It's difficult for a young person in their teens or early 20s to have a conscious sense of how they are an active part of cultural history; its living embodiment, in fact. More often than not this is an insight privileged from the vantage of distance, decades later, when one looks back nostalgically from the reflective comfort of the armchair. This week I've had two flights back to the late '60-early '70s. First, Sheila Weller's welcome reassessment of 1967's Summer of Love ("Suddenly That Summer") published in the July 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, and secondly Kieran Turner's Jobriath A.D. (2011), screening this evening at the 36th edition of San Francisco's Frameline Film Festival.
Queer history applies different research methods in its practice. Familiar facts are either recontextualized through a queer perspective so that they accommodate the reclamatory fantasy of the queer historical project (as in Matthew Mishory's Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean, 2012), or personages are recovered from the margins and ellipses of history, redeemed from inference and resituated into subject significance, as in the case of Jobriath Boone, né Bruce Wayne Campbell who was—as Michael Hawley notes in his capsule—"a handsome and talented former Hair cast member who became the first openly gay rock musician signed by a major record label. Jobriath was hyped as the 'new David Bowie' by svengali music promoter Jerry Brandt, with thousands of bus ads and a billboard on Times Square, all before a single note was recorded."
Turner's documentary is as much about Jerry Brandt's promotional excesses as it is about the unfortunate media disaster known as Jobriath. Ample screen time is given Brandt to justify his failed executive decisions, which in retrospect don't seem so off mark, even for being admitted gambles. Just as Hair was a successful reaction to the Summer of Love detailed by Weller in her Vanity Fair piece, Brandt was convinced Jobriath would do well as they "rode the wave in" to New York on the coattails of the Gay and Lesbian movement of the early '70s. Perhaps one of the most poignant points made in Turner's documentary is the lack of support Jobriath received from the gay press during his bid for fame and how—all these decades later—Jobriath might just receive his long overdue recognition and perhaps (as Brandt enthuses in a chilling bit of irony) a Broadway treatment. I don't know whether to say everything old is new again or a prophet has no honor in his own country.
Without question, Jobriath was an artist ahead of his time and—true to mythologist Joseph Campbell's assertion that misunderstood artists are the martyred saints of modern times—there's a Catholic impulse to light a candle for Jobriath's failed artistic experiment sacrificed to the fickle malcontents of the public imaginary. Turner's documentary addresses the way that gay men have had to reinvent themselves in order to survive social persecution, relying on the masks of persona to both conceal and reveal themselves. This "acting out" is conceived as both creative agency and a desperate cry for acceptance. Ambivalent gender as masquerade becomes performance art subject to uncertain reception.
Some of the film's most difficult subjects are tackled through animation (left curiously uncredited at both film's end and IMDb). How Jobriath's advertising campaign is homophobically defaced, how heterosexist imagery trumps gay erotic expression in the commercial games where "sex sells everything", and how Jobriath's chance to successfully reinvent himself as cabaret singer Cole Berlin becomes a warped record that ushers in the AIDS years, are all simply but effectively presented.
Jobriath A.D. plays Framline36 on Tuesday, June 19, 9:30PM at the Victoria Theatre. Expected guest: director Kieran Turner.