“Define Frenzy” is a series essays published throughout Pride Month attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films as a way to show the expansiveness of what queerness can be on screen. You can read previous essays here.
BAMcinemaFest likes new storytelling and, at least when It comes to the queer films in this year’s festival, what that means.
Fairly explicitly, The Gospel of Eureka, the new film directed by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, narrated by Mx Justin Vivian Bond, sets itself out to be a kind of mythology and, to some degree, a look at self-mythology. Palmieri and Mosher, examining Eureka Springs in Arkansas as paradoxical in the ways its Christian culture intersects with its queer culture, frequently juxtapose a performance of Eureka Springs’ retelling of the last days of Jesus Christ, called “The Great Passion Play,” with drag performances at the local gay bar, Eureka Live, which co-owner Gregory Lee Keating lovingly calls a “hillbilly Studio 54.” Bond, as if settling down by a campfire, or, perhaps more appropriately, a congregation, describes Eureka Springs as full of stories, adding that the hills that open the film are “well known for their tall tales and miraculous fables.” Intoning like a great raconteur, Bond asks, “But what if I told you this was a place where stories truly come to life?” The film proposes Eureka Springs as almost fairytale-like in its unlikely existence. But as a document of both history and politics, The Gospel of Eureka must confront a larger, broader question: So what?
Shot from 2015 to 2017, the film interviews several towns members about their views on religion, homosexuality and the impact their parents’ teachings had on them as an adult. Religious iconography is presented both within its context and also queered, particularly during a Pride parade. With an eye on the construction that goes into “The Great Passion Play,” intimating the amount of work to put on a face for a drag queen, the directors make the suggestion that the two supposedly diametrically opposed shows are similar because of their performative nature, exploring how that performance ultimate shapes participants’ perceptions of trauma, humor, valor, pain, beauty and identity.
There of course is a “gee-whiz” factor to what we see in Eureka Springs, especially as several of the queens at the bar Eureka Live perform as various, often white, Christian women preaching the “good word” in song, amplifying the fakery of the kind of gospel the good ladies they’re lampooning preach. In contrast, the camera catches the earnestness of a fairly middling production of a Jesus play, staged on a giant, artificial set designed to look like Rome in a large amphitheatre. The two are, in the context of this film, equivocal in camp, though via different definitions. For “The Great Passion Play,” camp is Sontagian in how it registers on a different level than intended; presented with the utmost sincerity, “Play” is, through this lens, hard to take it super seriously. For the drag at Eureka Live, with queens dressed in garb that accentuates big hair and breasts and grandstanding gestures, camp is used as satire and critique of the society and institutions that ostensibly sought to oppress the very people performing.
The film also takes time to delve into the history of Gregory Lee Keating and his husband Walter Burrell, also co-owner of the bar, observing contradictions that exist in their relationship without necessarily having to point them out. A little music box, revealed to be a cigarette holder, plays “Amazing Grace,” while discussion touches on mortality and the afterlife and Keating’s cancer. Both grew up in strict religious households, but Keating has still kept the belief of Heaven and Hell in his heart, while Burrell has discarded it, firmly articulating why he’s disposed of some of the teachings of the church, saying he’s “matured.” This comes as somewhat of a blow to Keating.
But what is this film supposed to do? Gospel is less interesting when it’s following through on its idea of the ways in which the religious and/or the Christian mythologize pain and trauma, not unlike queer people, mostly because the way it presents that concept is articulated in too basic and predictable a manner. Effectively, connecting a mythology of pain between the religious and the queer is a story we’ve heard before, but the political backdrop of both the film and the climate within which it is being released suggests that it is imperative to hear this story, even if told nearly devoid of invention.
This is due, in part, to the film’s structure and form: straightforward, sometimes camp and ironic, and appropriately beautiful. The Gospel of Eureka is not flashy, per se, but its opening narration leaves room for possible experimentation or stylization, yet rarely takes that opportunity. The film is best when examining how humanity can be found in satire and camp: Though one of the black drag queens at Eureka Live takes a jab at the venerated whiteness of the archetypal Christian lady, her lip sync to a hymn is no less heartrending than if she were actually vocalizing it.
