On Saturday, I was excited to be able to catch an NYC screening of Stu Maddux's documentary Reel in the Closet, which presents dozens of rare clips from home movies (including footage shot from TV, some of which is the only copy of such newscasts known to exist) that show queer people living queer lives.
Framed by a narrative of preservation—we meet several prominent archivists who have devoted themselves to the painstaking task of transferring one-of-a-kind home movies to the digital medium—the film is itself a one-of-a-kind document, a hub that shows images never meant to be shared outside a small circle of intimates, but that must now be shared in order to create a historical record of queer living.
Among the most amazing finds would be a short piece of film from inside a lesbian nightclub 65 years ago, including incredible footage (with sound) of women singing to butch/femme couples. We have to wait until the end to get some erotica (well-off white gay dudes sunbathing), but it's worth the wait.
There is also a wealth of raw footage provided by a sneaky film editor who took it from the stations for which he worked in San Francisco, which means that truly unique footage from the White Night Riots is forever preserved.
But as interesting as these unusual bits are, just as compelling is the footage that shows gay people in their day-to-day existences, being goofy, showing off and playing to the camera. Many are people who are unknown to us now, while some—including a wealthy dentist who documented decades of his life—seem to have succeeded in achieving a slice of immortality.
Due to the resources required, most of the footage comes from privileged white men (cameras were expensive!), but Maddux makes sure to reflect people of color and women and drag queens/genderqueer individuals. One part of the movie that sort of leapt out to me was when a trans woman (perhaps she would have been called a transvestite back then) spoke about how drag queens started Stonewall—and this footage was from the '70s, so the recent controversy about whether that impression is true has to take into account the fact that it was widely believed from shortly after the event.
Don't miss Maddux's scrupulously assembled, deeply respectful documentary, and visit his site if you have what you think might be unique footage showing gay life in home movies.
Keep reading for Maddux's remarks before and after the NYC screening ...