Private Eyes


The history of modern art is the history of realized alternate universes. A successful art movement provokes collective delirium—a process suggested by two underground "minority reports," Alfred Leslie's abrasive feature-length video The Cedar Bar and Bill Weber and David Weissman's fond, funny documentary The Cockettes.

An exuberantly pugnacious exercise in New York School historiography, The Cedar Bar—named for the well-known painters' hangout—evokes its time and place with a barrage of clips pillaged from old newsreels and period Hollywood, as well as several recent fictional evocations of '30s and '40s New York. Leslie, a lapsed abstract painter whose best-known movie is the collaboratively made Pull My Daisy, envisions Manhattan as a frenzied, semiotic nightclub in which actors read his lost and reconstructed 1952 play, originally based on overheard barroom conversations. This cabaret aspect is maintained throughout with the emphasis on porn, vaudeville, and eccentric dancing—not to mention the atonal songs from Leslie's play. Throughout, the filmmaker inscribes a wildly enthusiastic and stellar audience, seemingly culled from televised awards ceremonies. (Less engaging is his decision to reference the 20th century with a montage of Nazi newsreels and concentration-camp corpses.)

Windows on the soul: Action-twit Cruise battles arachnophobia.
photo: Dreamworks
Windows on the soul: Action-twit Cruise battles arachnophobia.

Details

Minority Report
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen, from the story by Philip K. Dick
20th Century Fox

The Cedar Bar
Written and directed by Alfred Leslie
Anthology Film Archives
June 27 through July 3

The Cockettes
Directed by Bill Weber and David Weissman
Strand
Quad
Opens June 28

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Leslie's belated exercise in pop assemblage is an omnivorous, object-like, compulsively layered tape that's as relentless in its way as his 1964 loop The Last Clean Shirt. The editing is exceedingly dense—many clips no longer than 15 seconds—and the visuals often overshadow the hysterical drama that centers on the spell cast by critic Clement Greenberg. While The Cedar Bar touches on Greenberg's alcohol-fueled brawls and primitive sexual politics, it more deeply articulates the artist's enraged ambivalence regarding the critic's seemingly arbitrary power to bestow genius and confer significance.

More straightforward in its oral history, The Cockettes celebrates the commune of psychedelic drag queens whose anarchic, early-'70s midnight performances at San Francisco's Palace Theatre represent the exotic confluence of the city's hippie and gay subcultures. At the time, there were no terms for what the Cockettes were. Perhaps there still aren't. The group included women, and as one member recalls, "Straight men would come to our show in dresses." Audiences sometimes joined the show onstage. This compound was inherently unstable and the Cockettes fissured in 1971 over the issue of professionalism. The group's shamanistic founder, Hibiscus, left and the more professional Sylvester became its star. Then Rex Reed discovered the Cockettes on a trip to San Francisco, and on a wave of publicity, the ensemble came to New York to crash and burn on Second Avenue in a debacle that was the negative theatrical event of the '71-'72 season.

The surviving Cockettes provide their recollections amid a surprising amount of footage documenting their early stage shows. These performances attest to two of the period's basic social facts: LSD and ATD. The former, ingested by many Cockettes on a daily basis, encouraged them to construct their own reality. The latter, California's long-gone welfare program Aid to the Totally Disabled (described by the movie's genial de facto narrator, John Waters, as "a grant from the government to continue your insane lifestyle in San Francisco"), allowed them to subsidize it.

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