January 14th, 2006


Year Zero

The world cinema section of Tsutaya has always added sparkle to my Japan stays. I often seem to find films there which, although Western, show surprising sides of the West. It's the West as curated by Japan. Or perhaps it just looks different with Japanese characters on the packaging and Japanese subtitles. I could tell you I'm renting Godard (who looks very Japanese here, very "Paris-of-our-dreams") and Truffault (whose La Nuit Americaine was a let-down, I must say, like most films about making films), but actually it's not always anything so obvious. It might be Czech animation or Monty Python. Actually, the big revelation for me in 2001, when I lived in Tokyo, was renting Philippe Garrel's La Cicatrice Interieure, which is basically a longform promo video for Nico's "Desertshore" album.

This weekend I've been watching The Cockettes, a 2002 documentary about a drag queen theatre group from San Francisco started by a flamboyant light child called Hibiscus, "Jesus Christ in lipstick". I recommend the documentary on its own merits (there are parallels with my Fakeways doc about Fischerspooner), but I was struck by an odd contradiction that emerges from the film.

Several of the interviewees, original members of the Cockettes, tell us how radically different life in late 60s San Francisco was to their suburban upbringings. "I was a Catholic schoolgirl in a small town in New Jersey and aspired to be an adventuress," says Fayette, one of the few biological women in the group. "That was my goal in life, that inspired me to go West. So when I started living in San Francisco I just discarded everything that was even a remote remnant of my suburban past and completely got into velvet and lace, and we completely communicated through drag. That's how you met other people."

"We really did believe there'd be a revolution at any minute. And you wanted to come down on the right side," says Marshall. Hibiscus, meanwhile (he's a kind of proto-Devendra) floats around with his beard, crazy make-up and thriftstore garb. He sings show tunes, keeps a scrapbook of glittery Edwardian kitsch, and gets a campy mock-crucifixion on a cross on the beach. There's also a lot of testimony about how drugs -- and these "far out" people were heavy drug users -- helped break down any remaining inhibitions, removing the last vestiges of suburban American mores.

Yet the scenes of the Cockettes in performance are weirdly tame. Dressed in drag, they jig about to old show tunes. There are campy jokes (from Divine -- this is where she and John Waters met) about "crabs on Uranus" and so on, but it's basically a drag revue as they seem always to have existed wherever there are gay people, transvestites and stages. Artifice, travesty, exaggeration of female vanity, campy songs about cruising, and so on. I'm sure there was even some cabaret in ancient Babylon where this stuff went on.

So what I don't buy, I suppose, is this idea of Year Zero, the notion of some completely new and un-American culture emerging from the ferment of Haight-Ashberry. Just as drugs only give us access to things that are already in our minds, so cultural "Year Zeroes" often turn out to be the emergence, in new contexts, of old elements. It's not just Hollywood dance numbers, sentimental Edwardian adverts featuring gauzy nymphs, and a femme-y Christ on the cross which look oddly familiar. It's also the idea of "travelling West to be free" or "setting up a dissident community to avoid persecution" which are quintessentially American activities, repeating the history of the nation itself.

The Cockettes' living arrangements were actually a lot more radical than their shows: the Kaliflower commune, where they initially lived, was based on John Humphrey Noyes's Oneida Community in upstate New York, a Christian exercise in communism. In 1844 Noyes' religious sect, The Putney Association, formally adopted "Bible communism" for its 37 members "including all property of family living and associations." This "communism of associations" included non-possessive sexual relations: an arrangement called "complex marriage" decreed that all men and women in the community were married to each other. They could engage in sexual intercourse, but could not develop exclusive attachments to any one person "because it would be selfish and idolatrous".

The Cockettes' most radical gesture, then, was not so much a return to a "Year Zero" as a return to 1844. Kaliflower may even have been less liberated than Oneida. It was run by a man called Irving Rosenthal. He was strict. "He made me do everyone's laundry," complains Jilala, another of the Cockettes' minority of biological women.