Streamers: Historian Evan Purchell Presents Hidden Queer CInema

Austin’s Evan Purchell is a film historian and archivist whose popular and acclaimed (it was a 2018 Artforum Best) Instagram account Ask Any Buddy documents gay adult film and video history through contemporaneous print sources. It’s fascinating. Additionally he has branched into filmmaking with his film ASK ANY BUDDY, of which the BFI says, “This lovingly edited compilation of erotic gay film is the nearest you’ll get to experiencing queer life in the glory days between 1968 and 1986.” Fair warning to those who may not want to go all the way – it’s pretty explicit. You can watch ASK ANY BUDDY here as part of the online QFest St. Louis Film Festival. Read more about the film and the ongoing project here in an interview with The Queer Review.

Here’s Evan:

One of the things that I really try to get at with my work on Ask Any Buddy (the film and the Instagram feed) is that what we call ‘queer cinema’ runs so much deeper than most people realize, beyond the PARIS IS BURNINGs and DESERT HEARTSs and MOONLIGHTs. In that spirit, here are ten films worth checking out while you shelter-in-place for Pride Month.

Salomé

(1922, dir. Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova) – Available on the Internet Archive and for purchase at Kino Lorber

This silent adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play is legendary for many reasons, the least of which is Kenneth Anger’s oft-repeated claim that the film’ deliberately featured an all-queer cast as an homage to the playwright. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s true or not, but the real reasons to watch are for producer/codirector/star Alla Nazimova’s captivating lead performance and the stunning, Aubrey Beardsley-inspired production design. This public domain film is all over YouTube, but I’d recommend paying for a rental of Kino’s gorgeous restoration on their platform. 

Vapors

(1965, dir. Andy Milligan) – Streaming on YouTube

Though he’s best remembered for no-budget trash horror epics like Bloodthirsty Butchers and The Rats Are Coming, The Werewolves Are Here!, Andy Milligan’s film debut about a lonely night at the tubs is a largely forgotten landmark in the history of queer cinema. Written by Off-Off-Broadway legend Hope Stansbury and set at New York’s St. Mark’s Baths, the film had a long life on the exploitation circuit, becoming one of the first overtly queer-themed films to gain wide distribution playing arthouses and porno theaters alike. 

Behind Every Good Man…

(1966, dir. Nick Ursin) – Streaming on YouTube

This UCLA student film crafts a more lively and sympathetic portrait of a trans woman of color in eight minutes than just about any Hollywood production has in the five decades since. Director Nick Ursin would go on to a long career as a cinematographer in the burgeoning gay adult film industry, working with major directors like Tom DeSimone, Joe Gage, and his partner in ‘legitimate’ work, Norman Yonemoto, to make some of the greatest all-male features of the 70s and 80s. 

The Dark Side of Tomorrow aka Just The Two Of Us

(1970, dir. Jack Deerson & Barbara Peeters) – Streaming on Amazon Video and the Internet Archive

“An explicit picture!” “The tragedy of today’s lonely housewife!” screamed exploitation maverick Harry Novak’s graphic campaign for this, a quietly sensitive lesbian melodrama from first-time directors Barbara Peeters and Jack Deerson. At a time when lesbian representation on film didn’t extend much past ‘evil butch’ and ‘predatory fem,’ it’s shocking to see a movie like this that DOESN’T end with suicide or someone being crushed by a tree (looking at you, The Fox). 

A Very Natural Thing

(1974, dir. Christopher Larkin) – Streaming on Amazon Prime

This sole feature from onetime monk Christopher Larkin would already be notable for being one of the first gay independent features to receive legitimate mainstream distribution, but that it also holds up so well after all these years is what really makes it special. A sort of gay take on Love Story, the film’s central examination of the struggle between monogamy and promiscuity in gay relationships in many ways feel more valid now in the age of PrEP than ever — unlike Love Story, though, nobody dies at the end. Keep an eye out for Celluloid Closet author Vito Russo’s cameo as a Fire Island houseguest.

Gay U.S.A.

(1977, dir. Arthur J. Bressan, Jr.) – Streaming on Amazon Prime

Since in-person Pride events have been canceled this year, why not watch the mother of all parade films instead? Shot at five different parades across the United States on the same day in 1977, this second feature from Passing Strangers and Buddies director Arthur Bressan captures a politically energized queer community in the midst of Anita Bryant’s homophobic crusade. Though it’s sad to see that we’re still dealing with many of the same issues all these years later, it’s hard not to get swept up in the spirit on display here.

The Videos of Nelson Sullivan (various years)

Streaming on YouTube

Since we still can’t (or, well, shouldn’t) really go out, I’ve been living vicariously through this enormous collection of videos by New York nightlife documentarian Nelson Sullivan. An early adopter of portable video, Sullivan spent six years documenting both his life and a downtown arts scene that was going through a creative renaissance in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Striking the perfect balance of entertaining and mundane, these videos capture friends and future superstars like RuPaul, Lady Bunny, Larry Tee, John Sex, Deee-lite and many others during the early stages of their careers. But Sullivan is the real star of his videos, constantly turning the lens back on himself to offer his own wry commentary on the proceedings. It’s a daunting collection to go through, so why not start with this summer day trip to Coney Island

Totally F***ed Up

(1993, dir. Gregg Araki) – Streaming on the Criterion Channel and Kanopy

It usually gets overshadowed by its two follow-ups, The Doom Generation and Nowhere, but this is my favorite of Gregg Araki’s ‘Teenage Apocalypse’ trilogy. An overt homage to Godard’s Masculin Féminin in its fragmentary structure, the film follows a group of queer teens as they deal with relationships, depression, homophobia, and hookups predicated on bootleg Nine Inch Nails tapes. There’s an intimacy and an empathy here that most other films from this period are lacking — not to mention a killer industrial soundtrack. 

BloodSisters

(1995, dir. Michelle Handelman) – Streaming on Vimeo

This groundbreaking documentary about San Francisco’s lesbian leather and s/m scenes was due to celebrate its 25th anniversary at this year’s BFI Flare, but thanks to COVID-19, director Michelle Handelman has made it available to stream for free on Vimeo. Don’t let the subject matter scare you if you’re a bit of a prude — this is a wonderfully entertaining document that’s as sexy as it is informative and radical.

Chocolate Babies

(1996, dir. Stephen Winter) – Streaming on Vimeo

“We’re black faggots with a political agenda — we’re your worst nightmare.” Thus begins Stephen Winter’s debut feature, a caustic comedy that recalls a delirious mix of Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Third Generation. Made deep into the worsening AIDS epidemic, the film finds a group of queer people of color who start an ACT UP-like ‘terrorist group’ to attack the closeted conservative politicans turning their back on their constituents. As irresistible as that sounds, what makes the film so remarkable is the way 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 very funny.

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