestone and bouffant wig to pierce through the screen.

Memorable names from LGBTIQ history are again front and centre in Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash, a fascinating doc-dramatic hybrid that is remarkably radical in its structure even in 2019. Centered around British artist David Hockney, famed for works like ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’ and the titular ‘A Bigger Splash’ that are milestone works and referenced in the films of other gay artists like Pedro Almodóvar and Gus Van Sant, A Bigger Splash is a rich portrait of an artist that – in a rare trait even to this day – feels imbued with the sexual, cultural and artistic curiosity of its subject.

What separates it from the pack is the cheekiness of playing with the documentary form. At some point it morphs from direct documentary, charting Hockney’s efforts to paint ‘A Bigger Splash’, to something that… is not. It’s a damn shame that the film isn’t more widely known, particularly by queer audiences. Yet again, this new restoration is a treat and in particular allows us to truly appreciate Hazan’s own cinematography with its beautiful juxtaposition between the bright colours of Hockney’s paintings, the muted tones of the London streets, and the warm yellows of his residence.

Nothing is more appropriately timed that the restored rerelease of Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenburg’s Before Stonewall charting the decades leading up to the Stonewall riots that will celebrate their 50th anniversary later this week. An Emmy winner in its day, the film is assembled with a distinct lack of flash, but this helps it tap into great wells of emotion free of saccharine and manipulation. Its archival footage is extensive and the stories told by its talking heads are full of the sort of elder wisdom and poignant recollection that remains a potent testament 35 years later. This is especially true if you partner it with other documentaries about this time like Stonewall Uprising, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson and the sequel After Stonewall.

One thing that lingers over the film today, of course, is that the film was made just as people were beginning to gain a clearer view of the horror that AIDS would become, killing nearly 40 million people. 

The final of the four remastered queer documentaries receiving a release this Pride Month is the most famous of them all and one that The Film Experience has covered extensively before. I won’t go into Jeannie Livingston’s Paris is Burning all over again other than to say it is very appropriate for the film to be resurfacing in a new restoration at the same time that Pose is making waves on television (it’s season two premiere was watched by nearly two million people in its first week). I haven’t had time to rewatch Paris, but this sort of alpha and omega of mainstream understanding of the ballroom scene surely make a fascinating double around themes of representation, the stories of queer POC and the way white people have utilised them.

I am of the opinion that Paris is Burning is excellent and one of the greatest documentaries of all time, while still being able to acknowledge the history of that ascendance is somewhat fractured and worthy of discussion.

Release: Some of these films are available in various formats already, but all four are currently in limited release in their restored forms with hopefully some prominent home entertainment releases in the near future. If only somebody would restore Wigstock: The Movie!

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Reader Comments (8)

Paris is Burning is a masterpiece. Anyone who hasn't seen it yet, do see it.

June 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Paris is Burning is "O P U L E N C E".

June 26, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I saw Paris is Burning on YouTube so anything will be an improvement.

June 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

omg can we talk about the video for GOD CONTROL?

Madame X is a genius

June 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe

Paris is Burning of course is fantastic.

My partner and I were also delighted a few months ago to see the wonderful time capsule "The Queen" (rented at Scarecrow in Seattle). I had never heard of this gem, but was tipped off by Taylor Mac when I saw judy's live show a little while back. judy's drag godmother was Flawless Sabrina, the organizer of these very early shows/drag competitions. I can't recommend it enough if you want a glimpse of gay life from several generations ago .. and in the context of a fierce drag competition! With lots of celeb cameos too. It's a treasure.

June 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSFOTroy

"Paris in Burning" is beautiful and heartbreaking

June 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

fuck crystal labeija. everyone worships her cause shes a cunt.

June 28, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterhi

"Paris is Burning" is fantastic, with a fairly sad ending (the commodification of drag and sanding down of the rough edges) and I am excited to check out these other docs. Thanks Glenn!

July 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

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