“In order to be successful, you either have to create a desire, or fulfil a need”, says Continental bath owner Steve Ostrow in writer/director Malcolm Ingram’s third homo-centric documentary Continental (after Small Town Gay Bar and Bear Nation). “In this case, it was doing both.” The latest in a recently extended line of documentaries examining less mainstream elements of gay culture history – I Am Divine and Before You Know It are two others to came out of this year’s SXSW festival – Continental is a conventionally assembled, but briskly entertaining recounting of how what is now considered a hush-hush underground aspect of gay life was at one time an open secret and hive of activity. It gave birth to the fame of Bette Midler and Barry Manilow alongside allowing New York gay men an outlet for their sexuality that society was determined to supress.
The Continental Baths being what they are (homosexuality was illegal when they first opened), very little video footage exists and so Ingram relies more on still images, generic pornography footage, and New York stock footage with old film reel filters overlayed – one specific piece of vision that is frequently used initially looks like it could have been filmed in the 1970s, but actually has the new World Trade Center in its sight. It doesn’t necessarily work against the film per se, but it does mean the film has to fall back on less interesting documentary tropes like recurring talking heads and reoccurring footage of the hotel that housed the baths.
As a result, the film works best when simply recounting its sordid tales in refreshingly frank openness (we can thank Michael Musto a lot for that). Its examination of the bath scene of the ‘70s is illuminating and results in a film that is probably as close as we’ll ever get to looking at this period in great, specific detail. It should certainly be a must see for anybody interested in queer history. Whether you’re a gay man who supports these places or not (I’ve personally never been, but gay men have so many more avenues nowadays for obvious reasons), they played a large part in the story of gay culture’s blending with the the mainstream lifestyle of the time. At least in New York City, anyway. Ostrow and his former employees recount some wickedly entertaining stories from the day, including the mafia, the disco, and most importantly the Continental’s brief period as a celebrity go-to location. Apart from homosexual celebrities Andy Warhol, even Johnny Carson and Alfred Hitchcock went there (not together, obviously)!
Famous for Ostrow’s championing of disco and opera, as well as their elaborate cabaret shows that introducing Bette Midler and Barry Manilow to mass pop culture, and on through to their part in the spread of AIDS (the Continental itself, however, closed down several years before the crisis struck New York in the 1980s), which was a specific plot point in excellent 1993 TV movie And the Band Played On, Continental remains an interesting study. Ostrow, permanently wrapped in a scarf, is an entertaining personality to pivot a documentary around and it could have been interesting to have investigated more into his personal life (although an operatic coda at film’s end is a nice way of bringing things full circle).
Much like the baths, disco music had itself a brief heyday during the 1970s when sexual liberation was the next frontier. Jamie Kastner’s documentary The Secret Disco Revolution aims to reposition the conversation of disco music and its legacy into its rightful place: that of a revolutionary and exciting time full of brilliant talent producing music that is – just like pop music today – criminally underrated. However, as well-intentioned as this movie is, it is not as well made nor as well-assembled as Continental. Ingram’s documentary was wise to focus on the one location and not any of the other baths that were prevalent at the time (The Meatrack and The Anvil for example), but The Secret Disco Revolution takes a far too broad look at its subject and inevitably comes out looking less than comprehensive.
While there is plenty of interest in Kastner’s documentary, anybody with more than a passing knowledge the disco era will know most of it already. Especially as it pertains to personalities such as Donna Summer (sexually exploited by her years as one of Casablanca Records’ golden goose) and The Village People (some of who still don’t see the incredibly homosexual undertones of their music). The latter group with their flamboyant costumes and catchy disco pop hooks were, as the film shows, somewhat unwitting pawns in their producer’s desire to inject a post-Stonewall homosexual sensibility to mainstream heteronormative culture. Furthermore, the film is more interesting when navigating the tricky critical and cultural reception to disco music, including the famous album burning events at sport stadiums, which personify a sort of homophobic intolerance to what disco music was doing to masculine radio stations across the country.
Interspersed with rather embarrassing sideshow of three disco revolutionaries (I don’t even know) and a disappointing lack of extended time capsule footage (there’s plenty of it, but only in mini glimpses), The Secret Disco Revolution sadly doesn’t do enough with its subject to succeed. Disco is such a glamorous and exciting era of music and it deserves better treatment than this only fleeting entertaining documentary. It’s a film for disco die-hards only, and they will presumably be as ho-hum about the affair as I am. Compared especially to Continental, The Secret Disco Revolution only makes the former look more impressive. Continental: B; The Secret Disco Revolution: C-
Continental plays BAMcinemafest tonight in Brooklyn.
The Secret Disco Revolution is on VOD and in cinemas on 28/06/13