I’d only ever seen the downtown theatrical maestro Charles Ludlam in Mark Rappaport’s interesting but rather obscure Imposters (1980), and he’s hemmed in by that film’s repressed tone, so that the extravagant Ludlam of legend had only been available to me in tales from his theater career, lovingly documented in David Kaufman’s book Ridiculous!: The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam. This past Monday night, Adam Baran and Ira Sachs continued their Queer/Art/Film series at the IFC Center with two little-shown 16mm silent films by Ludlam, Museum of Wax and The Sorrows of Dolores, which were given a sensitive introduction by Antony Hegarty of the band Antony & the Johnsons. Seen together, these films, treated to ideal musical scores by Peter Golub, have radically enlarged my perspective on Ludlam, just as they have instantly joined, in my mind, the best underground films of Jack Smith while retaining an unusual character of their own.
It has often been said that Ludlam had two modes for his plays: tight and sprawling, and these two films neatly fit that paradigm. Museum of Wax is a concise tale set in a black-and-white carnival world presided over by Ludlam himself, who cuts loose in his own inimitable style. Balding, squat and greedy-looking, visually he calls to mind an unholy mixture of James Cagney and James Coco, but his facial pyrotechnics are entirely his own. When he’s dressed as an old lady with a heart-shaped lipstick mouth, a close-up is held on Ludlam as he stretches this mouth into the most grotesque shapes, and it goes on for such a long time that you’re not sure, finally, just what it is you’re looking at; it’s as if he wants to make you more fully aware of what a human face can be. The whole film has a gender-fuck quality that feels very ’70s, in the best possible way; Ludlam fiercely makes out with the leading lady, a real woman, then makes out even more fiercely with his young lover of the time, Everett Quinton, as wax figures look on.
According to Quinton, who was there at the screening with other Ridiculous Theatre luminaries like Lola Pashilinski and Black-Eyed Susan, The Sorrows of Dolores was made over a period of 10 years or so, and was still unfinished at Ludlam’s death in 1987. It starts with a shot of Quinton in classic Mary Pickford curls cheerily opening a window and then instantly frowning when his Dolores sees rain pattering on the pane. What follows is a long, strange, digressive narrative that suggests what would have happened if Pickford had starred in a film for G.W. Pabst. Poor Dolores has to put up with a sadistic guardian (played by Ridiculous Theatre stalwart Minette), who spanks her at great length with what looks like a fly-swatter. This spanking scene catches the weird spirit of the movie: It’s sexy, in a way, and campy, in Minette’s lip-smacking reactions, but also rather horrifying in the lingering close-ups of Quinton’s face. Hegarty had said earlier that Dolores is in many ways a kind of love offering from Ludlam to Quinton, and that definitely comes across in the film’s lingering, purifying close-ups of Quinton’s beautiful big eyes and full lips. In the spirit of Ludlam’s own work, there are moments when Quinton seems like this girl Dolores and other moments when he’s clearly a masculine-looking young guy in a wig; this roughness helps to keep us off-balance and steers the film steadily away from simple parody.
What Dolores really seems to be about is the corruption of innocence, and Ludlam takes this subject very seriously indeed, letting scenes of Dolores’s “sorrows” play out in a slow, pulling-taffy way so that we can laugh, get uncomfortable, and even be moved. A long scene where Dolores is menaced by King Kong feels a bit like Jack Smith’s work, but it becomes personal again when Ludlam himself flashes Dolores on a train. There’s a hypnotic sequence that lingers over statues of the Blessed Virgin weeping after Dolores has been taken in by nuns, then another stylized segment where she becomes a fallen woman, earns a lot of cash and brings it home to her guardian. If anything, it reminded me most of Pabst’s Joyless Street (1926), another complex story about women in danger and love for sale. In the Q & A, Quinton seemed uncertain whether to regard Dolores in a romantic way; he reminded us that his relationship with Ludlam was often tumultuous. But the evidence is on the screen: Quinton is luminous in his close-ups and filmed with great love, and Dolores’s sorrows go far beyond camp and into some stinging points about what power and money can do to people.