Though we may have been living under the rule of a mad king the last few years, San Francisco has in fact been a monarchy of sorts for over half a century—omitting the prior reign of “Emperor” Norton, of course. This royal house is considerably more benevolent than the White House one, however, in addition to having better fashion sense. The new documentary 50 Years of Fabulous by Jethro Patalinghug charts the history of the Imperial Council, an activist and charitable organization founded in the early days of Gay Liberation by drag performer José Sarria.
As played by Broadway and Queer Eye star Jai Rodriguez, the late Sarria (who died in 2013 at age 90) is also a dramatized figure in the current HBO series Equal, which mixes re-enactments and archival footage to depict pre-Stonewall gay activism. But Fabulous offers a view both bigger and narrower, limiting itself to the perspective of what’s become the oldest surviving LGBT charity body in the world, while also viewing the evolution of U.S. gay life through their reflection of and influence on it over the decades.
An Army veteran whose post-service career prospects were curtailed by arrest in a police sting targeting homosexuals, Sarria wound up a major cross-dressing attraction at North Beach’s famous Black Cat Bar, trilling in his impressive operatic soprano. But even that fabled institution was subject to constant vice squad raids. In 1962 he and others formed the Tavern Guild, aimed at protecting such businesses and their gay clientele from incessant police harassment. Two years later he proclaimed himself “Empress of San Francisco” at the annual Beaux Arts Ball, an act that led to the founding of the still-extant Imperial Council and its Court.
50 Years features tons of footage from that organization’s back chapters, including a stupendous Cleopatra-themed coronation from 1990. But beyond the glitter, glamour and camp, there was always a political urgency—Sarria had (as a city supervisor candidate in 1961) been the nation’s first out gay political candidate, and the Council operated largely as a fundraising machine. Intially its efforts were targeted towards advancing basic gay rights and public office holders; then countering the anti-gay backlash of Anita Bryant & co. Amidst the catastrophe of AIDS, and the governmental indifference with which it was met, the Council overrode prior resistance in some quarters to become a more unifying (and ubiquitous) element in the gay community, bringing the leather scene into its embrace while orchestrating innumerable fundraisers benefitting AIDS organizations.
A former Mr. Gay SF and Mr. Gay Asian Pacific Alliance himself, director Patalinghug hasn’t exactly made a tell-all here—passing reference to Sarria’s “extraordinary ego” is about as juicy as it gets. If the movie’s polite skirting of any internal conflicts or other gossipy aspects to an institutional history not lacking in drama lends a somewhat “authorized,” testimonial-dinner feel, it nonetheless provides plenty of local color, from the parade of later crowned court figures to politicians and community historians.
There are now some seventy imperial chapters around the world, even if it’s admitted here they sometimes struggle to diversify, maintain a profile, and attract younger members in a cultural climate vastly different from what gays faced 50-plus years ago. Of course, the time-reversing effects of Trumpian policy (just mentioned as a threat in a film whose chronology ends in 2016) may yet turn us back to an era of police and legal harassment. 50 Years of Fabulous is currently available for streaming through Roxie Virtual Cinema (more info here) and Frameline distribution (more info here); this coming Fri/30 it also joins CinemaSF’s streaming selection (more info here).
Likewise turning the clock back about a half-century is this newly restored feature by the pioneering African-American documentarian (and experimentalist, with his 1968 and 2005 Symbiopsychotaxiplasm films) William Greaves. For years it was available only in a one-hour broadcast version, when seen at all. Kino Lorber’s release of IndieCollect’s restoration, which plays Roxie Virtual Cinema as of Fri/30, returns the work to its full original 80-minute running time.
Nationtime is a record of the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana—an event that was judged a failure by some because it failed to result in consensus plan to move forward. But with roughly 10,000 attendees and 500 media personnel, it was nonetheless a galvanizing cultural moment at a critical juncture. With Nixon about to sweep into his second (if abbreviated) White House term, African Americans saw little hope in the political status quo. As Jesse Jackson notes in a particularly rousing speech here, the rights hard-won in the prior decade’s Civil Rights Movement had turned out to mean little in a society still hellbent on keeping blacks underfoot economically. With their communities increasingly ravaged by drugs and crime, was it time to “form a third political movement,” one not just for blacks but everyone else “nauseated” by the eternal betrayals of the mainstream parties?
