A Most Unusual Film List: 50 Years of Radical Queer Cinema
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first queer film festival, "A Most Unusual (Male) Film Festival”, that opened at the Park Theatre in Los Angeles on June 26, 1968. The films featured in that program, including early works by Kenneth Anger, Andy Milligan, Pat Rocco, Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, and others, freely mixed the artistic with the erotic, the experimental with the campy, setting the template for the next fifty years of radical and progressive queer filmmaking. While the past few years have given us an abundance commercially and critically successful mainstream movies, one can’t help but think that something has been lost in the ongoing march towards assimilation and heteronormativity. With that in mind — and in the spirit of that summer at the Park in 1968 — here are ten underseen (or just plain forgotten) queer films worth tracking down:
The Queen (1968, dir. Frank Simon)
Decades before Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning (1990) brought drag ball culture to the mainstream, Frank Simon’s pioneering documentary introduced the world to Flawless Sabrina (who passed away last year) and the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest. Released a year before the Stonewall Riots, both this and the private film parodies produced by the Gay Girls Riding Club offer some of the very first looks at drag culture on film. The ending — featuring Crystal LaBeija, legendary mother of the House of LaBeija — is still shocking fifty years later. Long out of print on VHS, The Queen is currently streaming on YouTube.
Seeds (1968, dir. Andy Milligan)
While Andy Milligan’s first short, Vapors (1964), was groundbreaking for its depiction of a night at New York’s St. Marks Baths, it remains one of his least personal films. For his most personal, look no further than Seeds, his harrowing familial melodrama that might be the most traumatic Christmas movie ever made. It’s all here: screaming matches, multiple incestual reunions, acid attacks, beefcake magazines, and a voyeuristic handheld camera that loses control of itself when the hatred becomes too much to bear. Explosively cathartic, but not for the faint of heart.
Drive (1974, dir. Jack Deveau)
Director Jack Deveau’s follow-up to his own groundbreaking Left-Handed (1973) almost has to be seen to be believed: a hardcore sci-fi James Bond spoof that aimed to be the next Pink Flamingos, but might have just gone a little too far for the midnight crowd. ‘Master of Sleaze’ Christopher Rage writes and stars as Arachne, a demented drag queen who splits her time between performing Dietrich routines in her nightclub and scheming to steal a drug to eliminate the male sex drive. This is a hardcore film, but Deveau’s intent seems to be purposefully unerotic — the handful of sex scenes all either played for shock or constantly interrupted by cutaways, superimpositions, and even zoo animal sound effects, to riotous effect.
The Films of Arthur J. Bressan, Jr. (1974 - 1985)
Though his name isn’t widely known, Arthur Bressan was one of the pioneering voices in the development of the independent queer cinema. Moving freely between sex films, documentaries, and more mainstream drama, his eight features trace the entire arc of the first decade of the gay liberation movement and remain empowering and vital works of art. While they’re all worth tracking down (good luck!), here are a few suggestions:
A Walt Whitman-quoting personal ad leads to romance and involvement in gay liberation(!) in Bressan’s debut, Passing Strangers. Forbidden Letters explores the relationship between a man and his imprisoned lover while also criticizing the prison industrial complex and its treatment of gay inmates. Gay USA (streaming on Prime), shot at five separate Pride celebrations on a single day in 1977, documents the LGBT community’s political revitalization in the face of Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade. The controversial and semi-autobiographical Abuse depicts the relationship between an abused teen and the documentary filmmaker who tries to help him escape from his abusive parents. Buddies (released on Blu-ray next month by Vinegar Syndrome), is both the first dramatic feature about AIDS and Bressan’s final film before his death from the disease.
Thundercrack! (1975, dir. Curt McDowell)
Perhaps the ultimate expression of Curt McDowell and George Kuchar's shared cinematic obsessions, Thundercrack! is a lusty one-handed pulp novella rendered as a gorgeously scratchy two-and-a-half-hour-long stag film. Kuchar reportedly wrote the script during an overnight stay at a YMCA in Oklahoma, and it shows in his breathlessly-written dialogue — a torrent of torrid gothic melodrama, endless come-ons and take-offs, and pent-up sexual anguish that seems pulled straight from the queer pulp consciousness. Though not as readily available, Curt’s other features and short films are highly recommended — especially the R-rated coming-out fantasy Sparkles Tavern and the pornoethnographic Loads and Confessions.
