Friday, April 27, 2012

Homo Box Office: 'The Cockettes'

Not sure how Netflix could have posted a loss of 8 cents per share this quarter with people like me shelling out $15.98 a month while streaming nothing and just now watching a disc I received in the mail in August, but anyway ... here goes my latest review. The much-procrastinated DVD was "The Cockettes," Bill Weber and David Weissman's love letter to the gender-bending San Francisco performance group that became somewhat of a pop culture phenomenon in the early 1970s. Throughout the movie, I couldn't help but think "I guess you had to be there": The drag queens and their antics hardly struck me as anything special, and their performances were admittedly just nonsensical LSD-fueled free-for-alls. (That said, Sylvester and Divine both filtered through the group at various points, but their actual star quality was recognized immediately by the troupe and they both quickly moved on.)
But then I slapped myself and remembered that this was well before "Rocky Horror" and Boy George and Lipsynca and all of the other gender-bending things society now accepts as normal, and it made me appreciate how groundbreaking they really were. Sure, when they brought their (silly little) act to New York it was panned even at the time. But truth be told, I think that had more to do with the East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry that still exists today than anything else. (Remember that "hot" drag show Lance Loud took his mother to see at the Village Vanguard, I believe, on "An American Family? It has aged equally well.) The one thing the Cockettes did do well was a (John Waters-y) parody film of Tricia Nixon's White House wedding to Ed Cox, featuring Sylvester as Coretta Scott King! President Nixon's chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, reportedly arranged a secret screening of it for White House staffers back in the day and they were not pleased with what they saw!
All in all, I'd say "The Cockettes" is worth a watch if for no other reason than having yet another piece of the LGBT puzzle in place. I'm 44 years and know a lot about gay history, but I'll be the first to admit that I'd barely even heard of them. But after seeing this film, I appreciate the fact that these people and these images really did shift cultural norms, and helped bring us to where we are today.


GuyDads said...

There has been a Cockettes revival here in San Francisco for the last several years. Local theatrical company, Thrillpeddlers, have so far revived 3 Cockettes shows. The first, "Pearls Over Shanghai," ran for 22 months. "Vice Palace" played last year and they are currently performing "Hot Greeks." The troupe works with several original members including musical director Scrumbly Koldewyn.

Edgar_Carpenter said...

The Cockettes were astonishing, wonderful, and freeing. And no, it's not possible now to understand their impact, because we can't unlearn what we know.

The world today is so radically different that even those of us who were there can't really bring back the emotional impact they had. But as a young man exploring the marvelously liberating nooks and crannies of San Francisco, I thought they were splendid.

It's nice that some of the shows have been revived - but they can't be anywhere near the same as the original shows, because those shows were a facet of a new world being created, and no one knew what would happen next. That new world is long gone now, replaced by other new worlds.

Most of history's meaning dies with the people who lived it; it can't be captured and preserved.