Well, that did not to come to pass, obviously. But the fury and determination of the participants is still palpable, as well as all-too-relatable given the current active encouragement of racist reactionaries. An educational tool and a historical record, Nationwide is hardly a work of cinematic art, or even much entertainment value—there are just fleeting glimpses of “our talented artists,” with Dick Gregory, Isaac Hayes, and Amiri Baraka (who composed some poetry read on the soundtrack by Harry Belafonte) the only ones given real screentime. But with its appearances by Bobby Seale, Coretta Scott King, Congressman Charles Diggs, Betty Shabazz, Sidney Poitier and more, it still feels like a summit for the ages.
The restored re-release of Bela Tarr’s 1994 maxi-minimalist epic Satantango arrived just in time earlier this year for quarantinists ready to seriously slow down and take on one of cinema’s most famously patience-challenging (at 7.4 hours) masterworks. But six years earlier he’d had test-driven his signature style for the first time in what was also his first collaboration with experimental novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai, who would have a hand in all the Hungarian director’s later features.
Damnation is like its successor in miniature, with the same very grey B&W photography whose long takes and inchworm camera movements evoke the same exquisite, slightly gallows-humorous bleakness from a similarly decrepit small-town purgatorial setting. The story is a sort of slow-drip The Blue Angel as if written by Beckett and/or Sartre, with a hapless protagonist (Miklos Szekeley B.) masochistically pursuing a singer (Vali Kerekes) at the aptly-named Titanik Bar, who’s already ended their affair (or whatever it is) at the start. Informed she’s a “bottomless swamp” who destroys every man she seduces, he nonetheless becomes involved in some vaguely criminal scheme with the woman (who only approaches any kind of enthusiasm when telling him to fuck off) and her husband (Gyorgy Szerhalmi). Needless to say, this dyspeptic mix of formal beauty, fatalism and grotesquerie is an acquired taste, but for those who can savor that bitterness, its own pristine new restoration is playing Roxie Virtual Cinema as of Friday.
Memories of Murder
A not-entirely-dissimilar pall of societal decay hangs over the ostensible “true crime” genre thrills of Bong Joon Ho’s 2003 Memories of Murder, another notable re-release that’s just hitting most major streaming platforms. Based loosely on an actual serial murder case, it begins with the discovery of a bound corpse in a countryside gully in 1986, then another. It’s clear a maniac rapist/murderer of women is on the loose in this nondescript South Korean backwater, but the two local police detectives assigned to the case (Kang-ho Song, Roe-ha Kim) are bumbling idiots with a deserved reputation for arresting and brutally “interrogating” innocent suspects. They get nowhere, even after a dead-cool cop from Seoul (Sang-kyung Kim) turns up volunteering his infinitely superior capabilities.
A big hit and critical favorite at home, this slow-burning sophomore feature nonetheless remains unseen by many Western converts to the director’s subsequent films, including monster movie par excellence The Host, sci-fi fantasy Snowpiercer, and of course last year’s global smash Parasite. While a more muted, somber work, Memories nonetheless sports some of the characteristic comedic social critique he’s slipped into all his films.
Love Me Tonight
Offering a tonic of bubbly frivolity after so much social awareness and existential doubt is Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray issue of this classic 1932 Hollywood musical. It would be the final great Paramount vehicle for Maurice Chevalier, which studio and imported star had greatly benefitted from their liaison in early-talkie years. But he complained they made him play the same saucy-roue part in basically the same movie over and over. The formula (and box office) did indeed soon run thin, sending Chevalier back to France. But it was still golden in Love Me Tonight, which had a great score by Rodgers & Hart (including the standard “Isn’t It Romantic?”), and enough racy pre-Code content to require cuts when it was re-issued.
This isn’t a “typical” 1930s Hollywood musical, unless you narrow the field to those made by fellow Continental sophisticates Ernst Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian in those few years when sound was as yet unencumbered by the Production Code. Mamoulian in particular was interested in using camera, editing, and (non-dance) movement to articulate musical ideas, rather than the era’s more typical elephantizing of Broadway-style production number spectacle. The film mocks its own brand of Ruritanian romance, as our tailor pursues a titled bill truant to a grand chateau where one Countessa Valentine (the sylph-like Myrna Loy) is unabashedly man-crazy, while Princess Jeanette (trillsome Jeannette MacDonald) is so abashedly so she keeps fainting without guessing the cause, i.e. lack of wang.
There are really no “numbers” here, and no dancing at all—just a sophisticated weaving of song into the general atmosphere of wit and amour, as when Chevalier (as “Maurice,” natch) bids good morning to his entire Parisian neighborhood in the bravura opening sequence. Like the Marx Brothers’ concurrent Paramount vehicles, this is pure nonsense, and almost as impossible to resist.