Stonewall Uprising was one of many historical features in Frameline34.

Frameline's History Lessons

Max Goldberg June 24, 2010

The excavation of queer histories in mainstream, avant-garde, documentary and archival film productions is on the rise; to name but four, Milk, Tearoom, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell and Milestone’s recent Word is Out reissue. Frameline34 has brought together a wide array of programs following this retrospective impulse, ranging from close-to-home testimony projects (We Were Here: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco) to scholarly considerations of Andy Warhol’s film work. The plurality of queer histories on view is striking.

Though overused, the archival footage/talking head form can still bring a startling degree of eyewitness detail to events that have long passed into the realm of myth. This is certainly the case with Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s documentary Stonewall Uprising. The filmmakers may not have unearthed some new trove of primary documents from June 28, 1969, but they nonetheless succeed in restoring the staggering urgency of that long hot night. Most concretely, the long section of the film detailing the so-called “riots” (a designation challenged by the film’s title) is fine-grained and skillfully edited to synthesize many different vantage points. We hear about the event as it was experienced inside and outside the Stonewall; by cop, instigator, and bystander with fear, rage, liberation, disbelief, and humor. Equally important is the way Davis and Heilbroner place this particular moment in its urban context. They wisely limit the extent of extemporaneous personal histories, focusing instead on the block-by-block mechanisms of the scene: the mafia’s control of gay bars, the watered-down drinks, the political logic of raids, the division between queens and “straight” gays within the Stonewall, and so on. Sensory details abound, culminating when one man describes the triumphant view of the morning after: a street covered in shattered glass, “like diamonds.” Interestingly, the last word goes to the beat cop, and it’s sure to resonate today: “What kind of law was that anyway?”

While Stonewell Uprising plows collective history, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within travels the no less familiar path of the “testament of genius” documentary, in which devotees and confidants are assembled to claim the signal importance of the anointed one. In the case of an iconoclast like Burroughs, who was an outsider among outsiders, this hagiographic treatment can seem a tad retrograde. Still, credit 25-year old director Yony Leyser with pulling together an impressively varied cast of antiauthoritarian experts to speak to different aspects of Burroughs’ life and work. There’s also a wealth of archival footage—for instance, a late clip of Burroughs and Ginsburg in which their subtly different views of the meaning of the beat movement emerge (Burroughs views it as a sociological phenomenon, Ginsburg a spiritual one). Burroughs remains an indispensable access point to the American underground, and A Man Within succeeds in tracing the reach and unexpected turns of his influence. Particularly interesting is a discussion (featuring local input from V. Vale and Jello Biafra) of Burroughs as a prophet of punk. As John Waters points out with typical irascibility, Burroughs was never an easy fit for the gay movement—but his insolubility makes him a kind of saint for those troubled by dominant subcultures, not least the writers born under the sign of his early novel, Queer.

Inevitably, questions of historical representations in film turn on documentaries and period pieces—though, one hastens to add, it needn’t be so. For Jaime Gil de Biedma, the Spanish poet who is the subject of the surprisingly tender biopic, The Consul of Sodom, sexuality was not so much a hidden refuge as an alter-ego. That he carried off being a successful businessman and adventurous bohemian (“A Sunday poet with a Monday conscience”) in Franco's Spain makes for a fascinating study in the incomplete succor of freedom. Thankfully, director Sigrid Monleón and his team of writers don’t insist on a psychological key to Gil de Biedma’s life (he even gets on with his father!), instead emphasizing his social environment and the curious economies of sex and culture accompanying his shrewd financial dealings. A big winner at the Goyas thanks to Jordi Mollà’s sly performance, The Consul of Sodom achieved a measure of notoriety for its anatomical frankness and many fantasias of gripped buttocks. I could have done with a couple less ostentatious camera rotations about orgy scenes myself, but it’s hard not to grin at the idea of an outlandish foursome with James Baldwin (“Jimmy”). These little pearls of gossip will play well at the Castro, but it’s the film’s calibration of poetry and privilege that make it the rare artist’s biopic that keeps its wits about it.

When Su Friedrich describes putting together that lesbian-themed issue of HERESIES in The Heretics, she speaks to the hunger for any kind of lesbian imagery, no matter how circumspect, in those pre-internet days. One can only imagine the delight she might have taken in Géza von Radványi’s 1958 remake of Mädchen in Uniform starring a twenty-year old Romy Schneider. The film is being shown in a rare 35mm print at the Castro and should be a jewel of Frameline34. The original Mädchen of 1931 is itself a classic work of inchoate passions, but the von Radványi brings a nuanced color palette and graceful camera tracks to bear on the plaintive parable of fragile intimacies within a repressive regime (the German history separating the two versions is there too, of course). The story, later borrowed by Dead Poets Society (1989) and other boarding-school dramas, pits the adolescent girls’ overwhelming affection for a kindly teacher against the authoritarian structure of the convent. A cruel aunt drops Manuela (Schneider) off at the outset (“She needs a firm hand”), and before long she’s followed suit in falling under Fraeulein von Bernburg’s (Lilli Palmer) charms.

The conflict with the Bismarkian head mistress (played with great posture by Therese Giehse) is easily foreseen, but it hardly matters next to the film’s richly psychological mise-en-scène. Von Radványi opens with a flourish of color—flowers by Manuela’s mother’s grave—so that the strictly defined monochrome of the convent seems all the more alien. But the nuances of blues and grays only make the actresses’ mooning faces all the more luminous; similarly, the fluid camera movements intimating their secrets an yearnings move against the lockstep marching ordered by the less desirable staff. The constantly shifting staging of groups makes what might otherwise seem a drab set come alive with the dynamic urgencies of youth. And then there’s Schneider, whose burning stare dares us to discount her character’s passions as mere girlishness. Born of fiction, that look nonetheless passes a high-voltage charge between past and present; seen at Frameline, it seems the very stuff of joy.