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Footsteps of a Filmmaker: Stephen Cone Reflects on "The Royal Road" and "Gay USA"

Filmmaker Stephen Cone writes about two films that inspired him in both his life and his work.
Stephen Cone
Jenni Olson's The Royal Road and Arthur Bressan Jr.’s Gay USA are both part of MUBI's Pride Unprejudiced collection. The series Awakenings: Three By Stephen Cone is playing on MUBI in many countries.
The Royal Road
The morning after Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party screened at the Castro Theatre as a part of Frameline 39 (San Francisco LGBT Festival), I sat, severely hungover, in the rear floor section of that historic theatre and watched a matinee screening of Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road, an intimate, 65-minute “essay film” about California, unrequited love, narrative and nostalgia that I would eventually come to consider one of the greatest of all films. Sleep-deprived and heart-pounding from dehydration, I had no business being out in public, but with each serene 16mm California image accompanied by Olson’s dryly humorous, reflective voice-over, I began to feel that, in fact, I had no business being anywhere else.
I have only been to San Francisco three times (raised in South Carolina, I’ve lived in Chicago for seventeen years), once for each of my films that Frameline has programmed over the years: The Wise Kids, the aforementioned Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, and Princess Cyd. My experience of the city has not been unlike that of Angels in America’s Prior, who, in a near-death visit, arrives in a barren, San Francisco-type limbo, wanting neither to stay nor leave. At various times in my life, I have uttered the words “I don’t like San Francisco,” “I had a really great time in San Francisco,” “I love San Francisco” and “Don’t ask me about my first visit to San Francisco.” All are true. (Don’t.) While not a stone’s throw from the classic “I love to visit but I would never want to live there,” this doesn’t quite sum up my relationship with the city’s relationship to queer history and film culture.
Two nights prior to that swirly, life-changing screening of The Royal Road, I sat next to Jenni Olson, that film’s director, during the Opening Night screening of Justin Kelly’s I Am Michael. Jenni had become a warm acquaintance via her then-work with the nostalgically-named Wolfe Video, the distributor of all three of my aforementioned films (five additional features—loosely-defined—of mine remain, for better and worse, without distribution). Our relationship at the time had developed primarily via e-mail, both personal and work-related, and yet, Jenni’s warm embrace of both The Wise Kids and Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party felt deeper than mere solidarity, so much more than an industry high-five. I felt I was being acknowledged by a sacred leader, an elite historian, someone who both understood (and, I would come to learn, shared) my experience and yet also had a kind of spiritual/historical access to a time and a place I had only ever experienced, rarely, on small screens far, far away.
Just a touch under two decades prior, I had watched a VHS copy of The Celluloid Closet, a film in which Jenni Olson receives a Special Thanks in the end credits, at home in South Carolina, where I was the teen-aged son of a Southern Baptist minister. Though I felt within myself an emerging queer identity (even if I couldn’t name it), my direct cultural/social encounters with queerness up to that point would have been limited to seeing Philadelphia at the Julia IV Cinemas (age 13) and witnessing, live and in the flesh, two men holding hands in Washington DC during a church trip to the evangelical youth conference DC/LA ’94. (A running theme at said conference was sexual purity.) In the years to come, I would make frequent trips to and live in New York, occasionally visit gay bars, attend a Marriage Equality meeting or two, become involved in my own queer relationships, and, most intensely, delve into the riches of queer cinema. And yet, in the late aughts, as I finally began to explore where my own personal cinema might land on the cultural spectrum, I felt as far away from queer history, culture and activism as I did from San Francisco itself, a city to which the closest I’d come to visiting were recent—at the time—viewings of The Times of Harvey Milk and its fictional counterpart, Gus Van Sant’s Milk. To this day, there is a palpable distance between myself and queer culture that is admittedly a result of nature, nurture and choice. I have lived in Chicago for 17 years and have never attended its Pride parade.

