Things are quiet on both the new release and festival fronts, but dedicated East Bay filmgoers can always rely on the Pacific Film Archive to provide succor. This weekend marks the start of the archive’s new series, “Pioneers of Queer Cinema,” which offers nine features plus related short subjects through May 3.
The series kicks off at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 3, with a screening of a newly restored print of the 1996 film The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl Dunye’s comedy-drama about a lesbian video store employee who, when she’s not renting tapes to customers, is producing a documentary about a forgotten star of 20th century African American cinema. Dunye, who’s since gone on to a lengthy career directing for television (including episodes of the wildly popular Netflix series Bridgerton), also wrote the screenplay and stars as a 25-year old aspiring filmmaker named (unsurprisingly) Cheryl.
The Watermelon Woman may have been a low-budget affair, but it reflects its director’s greater ambitions. While focusing on Black lesbians and African American cinema history (as represented by the titular character, a fictional star of Jim Crow-era race films), Dunye’s delightful screenplay also entertains via droll humor and a surprisingly believable romantic sub-plot.
The film’s largely unknown cast display few rookie jitters: Valerie Walker is marvelous as Cheryl’s work chum Tamara, Christopher Ridenhour has fun as their long suffering boss Bob, Camille Paglia lampoons her real life roles as America’s contrarian social critic and feminist bête noire, and Sarah Schulman is hilarious as a disorganized lesbian history archivist who protests at Cheryl’s intrusive researching by yelling, “This is a safe space!” I suspect The Watermelon Woman provided this now ubiquitous phrase with its first pop culture appearance.
Andy Warhol’s My Hustler (1965) couldn’t be more different. Screening at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 4, it’s an hourlong tribute to New York City’s favorite gay resort, Fire Island, where it was filmed over the course of a Labor Day weekend.
The first half of the film is, frankly, ever so slightly dull. Catty queen Ed (Ed Hood) and young socialite Genevieve (Genevieve Charbin Cerf) admire handsome young stud Paul (Paul America, disappointingly born Paul Johnson) from a distance as he combs his hair, scratches his back, and whittles a piece of wood on the beach. It’s a little more riveting than Warhol’s 1964 epic Empire, but not by much.
Enter grizzled hustling veteran Joe (Joseph Campbell), who spends the film’s second half engaging Paul in an absolutely fascinating conversation about the opportunities available in the male prostitution business. As the two shower, shave and apply deodorant, Joe conveys his experiences to the (literally) wet behind the ears Paul, who hasn’t quite decided if the hustling business is for him.
My Hustler ends all too soon: You’ll want to know what happens next, but Warhol apparently ran out of film. And there’s a sad footnote: Mr. America, who became Edie Sedgwick’s lover and drug-taking partner, fell victim to a hit-and-run accident in 1982.
If you’re in the mood for something completely different, Robert Gardner’s groundbreaking ethnographic 1963 documentary Dead Birds screens at 5 p.m. on Sunday, March 6, as part of the archive’s annual ‘Documentary Voices’ series. Shot in Dutch New Guinea, in color and with sound recorded by star-crossed poor little rich boy Michael Rockefeller, it’s a stunning record of the indigenous islanders’ daily lives.