This description of the film was written for a distribution proposal in the 1970s
THE WORLD'S LEADING EXPONENTS OF SEXUAL ROLE CONFUSION
'Of all things awful is not caution the most horrid' - Galsworthy
A recent history of the conditions and climate existing in San Francisco during the last half of the sixties, which led to the formation of a phenomenon known as the Cockettes. They were a bizarre melange of freaks emerging from the ashes of Haight Ashbury and its accompanying myth. Drawn together, out of a necessity to survive, they still carried much of the initial idealism, that as a vague philosophy was dubbed 'flower power' by the media. But they had pushed their lifestyle far beyond their peers; radical politics and liberation movements somehow seemed irrelevant--they were liberated, and they celebrated that fact.
So, when the Cockettes first rushed the stage at the Palace in January 1970, the audience witnessed an explosion of raw sexual energy, propelled by a manic belief in the humor of the ridiculous, the bizarre, anything that would twist, change, or confuse previously accepted norms. Spontaneous, offkey, and utterly disorganized, they nevertheless communicated a total sense of joy, foolish, innocent and totally outrageous. A reaction, a flight into fantasy from the cultural and political confusion that is termed reality.
Rauchenberg spoke of acting in the gap between art and life. With them, there was no gap art began at home and no matter how outrageous the stage shows, everyday events were more surreal. Hibiscus was the Group's initial inspiration. Coming from a family of actors, it is significant that he never went to school, thereby keeping a complete amoral innocence in situations others consider depraved. As a child in Florida, his first theater was an open garage. Later in New York, he worked at the Village's noted La MaMa Theater. Upon arrival in San Francisco, he underwent a drastic change in both appearance and temperament. The shy, pensive, close-cropped George Harris became Hibiscus, wandering the streets barefoot, a ring in his nose; clad in old dresses, abandoned robes the waste of a society mirrored in his attire. He does not regard himself as a transvestite.
"Have you ever seen the men in Bali? The men look like male birds. They get more dressed up than the women do. And in India and Morocco the men get really dressed up."
This fascination with the East and its theater is linked with Antoinin Artaud whose influence can hardly be overestimated, not only for his efforts to establish a theater based on the act and not literature, but also his unswerving devotion to a lifestyle that not only hindered his ambition, but finally caused him to be committed. Other definitive influences are Dietrich especially in Sternberg's "Blue Angel" and Carne's "Children of Paradise."
But Hibiscus also possessed the absolute belief that all shows should be done for free and the audience served food. For a time he was persuaded to do commercial shows leading to a climax when the newspaper "Rolling Stone" found financing for a documentary on them. After many meetings and test footage shot there was a complete breakdown in communication; the Cockettes could not meet dead lines and deal with the business aspects of the film. Neither were the crew about to hang the schedule and shoot what they could from the inside. Coupled with this was the rising tide of jealousy among some of the more commercially minded Cockettes, against Hibiscus. They were opposed to his ideas of new people in each successive show, and, of course, the promoter was tired of him letting every one in free. So, in early 1971 Hibiscus, Rumi, Sandi, Harlow and David, along with many others, left the Cockettes and formed the Angels of Light. This, because Hibiscus in his naiveté had allowed the rights to the name fall into the promoter's hands. Rumi went solo and was soon to star in the feature "Elevator Girls." Of the originals only Scrumbly, Link, Gary and Daryl were left.
About this time I met Hibiscus I was on assignment taking stills for an article on the Cockettes for "Rolling Stone." Hibiscus was preparing for the first 'Angels of Light' show at the Committee Theater on Broadway in San Francisco's North Beach. I asked him if I could videotape the show and he agreed. I made two video tapes on two consecutive weekends - a total of two hours playing time. Interesting as they were, I was aware of the limitations imposed by video as a medium; consequently, I determined to invest all the money I had saved for video on a film about Hibiscus and the whole subculture.
On Good Friday we shot the first scenes of the film. The crucifixion of Hibiscus by the Cockettes at the beach, Lands End in the distance, the massive wooden cross forming a sinister break, the waves slapping against its base. The action took on aspects of a medieval ritual with the camera following the action rather than being performed to. On Easter Sunday at sunrise we filmed the resurrection a clear day ablaze with the brilliant costumes a total contrast to the grim greys of the previous Friday.
Soon after this I encountered the first problem of securing a sufficient supply of raw stock. The film was a documentary. This meant capturing what we could, often in situations we had no control over. To cull from this an interesting film demands a large editing ratio, at least 10:1. About this time I met Gregory Sherman, a graduate of the University of Oregon, majoring in film. He had, through his cousin at ABC, a constant supply of raw film stock. He was also very receptive to my ideas for the film, so, pooling our resources, he moved into my loft and we were ready to continue.
Greg became the technical engineer of the film, his particular expertise being in the field of sound and lighting. Invariably his ability to repair equipment in the least favorable situations saved us. This because the equipment available to us was always either rented or borrowed and prone to breakage. At this time we began to shoot sync, using an Eclair NPR equipped with Angeneux 9.5 - 95 mm. and Nagra 111. Our second camera was a Beaulieu. Jim Servais, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, who was to have been assistant director on the abortive Stone project, was our cameraman, though Greg and I also shot.