The opening credits of Arthur Bressan Jr.’s Gay USA acknowledge the support of, among others (including UCLA), Frameline, Outfest—where The Wise Kids had its World Premiere in 2011, picking up the Grand Jury Prizes for US Feature and Best Screenplay—and, yes, Jenni Olson in the completion of the film’s restoration. What follows, in one of the first gay documentary features, is an exuberant, unexpectedly layered portrait of gay pride parades across the United States on single day in 1977. Consisting primarily of off-the-cuff interviews on the street, the film is organically political and human in a way that moving picture art simply isn’t at the moment, and is alternately inspiring and despairing; the former in the way it seems to capture a thinking and curious average American citizen, and despairing in that this genuinely progressive sampling of Americans will have, despite enormous societal advances, slammed into a reactionary wall by 2021. In this version of 1977, even the assholes seem thoughtful. There is nary an interview fragment—save the gay elementary school teacher who is later revealed to be a huge Alexander the Great fan - that one wouldn’t or couldn’t mistake for having been recorded during any year since.
For better and for worse, my own experience of queerness is as a sort of private and personally sacred object resting on a shelf. Mostly, I put it into my worldview, my politics (ie. my votes), and my work. Occasionally, I put it into practice socially, and less occasionally, I might even delve into the romantic, etc. (Nature, nurture, choice.) Mostly, I am drawn to solitude and art. And yet, so much of Bressan Jr.’s film, even as it takes place in environments I haven’t frequented, rings true for me. The voices are the same, it’s only the environment that’s different. There’s the woman “compassionately” claiming that “We wanna help the homosexuals to live the right way, the way Christ tells, the way of the Bible. We’re sympathetic. We understand they have a problem, but we want them to be cured. We don’t want them to go on living in sin.” Another woman puts it more succinctly: “While God loves the sinner, he abhors the sin of homosexuality. It is a sickness.” 
I’ve stated on the record many times that my experience as a queer person in the Baptist church and the suburban south was remarkably free of overt oppression or sex-based anxiety and that my own struggles primarily remained in the area of literal hellfire, the impending Rapture, salvation, etc. This is largely due to having compassionate parents and a supportive group of friends, and yet, what a miracle it would be if the conservative church’s message at large might one day pivot from “We love you and have all fallen short!” to the idea expressed so movingly by an elderly woman in Bressan Jr.’s film:
"I believe in human rights. Every mother has a child, that child-, she does not know whether that child is going to be a homosexual or a heterosexual. She shouldn’t ever disavow that child. She should love it from the moment she gives it birth to the moment she or the child dies. And none of us, none of us can choose. We grow up to a certain stage and somebody somewhere, in our genes, has laid down something that has decided ahead of our birth what we are going to be. But I would say, just as God decides whether you’re going to be a boy or a girl, he decides whether you’re going to be homosexual or a heterosexual."
I suppose, in a way, that The Wise Kids and Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party are my attempts to bridge those ideas, as well as represent the hidden within the church. Moments after this moving passage, footage reveals a faceless figure dressed in black holding a sign that proclaims: “I am the homosexual you are afraid to see.” 
Princess Cyd is there, too. In an exuberant montage at the midpoint, a dozen or so parade attendees are asked if they are gay, with responses as touching and varied as “Oh yes”, “No”, “I could be, but I haven’t had any experience”, “I’m more than gay, I’m jubilant” and a response right out of a Tinder profile: “I can’t really restrict myself to just being gay. I’m not straight, either. And I’m not bi, really. I consider myself pansexual.” These parade-goers, captured with profound dignity by Bressan Jr. and his crew, are narrating the various inner lives of every person on this planet at any given moment. Turns out, we were all at the parade.

Princess Cyd / Henry Gamble's Birthday Party / The Wise Kids
Ultimately, the only thing that separates my own experience of queerness from others—including the thousands portrayed in Bressan Jr.’s beautiful film—is time and place. Near the end of The Royal Road, Jenni Olson’s plaintive narrator states: 
"One of the main reasons I’m so attracted to landscapes and buildings is the sense that, unlike people, they tend to endure for many generations. They possess an intimacy with the past that no person, however old, can approach. How to describe my deep spiritual belief about this, of how the things that remain unchanged and aging all around us, in this ever-changing world, actually anchor us to our current selves. And in the aching knowledge of the old, the lost, the forgotten, can be found the moment in which we come fully alive to this day."

Olson could just as well have been talking about cinema itself, or one’s hometown, or one’s history. This is how we queer filmmakers—hell, we filmmakers—bridge the gaps: by telling our own stories. In my own films, I’ve felt my queerness most vividly by exploring my own origins. Olson goes on to say:
"It is in our own acts of storytelling that we must continue to try to evolve from false bravado into true courage. I continue to search for inspiration in the movies just like I did when I was little. I’m inordinately obsessed with the stories of others, seeking within them the key to sharing my own."
As the golden San Francisco cityscape cuts to black, Olson leaves us with two definitions of the word “road,” the first of which is: “a way used for traveling between places.” Just as the roads filled to the brim with Pride celebrants provide both a literal and symbolic way toward progress, so too do acts of creation and memory. By exploring queerness in our—and my—own way, the road is paved to the Castro, where I find myself sitting next to my friend Jenni. The streets of San Francisco and Florence, South Carolina, of Chicago and New York, of Philadelphia and Los Angeles, merge into one, all of us dancing in the street.


Stephen ConeJenni OlsenArthur Bressan Jr.Queer CInemaNow ShowingColumns
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