Thursday, August 25, 2016

The ‘confessional’ cinema of Curt McDowell

There are only a few functioning repertory theaters in NYC, but each one serves a specific purpose in terms of its programming and the audience it attracts. The forte of the programmers at the Anthology Film Archives is presenting retrospectives of filmmakers who have “fallen through the cracks” of film history and whose work won’t likely be slated for DVD release any time soon.

Some of these retrospectives receive press attention, others do not — for example, the Marcel Hanoun festival is now a distant memory. A recent five-program festival of the work of filmmaker Curt McDowell (18 out of his 27 films) did receive press coverage. It was linked to a gallery exhibit at Participant Inc on Houston Street called “THINGS: a queer legacy of graphic art and play” (which included several paintings by McDowell) and was co-presented by MIX NYC and the Academy Film Archive. 

A blogger at Strublog has already done a great job of placing McDowell’s films in their context in the gay press, but I wanted to directly discuss the films themselves — McDowell’s style, his experiments in genre, the best (and not-so-best) films, and his particular niche in the underground film world. Two of the special subgenres he pioneered are incredibly absorbing and transformative — the first is his “diary” films about his sex life; the other is his brilliantly funny "mini-musicals," which were, for this reviewer, the best part of the AFA retrospective.

"Beaver Fever" (1974)
I’m going to omit from this account any discussion of McDowell’s best-known film and one of the most unique and memorable cult movies in history, Thundercrack! (1975). That picture deserves its own blog entry and has been on the repertory circuit since it was first released (it is now even on DVD in an authorized edition). It is a savagely funny and lewd combination of an “old dark house” spoof, high melodrama, and hardcore pornography. It was scripted by George Kuchar (Curt’s close friend, mentor, and lover) and qualifies as both McDowell’s and Kuchar’s best-ever full-length feature. More to come on that title.

The reason the Anthology series was so invaluable to those of us who love Thundercrack! is that McDowell’s films have been so difficult to see for so long. Curiously, the institution we can thank for nearly all of the restorations in the festival is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — the Oscars may consistently reward the work of tediously conventional moviemakers, but the Academy’s restoration efforts are clearly a lot more open-minded.

"Loads" (1980)
The “confessional”/diary films are entirely unique creations that are as personal as cinema can get. The most famous title, “Loads” (1980, shot earlier), finds McDowell narrating, telling us about the men he brought back to the loft space he used as his studio for sex. His objects of obsession were effortlessly macho straight men, who were fine with showing their bodies to Curt’s camera.

The film is definitely art, but it also contains hardcore porn imagery. McDowell gives blow jobs to his subjects and is left at points with jizz in his mustache (this is not a filmmaker who chose to hide behind his camera). In “Loads” and “Ronnie” (1972), a short that seems to be an outtake from the former film, it is spelled out that he paid the men for their time and is quite unabashed about wanting to keep the memories of their encounters fresh by chronicling the sex they had.

"Ronnie" (1972)
“Loads” and “Ronnie” are indeed eye-openers, but the most moving diary piece on an emotional level is “Confessions” (1971), a short in which McDowell confesses his many indiscretions to the camera as if we, the viewers, are his parents. He provides a laundry list of the things he’s done since his childhood which involve sex and drugs. He then shows us his friends, whom he clearly asked to talk about him. The result is a rather touching self-portrait, since the very un-guilty McDowell seems fine with airing his dirty laundry. (This would be the place to note that Curt sadly died at the young age of 42 from AIDS in 1987.)

While some of the lengthier films have shifts in tone that are jarring, McDowell’s shorts (30 minutes and under) are mostly sublime. One particularly odd format he forged with a friend is represented by two shorts ("A Visit to Indiana," 1970; "Truth for Ruth," 1972) that present 8mm footage with an “audio commentary” of a sort. This commentary consists of Curt discussing what is in the footage (his relatives in Indiana, a woman walking on a beach), while Ted Davis, an eager fellow with a deeper voice and a cavalier, all-American, attitude keeps commenting on what Curt has just said. The juxtaposition is smart and very funny, since it was seemingly meant to put the filmmaker on the defensive and make the interrogator the "auteur" of the project.

