Marc Huestis and a Wrinkle in Time

Susan Gerhard June 13, 2006

If the Hollywood Walk of Fame could talk, it might sound something like Marc Huestis’s answering machine. That’s Jane Russell, cooing “Bye bye darlin’,” and Sylvia Miles barking “Why didn’t you tell me you were in New York?” There’s Carol Lynley, rendering a complete “Happy Birthday to You,” and I think I recognize that next voice to be Shelley Winters, slurring something about a person upstairs? The halls of San Francisco’s Redstone Building (built in 1914 as the San Francisco Temple of Labor) have stories of their own; but Huestis’s Outsider Productions office has managed to cram in a couple hundred more with his archives of the shows he’s recently produced for a cavalcade of aging A, B, and Z-list stars at the Castro theater.

With his latest project, a film he directed, Huestis features the very true story a local diva whose playful vanities may rival any of Huestis’s feted femmes of yesteryear. This time, it’s local drag celebutante and Huestis friend Lulu getting the lifetime achievement tribute, at the very same time he receives some fundamental restructuring in “Lulu Gets a Facelift.” For Huestis, it seems the Golden Years could stretch from 30 to 100, though: Age has played no small part in any of Huestis’s non-fiction features, from one he made 20 years ago, “Chuck Solomon: Coming of Age” (1987), to “Life Begins at 40” (1995, or your best guess). This latest take on the topic premieres Friday at the SF International LGBT Film Festival, which, coincidentally, traces its roots back to a shoestring production Huestis himself engineered back in 1977, with help from filmmaker friends who frequented Harvey Milk’s photo shop in the Castro. I talked recently with Huestis about time, and what it’s telling us.

Marc Huestis: Turning 40 was really the worst.

SF360: [laughs] Why?

Huestis: Vanity.

SF360: But you look great….

Huestis: You let go of a lot of that stuff that you hung on to. I never thought of myself as a cute young thing, but now I look back at pictures of when I was young and I see that I really was a cute young thing. I’m dealing with my dad now, who’s turning 80. It’s really tough on him. It doesn’t get any easier. Everything for me is also counterbalanced by the whole HIV thing, which I survived, so there you go. I like it that there was a vanity issue when I turned 40, even though I was HIV positive. HIV was a lot less important to me than my wrinkles were.

SF360: And you know, you don’t really have wrinkles.

Huestis: I think you can really direct your aging process. If you maintain some spark, or fire within. It’s something that overrides the aging thing. We shall see.

SF360: Thanks for giving me the press release from the first Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in San Francisco.

Huestis: Isn’t it cute?

SF360: It’s a little apologetic. Like, I’m sorry to bother you…. Let me read from it: ‘For your own information, I would like to describe briefly what happened at the last festival. It took place at 32 Page Street…. About 200 people crowded into a room normally holding 126. About 100 other people were turned away… many of whom suggested another showing. Therefore we think it important that this information be gotten out as soon as possible.’

Huestis: Right now! Breaking news!

SF360: Who were you writing this to?

Huestis: That’s the thing; I don’t even remember who we were writing that too. You know how we got the word out, mainly, was the B.A.R. [Bay Area Reporter]. God bless the B.A.R. Mostly it was putting posters up on lamp posts. I used to go to Buena Vista Park and staple posters to trees in the cruising area — which is not very environmentally correct [laughs]. And I actually got arrested once on Castro Street for putting up posters. That’s how it got out. It was word of mouth. I really hate when people romanticize the ’70s, but it was really a golden period in terms of the energy on Castro Street. There was a lot of stuff happening. Our group of filmmakers used to get our films developed at Harvey Milk’s photo store. There was such symbiosis within the gay community. That’s how I met Danny Nicoletta — he worked with Harvey. We’d get our little discounts and we’d all be happy. Everybody did it because they had to do it. I really don’t think something like this could happen again in this town because of the reality of living in San Francisco. We were all on welfare. We all lived with 20,000 people in collectives with dirt cheap rent. Everybody lived on a dime and a prayer. Being gay was being gay from the moment you woke up to the moment you went to sleep — and you usually went to sleep late at night. Back then I was involved in Angels of Light. And the Angels energy — which was the Cockettes energy — shifted and changed…. It was just really amazing time. Even Film Arts was starting around the same time. It was a cauldron for arts. The American Independent film movement started shortly thereafter. You can see on the press release, these were all Super 8mm films. None of them had synch sound. We showed them on a rinky dink projector onto a bed sheet. Lulu actually put up the bed sheet, so he was there, too. The splices would break in the middle of it. There was a real embrace of seeing ourselves without any filter. And even then, there were kernels of what gay filmmaking would become. There was animation, there was computer generated stuff, drag stuff, documentary. It was the birth of what was going to be independent gay film.

SF360: In your wildest imagination, did you see where this was all headed?

Huestis: The only thing I’m connected to right now is myself, making a living, and being able to survive. What we did was important, but when Michael Lumpkin came in about two years later, he really made it what it was. He had the organizational skills and vision. This whole movie was made because Lulu loves the festival. Most of these movies are never gonna see the light of day.

SF360: A lot of your films, if we go back through— Huestis, interrupting: The Dawn of Time SF360: —a world where the dinosaurs roamed…. Actually, if we look at your filmmaking — ‘Chuck Solomon: Coming of Age’, ‘Life Begins at 40’ — you’ve been dealing with the question of aging since you were very young. I keep looking back at the date of this letter, which is Feb. 16, 1977. The following year – that was a big year. Harvey Milk’s death, White Night Riot. A short three years later: AIDS.

