Amongst all the seismic cultural activity of the 1960s, it’s perhaps hard now to grasp what a brain-scrambling experience Andy Warhol’s movies—his paintings being an equal-but-separate matter—must have been then to their original audiences. Not only did they provide a shock in their conceptual audacity (the 24-hour Empire being an extreme example), but offered a neck-deep wade into a distinctly gay sensibility at a time when Hollywood representation of gays was limited to the pitiful, villainous, or clownish.
The Warhol cinematic era before he essentially turned over duties to second-in-command Paul Morrissey (resulting in such slicker, more conventionally narrative 1970s midnight movie classics as Trash, Heat and Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein) gets a mini-retrospective sidebar to itself at this year’s Frameline, aka the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, now in its 34th year.
Opening its 34th annual program Thursday and running through June 27, Frameline is as ever mostly all about new LGBT cinema. As the world’s oldest/largest such festival it certainly reflects the productivity and popularity of gay filmmaking today, with some 219 films, 83 of them features, and 22 of those first features in the current expansive schedule (which includes several days at Berkeley’s Elmwood Theatre as well as various San Francisco venues). But more about the new stuff anon. First let’s turn the Wayback Machine to circa 45 years ago, when Warhol was just beginning to gain widespread recognition as a pop artist.
It was the Campbell’s soup cans, borrowed comic book and movie star imagery on canvas that he was most identified with. But around this time he formed an alliance with the hugely influential (if then commercially unsuccessful) rock band The Velvet Underground, gathering into his Factory an additional range of outsized personalities ranging from socialite Edie Sedgwick to Teutonic chanteuse Nico to a street-drawn talent pool encompassing trannies, flambée queens, hustler types, and the odd biological woman whose outsized personality to conceivably pass as drag queendom.
He’d begun dabbling in film as early as 1963, one first effort being the 24-minute Haircut #1, featured in the Frameline “Andy Warhol & 1960s Gay Cinema” sidebar. It features members of the revolutionary NYC dance collective Judson Dance Theater. Also on the “Hustlers and Exhibitionists” bill June 18 is the 1965 feature My Hustler, in which an array of bitchy queens fight over the charms of the titular very pretty dim bulb, played by Paul America in his only Warhol film appearance.
This furry blond “Mr. America” (nee Paul Johnson) became self-destructive Edie’s longterm boyfriend, but was apparently omnisexual and “everybody’s lover,” according to fellow Warhol “superstar” Ondine. He was also apparently so dopey (in both the I.Q. and druggy sense) that Warhol refused to speak to him save through intermediaries. He had a tragic post-Factory life that ended in 1982. But in My Hustler he’s sexy as all get-out—the perfect object of Warhol voyeurism, at once exhibitionist and oblivious.
Early Warhol movies were shown to very limited Manhattan avant-garde audiences and were often confrontationally queer—as one might glean from such titles as 13 Most Beautiful Boys, Camp, Taylor Mead’s Ass, Kiss the Boot, and Bike Boy. Not to mention Blow Job (1963), a startling, eventually very poignant 35-minute closeup of an anonymous leather-jacketed stud as he is (according to legend) serviced by a series of Factory boys just below frame. That same year, Kiss offered a series of mostly male couples kissing passionately for one three-minute roll of 16mm film each.
Those movies aren’t in Frameline’s retrospective (Blow Job being an inexplicable omission), but the “Sex, Leather Jackets and Cigarettes” program on June 19 offers a few other choice curios. Mario Banana #1 and #2 showcase flaming drag personality (and Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures co-star) Mario Montez in a couple provocative vignettes. Then there’s the 1965 Vinyl, an unauthorized first screen version of A Clockwork Orange, with Factory staple Gerard Malanga as Anthony Burgess’ violent future anti-hero.
Its stationary single-camera setup and deliberately unrehearsed off-off-off-Broadway acting amateurism can make 66 minutes feel like a very long time. But Vinyl also has one of the most joyfully spontaneous moments of beauty in cinema: After 15 minutes the “story” is jarringly interrupted by the playing of Martha and the Vandellas’ Nowhere to Run, which Malanga dances to with stone coolness while a mute, droll, bouffant’d Edie arm-gestures sympathetically on a highboy. Then it ends, needle drops a second time, and Malanga does it a second time—with even more abandon. What a champ.
Also of Warholian interest is Beautiful Darling, which chronicles the abbreviated life of Jimmy Slattery aka Candy Darling, the gorgeous Long Island-raised “man who wanted to be a female movie star” a la Kim Novak. James Rasin’s documentary features much rare footage (Candy with Dennis Hopper in 1971, acting in a later Tennessee Williams Broadway flop) as well as testimony from surviving friends (like Morrissey, Mead, and Fran Lebowitz) who all have kind words about the gentle “superstar” who died from lymphoma at age 29.
Other highlighted presentations at Frameline 34 include, naturally, opening night selection The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister —a British costume drama about a real-life aristocratic early 19th-century woman-loving-woman. Official closer is Howl, brilliant longtime local documentarians (The Celluloid Closet, The Times of Harvey Milk) Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s first acted drama. It’s a bold, adventuresome mix of live action and animation pivoting around the censorial battles provoked by S.F. beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s (James Franco) publication of his epic 1956 poem Howl.
Other outstanding Frameline titles previewed include the Peruvian magical-realist Undertow —part of a sidebar on “South America’s New Queer Cinema”—plus complex Bahamian drama Children of God. Great things have been heard about Xavier Dolan’s French-Canadian I Killed My Mother, as well as Leanne Pooley’s doc The Topp Twins, about a goofy New Zealand lesbian country-music duo.
We’ve just scratched the surface of Frameline 34’s program. Subsequent sf360 writers will scratch further—but will you scratch back?
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