City of Lost Souls (1983, dir. Rosa von Praunheim)
Though most well-known for his documentaries, Rosa von Praunheim’s raucous punk musical is one of the true hidden gems in his filmography. A raggedly raucous cabaret about a group of queer expats and outsiders living in Berlin starring trans pioneers Angie Stardust, Jayne County, and Tara O’Hara, City of Lost Souls almost defies description. It’s tempting to want to compare this to John Waters, but his films have never been as radically inclusive or as potently political as this, using musical numbers and freely improvised conversations to let its performers talk about their real lives and identities. Unfairly dismissed at the time of its small release in 1983, von Praunheim’s film has only gotten more relevant with age.
Kamikaze Hearts (1986, dir. Juliet Bashore)
A fake documentary about the real romance between porn stars Sharon Mitchell and Tigr that features fake sex but real drug use, Juliet Bashore’s sole feature explores the knotty contradictions inherent in both the documentary and sex film genres. I’ve never seen anything else quite like it.
Venus Flytrap (1987, dir. T. Michael)
Look at just about any review of this neon-smeared shot-on-video transmission and you’ll read that it’s detestably homophobic — but is it really? Produced by a video company that spent most of its time repackaging Bob Mizer physique loops, and with a crew that went on to make films like Love Bites and Hunk Hotel, it’s glaringly obvious that there’s more going on than what’s on the surface. To say any more would do a disservice to this fun, subversive quasi-remake of Ruggero Deodato’s House on the Edge of the Park.
Hustler White (1996, dir. Rick Castro and Bruce LaBruce)
A direct provocation in the face of a queer film movement that was gradually drifting towards the mainstream, Rick Castro and Bruce LaBruce’s Hustler White is practically an Agnès Varda film — only with more genital piercings and duct tape mummification. An updated take on Paul Morrissey’s Heat (and its own hustler twist on Sunset Boulevard), Castro and LaBruce’s is both a fascinating top-to-bottom ethnographic exploration of Santa Monica’s kink scene and a hilarious deconstruction of Old Hollywood glamour. Also, highly recommended, but only released in America on VHS, are LaBruce’s No Skin Off My Ass and Super 8 ½.
Chocolate Babies (1997, dir. Stephen Winter)
“We’re black faggots with a political agenda — we’re your worst nightmare.” Thus begins Stephen Winter’s debut, a caustic comedy about a group of queer people of color who start an ACT UP-like ‘terrorist group’ to attack the conservative politicians turning their backs on the AIDS crisis. As irresistible as that sounds, what makes Chocolate Babies so remarkable is the way that Winter uses that premise as a jumping off point for examinations of addiction, alcoholism, abortion, identity, religion, the closet, and the realities of queer inner city life in the ‘90s. The result is something that feels wholly unique — loud, angry, transgressive, messy, and unapologetically queer. The film is streaming for free on Stephen Winter’s Vimeo channel.
Twelve extra recommendations:
Black Lizard (1968, dir. Kinji Fukasaku)
LA Plays Itself (1972, dir. Fred Halsted)
The Killing Kind (1973, dir. Curtis Harrington)
Score (1974, dir. Radley Metzger)
Falconhead + II… The Maneaters (1976 + 1984, Michael Zen)
Born in Flames (1983, dir. Lizzie Borden)
Blonde Death (1984, dir. James Dillinger)
Fast Trip, Long Drop (1994, dir. Gregg Bordowitz)
The Watermelon Woman (1996, dir. Cheryl Dunye)
Finished (1997, dir. William E. Jones)
Latin Boys Go to Hell (1997, dir. Ela Troyano)
Punks (2000, dir. Patrik Ian-Polk)