Living in Mess: 'Wildness'

Documentary as palliative care

Living in Mess: 'Wildness'

A gold-glitter sign hanging at the back of the stage in The Silver Platter bar in Los Angeles reads: “El show de Morales y sus Geishas.”

None of the women performers, largely transgender and first- or second-generation immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, and beyond, remark on being dubbed (or dubbing themselves as) “geishas,” those archetypal Japanese servant-prostitutes over-romanticized for centuries by Western imperial powers. It’s one of many instances of the complexity of performed identity left unexplained in Wu Tsang’s first feature-length documentary, Wildness. And thanks be to Wu.

There is a common misconception in documentary-making that a dictionary or field guide is needed to make sense of cultural spaces (only deemed subcultural by those who believe they are comfortably residing in the norm) such The Silver Platter. Magically, the bar is a character herself, speaking in dulcet Spanish, which is one of the many innovative moves Wu Tsang and his collaborators make here to address the unspoken and the unknown.

Tsang is not a household name yet, but should be very soon. He’s having a blow-out year all around, with his work saturating New York’s art world. Currently Tsang is included in both the Whitney Biennial and the New Museum Triennial “The Ungovernables,” and this particular film was premiered at the Museum of Modern Art. His performance work, such as “Full Body Quotation,” calls into question the undeniable stakes of representing transgender communities filmicly by re-embodying the characters portrayed in documentaries such as Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning. But critique is not enough: Tsang enters the fray with this documentary, which not only documents but also re-views the complicated processes of identification, gentrification, community building, and dissolution that occur in this particular geography of an immigrant queer bar. Wildness traces not only the history of the bar itself, which we see move from a gay bar primarily patronized by gay latinos to a trans bar, but also the people who populate the establishment – the owners, the bartenders, the patrons.

Anyone who has ever been to a good, and I mean good, gay bar knows that such spaces are consistent exercises in community – serving as one of many queer arteries that supply the lifeblood for our identities. Often these bars are uneasy spaces of contestation, existing adjacent to businesses/organizations that would rather not see them survive (The Silver Platter is next to a church). Feelings run fever-pitch and deep, which means everyone cares. So when these communal spaces tear at the seams it is often frustratingly chalked up to infighting, pettiness, and jealousy. But really, if we were to broaden the frame these communities fracture in large parts due to pressures from outside of these queer world-making ventures.

Such a split occurs during Tsang’s film, as the filmmaker and three musical collaborators produce a weekly party at The Silver Platter on one of the slowest nights of the week, Tuesday. It is the party’s name, Wildness, that gives this film its title. I have to confess, even living here in Austin, I heard tell of Tsang’s Tuesday night parties in Los Angeles. A good friend of mine kept entreating me to fly out for a Friday thru Wednesday trip that had to end with a jaunt to Silver Lake for Wildness. Soon, Tsang and the voice-over of the bar tell us that the party grows out of control. We see NYC clubkid James St. James accosting bar patrons in a camp that can only be described as disrespectful and damaging beyond the pale. Misunderstandings are present, one of the regulars interviewed for the documentary describes the clientele of Wildness as “university students” and “white,” even though most of the organizers are people of color. This woman, and many regulars, refuse to call Wildness by its name and instead refer to the night as simply, “Martes” or Tuesday, minimizing any cultural cache the party may hold for its revelers, effectively leveling it through the powerful process of language. It is, after all, just another day of the week. This is yet another example of the many critical messes presented, and importantly left tangled. In leaving such antagonisms unresolved Tsang allows the audience to approach the bar, and the party, for the chameleonic entities they are… it would be too easy to present the weekly Wildness party as the antagonist to the protagonist of the bar’s regular denizens. The bar speaks gently to the filmmaker, calling him hijo, and not a moment later snarkily dismisses his concept of “safe space,” as though it were some kind of politically correct import. Snap. Perhaps it is.

Eruptions of transphobia bring these two diverse communities together in the face of symbolic and very real violence – a death of a young transgender woman in L.A., the forced deportation of one of the bar’s regulars, and a volatile review in LA Weekly’s “best of” list in which the women who are the primary customers at The Silver Platter are summarily equated with prostitutes. Each of these instances leads to a growing awareness of the evolving relationship between the bar and the weekly art-party. Tsang’s documentary thrives here, in many self-reflexive moments of dialogue, assessment, and processing. Benefits and drawbacks are sketched out, but never comprehensively listed. We see a number of birthdays communally celebrated, snippets of performances by the likes of Dynasty Handbag and Flawless Sabrina, and the passing of the bar’s owner honored by a long moment of silence touchingly amplified by the many colored lights whipping in elliptical patterns over the checkered floors and silver-colored walls of the bar. It is this latter event that precipitates the end of the party and consequently Tsang’s documentary.

If I were to imagine a documentary that performs a kind of palliative care for a brief but vibrant set of relational communities, now disbanded for personal and political reasons, such a documentary would look a lot like Wildness. Tsang’s film succeeds in limning the intricate net of power dynamics manifested when artists, immigrant communities, and family (in the many definitions of that highly charged word) intersect. It lives in mess, and in living there makes a case for new ways of finding empowerment through representation.

Those powerful disco lights, when filmed out of focus, appear as colored polygons, blinking and overlapping – but we know the truth about light, that it works to create visibility and shadow, that its geometry is effuse, and that when we try to describe its very character it is at its most elusive.

Wildness screens again Wednesday, March 14, noon, Canon; and Thursday, March 15, 1:15pm, Violet Crown.

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SXSW, Wildness, Wu Tsang, The Silver Platter, Full Body Quotation, transphobia

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