Drag coefficient

STONEWALL Nigel Finch (15) 100 DAYS BEFORE THE COMMAND Hussein Erkenov (NC); The early days of gay liberation are reclaimed in a director's first, and last, film.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Nigel Finch's Stonewall is both a first and a last feature, since the director died of Aids last year. Where Derek Jarman tried to limit the effect of debilitating illness on his own work by imposing formal limitations on his projects, Finch seems simply to have gone for broke. He chose to make a fiction film about the beginnings of gay liberation, and the result is far too dynamic to associate with the miseries of its maker. It stands on its own merits. Its energy is positively blithe.

The film starts with interviews from veterans of the summer of 1969, but this is just a tease from Finch the maker of Arena documentaries. Instead we get a drag queen saying, "This is my Stonewall legend," and the first of a series of lip-synching routines to songs by the Shangri- Las.

The drag queen is LaMiranda (Guillermo Diaz), so called perhaps because of the frequency with which he is arrested (and read his Miranda rights). The police get paid off to leave gay bars alone, or at least to schedule their raids with a little consideration, but they get too much fun out of bullying the faggots. They keep forgetting. That summer, LaMiranda meets Matty Dean (Frederick Weller), this cute kid right off the bus who thinks it's time that queers said enough is enough. LaMiranda has three rules: I don't do tears. I don't do love. I don't do angry. By the end of the summer he's broken them all.

Make no mistake, Stonewall is an attempt to rehabilitate early gay liberation, a historical moment that is now routinely trashed by a later politics. But it isn't crude, and it succeeds in showing that there was more than one way of resisting injustice in those days. More than one way of being brave.

Matty Dean is in a position to combine the best of what he sees around him, the emotional directness and dramatic instincts of the drag queens, and the political analysis of the homophile organisations. He can hope to overcome the drawbacks of each: the defeatism of drag (preferring to wallow rather than follow through), the grinding caution and willingness to compromise of the homophiles. He can bring together high and low, progressive politics and trash culture - the way the Shangri-Las' "Past Present and Future" takes off from the Moonlight Sonata.

His political eclecticism is a virtue, but what it means in practice is sleeping with both sides, with spontaneous, outrageous, brave LaMiranda and with bespectacled brainy conservative Ethan (Brendan Corbalis). In the end, he has to choose. Stonewall is particularly good and funny on the restrictions that gay people had to endure in the 1960s in supposed havens such as Fire Island - the ban on revealing swimsuits on the beach, the prohibition at the tea dance on male dancing until a token woman had started things going.

The romance between Matty and LaMiranda is counterpointed by one between another drag queen, Bostonia (Duane Boutte), and the closeted bar owner Skinny Vinnie (Bruce MacVittie). Vinnie tries to come out, but is destroyed by guilt. Another man of his generation, though, dances with a man after years devoted to political organisation. He's been too busy fighting for the right to dance to do any dancing.

It may be a mistake for Stonewall to psychologise the moment of first resistance that led to the Stonewall riot, to make so clear the motivations of the drag queen who struck the first blow. It would be better to leave the immediate impulse ambiguous, a gesture that can be claimed imaginatively by anyone who needs to. But the strengths of the film far outweigh its weaknesses.

Screenwriter Rikki Beadle Blair writes better dialogue for New York drag queens than anyone called Rikki Beadle Blair has a right to. There are constant touches of pleasure, too, in design and in performance. Bostonia, leaving with style a restaurant from which he and his lover have been expelled, leans back into the coat that is being held for him with a campy grace that would make Jackie O seem like a raw girl. Two lesbians dressing femmy for a demonstration glance shyly at each other as if they're just discovering a new turn-on.

Stonewall is a worthy monument to its director, and also to a minority's discovery of itself. In the words of the immortal Shangri-Las, "at the moment, it'll never happen again".

Hussein Erkenov's 100 Days Before the Command was made in 1990, but has only been seen outside Russia since 1994. The director submitted dummy scripts to get funding, and to be allowed access to military locations. He even used serving soldiers as actors. It would be nice to report that his audacity enabled him to make a masterpiece. The fact is that the dummy scripts he first submitted can only have been more coherent than what he substituted for them.

His film is being marketed (in a low-key British Film Institute way) as an indictment of militarism with a strong homoerotic strain, but it could be an indictment of almost anything. There's little dialogue, and the rather baffling episodes we see often tail off into tentative surrealism. A recurrent theme is of men collapsing during manoeuvres, or after running away, and being rescued by boys. There are dream sequences, scenes shot in an eerie green light, and outbursts of Bach on the soundtrack, but the film never comes together, despite the assurance of some of its images.

Playing with this enigmatic drama is Barry Purves's prize-winning short animation Achilles. Here the intention is perfectly clear: to restore the homoeroticism that is omitted from most accounts of The Iliad. In this version, a slim clay Patroclus gets physical with a beefy clay Achilles.

Watching Greek statues get their rocks off is in its way refreshing as well as shocking, and the film's design is full of clever touches. But it's doubtful if we can contemplate a naked body (even a clay one) with the evenness of attention the ancient Greeks are likely to have had - with nakedness required for athletic competitions, and an artistic convention that large genitals denoted a disordered appetite. For the Greeks, to represent Achilles as "having a big one" would be to acknowledge a weakness in his temperament. In our culture, it's a demeaning compliment.

The homosexuality in the cartoon is similarly full of hindsight. Purves rewrites Homer in his turn, to make the love between Achilles and Patroclus a guilty secret, as if this were Western society in the 1950s. Achilles' refusal to accept his own nature becomes his tragic flaw, the true Achilles heel. But ancient Greek culture was not ruled by sexual guilt so much as a sexual etiquette. It was anything but a society of erotic teetotalism, more like one where social drinking was taken for granted, but one sherry too many could get a man the reputation of a drunkard for life.

n On general release from tomorrow

Comments