Charles Ludlam Comes Out of the Closet!

Charles Ludlam On Film Anthology Film Archives, August 19-22

On August 19 I went to The Anthology Film Archives (which houses such awesomeness as the original reels of Maya Deren, Harry Smith, and Stan Brakhage), where I watched two recently discovered films by Charles Ludlam.

No, they don't have Matt Damon in them.

What you should know about Charles Ludlam: He was a big deal in the New York theater scene in the 60s and 70s by founding the Theater of the Ridiculous.  His style of transcendental camp could be compared by a neophyte such as myself to Joe Orton with more cross-dressing.  He is not Robert Ludlum, author of such crap as the Bourne Identity.

Worst. Drag Queen. Ever.

Everett Quinton introduced these two rare films, who had two of Ludlam’s movies sitting in a closet for decades.  With the help of the MoMA, Filmmaker Ira Sachs and Butt Magazine’s Adam Baran,  these rare arty-facts were first shown at the ongoing IFC Queer/Art/Film Festival and this was a rare occurrence to view these reels without having to claw the eyes out out of every queen to get a ticket.

I generally hold a certain disdain for New York sentimentality which infects many old-schoolers, lamenting the days of cheap rent, brutal muggings, murderous junkies,  and war-zone street scenes (my disdain is most likely based in envy), but when Everett Quinton gave his introduction to these films, it took a different angle, as he told us the behind the scenes anecdotes of the films were were about to watch.  He explained how the eccentric woman who ran the Coney Island Wax Museum loved making a Sambuca with coffee, and when a scene called for a match being lit in the wax museum (obviously forbidden), Everett would ask the owner to fetch him a Sambuca with coffee, which she would happily leave the room for.  Roll film, strike the match, shoot the scene, extinguish.  Everett and Charles were just two gay kids with a camera, having fun and making art–the dream assholes like me come to the city for.  The halcyon glint in his eye didn’t need explaining.

Everett hesitantly explained that there were problems with the movies, as Ludlam took a Proustian route in his final days as AIDS chipped away at him; he edited himself to death.  Surely, as I watched them, my inner cinematographer came out, noting scenes lasting too long or which plot-point needed further clarification.  But shit like that didn’t ultimately matter.  A friend of mine took his mother to a gallery where she saw a Rothko and she said, “I could do that”.  My friend said to his mother, “Yeah.  But you didn’t.”  It was very much the same vibe.  The lights  dimmed and we were all in for something special, something excavated only for us.

Charles Ludlam doing his cover of the CCR song, "Lookin' out my back door".

The first of the two silent black-and-white film was Museum of Wax, starring Charles Ludlam as an ex-con who breaks out of jail to find his girl abused by a gap-toothed beast of a man.  The film was rescored by the same dude who did the original, Peter Golub, who provided a dark ambiance rather than overdoing the standard mickey-mousing of setting a note to each step, giving the movie the feeling of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari among cracked wax statues of babies and b0ld lighting with strong shadows.  Museum held true to its roots, where actors clutched chests in despair, wistfully looking into the upper left corner of the screen, hoping for mercy, wringing  worried hands, and spying menacingly through doorways at the lusty betrayals endured before meting out the harsh lighting of wrath.

The second film, The Sorrows Of Dolores, was a riff off The Perils of Pauline, but this time around Pauline was Everett Quinton in drag.  Expressive and versatile, Everett donned a curly, platinum blond wig and inhabits the role of damsel-in-distress.  Based off the serial format rather than any of that Syd Field crap, every five minutes Dolores encounters some new harrowing ordeal (which is about as New York as it gets), whether it be a Cinderella-esque upbringing, sold into the white slave trade, being pimped out by a matronly queen bee, hilariously courted by a giant gorilla, or the triumphant Christmas prodigal ‘son’ happy ending, The Sorrows of Dolores rings true to its predecessors, leaving us all fully aware of the resilience that can only be expressed with a man in a wig.

As I left, I scoped the crowd.  The men were all survivors of this bygone era.  A man sitting next to me could have been twice my age, and I thought, “Back in the old days, you’d have to watch porn in a Times Square theater with a lot of other guys, and these cats remember those days before VHS or the internet.  How sad men my ‘youngish’ age must look, so removed from such experiences.  If these men were in a theater together 30 years ago, there wouldn’t be a dry pair of denim shorts in the house.”  Moments such as this proves AIDS can’t kill history if, as victors, we  write the history of our victorious battles, just like Charles Ludlam.

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