We were following the Angels to every show. I helped Hibiscus arrange an outdoor show at the Polk Street fair, and my loft began to take on the aspects of a glitter factory with makeup tables, backdrops being painted and a profusion of costumes everywhere. We filmed Raggedy Robbin's wedding and Polk St. Then the Cockettes in Clapland at the Fillmore West - a benefit for the VD clinic. We filmed Hibiscus at home and followed the Cockettes to Davis. We staged a banquet at the loft which turned into an incredible scene of slapstick mayhem.
During June and July we made two trips to Seattle, once my van packed with Cockettes. In Seattle we met, stayed with and filmed the Whiz Kidz, a similar group started by an ex-Cockette. Their show at the Paramount, the fifties show "Puttin' out is Dreamsville" was a triumph. With them appeared Alice Cooper, the L. A. rock star. Eventually we returned, and decided to transform the large front area in the building we occupy into a theater with stage and lights, where Hibiscus and the Angels of Light could give free cabarets. In a frenzy of work the stage was erected, sets made, theater lights donated and wired, the walls were painted with murals, back drops were erected, and in a little over two weeks the first free cabaret opened on August 3rd. Alan Ginsberg joined us, and sang his renditions of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience accompanied by the Angels.
Soon after the cabaret I repaired to Honolulu where almost immediately Hibiscus and Sandi followed me. I was working on stills for the presentation and did some sessions there.
On our return we plunged into preparation for the next free cabarets which were held on October 2, 3, and 4. The second cabaret had a New Orleans flavor - a cotton-club cabaret. It can only be described as an experience - the intensity created by the Angels' shows is overwhelming. Hibiscus constantly draws new people off the street, many of whom have never been on stage before. In days the image is complete, and it is not uncommon to have thirty or forty flaming creatures dancing an incredible lineup, "How ya gonna keep em down on the farm after they've seen Pareeee?" But the atmosphere is one of a happening as much as a show - so close in all respects is cast and audience.
On October 17, I produced another show, this time at the Commit tee 'Revue on Broadway. This was Rumi's show. One of the early stars of the Cockettes, he is best known for his imitations of Tina Turner and Mick Jagger. Not that he imitates them as much as taking on their whole spirit and carrying it perhaps further if that is possible. He also sings slow nostalgic songs from the thirties things like "Ramona" and "My Old Flame." The show was a great success. It was recorded on video tape and ECOX, the Eclair equipped with an Angeneux 5.8 mm lens. This extreme wide angle lens is one of the most effective ways of capturing a live performance, as it eliminates the need either to track the action or follow focus. This is the lens much of "Woodstock" was shot with.
We have had several sessions since then, but it is now mostly a matter of filling in a couple of joiner scenes, and some still framing. We may still manage to end it with Hibiscus's departure in a hotair balloon a fitting image for his state of mind.
The film revolves around Hibiscus; it shows him as the founder of the troupe; eventually turned against, and the pain he suffers. He sees the rest of the Cockettes leave for New York and flounder without him. It is the story of a set of people regarded as freaks by society, but as cultural heroes by their peers.
The Cockettes have been an immensely popular group especially in the underground. Consequently, they have proved to be extremely viable commercially. Their first film, "Tricia's Wedding", a spoof on the White House event, was a short, l5minute film, made for $5,000.
It returned the figure the first weekend it played. It has since been bought by Grove Press and distributed nationally. A black and white film of last year's Halloween show, even without sync sound, has also been purchased by Grove Press. However, there has been no other feature produced or even begun at this date. We have on film every performance by the Cockettes and Angels of Light this year - a total of 35,000 feet of exposed film. Included in this is footage of Alan Ginsberg, Viva, The Whiz Kidz and Alice Cooper. Small segments of the film have been processed periodically to check exposure and ageing. To date, all tests have proved positive. The film is stored, sealed and refrigerated in a hermetically sealed environment. Finished, the film will be almost equally black and white and color, although much of the black and white is high contrast and/or will be tinted.
National distributors will not commit themselves in advance, but Sherpix has expressed an interest in the finished product, and it is quite possible Warner Erothers wi 11 be interested after the success of "Gimme Shelter." Even on a local level, the film would be profitable, and Miss Arlene Elster has said she will show it at her Sutter Cinema. The market for low budget films aimed at a specialized audience is increasing. I include a Xerox of a page from Alvin Toffer's acclaimed "Future Shock", describing this phenomenon. But, though this film will obviously cater to the homosexual market, the Cockettes have never been just another bunch of drag queens. Andy Warhol made "Lonesome Cowboys" four years ago for $15,000, and currently it is showing at two San Francisco theaters; the same is true for "Flesh" and "Trash", two of his other productions. This film, when released, will hit those same audiences, I know. They are the same audiences that line for blocks around the Palace when the Cockettes perform and jam my warehouse when Hibiscus is there.