Pioneers of Queer Cinema
Always on Sunday
Formed in Los Angeles in the early 1960s by cinematographer Ray Harrison and a group of his queer friends, the Gay Girls Riding Club (GGRC) became an underground sensation in the pre-Stonewall Southern California gay rights movement. From its equestrian-related social origins all through the early 1980s, the group became a powerhouse of gay social life and culture by sponsoring elaborate social events, drag balls, trips, as well as the production of four elaborate and campy short film satires of popular movies from the era.
Typically screened only at gay bars and private events, the four GGRC films were seemingly epic in production value considering their underground guerilla-style origins and their outrageously irreverent (and illegal) seizure of heteronormative locations and spaces. Their most flamboyantly opulent effort was the drag retooling of the 1962 Bette Davis and Joan Crawford Warner Bros. classic aptly retitled What Really Happened to Baby Jane? (1963). While the production lends a keen eye to fastidiously recreating many of the details and scenes of the original classic (including the use of a Rolls Royce), this camp version has the Blanche Hudson character healthily hopping up in the closing beach scene and handing sister Jane an Oscar (which Davis notoriously lost to Anne Bancroft).
Always on Sunday abandons scene-for-scene recreations of the Jules Dassin international hit Never on Sunday (1960), and plays like a much shorter gender-bending comedy sketch with only a light contextual nod to the original classic. Unlike the strictly drag retelling of the Baby Jane story, Always on Sunday seems to focus more on the fluidity of gender roles and norms, as well as masculine experience and presumptions in relation to the homosexual experience.
In a queer historical context, the subversive GGRC films and the group’s larger cultural impact are an important pre-Stonewall, mid-century representation of cis-gendered drag culture. In a way, GGRC began to lay the foundation for the hugely successful and popular drag culture scene popularized by RuPaul’s Drag Race and the like, that now thankfully embrace a wide variety of diverse non-binary, gender-fluid community members. —Todd Wiener (Connie B. Demille of the GGRC, USA, 1962, 10 min.)
Behind Every Good Man
Produced several years before the historic Stonewall Uprising for LGBTQ+ rights, director Nikolai Ursin’s gently-activist short provides an illuminating glimpse into the life of an African American man who openly lives part of his life as a woman. In strong contrast to the stereotypically negative depictions of transgender people as seen through the lens of Hollywood at the time, the protagonist of Ursin’s independent film is rendered as stable, hopeful and determined.
Stylistically, filmmaker Ursin (1942-1990) artfully blurs elements of cinéma vérité documentary and subtle dramatization to bring his unnamed lead’s deeply personal aspirations and meditations on love and acceptance to light. The resulting intimate portrait, possibly one of the earliest to honestly document a Black, gender-fluid person on film, serves as a rare cultural artifact at the intersection between transgender life and African American life in the U.S. at the mid-century. Significantly, the film also provides cinema and LGBTQ+ scholars with a previously unavailable bridge to later companion works, such as Shirley Clarke's landmark documentary Portrait of Jason (1967) and the problematic, but essential pseudo-scientific study of a group of trans women, Queens at Heart (1967).
Behind Every Good Man is an important early work in a body of notable productions to which Ursin contributed. Following the completion of a master’s degree in film at the University of California, Los Angeles, Ursin went on to create a number of collaborations with his partner, acclaimed video artist Norman Yonemoto, including Second Campaign (1969), which documents the legacy of student unrest and protests in Berkeley the 1960s, and the independent feature Garage Sale (1976), which starred drag performer Goldie Glitters. Ursin also served as editor on the local Emmy Award-winning television documentary, The Age of Ballyhoo (1973), which was directed by noted film preservationist David Shepard. Nick Ursin passed away in 1990 at age 48. —Mark Quigley (Nikolai Ursin, USA, 1967, 8 min.)
Preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Preservation funded by the Sundance Institute
Born in 1934, entertainer, gay filmmaker and gay rights activist Pat Rocco embraced his sexuality at a young age, coming out of the closet at the age of 13. In the 1960s, Rocco was asked to photograph male nudes for a magazine and often took his movie camera with him. What started as brief 3-minute sequences slowly evolved into longer narrative films using the models he was photographing. The short films caught on and he was soon asked to build these works into full exhibitions at local Los Angeles theaters. Rocco became an instant celebrity in the gay community, receiving positive reviews for his works from the local press.
In the July 10, 1970 issue of the Los Angeles Free Press, Angela Douglas, trans activist and founder of the Transsexual Action Organization, reviewed Rocco’s anthology film Sex and the Single Gay. Douglas stated that it “suffered from technical drawbacks in sound, lighting, editing” due to the filmmaker’s limited budget, but “the segment on transsexualism is by far the most beautiful and moving. There is little ‘acting’ by Jimmy Michaels, the partial transsexual, and her upfrontness is the magic that makes it work.”