"Confessions" (1971)
Poster for "Peed Into
the Wind" (1972)
One of the funnier, longer shorts — with a plot that runs aground, but with some individual sequences that are great — is “Peed Into the Wind” (1972). The film features one of McDowell’s best roles in his own films (he was otherwise used very well by George Kuchar), as “Mick Terrific,” a pompadoured rock star who drives women insane but is actually gay — or is he? One of the film’s funniest scenes finds Mick’s friend challenging him, telling him that he’s “a latent heterosexual.” Mick’s verbal response and subsequent “fight” with the other gent are wonderful, and drive home the silliness of people who try to hide their real orientation.

Mick regrets his decision to “play” queer when he finds out that the girl he loved (sorta) has died. She in fact left him one of her legs as a memento (McDowell’s sense of humor is very much in line with the Kuchars and John Waters).

His last few films, all of them longer, are his most ambitious (for one he even got a grant from the NEA). Thundercrack! is by all measures the best and most audience-pleasing (again, if the audience has a very open mind), but the other two films are equally “epic” for an undergrounder. Chronologically, Sparkle’s Tavern comes after Thundercrack! because it was shot in 1976; McDowell ran out of money to complete it, so it remained unedited and unreleased until the mid-Eighties. The rarest of the films in the Anthology festival (since it exists in only one circulating 16mm print), it is also the biggest mixed bag — comedy and drama, good performances and terrible ones, fantasy scenes taking place in dreamlike spaces and location-shot sequences that are time capsules.

Poster for Sparkle's Tavern
It occurs in its own time and place that resembles, by turns, Busby Berkeley’s “Gold Diggers” films (albeit with no budget and soft-porn content), a Fifties teen-angst melodrama, and a proudly polysexual Seventies underground camp comedy. The film’s plot is characteristically crazy: Beth Sue (Melinda McDowell, Curt’s winsomely cute sister) and Buster (Jerry Terranova) are siblings who run a nightclub/brothel. They keep this a secret from their scarily wholesome mom (Marion Eaton) and are both threatened with blackmail by people who know about their wild sex lives. Into this picture steps a magical figure, Mr. Pupik (George Kuchar), who “liberates” the characters by having them participate in a ritual that opens their minds (and their loins) to the joys of sex. 

Sparkle’s Tavern is incredibly ambitious for a micro-budgeted feature. The character of Beth Sue/Sparkle has two suitors (one of whom has his own plot strand, while another is a nerdy Greek chorus who serves very little purpose in the film but takes up a lot of screen time). There is also a “mystery” cowboy figure who delivers a dramatic monologue near the center of the film — it’s a jarring inclusion, since McDowell’s most effective moments of drama in his other films are his own “confessions.”

Also jarring is the fact that the film starts out on a very funny lurid level and then its sexual content tapers off, in favor of metaphorically sexual moments. For example, one of the best “inventions” in the early nightclub/brothel sequences are sleazy little cubicles called “suck stalls” in which the hostesses give blow jobs to men they never see through glory holes — allowing Buster to substitute for one of them on occasion.

Maron Eaton, Sparkle's Tavern
The film’s golden moments all involve two characters — the mother and Mr. Pupik (which is Yiddish for “belly button”). Marion Eaton proved herself a fearless performer in Thundercrack! playing a sexually greedy voyeur who has a way with a cucumber. Here she is nearly as amazing, albeit as a very inhibited housewife whose sexual awakening as a result of Pupik’s odd ritual is one of the film’s highlights.

George Kuchar in Sparkle's Tavern
Eaton certainly is a camp performer to be reckoned with, but George Kuchar also rates as an “MVP” for his stunningly upbeat and unabashedly manic turn as the jaunty Pupik. I’ve rhapsodized about George before on this blog, but was stunned by how incredibly funny he is in McDowell’s films. He is literally buoyant, stealing every scene he’s in. The only person who matches his energy is Eaton, who serves as his foil in Sparkle as he explains his philosophy of life in a series of rhyming dialogues that are often sung (he accompanies himself with a saxophone and a tambourine!).