Huestis: It’s interesting, the passage of time. When you age, it goes by quicker. Back then, one year seemed to be a long time. I’m already thinking of Christmas shows right now. It’s the nature of my business — I have to think of everything six months ahead. You can even see it when I was doing ‘Sex Is…’ and we have great footage. You can see the great difference between the Gay Parade in 1977, 1978, 1979, and the early ’80s. It really was these huge chapters. Now it’s just like pages. I remember Harvey came to one of these shows. He liked my movie. I remember that, and then the next year was the death. Even when I was a kid, I felt more grown up. Now, it’s interesting that instead of dealing with dying, I’m dealing with aging. And not aging as a fast-forward to dying, but aging as forward movement toward living. Which is what I even dealt with in the ‘Coming of Age’ thing. With all the darkness then, the question was how to we get out of this and make it a celebration of life.

SF360: The Castro shows are like your own film festivals: These are aging women, dealing with….

Huestis: They makes me feel like a kid, which is what I love. They even call me ‘the kid.’ …‘He’s such a nice boy.’ There’s no respect for aging. These people have such interesting stories. Their history does need to be told. Whether it’s the ’40s or the ’70s, each one of them has been really in the thick of it in their time period. To me, it’s interesting to uncover, it’s like the layering of a flower. You just keep seeing more layers. It keeps me young. It’s a living, too. The main reason I stopped making movies was I just couldn’t make a living. Even with this Lulu thing, I got paid decently well, but….

SF360: Can you offer some highlights from the Castro shows? Pearls from your ladies?

Huestis: My Hall of Hags, as I call it? I look at that wall [points to posters from his many shows], and I’m just so happy. I’ve gotten along with almost every one of them. Debbie Reynolds was fabulous. I loved her. She, I did not meet until I opened the door to the limousine. She acted like she was my best friend through the whole thing. One of the things which I’m really insistent upon — which is the opposite of so many exhibitors, who try to get somebody for free or really cheap, and treat them like they’re commodities — is to treat them like they’re really humans. With Debbie Reynolds, we had this horrible technical fiasco, but because I paid her a fair price, she delivered. When everything fell apart, she said, ‘This is where I come in and change everything.’ She completely took over that evening and brought it to a new place. This is what a pro does. This is what a pro who gets paid does. She paid the respect to me that I paid to her. To me, that’s what it’s all about. Not trying to pull one over, or rip people off.

Jane Russell was the biggest surprise, because she’s a real right-winger. I was looking at all the stuff on the Internet, and getting scared. She was on symposia with Ann Coulter and Condoleezza Rice. She’s a big old Christian, too. I don’t really care — everybody has their beliefs. As long as they don’t try to f&#$ everyone else over. Her handler was saying ‘Don’t tell her about the drag queens.’ But she’s a show girl. We were having dinner the night before and I said, ‘Jane, we’re having a little show beforehand.’ She said, ‘What’s the show.’ ‘Well, it’s people doing….’ She said, ‘Who are they?’ I said, ‘Matthew, Martin….’ She said, ‘Oh, great.’ I said, you can sit in the Green Room if you don’t want to see—’ She said, ‘If you put me in that Green Room, I’m going to knock your block off.’ And then she came to rehearsal. She was so great at rehearsal, I almost had tears in my eyes. She sang three songs. She’s 83. Her line was ‘I can hardly see in here, but I can still sing and dance.’ Pounding out the tempos. I always do these clip reels. One of my favorite things about doing these shows is watching their movies and doing their highlights. I said, ‘Jane, if you can sit down for a few minutes and see what I’ve put together for your musical highlights.’ So she sits down. Five minutes passes, ten minutes passes. She’s still sitting. None of them had ever done this before. After 45 minutes, the total length of the clip reel, the lights come up and she’s crying. It brought back so much for her. Jane did bring up her belief system on stage, but she didn’t do it in an obnoxious way. She calls her whole career part of the Lord’s accident, and that’s the way she looks at her life.

The only one I didn’t like ultimately, was Christina Crawford.

But most of them are great. Carol Lynley was great. She was my first. We talk at least once a week. She needs a hip replacement; we’ve had hard core talks about she’s gotta get it.

Now I’m doing Ann Blyth, I have “The Helen Morgan Story.” My drag name was Ellen Organ with the Angels of Light, and it was directly based on that movie. I have not seen that movie since I was a kid. It’s all about the tortured torch singer — that was big for me.

I’m meeting these people and becoming friends with them. It’s a lot of fun. And it’s a living. It’s a bare living…. I’ve never been a grant-funded artist. I’ve gotten little piddling things here and there. I’m very self-motivated, self-perpetuating. You gotta move around those shells to make it work.

SF360: You’re still making it work. You’ve seen your filmmaking career move from Super 8mm to video and how to digital….

Huestis: I cut the Lulu movie in Final Cut Pro. I’m very good at figuring out programs. My mom was a stripper and my dad was an editor at NBC. You gotta learn this stuff or just fade away and die. That’s the one positive thing that reminds me of the ’70s and better. We used to have Super 8mm, which was accessible. ‘Whatever Happened to Susan Jane?’ [featuring Lulu, BTW] was 16mm, which just seemed so belabored — A and B rolling and all that crap. Since ‘Chuck Solomon,’ I’ve done everything on video. I used to have these VHS-to-VHS machines to cut on video. Now, you can throw anything into the computer and do it. There are documentary filmmakers who are still arguing over whether to have a dissolve or a cut. Just get over it. I’ve learned Quark, Photoshop. I’m one-stop shopping. I design the press releases. I’d sell the popcorn.

“Lulu Gets a Facelift” plays with David Weissman’s “Beauties Without a Cause” Fri/16, 6 p.m., Victoria Theatre, SF.

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