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The Lost Films of New York Underground Theater Legend Charles Ludlam Resurface

Everett Quinton in The Sorrows of Dolores

Between the airtight virtue of The Kids Are All Right and the fact that George W. Bush’s former solicitor general is now defending the right to same-sex marriage (never mind the fact that the national folk hero Steven Slater just so happens to be gay), it’s difficult to remember that our pop culture used to be a good deal less straight-up, as it were, about queerness. Amid all of this, the recent discovery of lost (and truly odd) films by the late Ridiculous Theatrical Company founder Charles Ludlam — which will be shown in a retrospective of the artist’s work at New York’s Anthology Film Archives from August 19 through 22 — are a refreshing breath of escapism, from an era when it was necessary.

With Ludlam’s steering, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company grew from the often-bawdy troupe that started in 1967 as underground expression into something quite influential, if not exactly popular, with plays like Camille and The Mystery of Irma Vep. By the late seventies, Ludlam decided to make movies; his long-term project was called The Sorrows of Dolores, a silent black-and-white epic about the surreal adventures of the pigtailed title character, played by Ludlam’s lover and frequent collaborator Everett Quinton. Like Ludlam's plays, there is a drag and gay sensibility woven throughout the film, but homosexuality is never the subject — it is just part of the whole, a much more inclusive way of plotting than found in the prerequisite political messages of today’s queer fare.

The film is crammed with references to horror flicks, melodrama, film noir, and just about every other genre, and it was made in bits and pieces over the course of a decade. “He wanted it to be a cliff-hanger,” Quinton says, “but also the things that turned us on, like King Kong. German Expressionism was one of the major influences.” Case in point: a scene of Dolores cowering on the shadowy cobblestones during the Halloween parade, when it was still little more than a neighborhood block party in the West Village (although some sets were made, the film was mostly shot guerrilla-style on location). Dolores also ventures to a deserted carnival in Little Italy well before it was rechristened Nolita. “That was the San Genarro down on Mulberry,” Everett remembers, adding that he used a male double for a scene in which Dolores runs up and down the street. “I didn’t have the courage to do it. One of our friends dressed up as her. I was young and more frightened in those days.”

After the sporadic shooting finally finished in 1987, Ludlam’s health deteriorated because of AIDS. “I couldn’t tell anybody what was going on,” Quinton recalls. “He was afraid. It was a different time then. The beginning of the new honesty came shortly after that. He was terrified of his career ending.” Quinton recalls that Charles worked feverishly to edit and finish the film: “He would stay up late into the night, as sick as he was, and work on it.” When the final version was finally screened at Anthology Film Archives in 1987, Ludlam wasn’t in attendance. “Charles went into the hospital the day it screened,” says Quinton. “He never came out.”

The films weren’t seen again until last winter’s Queer/Art/Film series, thanks to Antony Hegarty, who became a fan of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company when he was at NYU in the early nineties, well before he found success with Antony and the Johnsons. “There were a few things on my list of things I wanted to see in my lifetime and Dolores was always one of them,” Hegarty says. So when Queer/Art/Film’s Ira Sachs and Adam Baran asked him to curate a night of their film program, he requested Ludlam's movie. Baran and Sachs remastered the film, which was on a shelf in Quinton’s closet, and enlisted the original composer, Peter Golub, to complete the score. “I was embarrassed by the unfinishedness of it,” Quinton admits. “There are a lot of big mistakes in it. I wanted to reedit it, but people told me to leave it and I respect that.” Says Baran, “The films are records of a lost era of a vital piece of New York underground film. No one saw them and they were unfinished so they carry this weight; they’ve never been seen except by the people that were there.” Quinton also dug up Ludlam’s Museum of Wax, a creepy 21-minute horror comedy starring Ludlam, originally commissioned as part of a Coney Island fund-raiser by an arts foundation. “Wax is more of an exciting find,” Hegarty says. “In the movie there are tons of close-ups of Ludlam. It was the first time I could imagine what he embodied as a performer, the extremity of his animation and excitement.”

Since the films’ reemergence, more valuable footage has come to light. Ridiculous founding alumni Lola Pashalinski salvaged two 16mm film experiments from 1967 to 1969: The Bachae, a grainy suburban take on Euripides; and Gooseflesh, which has two drag queens frolicking with hustlers. The shorts will premiere at the retrospective, and Sorrows of Dolores will be shown each night at Anthology, the site of its ill-fated 1987 premiere. “It’s poetic that they are playing it at Anthology,” says Hegarty. “When we showed it at the IFC, It was very unburdened, like snowfall. Very beautiful and light and white. It was a blessing. It was the right time. When the time is right these things come to fruition.”

Photo: Anthology Film Archives