This week, a repertory series at Anthology and a newly restored rarity from 1969 at the Quad demonstrate, long before it was fashionable to do so, a pleasing blurring of binaries. Guest-curated by John “Lypsinka” Epperson, “Cross-Dressing and Drag on Screen” brings together titles in which gender expression is never fixed — a fluidity even more pronounced in Toshio Matsumoto’s far-out Funeral Parade of Roses (1969).
The Anthology retrospective encompasses the onscreen gender transgressions of not only underground eminences but also world-dominating divas. Though he holds the honor of being Warhol’s first drag-queen superstar, Mario Montez preferred, at least in the 1960s, the first decade of his career, the expression “going into costume” to “drag.” The distinction may reflect how uninterested the actor, who often sported a ratty peruke, thick maquillage, and five-o’clock shadow, was with flawless female mimesis. A brilliantly guileless performer, Montez was more concerned with communicating his deep love of Old Hollywood glamour, an ardor that made him perfect to “play” disgraced Tinseltown goddesses, as he did in several films by Andy and in Lupe (1966), his sole collaboration with José Rodriguez-Soltero. In this effulgent high-camp recounting of the short life and ignominious end of Mexican actress Lupe Vélez, Montez is resplendent in an array of cherry-red ensembles, exulting offscreen, “I’m going to be a movie star again! I am!”
A sullied auteur is subject to gender inversion in Radu Gabrea’s bleakly fascinating A Man Like Eva (1984), a profane, meta-titled anti-biopic of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who had died, at age 37, two years before Gabrea’s film premiered. As the surrogate of the German godhead, actress Eva Mattes, a onetime member of RWF’s troupe, is adorned with scraggly beard and mustache, slouch hat, aviator frames, leather jacket, and perpetual sneer. Her physical resemblance to late-period Fassbinder (to the extent that someone who never made it to forty can be said to have had a late period) is uncanny, but as with Montez, seamless impersonation is not the goal. Mattes’s masquerade, in which the timbre of her voice remains relatively unchanged — that is, not “masculine” — both alienates spectators and draws us in closer, much like RWF’s own movies do. A Man Like Eva is a sordid tribute to a director many considered a master manipulator, here seen driving one lover to suicide and one actor to murder another. But the critique is deliberately complicated by the film’s transparently cunning conceit.
Though the release of A Man Like Eva predates the ascendance of queer theory by about half a decade, Gabrea’s movie makes a fine double bill with Gabrielle Baur’s documentary Venus Boyz (2002), a time capsule of New York’s once-flourishing drag-king scene of the late 1990s, when roughly every other grad student at NYU was writing a thesis on “masculinity as performance.” Footage of a drag-king show at the Slipper Room reveals various levels of compelling gender illusion, with no performer able to top Mildred Gerestant, alias Dred, whose charismatic spoofs of Shaft-style maleness combine both alluring stage presence and clever XY deconstruction. In London, the gender-variant Del LaGrace Volcano — the film’s most articulate interlocutor — notes, “I know five men who personally have vaginas.” Surgery, hormones, or simple self-identification dissolve anatomical and sexual binaries, leading to a newfound sense of liberation.
A haircut, a name change, and swapping an apron for tzitzit likewise release director-star-cowriter-producer Barbra Streisand’s title character from domestic enslavement and inanition in the shtetl musical Yentl (1983), a film that I, deeply Babs-averse, had thought I could spend my entire life avoiding. I’m glad I didn’t, if only for the confounding pleasure of watching the straight, cis woman long worshipped by gay guys execute the tricky feat — after Yentl transforms herself into yeshiva boy Anshel and finds herself falling in love with Mandy Patinkin’s Avigdor and marrying Amy Irving’s Hadass — of performing doubly deflected heterosexuality. She doesn’t succeed in all of these scenes: I’ve always found Streisand’s narcissism so extreme that it removes her from the realm of the alloerotic; most of the sexual heat, however absurd, is generated by her screen partners. And some of the lyrics — “She’s mother, she’s sister, she’s lover…/She’s the wonder of wonders” — suggest that the muddy fields of Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century have undergone their own metamorphosis, somehow becoming the grounds of a Holly Near concert in 1978. Yentl, in other words, is satisfyingly queer in all senses of the word.
Both transgender and transgenre, Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses, his first feature, updates Oedipus Rex by way of high-modernist Euro cinema, low melodrama, and avant-garde documentary. Playing at the Quad in a shimmering 4K restoration, this monochrome, maximalist enigma takes place largely in the drag-queen bars of Tokyo. One of these nightspots, called Genet (a salute, perhaps, to the French gay writer whose Our Lady of the Flowers chimes nicely with Matsumoto’s title), employs two rivals: Eddie (Shinnosuke Ikehata, who also goes by the mononym Peter, sometimes rendered Pita), a fine-boned beauty dressed in ultra-mod ensembles, and Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), the club’s “madame,” rarely seen, even in the off hours, out of geisha attire. They are two points of a triangle, fighting for the affections of Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), the owner of Genet. The film opens with Eddie and her boss locked in an embrace, the camera so close on their porcelain skin that their bodies have become abstractions. “Our imaginations are so limited,” one character says to another in a film densely populated with gender nonconforming players. Matsumoto, who died in April, helped expand them.
“Cross-Dressing and Drag on Screen”
Anthology Film Archives
Funeral Parade of Roses
Directed by Toshio Matsumoto
Opens June 9, Quad Cinema