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At the End of Imagination

Fantastic documentary captures the queer glory of the Cockettes

As my old Seattle friend Big Gay Bob once told me years ago over gin fizzes: “Honey, nobody has more fun than the gays.” It’s true: Not only do gay people tend to earn more, dress better and screw more often than straight folk, but they really do know how to cut a rug, if you know what I mean. I’d even take this one step further and argue that were it not for the gays, this would be one bleak, narrow existence. 

The Cockettes, a wonderful 2002 documentary by David Weissman and Bill Weber, traces the genesis and development of the Cockettes, a communal drag performance troupe founded in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district during the tail end of the ’60s. This is not a fringe history lifting the lid on some ghettoized vestige of the Summer of Love. Rather, as the filmmakers so vividly show, the whole gay-hippie-drag culture that centered on the Cockettes was and is a central component of American culture.

Beginning with a spontaneous performance at the Palace Theatre by such iconic queers as Goldie Glitters, Hibiscus and Scrumbly, this film reveals the deep lineage of personal, political and artistic expression that leads to such mainstream breakouts as the director John Waters and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This is a fun, subversive film that is at once informative and bittersweet, full of archival footage, vast testimony from surviving Cockettes and a strong sense of historical significance; behind the glorious, peacock-like antics of the performers and off-the-cuff creativity and adventure lie the often darker social forces that informed and drove this gay/transgendered theatrical explosion — the Vietnam War, rampant drugs and a backlash of bigotry that continues to this day. 

It is, for the most part, an inspiring film. John Waters describes the whole Cockettes era as “complete sexual anarchy,” and Fayette Hauser, a Cockette interviewee, says of that time, “People were allowed to live at the end of their imagination.” That imagination, as The Cockettes reveals, was not simply a matter of androgynous antics; it was a political and artistic movement, and one that we need to honor, celebrate and replicate in these atavistic times of shadow and fog. 

The Cockettes plays at the Bijou April 12-16 in partnership with the Jordan Schnitzer’s West of Center exhibit. Opening night screening hosted by director David Weissman and Cockette Fayette Hauser 7 pm Friday, April 12. Advanced tickets for opening night available at bijou-cinemas.com