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Old Home Movies, Hollywood Classics Newly Relevant At Kansas City's LGBT Film Festival

Crawford Barton
Reel in the Closet
A participant in New York City's Gay Freedom Day in 1974, shown in Stu Maddox's 'Reel in the Closet.'

Just days after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Kansas City’s Out Here Now LGBT Film Festivalscreened two documentaries, Against Hate and An Act of Love, focusing on battling hate speech, homophobia and crimes targeting the LGBT community and their families. These pre-festival screenings, which included roundtables and discussions and were cosponsored by the Kansas City Human Rights Commission, had been planned months ago — a testament to the festival and its art form’s urgent relevance.

This year marks the 17th year for the festival, which includes more than 40 films covering a wide range of topics and genres and featuring a diverse collection of filmmakers — including local ones — and casts at varied levels in their careers.

Two of the feature-length documentaries explore assumptions about gay life in the early-to-mid-twentieth century United States in fascinating ways.

Filmmaker (and UMKC alumnus) Stu Maddox has gathered an astonishing collection of queer home movies from as early as the 1930s for Reel in the Closet. The film shines new light on an extended period in the U.S. in which gay lives were not publicly well-documented, when such home movies were frequently suppressed or hidden from view. It’s impossible to know how many of these types of films have been lost, because many families hid or destroyed them out of fear or shame.

The films and videos include documentation of early gay rights activists and footage of pride parades, demonstrations, and the White Night riots in San Francisco — events provoked by the lenient sentencing of Dan White, who assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978.

Creators of these home movies sometimes turned their cameras to their own televisions, generating a lasting record of local news reporting on events such as the Stonewall riots and the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Because local news stations reused tapes and rarely kept complete archives, this type of documentation is virtually nonexistent and is of enormous historic interest.

There’s also exuberant footage of house parties, dinners with families and friends, holiday celebrations and the general joys and casual pleasures of everyday life. The material is rare and Maddox cherishes it and — smartly — allows it to be the driving force of the film. (Maddox also generously shares additional footage and still photographs on his extensivewebsite.)

The process of transferring and archiving the films is excruciatingly slow, and Maddox allows the archivists and historians moments to indirectly entreat their audience to find and treasure these often-destroyed, ignored or lost materials: Basements and attics can be troves of presumed-banal family records, but relatives willing take the time to look more carefully could uncover historically valuable documents.

Odd bookending scenes feature another young filmmaker, Halima Lucas, conversing with interview subject Bill Jones about his experiences and the films he created over the course of his life. At the beginning, the interview sets up the foundation for the rest of the documentary: “I have films about a lot of this,” he tells Lucas, and we see her eyes light up. But the return to Jones at the end is frustrating — we’re told he posed as a straight man to adopt a child in the 1960s, and that his son died as a young man, but the sequences feel incomplete and detached from the greater narrative, possibly even subjects for another film entirely. Maddox also leaves in a cringe-inducing scene in which a kind and well-intentioned Jones praises Lucas for being “so open-minded,” while an uncomfortable Lucas tries to explain her position as an ally to the gay community.

But similar exchanges between the gay community and allies happened all over the country after Orlando, which makes Reel in the Closet feel as timely as it is historically compelling.

Glossier and more finished, Women He’s Undressed explores similar themes from an alternative angle.

Gillian Armstrong creatively adapts the memoir of Hollywood designer Orry-Kelly (titled Women I’ve Undressed) and frames footage and interviews with performances by Darren Gilshenan as Orry-Kelly and Deborah Kennedy as his mother, Florence.

Like Maddox’s found footage, the facts of Orry-Kelly’s life are fascinating and fans of Classical Hollywood will revel in clips from the overwhelming list of films dressed by Orry-Kelly. Those include 42nd Street, Casablanca, Oklahoma, Auntie Mame and essentially every major early film of Bette Davis’ career; capping it all off were three Academy Awards for An American in Paris, Les Girls and Some Like It Hot.

Gilshenan and Kennedy’s performances are pleasant — Kennedy reads Orry-Kelly’s letters and Florence’s responses with affection and emotion, but a visual metaphor of Orry-Kelly “at sea” in a tiny rowboat grows stale and distracts from moments of tragedy and serious conflict.

Orry-Kelly was out during an era when Hollywood was at best intolerant and at worst openly hostile toward gay members of the filmmaking community, and his refusal to attempt to “pass” resulted in heartache and lagging periods of difficulty in an otherwise prolific career.

His longtime relationship with a man born Archie Leach collapsed after they arrived in California together. Leach changed his name and become a Hollywood A-lister, taking conventional leading man roles and studio-provided love interests (and eventually, wives). In some ways Orry-Kelly’s story is a tragedy of struggle, loneliness and alcoholism; in other ways it is a celebration of one of the most talented designers and costumers of the Classical Hollywood era.

Like Reel in the Closet, Women He’s Undressed explores and challenges assumptions about what it meant to be gay in the United States in an era of intolerance and hostility, and offers us potential perspective on our more “progressive” time that still engenders tragedies like Pulse.

Out Here Now: The 17th Annual Kansas City LGBT Film Festival, June 23-30 at the Tivoli Cinemas, 4050 Pennsylvania Ave., Kansas City, Missouri, 64111; 913-383-7756.

Melissa Lenos is an Assistant Professor of English at Donnelly College, where she teaches film studies, composition, literature and popular culture. She can be reached at melissalenos@gmail.com.

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