P.S Burn This Letter Please & Socks On Fire | 2020 Tribeca Film Festival
Updated: Apr 21
By: Hooman Razavi
Geoff King who teaches and writes on American independent cinema has made the comment that compared to Hollywood films, independent films are generally more probing and questioning the social reality and day lives of Americans. The two films P.S. Burn this letter Please and Socks on Fire which are being screened in Tribeca film festival online this year, by showcasing period of queer history, its impact on personal lives and American culture, in a sense validate King’s assertion. This review analyzes these two films, the relationship between them and poignant message(s) each and both communicate with American and world audience.
Socks on Fire directed and acted by Bo McGuire is a docudrama, set in rural town in Alabama. The film takes us to view history of McGuire’s family in the South and how the attitude towards homosexuality has shaped past/present family dynamic, children upbringing and characters including the director, community health and the current state of the family vis-à-vis the issue of inheritance. As with the first documentary, P.S. Burn this letter Please, co-directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera shines the light on the lives of nine former drag queens who performed, mostly in 1950-60s in New York gay clubs. The film is inspired by discovery of box of letters in Los Angeles for Reno Martin, a friend to all characters. It meditates and brings to life barely undocumented LGBT history of the period, turbulences and its legacy on current queer discourse and culture.
Film Analysis $ Interpretation
From a formalistic perspective, both films show innovations and some similarities and differences. McGuire uses variety of camera movements and narrative techniques to set the record straight. The old footages are used as backgrounds to give context to the story but static shots, interviews in which both characters are in the frame, Steadicam use in the house, zooming and breaking the fourth wall are just a few to mention. In Tiexiera & Seligman work, apart from extensive visual imagery of NY scenes, characters days as drag queen, the close-up and medium shots are used extensively to create that sense of affinity. The letters also take the centre stage and how they are embedded in the storytelling. The writing and concomitant voice-over helps the audience to understand the trauma and buried histories that need to be uncovered.
Interestingly, both film titles evoke the imagery of fire, burning and destruction. This may be the first evocation, but towards the end of both documentaries, the viewers notice this the burning, as much as it is implied, may gives light to a new reflection, growth and understanding. In both films, gay subjects are represented. While in Socks in Fire, this is done more at personal and local level, in P.S. Burn this letter Please, a very similar set of themes and issues are represented impacting a series of characters, actors and their social relations across America. In a sense the two films can be seen to be one film, depicting and commenting on repression of individuality, identities and LGBT culture, both at the particular level of family and universal level of the city/nation. This entanglement of the particular and the universal, apart from its theoretical Hegelian roots is visible in both films. McGuire camera and old footages takes us inside the family and show the feud precipitated by gay identities of both the uncle and the director. Moreover, the same tensions are hinted and portrayed in the dialogues and scenes of the gay bar in the town. Viewers can also see that the same underlying dynamic is exposed in the interviews with drag queens, archival footages and narration of the letters. Stories of Robert who came to NY from Kansas and Henry who came to “Club 82” from Cuba show how they dreamt of a new place other than home and family pressures. These difficulties were not abated when they joined the clubs in their new roles, and the documentary, once again, beautifully narrates the history of stigma, persecution and resistance. In brief, all characters in both films embody the tensions inherent in the cultural paradigm shift in American psyche. This change is towards recognition of the rights and desires of LGBT, especially gay people in the past/present affecting every layer of the society.
The other level of analysis is towards social and political messages coming out of these films. In both films, the identity crisis of characters in their family and broader society is highlighted. There are many clues and scenes in both documentaries, based on the letters, archival footages and interviews that dissect the underlying reasons. In Socks on Fire, aunt Shannon has homophobic views which sours family relations and it influences the current state of the house and how each member relates to one another. Shannon is hinted to be religious and a good Southern Belle. This cultural heritage of American South, especially in places as Alabama can resonate with young viewers who may live in these states or somewhere in the world with similar attitudes. Interestingly, even though there are hints in the film from the outset, but the gay identities of the characters are revealed later in the first film, potentially to allow the viewer to psychologically get in tune with the plot development and characters, hence it becomes easier to be woven into the drama of family tensions. In the second half of the film, though one can see a resolution or a sense that the characters (drag queen uncle and Bo) are somehow accepted and family is not fully back to normal but not dysfunctional either.
In P.S. Burn this letter Please, the social commentary is supported by interviews with experts such as Michael Henry Adams and Esther Newton. The viewer watches almost nine short episodes, but the editing has connected the stories, especially how all characters survived and resisted the unjust laws and repressive measures. The film is rich with dialogues and references to 1950-1980s, which makes the viewer to appreciate the night and social lives of that period. For instance, in a few parts, shutting down of gay bars, mafia connection, gay tax and use of obscenity laws are highlighted. Moreover, the AIDS epidemic and death of many of the drag queens provide the context to the era in which the community was heavily affected and stigmatized. Shrewdly, in other scenes, shop-lifting or mopping of drag queens is mentioned. Therefore, the viewers can see not a very dualistic picture of the opposing forces but a context that minority groups, though not flawless in their characters and actions were influenced by the regressive laws and attitudes.
The issue of gender in both films can be also analyzed further. The audience can see that these characters found it inadequate to perform the same gender role assigned to them by birth. As much as this was unacceptable and undesirable by the family structure and social norms, these characters pushed the boundaries, showed courage and advocated for social change and personal choice. In this view, stepping out of the role is progressive, but as hinted in the second film, and using Judith Bulter’s ideas, one can critique drag queens and their choice/parodying act as more of an act of gender imitation. As such, can not one question their new morphed identity that has not really subverted patriarchy or heteronormative relations of power, but instead reinforced it in a different form. In a sense the comments raised in one of the dialogues which made the drag queens to dislike their titles, and preferences for femme artist or female impersonator could be a counter point to the progressive readings. Interestingly, this debate on nature of gender, can make us to think about queer spectatorship and how as critical viewers one can be aware of the politics of the image, regardless of its progressive and queer characterizations.
As one of the co-directors Jennifer Tiexiera reflected, more voices equal a better story. This mindset is well carried into both films that show the multitude of voices through the lives of McGuire family and nine drag queens and their social circles. As audience and documentary enthusiasts at Tribeca Film Festival, it is refreshing to watch independent films that dare to raise and ask questions on such difficult subjects, ones that challenge our deeply held biases and prejudices. The burning of letters and socks as much as symbolic and visceral to us as viewers, but they are testaments to the lives of ordinary American citizens whose subjectivities and resistances against heteronormative regimes of truths and tradition are as relevant today as it was in the past few decades.