IOWA CITY — In the coming four months, “Pride at FilmScene’’ will have screenings that range from modern documentary masterpieces, to outrageous camp classics, to one of the most controversial yet significant films in queer history.
Possibly the most exciting event of the series happens this Thursday, with a screening of 2022’s Jimmy in Saigon. This film follows director Peter McDowell as he tries to uncover the tragic death, radical life, and forbidden romance of his oldest brother, Jimmy, a 24-year-old Vietnam veteran who died in Saigon in 1972.
McDowell’s journey takes him to Vietnam, France, the United States, and even Des Moines. using both modern-day shots and archival footage to document his search for the brother he never knew.
The film has received acclaim worldwide and won 14 awards, including Best Documentary at the Lovers Film Festival in Torino, Italy; Roze Filmdagen in Amsterdam; Reeling in Chicago; and GAZE in Dublin Ireland.
Drop Dead Gorgeous a tasteless hidden gem
Next up is the 1999 cult classic mockumentary comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous, showing Oct. 19. This film was selected by the Bijou Film Board affiliated with the University of Iowa and FilmScene, along with Outlaws, the queer organization of the university’s College of Law.
Drop Dead Gorgeous follows the small conservative town of Mount Rose, Minn., in the lead-up to a locally renowned teen beauty pageant. Winners of the pageant ride the fame of their victories for the rest of their lives, but some contestants resort to sabotage, bribery, or even murder to get the crown.
The film was poorly received critically and financially upon its release, but it found a life of its own on home video as a queer camp classic. The New Yorker described it as “…offensive, for sure—completely awful, really, and possibly deadly. It is also irreplaceable, hilarious, surprisingly tender, and lavishly, magnificently absurd.”
Of all the films in the line-up for Pride at FilmScene, Drop Dead Gorgeous has by far the least overtly queer themes. And like most ’90s comedies, it’s full of humor that’s aged like milk, to the point that viewers averse to ableist slurs and humor may want to pass on this showing. But if you can enjoy older comedies, warts and all, you’ll be pleased to find a hidden gem akin to Little Miss Sunshine meets Waiting for Guffman.
Cruising, Young Soul Rebels offer controversial looks back at gay history
The next two films highlight the highs and lows of early queer film history.
Young Soul Rebels, the 1991 debut film of Isaac Julien (of Waiting for Langston fame), shows Nov. 16. This difficult-to-find film explores the British queer community of the 1970s during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. It also explores the intersection of racism, homophobia, and identity politics. Young queer punks and pirate radio DJs are caught up in the murder investigation of a friend who was killed while “cruising” in a local park.
FilmScene was able to obtain a recently-released 4K restoration of the film, which was made seemingly in response to the next film in the series.
Cruising, coming Dec. 14, stars Al Pacino and is directed by The Exorcist’s William Friedkin. First released in 1980, Cruising sparked wide controversy and protest from the gay community.
The plot follows a New York City detective (Pacino) as he goes undercover in the queer S&M (sado-masochistic) scene to investigate a serial killer targeting gay men in local parks and leather bars. Critics panned the film for gratuitous violence and sexual content; a confusing narrative; and a lack of satisfying answers to the questions raised by the film.
The gay community joined protests of the film, as “Cruising” was one of the first representations of the gay community in a major Hollywood movie.
Protesters at the time felt the film both stigmatized and sexualized an already marginalized community. Those that attend this screening may notice several scenes with poorly dubbed dialogue, which is not a matter of poor film making practices, but instead the result of the backlash to this film. These scenes were the result of the gay community protesting at filming locations and creating enough noise to prevent any usable sound to be recorded while filming.
Pride at FilmScene goes beyond finding ‘good’ queer films
All Pride at FilmScene screenings start with an introduction from FilmScene staff, to provide the audience with the context and historical significance of the selected film. This context is pivotal for Cruising: though it was understandably divisive upon release, it’s recently received more attention from queer film scholars. This is partially due to its first home video release almost 30 years after the film hit theaters, and more recently due to director William Friedkin’s passing earlier this month.
When viewing the film as a small piece of the mosaic of queer films available to modern viewers, it’s possible to see its gay representation as a favorable depiction well ahead of its time. While imperfect and problematic in many ways, Cruising frames police neglect, abuse, and rampant homophobia as the villains of the movie, while the gay BDSM subculture is displayed as the victims.
The film would become important in gay history for another reason: the momentum generated when the gay community mobilized against it would help in early protests during the AIDS epidemic, which began just three months after the release of “Cruising.”
“Do I think it’s a great movie? No. Do I think it’s important within a historic context? Yes,” says Jane Keranen, FilmScene programming assistant.
More than any other film on this list, Cruising shows FilmScene’s dedication to celebrating the most significant moments in the history of queer cinema and starting important conversations, rather than screening what would traditionally be considered “good” films.
Get your tickets for tomorrow night’s showing of Jimmy in Saigon here. Pride at FilmScene shows queer cinema monthly, in collaboration with the University of Iowa and Iowa City Pride. Find the full schedule at icfilmscene.org/pride.