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"SIXTIES BEAT QUEENS"
(Selected films from the "Lens on the Beat Generation" programme compiled by Jack Sargeant for the Brisbane International Film Festival. Reviewed by Simon-Astley Scholfield, 7 August 2000.
Queer men shone among the Beats. The members of the original literary Beat trinity -- poet Allen Ginsberg, author Jack Kerouac, and writer William S. Burroughs -- were all gay or bisexual. As Jack Sargeant says in his BIFF catalogue essay, once joined, their paths "would be entwined in friendship, love and sex throughout the rest of their lives." Their shared desire to cross artistic mediums led them to work in film (along with other queers like Jack Smith and Ron Rice), and Beat Cinema thus unsurprisingly brims with queer sensibilities, even though only films exhibiting ostensibly heterosexual scenarios made it into the mainstream. For example, in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (Nicholas Ray, 1955), Plato (Sal Mineo) complicates the world of adolescent love between Jim (James Dean) and Judy (Natalie Wood) through his attraction toward Jim.
THE FLOWER THIEF (Ron Rice, USA, 1960).
Filmmaker Jonas Mekas called The Flower Thief "the craziest film ever made, a peak of spontaneous cinema and one of the five landmarks of the New American Cinema" and as such it's compelling viewing. The gaunt and camp poet and actor, Taylor Mead, plays the eponymous trampy and childish flaneur who wanders through the streets, alleyways and hills of San Francisco's North Beach, visiting a café, basement bar, some abandoned derelict buildings and a fun park. On his travels, the swishy Mead (who would foment his status as an underground Superstar in Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys) is accosted by an assortment of folks including a stick-wielding woman in a swimming-suit and high heels, and two cowboys who tie him to a pole.
FLAMING CREATURES (Jack Smith, USA, 1963, 43m).
This authentically-grainy black and white cult film features an orgiastic (and at times mock violent) daisy chain party in which various men (mostly in refined drag with some revealing their floppy genitalia) and a couple of women (also in various stages of undress), preen and scream and loll about through shades (and fades) of grey. Following a radically-camp scene in which some of the queens pout and apply lipstick (wondering aloud what will happen to this make-up when they "suck cock"), there's an assault scene (as disturbing as it is puzzling and pre-Warholian) in which one of the women is partly stripped and manhandled by the lipstick-wearing drags and forced to receive cunnilingus.
CHUMLUM (Ron Rice, USA, 1964, 26m).
Colourful montage of superimposed shots of tunnels, seagulls, cityscapes, an indoor Arabesque room draped in gaudy fabrics, the room's occupants including a hammock-lounging drag queen and various figures such as a magician in black robes and turban, and an outdoor scene containing transvestites in a flurry of snow-like petals. Clearly drawn upon Flaming Creatures (and featuring director Jack Smith as an actor) but with less pornographic shots and no violence, this textural piece includes stylistic floral and fur tableaus that seem to have presaged mainstream visual representations of Flower Power and Peace, and influenced James Bidgood's ultra-camp Pink Narcissus (1971).
THE CUT-UPS (Anthony Balch, UK, 1966, 12m).
As Sargeant summarises, this film "saw the creation of a cinema that attempted nothing less than the savage deconstruction of the relationship between image and reality." Four black and white single shot sequences were cut-up and spliced back together haphazardly in a recurring order. Thus the viewer is confronted by four scenarios which change and repeat at blink-long spaces. The images include Burroughs playing doctor by stripping a teenage man down to his underwear; above-the-waist shots of the young man's bare torso; painter Brion Gysin producing an artwork; and cityscapes from London, Paris, and New York. The confusion caused by this combination of very short moving and still images is compounded by the soundtrack that contains the repetitively disordered words and phrases: "yes," "hello," "good," "thankyou," "look at that picture," and "doesn't it seem to be persisting?"
FILMNET DAILY 3.109 Wednesday August 7-9 2000
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(C) 1998-2000 Gawain McLachlan
2000, 2006 © Simon Astley Scholfield