Queer Culture From the 1970s to 70
Three documentaries highlight a generation of gay icons
As gunshots sound in quick succession, the red, white, and blue American flag is replaced with a rainbow-hued gay pride flag. MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" roils up, igniting a montage of black-and-white photographs of queers getting arrested and throwing a riotous fit. This is the opening sequence of Continental, Malcolm Ingram's (Bear Nation, Small Town Gay Bar) new documentary premiering this year at SXSW. It concerns a moment in LGBTQ history, the post-Stonewall 1970s, when LGBTQ folks of all stripes were beginning to flex their political muscles. One of the more interesting leitmotifs of this year's SXSW documentary film programming is how many films review that famous decade.
The 1970s were littered with gay spaces and icons that, in the intervening years, have since taken on a mythic status – perhaps none more so than the Continental Baths in New York City, the subject of Continental. Opened in 1968, the Baths famously hosted performances throughout the early Seventies from the likes of Bette Midler (known there as "Bathhouse Bettie"), Patti LaBelle, Barry Manilow, the New York Dolls, and even a Metropolitan Opera diva. Frankie Knuckles, aka the Godfather of House Music, got his start DJ'ing day and night at the Baths' in-house disco; he refers to the Baths as his "finishing school." But the primary function of a bathhouse is, and always was, the smooth facilitation of quick and easy sexual encounters between consenting men. As such, bathhouses were meaningful spaces to enact a liberationist sexuality. And today, as discussions of marriage reign supreme in gay politics, Ingram's documentary puts the spotlight squarely on nonmonogamous sex. The filmmaker is clear: "I think people have to think about sex a lot more, and sex is complicated. ... It is incredibly satisfying, with this film, to be able to celebrate sexuality."
Yet the Baths' story as Ingram relates it isn't all sunshine, blow jobs, and bath towels. Bathhouses were subject to constant police raids and harassment and were often either owned by or heavily indebted to crime syndicates. There's a darkness there, too.
The spine of Ingram's documentary rests on the testimony of one individual, Steve Ostrow, the former owner of the Baths. Ostrow, now living in Australia, has kept his penchant for community organizing by founding Mature Age Gays, one of Australia's largest gay senior groups. Ingram retells Ostrow's life and career as an aspirant opera singer and businessman. "I wanted to make sure his story wasn't lost," says Ingram. "If I didn't get to work, there was a chance the key players wouldn't be telling the story themselves."
One of the most important contributions of Continental is that it gives viewers an opportunity to reflect on a narrative that doesn't end with the mass trauma of HIV/AIDS; the Baths closed in 1974, long before the pandemic began in earnest. They closed due to a host of otherwise banal business decisions that might foreclose any business – Ostrow strayed from his initial model and put his money, time, and resources into evening cabaret shows that brought in nongay crowds. The regulars felt like half-naked ornamental baubles for the straights happily slumming it in the Baths. The bathhouse was, in short, no longer a bathhouse.
If Continental is focused on an important cultural place of the Seventies, I Am Divine, directed by Jeffrey Schwarz (Vito, Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon), sets its sight on an equally important cultural figure from the era, Divine (née Harris Glenn Milstead). While hunky gays were dancing up a storm on the disco floors of New York, Divine was infamously eating dog shit, hanging with the Cockettes in San Francisco, and eventually coming to a more mainstream consciousness with her trashy electronic dance music. If the Baths stood for a radical sexual hedonism, Divine stood for a proto-punk nihilism carefully embroidered with caustic irony.
John Waters (boyhood neighbors with Milstead) is an always-entertaining staple of the documentary circuit, but his interviews here are more germane, as he's able to reveal a great deal about someone he was close with. The documentary, like Schwarz's other documentaries, is satisfyingly slick and peppered with minirevelations. The emotional core of the film, however, is Milstead's estrangement from his family and their eventual reunion. In 1988, when Milstead takes his mother to the opening of Hairspray, familial love and pride rule the day. Weirdly, the film is heavy on why Divine was so ... heavy. Friends and family make educated guesses about the corpulent performer's relationship with food, but it all adds up to a flat psychological profile. More interesting is Milstead's concurrent embrace and avoidance of his own crafted persona; his personal affect was always gentle, yet his performances as Divine were done to disturb. Waters rightly says of Divine's performance in Pink Flamingos (1972), "It was done for anarchy, and it worked as anarchy."
Neither the Baths nor Divine made it through to the new millennium; Milstead died in his sleep in 1988. Three men who did are the subject of Austin homeboy PJ Raval's (Trinidad) documentary entry, Before You Know It. Unlike Continental and I Am Divine, larger-than-life-ness is traded for the quotidian and challenging realities of senior gay men. Punk and disco soundtracks are swapped for ambient cinematic scoring. Like Raval's Trinidad, this film is a deep character study. Documentaries on older subjects can easily tip toward nostalgic treacle, but Raval's empathic and slow eye structurally prevents such one-note readings. In the process, we are left with a vision of how the 1970s lives on (or doesn't) in the folks who are now themselves in their seventies.
One character, 76-year-old Dennis, who lives in Niceville, Fla. (a place he describes as "the pits"), is a cross-dresser who, throughout the documentary, comes into his own as "Dee" in more and more visibly public ways. Elsewhere, Ty Martin heads up SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders) in Harlem, N.Y. We see him tabling, at Harlem Pride, as a ring bearer, and discoursing with ease and elegance on the host of social struggles for older gay men and men of color. Closest to home is Robert "The Mouth," who is the drag queen figurehead/owner of Robert's Lafitte bar in Galveston, Texas. He's a "crazy old bird" who "picks up stray cats," a self-identified hoarder. His world is one of Hawaiian shirts and Mylar curtains, recalling the trappings of Los Angeles' Silver Platter, showcased in last year's Wildness (Wu Tsang). "I wanted to do a Texas story, especially living in Texas," says Raval, "but I initially just chose each person because I was interested to know where they were going in life. All three represent a different stage of the life cycle: adolescence, middle age, and finally, growing older."
These men's lives are by turns outlandish and interestingly humdrum. Kinda like the 1970s.
Together, Continental, I Am Divine, and Before You Know It make clear that the 1970s continue to serve as a touchstone for the films' primary subjects and directors. Uncoincidentally, all of these documentaries are made by men who spent their early and formative childhood years living in the 1970s. Raval, like many of his contemporaries, may not "have a recollection of the Seventies, but I have a concept of what the Seventies mean: It's that weird time period between post-sexual revolution and pre-Eighties capitalist consumerism." Now as adults, Raval, Schwarz, and Ingram recover what they can to help define a more holistic contemporary queer politics.
Documentary Spotlight, World Premiere
Sunday, March 10, 1:30pm, Alamo Ritz
Monday, March 11, 1:45pm, Alamo Slaughter
Tuesday, March 12, 5:45pm, Alamo Ritz
Saturday, March 16, 11am, Topfer
I Am Divine
Saturday, March 9, 9:15pm, Alamo Ritz
Wednesday, March 13, 9:30pm, Stateside
Thursday, March 14, 11:15am, Alamo Slaughter
Before You Know It
Saturday, March 9, 4pm, Stateside
Sunday, March 10, 1:30pm, Violet Crown
Wednesday, March 13, 6:15pm, Violet Crown
Thursday, March 14, 3:45pm, Violet Crown