If the film veers into a New York Times op-ed piece kind of attitude that has begun to rankle a sector of liberal coastal elites (like myself), it runs the risk of being patronizing and cutesy, walking a very fine line between a fairly compelling exploration of the complexities of the personal and the political and an occasionally rote need to point out just how fascinating a town in Arkansas could be to welcome both Christians and queers, my Brooklyn privilege notwithstanding. It’s hard to balance the right tone for a documentary like this; that inclusive message is certainly one that needs to be told and heard, even via the framework of storytelling—wherein the documentary posits itself as the same kind of tall tale that Justin Vivian Bond tells us about at the beginning, whose purpose is to supposedly deconstruct those ideas—but without condescending to its subjects or its audience. Gospel does a solid job, asserting Eureka Springs as the perfect setting for two groups of people to test out the fictions and truths of life, death and identity on stage and at home.
The jumping back and forth between drag and “The Great Passion Play” recalls John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs, in which Divine, while receiving a “Rosary job,” retells the Stations of the Cross, mixing the divine and the profane. While Gospel gives off the impression of being a little too nice to do that in as outré a manner, it contains a similar heart, which swells in an unironic way.
Narrativizing, too, is the subject and framework of Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily, a Whit Stillman-esque comedy about the possible romantic and sexual relationship Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) had with her close friend and sister-in-law Susan Huntington (Susan Ziegler). Its costume biopic form, also like in Stillman’s Love and Friendship, allows Olnek to engage in a self-reflexivity and playfulness that evolves into something unexpectedly bracing.
Though frequently suggested to be a spinster too timid to have her work published, the Dickinson in this film, as told by Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz), was sprightlier, more assertive and more conscious of the politics of her (not) getting published. In her corner is Susan, and their relationship exists as both sororal and romantic, Susan the muse for Dickinson’s most rapturous work.
Shannon is quite wonderful as a woman whose artistic prowess transcends the trends of her day, and she imbues her Dickinson with a careful amount of frustration, defiance and ambivalence, Shannon’s unique face, reminiscent of carefully etched tree bark, able to articulate Dickinson’s poems occasionally could not. It is, certainly, a welcome opportunity to see Shannon’s range as an actress, as deliriously funny in her deadpan delivery as she is moving in the presentation of her loneliness. Shannon reads Dickinson’s work with such clarity, as if to embody the rush of emotions contained in each word, each dash.
Wild Nights’ brilliance lies in its jokey but self-aware manifestation of “a queer reading” of classic text by a future queer studies major, and how erasure of queerness makes it all the more crucial to approach work in such a way. Throughout, the film tinkers with how Dickinson’s story has been told, liberally hopping through the timeline, and occasionally presenting an even more revisionist history of her work. Mabel Todd wrote Dickinson’s history, and the film unpacks what consequences that had, particularly Todd’s insistence that Emily was little else but a recluse. With the text of the poems on screen, Olnek either cheekily literalizes its imagery, or gives insight into its (possible) origins, reading deeply into the social and emotional implications of Dickinson’s work.
But critical to this film is not only how Dickinson’s work can be queered, but how that element can be erased, and the emotional consequences of that. Regardless of the veracity of Wild Nights with Emily, the dynamic between Emily and Susan has tactility, and Dickinson’s poetry seems to come alive, even its outwardly performative nature. Shannon’s reading of “I Died for Beauty” is especially gripping, and as Amy Nicholson writes, allows the film to “combine all its interests to reach transcendence.” Mabel, intent on publishing Dickinson’s work (posthumously), erases any mentions of Susan, and before the credits begin to roll, we’re left with the sound of eraser to paper and a black screen.
Both The Gospel of Eureka and Wild Nights with Emily respond to history, to who tells it and how it is told, whether it is through the institutions of organized religion or through publishing. Both aim to be correctives on how queerness has been presented at the intersections of politics and art, fiction and non-fiction. Two of BAMcinemaFest 2018’s impressive selections unravel what queer mythology can look like.
Friday, June 22nd, Rooftop Films will host a screening of The Gospel of Eureka with the filmmakers in attendance, followed by a drag and gospel show care of the film’s protagonists. Find tickets here.
Kyle Turner is a freelance writer and Paste contributor based in Brooklyn, New York. His work has also been featured in Brooklyn Magazine, The Village Voice, Slate and Little White Lies. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.