Friday, March 25, 2011

Oh! You Pretty Things: More thoughts on THE COCKETTES

In the late 1960s a young actor named George Harris moved to San Francisco. Harris was soon haunting thrift shops, donning gowns, furs, and jewelry, growing lots of hair and slathering on the cheap-tart makeup. After dragging up and knocking back a lot of acid, he reinvented himself as a queer hippie Christ figure named "Hibiscus."

Hibiscus and some other like-minded young nuts soon moved into a 10-room Haight Street apartment rented for the lordly sum of $30 a month. Like deranged Little Rascals, they started putting on shows at a North Beach bijou called the Palace, largely off-the-cuff messes of drag, deranged trash-deco costumes, and oft-nude chorus lines pumping it up to '30s standards and Stones songs. The shows bore names such as Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma and Hot Greeks. The troupe called itself the Cockettes.

Bill Weber and David Weissman's deft, happy/sad chronicle of the Cockettes' beyond-camp positive perversity offers the rare exhilaration of watching an entire subculture create itself from scratch. And, as the credits close, to linger with true dismay on the unlikelihood of anything so raw, crazed, so un-self-consciously contentious, rising in our relentlessly self-reflexive time.

Along with John Waters--who found one of his (and Divine's) first appreciative audiences at the Palace--The Cockettes is narrated by group survivors who charm with their continuing amazement at what havoc they once wrought. Total hams to a man (and a few women), they had the born drama queen's sense of extreme self import to document their every moment on cheap film.

In amusing vignettes, we find that they were predisposed against earning money, for reasons both mistily "political" (although Andy Warhol earns more reverence than Karl Marx in the Cockette view) and practical (even in the '60s, pretty things with shaved eyebrows and bare johnsons hanging from holes in their panties were a bit much for most potential employers, or paying audiences). Naturally, they were doomed.

Before their fall in '72, their shows grew ever more elaborate. They even found time to make the occasional sort-of narrative film, including a hilarious queer skewering of Tricia Nixon's wedding.

As local fame grew, the Cockettes received coverage in Rolling Stone, and future disco diva Sylvester joined the group. But their status as nouvelle-chic darlings led to a disastrous run in New York attended by the starry likes of Sylvia Miles (also one of the film's narrators), Anthony Perkins, Diana Vreeland, and John Lennon. In the end, it wasn't beauty that killed this beast (swollen to almost 50 members by the early '70s); it was drugs, other people's notions of success, and the inevitable internal bickering.

Thanks to their articulate subjects and fleet editing, Weber and Weissman never have to hammer points home. It soon becomes obvious that being a Cockette wasn't just a pose--it was a way for the intrinsically tweaked to survive outside an already ossified hippie milieu.

At one juncture, the filmmakers display cutting contempt for those who'd have their subjects tarred and feathered by cutting to a film clip of then-newly elected California Gov. Ronald Reagan sneering, "Grow up!" at people like the Cockettes. As the film shows, many of the Cockettes were unable to do that, as they died in the '80s from the "gay cancer" President Reagan would so vigorously ignore.

Of the survivors (one of whom died of AIDS during filming), we see middle-aged Cockettes adjusting to a more gray reality with varying degrees of oddness. Jilala, the Aleister Crowley figure of the group, appears in (relatively) conservative makeup only to later reappear as a Day-Glo Carmen Miranda. "Goldie" is a queen bitch to the end, while Peter Mintun (the Cockettes' favored piano accompanist) and "Fayette" (a female) look like normal folks, although a maniacal Cockette-ish grin blows their cover every few minutes.

After viewing The Cockettes, I wondered if every so often the culture currents simply carry a glittery gender-shifting corrective wind which, during the Cockette phase, carried with it the inspiration-stuff for David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust, the New York Dolls and Bette Midler.

I felt a sadness and even a muted anger that low cost, freewheeling Cockette culture had ultimately been sucked dry of identity power politics by Burning Man's Club Med style of desert alt.whatever, and deeply pleased that Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Lady Gaga's monsters get everything that mattered so very right.

As for that dismay I mentioned earlier--fuck me and my easy bitters. There's nourishment in this tale and the glitter of an aging Cockette's eye: the mainstream always loses to the good, brave and crazy and Weber and Weissman's document is that delightful, needed reminder.

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