While not necessarily on the order of finding Atlantis or the original cut of Magnificent Ambersons, the task filmmakers Greta Schiller, Robert Rosenberg, and John Scagliotti undertook in creating Before Stonewall was still pretty daunting: to play social archaeologists, uncovering the hidden, repressed, and oftentimes denied history of gay America in the days before the famous Stonewall riots, and once and for all break the gag order polite society had placed on the third sex. Released in 1985, it helped put a halt on the notion that homosexuality was a product of societal moral decay, a tactical assertion gay rights opponents would sometimes try to insinuate based on a supposed lack of overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary. Obviously, these people weren’t looking, as the groundbreaking Before Stonewall offers a kaleidoscopic array of photographs, films, and songs that offer testimony to the presence of a thriving gay subculture. Within the film’s scant 87 minutes, we are introduced to the cowboy way, the handkerchief code, the Harlem and Village speakeasies, Rosie the Riveter (and women in the work force), WWII foxhole romance, the films of Kenneth Anger, the Mattachine Society Review and One (one of the earliest gay magazines), the Kinsey Scale and Evelyn Hooker, Harry Hay, lesbian paperback pulp, McCarthyism (which is revealed, in a newsreel clip, to be as much a homosexual witch-hunt as anything else), the fight for parity in the psychological world, and only about 85 other topics. Schiller and company are juggling a lot here, and even if their menagerie errs to the side of terseness (the material they unearthed could’ve easily begat a film as long as The Sorrow and the Pity), their narrative ellipses are thankfully carried by their cadre of intelligent, colorful interview subjects, whose reminisces vary widely between violent and restrained to sanguine. Motorcycle-riding Native American advocate Dorothy (Smilie) Hillaire tells a compelling tale of how she was harassed by men in a bar until she dropped a glass ashtray on their leader’s skull. “You have to develop a tough hide to protect the soft interior,” she explains. Hank Vilas remembers with visible remorse his drunken one-night stand in wartime Germany with his military friend who was then killed a few days later by sniper fire. And African-American activist/poet Audre Lorde effectively parses the way the gay movement joined forces with the Civil Rights movement. What’s perhaps most intriguing about watching Before Stonewall now, some 35 years after Stonewall itself, is that it ends on a moment of uplift. Unlike After Stonewall (a recent PBS companion piece that basically ends with the murder of Matthew Shepard), this is a documentary that can tell the sometimes bitter truth and still conclude with an unambiguously heartening flourish.
I went back to my VHS tape that I recorded back in 1999 (when both documentaries aired on PBS for the first time) to confirm my suspicions: it looked better than this DVD, even at SLP. The print is riddled with dirt, is soft-focused, and poor Barbara Gittings looks like she's dodging a purple scratch right down the center of the screen. I understand that this is rather old footage, collected before the days of big-time film preservation, but this is a shockingly subpar transfer. The sound is nowhere near as inadequate (the VHS already revealed the limits of the source material), but it's also a notch below what aired on PBS: voices are hollow, levels are distorted. A disappointment.
Whoa. I thought the film proper looked bad. You should see the three extra interview outtakes First Run collected here. It looks like they played a BETA dupe of the dirtiest footage they could find on a 13" television set and trained a video camera on that. The clips of Lorde, Ginsberg, and Jose Sarria are all interesting, but trying to decipher what they're saying is sometimes more effort than its worth.
Even though the transfer looks like your local college library's rattiest tomes, this treatise on how homosexual sociology thrived before being validated is required viewing.