Monday, March 13, 2006

"Gay Sex in the '70s"

I bet that headline caught your eye, didn't it?

Last week, I went to see the documentary Gay Sex in the '70s with three friends too young to remember the era (aged 20, 26, and 35). Aside from my friends, I think I may have been the youngest person in the audience (at 46) -- not that there's anything wrong with that.

The movie is misnamed. It should be "Gay Sex in New York in the '70s." There is no acknowledgement of gay life in the 1970s outside of New York City and Fire Island. Not Los Angeles, not San Francisco, not Washington, not Chicago -- not even Milwaukee, which during that decade (according to a Time magazine article I remember reading in 1979 or 1980) was the home of more gay bars per capita than any other American city. (Of course, Milwaukee, being Milwaukee, has more bars per capita than any other American city!) My point is, Gay Sex in the '70s has a very insular point of view.

As a documentary, the film leaves a lot to be desired. There's little context of what was going on in the outside world in terms of politics and culture -- but that's of a piece with its navel-gazing attitude.

To be sure, some of the people interviewed (I only recognized the names Tom Bianchi, Larry Kramer, and Lawrence D. Mass, M.D. -- the rest were unknown to me) had amusing, poignant, and interesting stories to tell. A number of them showed their memorabilia on camera, such as the first "lambda" button produced by the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) in 1970. Another had a robe from the St. Mark's Baths, which did not fit him quite as well now as it did 30 years ago.

Contrary to my normal preference for big screens and dark auditoriums, I suspect that Gay Sex in the '70s will look better on TV than on the big cinema screen. A lot of the archival footage is irritatingly grainy (I think some of it was blown up from 8-mm and may even be copies of copies of copies) and blurry, not intentionally.

And so much was missed. We learned, for instance -- not that it was news to anyone -- that Bette Midler performed, early in her career, at the St. Marks Baths. A still photo of the Divine Miss M is projected on screen. Would it have been impossible to interview her about that stage of her life? Is she so inaccessible -- and I don't believe she is -- that director Joseph Lovett couldn't pose a few questions to her on camera? This would have made the film so much more interesting to a broad audience. (And wasn't Barry Manilow her accompanist in those days? Wouldn't that make a great interview!)

At the end of the movie, my friends and I all posed the same question, for which we had no answer: Why did virtually every gay man in the '70s have a mustache?

Near the end of the credits, which rolled over 21st-century gay youths giving their impressions of the 1970s, one of the young men made a similar point -- crinkling his nose and sticking out his tongue in disgust, he exclaimed "Ewww! Everyone had facial hair!" drawing boos and cackles from the audience, which puzzled us even more. That is, until the lights went up, and it became apparent that some 90 percent of the rest of the audience had facial hair.

Gay Sex in the 70s may be a terrifically enjoyable nostalgia trip for those who were there. (Of course, what is said of the 1960s may be even more true of the 1970s: If you remember them, you weren't there.)

As for the rest of us, this film is not nearly as informative and educational as it might have been. There is a good documentary about gay sex in the 1970s to be made -- but Gay Sex in the 70s is not it.



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1 comment:

King Daevid MacKenzie said...

...right state but wrong city. La Crosse, _not_ Milwaukee, is the American city with the most bars per capita...