It's difficult to see the past clearly. In the information age, when we can't seem to remember what happened last week -- let alone last year -- the late 1960s and early '70s feel like ancient history. Given all the privileges we currently enjoy, it is hard to imagine life without them. Which is what makes Kate Davis and David Heilbroner's Stonewall Uprising (June 24, 7pm Roxie Theater) so vital. The documentary vividly and with great attention to detail sets the stage for the events that unfolded on June 28, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, a New York dive bar. When police conducted a routine raid on the mafia-run gay bar, the Stonewall's patrons, a colorful assortment of characters including a number of drag queens and street kids, refused to cooperate, leading to three days of riots in the West Village. This episode was memorialized in an annual event that spread from New York to other urban areas and eventually ballooned into the Gay Pride parade.
But before this act of defiance, Stonewall Uprising reminds us of the harsh reality of gay life in an era when there were still numerous laws on the books prohibiting homosexual conduct across the country. For those old enough to remember the summer of 1969, gay people standing up and fighting for their rights was unthinkable, even in an era roiled by the Civil Rights and Free Speech Movements, Women's Liberation, La Raza and protests against the Vietnam War.
Homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. Men and women who were deemed sexual outlaws could be locked up in medical institutions and subjected to aversion therapy, electric shock, sterilization, castration and lobotomy. If one was unlucky enough to be swept up in the same kind of raid that was foiled at the Stonewall, one could easily lose one's job, family and place in society. So even among gays it was considered impossible or foolhardy to even think of standing up for gay rights. Stonewall Uprising -- through a deft combination of first-hand accounts and archival footage -- is an immersive experience; it feels like stepping into a time machine and traveling back into a foreign past.
This not so distant past, conjured so evocatively by Stonewall Uprising provides context for Frameline's screening and lecture tribute to Andy Warhol, alongside a documentary about Candy Darling, one of Warhol's "superstars." (Warhol screenings: June 18, 7pm and June 19, 9:30pm, Roxie Theater. Lecture: June 19, 4:15pm, Victoria Theatre.) Once again, it's easy to forget how startling and revolutionary these characters must have been when they hit the scene, even in New York.
Warhol ushered in a revolution in contemporary art that profoundly changed the art world and still looms large today. Warhol's soup cans, Marilyns, electric chairs, and Brillo boxes seem quaint to anyone who survived the art world of the 1980s and '90s. But when he first arrived on the scene, the macho Abstract Expressionists dominated, symbols of American hegemony. As abstraction approached minimalism, a return to representation seemed inevitable. But that return arriving in the form of a Campbell's Soup Can came as both a surprise and a revelation. Worse still, the harbinger of this new "Pop Art" was a man so swish, even the other (closeted) gay Pop artists of the time (Rauschenberg, Johns) shunned him. Warhol's response was to adopt an even swishier pose, which he made explicit when he moved into filmmaking. Developing his own "star system," modeled on those created during the heyday of the fading Hollywood studios, Warhol's films are populated with beautiful misfits, many openly gay. Onscreen, boys kiss boys and indulge in mild S&M for Warhol's blank stare. Paul America is whisked away to Fire Island, where older men vie for his attention in My Hustler (1965); drag performer Mario Montez suggestively eats a banana in Mario Banana (1964); the title of Warhol's 1963 film Blow Job explains itself. While several women took turns at the pinnacle of Warhol's "superstars" (Nico, Edie Sedgwick, Viva, Ultra Violet), the one who lasted longest was Candy Darling.
Born James Slattery, Candy knew early on that she wasn't really a boy, and spent her life creating and uncovering the woman she would become. That woman was modeled on Kim Novak, the luminous, somewhat aloof star of Vertigo, Picnic and Bell, Book and Candle. Candy didn't only aspire to live as a woman; she wanted to be an old-fashioned movie star. As luck would have it, her path led to Andy Warhol's Factory, where she became something of a muse for the artist, appearing in several of his films and eventually starring, with Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis, in the Warhol-produced, Paul Morrissey-directed, Women In Revolt, a send-up of women's lib (and nearly unwatchable except when Candy is onscreen, if ya ask me).
Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar (June 25, 7pm, Castro Theatre) stitches together the fragments of Candy's personality from rare photographs and archival footage; interviews conducted by her best friend, Jeremiah Newton, shortly after her death in 1974; contemporary interviews with several of her surviving friends; and entries from Candy's diaries (voiced by Chloe Sevigny). What emerges is a melancholy portrait of a transgender pioneer, one with the guts to live as a woman in a world that had not yet developed the vocabulary to address the complexities of gender. Among the consequences of this "choice," if it could be called that, was a somewhat unstable and vagabond existence. Warhol loved her because she was playing a part while being herself. When asked why he used drag queens in his movies, Warhol replied that they weren't really drag queens, but "people who think they are really girls."
Candy Darling inhabited Warhol's inner circle; inspired Tennessee Williams to re-tool his play Small Craft Warnings for her; was the subject of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" and was photographed by world-famous photographers. In a sense, she became what she set out to be, not just a woman, but a star -- and an icon. But at a price. There were some things she could never know and experience, which are perfectly captured in Lou Reed's "Candy Says:"
"Candy says I've come to hate my body
and all that it requires in this world.
Candy says I'd like to know completely
what others so discreetly talk about.
I'm gonna watch the blue birds fly over my shoulder.
I'm gonna watch them pass me by
Maybe when I'm older.
What do you think I'd see
If I could walk away from me?"
That's what I love about documentaries. Though we can never view them with anyone's eyes but our own, when made as well as Stonewall Uprising and Beautiful Darling they can provide a glimpse into another reality. In this case, a reality that helped construct our own.