10/27/2022

Blackstar: Autobiography of a Close Friend

Pioneers of Queer Cinema

10/27/2022 | 7:00 PM

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In this experimental, self-ethnographic 1977 documentary, Tom Joslin (1946-1990) blends breathtaking, moving snapshots from the natural world, filmic cultural touchstones, and cutting (pseudo) cinema vérité to dissect and reassemble his gay identity despite constant warnings to stay in the closet. Blackstar sees Joslin and partner Mark Massi fleshing out their enduring commitment and shining, obvious love for one another amidst the insecurity that a self-conscious documentary lens instills. As interviews with Joslin’s mother, father and brothers attempt to break down the legitimacy of Joslin and Massi’s romance, the pair use everything at their disposal, including inspiration from gay revolutionaries and painfully honest conversations, to hold up their “abnormality” as a point of pride rather than shame.

Blackstar serves as a prelude to Joslin’s devastating and groundbreaking Silverlake Life: The View from Here, which documented his and Massi’s tragic battle with AIDS, and won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 1993. The third film in his limited repertory, Architecture of Mountains, was completed by students at Hampshire College in 2013, from a collection of interviews with former filmmaking students of Joslin’s, and production notes written before his death. Rarely shown, it continues Joslin’s interest in the evolution of experimental, non-fiction filmmaking, and what nature and human consciousness can learn from one another.

That Joslin’s career was cut short by the devastation of AIDS is made all the more poignant by the power of his eye and heart. In Blackstar perhaps more than any of his other films, he unflinchingly captures casual devastation, meditations on premature loss, and his own determination to stop lying—actions which serve as reminders to reach for personal and political self-love at every turn. —Shayna Warner (Tom Joslin, USA, 1977, 85 min.)

New 4K restoration by IndieCollect and the UCLA Film & Television Archive

Preservation funded by The Andrew J. Kuehn, Jr. Foundation, Outfest and Women's Film Preservation Fund

Preceded by:

Fireworks

Starting with the title in bold font underscored by roaring thunder, Kenneth Anger ceremoniously anoints Fireworks as a torch of salvation from the isolation of social norms. “Arguably,” suggests scholar Ara Osterweil, “the most political wet dream ever filmed,” Fireworks operates in a register reminiscent of classical Hollywood melodrama, utilizing highly orchestrated music to amplify themes of heroism and salvation. Taking viewers on a graphicly disembodied journey away from his bedroom through dimly-lit public spaces of urinals and bars, Fireworks seems to recall the isolation of gay cruising in the post-WWII era. Of the title, we may see its evocation of patriotic American iconography function in service of masochistic sexual fantasies—rites of passage for gay men whose rituals of socialization were relegated underground.

Born in Santa Monica in 1927 and raised in Beverly Hills, Anger shot this short at the age of 17 over the course of a weekend in his parents’ home on a Bell and Howard camera, supposedly on film stolen from the U.S. Navy. One shot in which Anger appears nude on a public urinal floor was shot in a public restroom in Olive Park in Burbank.

Screened privately several times before its public premiere, Fireworks first screened publicly in 1947 at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles, after which its owner was arrested on obscenity charges. Anger later submitted it to the Festival du Film Maudit in 1949, where Jean Cocteau and fellow jury members awarded it the Poetic Film Prize.

Anger is central to the development of the underground tradition of queer cinema; his concerns with personal identity, self-disclosure, and subversive desire seem to predate contemporary gay filmmakers that represent gay youth anomie through a direct critical gay voice, especially Gregg Araki and Sadie Benning. If Anger’s film is less explicit in its sexual politics than his contemporaries today, the underground distribution and reception of Fireworks speaks to the notoriety that can be achieved by young queer filmmakers through defiant and deviant approaches to production and distribution. —John Trenz (Kenneth Anger, USA, 1947, 13 min.)

Preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive

Preceded by:

Oblivion

Between 1962 and 1989, rigorously formalist filmmaker Tom Chomont (deceased 2012) completed roughly 40 short film works, most of them silent. His 1969 16mm work Oblivion is a rapidly cut film full of repetition, superimpositions, jarring movements, and pulsating light that activate the viewer to contemplate the relationship between a sleeping man and the disorientating, erotically charged images that flare up in the frame. Combining high contrast black and white negative with a color positive of the same image, Chomont landed on a process he would repeat often to create his sublime, iconic superimpositions.

Chomont says of Oblivion, “While this material was highly personal, I was conscious from the beginning that there had to be a formal side. The experiences themselves had broader meanings of identity and role-playing and the face as a mask. I wanted to give the film the feeling of being between dreaming and awake.” In contrast to Warhol’s conceptual serial film Sleep (1964)—a six-hour loop of sleeping poet John Giorno, who claimed to get his creative inspiration from his dreams—Chomont’s poetic diary film is intensely personal yet equally elusive, seemingly pushing images outward from within. As a result of its aggressive formalism, it is invigoratingly compelling.

“After many years of trying to follow what I was taught,” says Chomont on the making of Oblivion, “I had a lot of very intense fantasies. During this time, I began to act out my fantasies, and, in doing so, the experience became more important than the fantasy. This all became part of the film.” If we think of Oblivion as an acting out of fantasy, how might we see its emblem in the form of the film as a repression of what is most important: the experience of the fantasy itself?

Chomont’s experimental fantasia of dreaming immerses viewers in a sensual tone poem akin to living in an electrifyingly sonic exploration of sexual acting-out while in a passive state of being. Chomont’s film encourages us to fantasize about its meanings without fully reconciling the subject with his sexual objectification. —John Trenz (Tom Chomont, USA, 1969, 6 min., silent)

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