This short, titled Changes, is an earnestly forthright and sensitive non-fiction interview with the transgender protagonist. The film also includes what would become Rocco’s cinematic legacy—capturing his subjects claiming traditional heteronormative Los Angeles spaces as their own queer landscape. Jimmy Micheals is seen proudly strolling down the streets of Hollywood, Los Feliz and parts of Griffith Park.
In its complete form, Changes had been missing from Rocco’s oeuvre for decades until the Archive discovered its various fragments several few years ago. Now digitally restored and complete, audiences can enjoy the title’s theme song written and sung by the filmmaker.
Besides focusing his remaining filmmaking career on documenting the gay rights movement through the early 1980s, Rocco also was elected the first president of the Christopher Street West Association. He was also the founder of the Los Angeles Gay Pride Festivals (the first one occurring in 1974), and he founded the Hudson House shelters in Los Angeles, Hollywood, San Francisco and San Diego. Rocco passed away in 2018, at the age of 84. —Todd Wiener (Pat Rocco, USA, 1970, 17 min.)
Preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive on behalf of the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project
There is one filmmaker who does not identify as queer represented in the Pioneers of Queer Cinema series, included due to the incredible impact their film (and personal activism and community alliance) has made on the entire LGBTQ+ community. Peggy Rajski’s Academy Award-winning debut film Trevor is a heartfelt and straightforward dark comedy that perfectly walks a fine line between darkness and a charming story of self-realization and advocacy.
Rajski (b. 1953) and co-producer Randy Stone conceived of the short film after seeing writer and performer James Lecesne portray the Diana Ross-loving character Trevor in his one-man show Word of Mouth. The short’s eponymous protagonist is a young theater and dance-loving teenage boy who comes to the realization (much to the chagrin of everyone around him) that he is gay. The resulting constant rejection and bullying leaves him with no alternative but to seriously consider taking his life.
When Rajski and the short’s other filmmakers went to look for a LGBTQ+ youth crisis organization they could place as a referral in the film’s closing credits, they were alarmed to see that no such nationwide hotline existed. Before the HBO debut of the film in 1998, The Trevor Project was created to rectify this egregious void as the country’s first and only 24/7 crisis intervention and suicide prevention hotline for LGBTQ+ youth. As discrimination, harassment and hate crimes rise due to the current political climate, the essential Trevor Project and other activist groups such as Dan Savage’s It Gets Better and the Human Rights Campaign serve a vital mission to give LGBTQ+ youth hope and show them a path forward. Peggy Rajski is currently the Dean of Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television and also continues to serve on The Trevor Project’s Board of the Directors. —Todd Wiener (Peggy Rajski, USA, 1994, 23 min.)
Preservation funded by the David Bohnett Foundation, The Andrew J. Kuehn Jr. Foundation, and Outfest
At Least You Know You Exist
Born in 1983 and raised in Syracuse, New York, Zackary Drucker is a Los Angeles-based trans woman artist, LGBTQ+ activist, performer and television producer. Her efforts have been instrumental in the creation of the Emmy Award and Golden Globe-winning Amazon show, Transparent, a paramount contribution to the visibility of trans lives and experiences, and This is Me, a docu-series for which Drucker received an Emmy nomination.
Her independent artistic output has been exhibited and performed internationally in museums, galleries and film festivals, including the 2014 Whitney Biennial, wherein Drucker and then-partner Rhys Ernst co-exhibited Relationship, a photographic record of Ernst and Drucker as both were in the process of transitioning. Both saw the project as a contribution not just to the Biennial but to the broader public record of transgender life—a record which both felt did not exist previously.
The sole work in the Pioneers program from the 21st century, At Least You Know You Exist is one of Drucker’s early moving image works. A collaboration between Drucker and LGBTQ elder and activist Flawless Sabrina (1939-2017), the film is shot in warm, intimate 16mm. Her camera explores ornate headdresses, personal photo collages, and makeup stashes from various corners of an interior as we listen to Flawless, in voiceover, read from an essay on the false promises of capitalism and consumption. Drucker then alternates between photographing Flawless and turning the camera on herself, the tone evolving both playfully and hauntingly as echoes of the previous voiceover intentionally resonate over the images of the two performing joyous stripteases, exuberant singsongs and direct-to-camera, non-verbal confrontations. As the two finally converge, together at last on screen and aurally on the soundtrack, we read their confrontation as an evocation of the film’s repeating refrain: “God knows if we’re going forward or back”—a poignant paradox of the trans experience both then and now. —K.J. Relth-Miller (Zackary Drucker, USA, 2011, 16 min.)
Preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive
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