George played romantic leads in his own films and in those of his brother Mike, but McDowell gave him the “hero” roles he always wanted. He was always a compulsively watchable performer (the reason his meandering “weather diaries” are so entertaining). Camp is balanced with sincerity every time George is onscreen, and he truly was the standout performer in all of the McDowell films shown in the retro (Eaton and the very attractive and intense Ainslie Pryor were close seconds).

Melinda McDowell Milks spoke after the screening of Sparkle, discussing the ways in which the plot points that involved parental acceptance of sexual behavior were indeed a sort of wish fulfillment on Curt’s part — his parents knew he was gay and accepted his lifestyle, but did not want to talk to people in their Indiana hometown about Curt's sexuality.

She also discussed the making of the film, revealing that all the sets — which included the nightclub, some very detailed and realistic bedrooms, and a kitchen — were constructed by Curt and friends in the nine months in which Curt and Melinda lived in the bathroom/kitchen-less space in which the film was shot (the same space in which “Loads” was filmed).

The other longer work, Taboo (the Single and the LP) (1981), is the most feverish of McDowell’s films. He juggles several “strands,” all of them centered around sentences of graffiti on a wall. The film is rife with flashcuts and quick swerves, between characters, situations, and a real-life portrait of one of Curt’s friends (who recounts his sex life with his girlfriend, at the filmmaker’s request).


McDowell had a penchant for being involved in every aspect of his filmmaking, from scripting, camerawork, and editing to set design, costumes, animation, and the musical score. He started out as a painter — his disturbing and haunting portrait of the Beatles is to the right.

It’s no surprise then that the most entertaining films included in the retro were his “mini-musical” shorts. The films are actually operettas, with the characters singing their dialogue or speaking rhyming text. The “handmade” aspect of these films comes across in the fact that Curt’s friends couldn’t really carry a tune (except for Ainslie Pryor, who is seen here singing on TV several years later). The singing was also done live on-set, accompanied by what sounds like a piano being played out of frame.

Ainslie Pryor in "Boggy Depot" (1973)
Short “trailers” in which McDowell’s actresses sang their welcomes to patrons of San Francisco’s Roxy Theater and hyped the weekend midnight shows were placed at the beginning of each Anthology program. “Boggy Depot” (1973) and “The Mean Brothers Get Stood Up” (also ‘73) found Curt and his costar (and frequent collaborator) Mark Ellinger tormenting other characters (the former) or singing about how they’d like to kill people (the latter).

"A Night with Gilda Peck” (also ’73) is a deranged meller in which a criminal (George Kuchar) breaks into the house of a haughty (and extremely tacky) woman (the actress billed as “Mrs. Kathleen Hohalek”) in an attempt to rape and rob her, with musical merriment ensuing when all the characters enter her bedroom and feud among themselves while singing.

The poster for "Weiners and Buns Musical"

“Weiners and Buns Musical” (1972) was the piece de resistance of the musicals in the retrospective (which will, according to the Anthology programmers, conclude later in the year). Absolute camp perfection, the film finds a housewife (a very prim Ainslie Pryor) and her businessman husband (a quite debonair, made-up George Kuchar), singing about the death of their young son and cheating on each other with the same man, a sailor (Curt, in his swabby finest).

Over a dinner of the titular comestibles the three leads decide to continue their affairs as a threesome — while Curt apologizes for having murdered their little boy (who no one cared about, anyway). Sheer bliss, and another reason one hopes that more of McDowell’s work — and some of George Kuchar’s (237 films and videos, and not a one available legally!) — is released on DVD soon. 

Note: Some of the images above are from online postings by Melinda McDowell Milks; their copyright is owned by the Curt McDowell estate.

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