Last Call at Maud's

by Patricia Leonardi

Cineaste v20, n1 (Wntr, 1993):46 (2 pages).

COPYRIGHT Cineaste Publishers Inc. 1995. Used in the UCB Media Resources Web site with permission.

Produced by Karen Kiss and Paris Poirier; directed by Paris Poirier; cinematography by Cheryl Rosenthal; edited by Elaine Trotter; music by Tim Horrigan. Color, 75 mins. Distributed by The Maud's Project, 32A Horizon Ave., Venice, CA 90291.

"I can think of no place better to have suspense and a real eerie feeling of decadence than a lesbian bar, because lesbians are outlaws, we've always been outlaws and I hope we always stay outlaws, and lesbianbars are our secret hiding places." With these remarks by lesbian mystery writer Mary Wings, Last Call at Maud's begins its descent into the underground "secret sorority" of the lesbian bar scene from the 1940s to the present. For the next seventy-five minutes, both drinks and conversation are free flowing, as a who's who list of lesbian luminaries and local bar regulars recount tales of coming out, first bar visits, pick ups and affairs, police raids, hippie lesbians, the women's movement, Castro Street clones, Anita Bryant, and AIDS.

The occasion and setting for this documentary by first-time director Paris Poirier is the closing of Maud's, the world's oldest and longest- running lesbian-owned bar, located in San Francisco's Haight Ashbury. Maud's is the most recent in a growing subgenre of historical documentaries within queer cinema (Silent Pioneers, Before Stonewall, Tiny And Ruby: Hell Divin' Women, Comrades In Arms, Women Like Us, and the classic Word Is Out) that reconstruct pre-Stonewall gay and lesbian his/herstories using oral histories, personal photographs and memoirs, home movies, and archival materials. Within this tradition, personal stories and social histories blend and blur in an attempt to make real for audiences the not-so-distant, but often hidden or ignored queer past in a homophobic America.

In Last Call at Maud's, the memories of the women interviewed are frequently accompanied by personal photographs of younger selves and lovers. When Rikki Streicher, of Maud's' describes the post-World War II bar scene crowded with butches with their slicked-back hair and femmes with their lipsticked mouths and drop-dead dresses, youthful photos of Streicher in earnest boy drag serve to both illustrate and verify her reminiscences. The film displays a fascinating wealth of archival material testifying to repressive police actions and media coverage which, in those days, had no qualms of outing' those arrested in bar raids by listing their names and addresses. These events and counterstrategies are fleshed out through individual accounts given by Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin (founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first international organization of lesbians) and political activist Sally Gearhart. Gearhart remembers going to mixed' bars (gay and lesbian) that had panic alarms alerting patrons to possible raids. By the time the police arrived, they found a myriad of heterosexual' couples dancing sedately. The most arresting' moments of the film are those which powerfully remind viewers not only of the sanctioned police harassment and the Alcoholic Beverage Control's threat to revoke the liquor license, but also of the risk every lesbian ran simply by patronizing the bar.

While Maud's tends toward the maudlin at times, its historic reevaluation of the lesbian bar scene as both a site of cultural and sexual exchanges and as a space of growing political activism puts the post-Stonewall spectator firmly in her place. Poirier describes Maud's as a "maternal cuffing" at a younger generation of lesbians that she feels has taken for granted certain freedoms, such as having a safe social space for lesbians. Judy Grahn, author of Another Mother Tongue, drives this point home in the film when she remarks, "It wasn't just about loving women, but it was about a whole cultural underground that didn't exist anywhere else except in that milieu which at the same time was dangerous to us."

It is this image of Fifties dykes as rebt. with a cause that younger lipstick lesbians are increasingly reconsidering as compelling historical role' models (evidenced in part by a renewed interest in butch/femme role playing). Many older lesbians may find this outlaw image reaffirming after bearing much criticism by second wave feminists who argued that such roles merely reproduced heterosexual norms.

Yet, for all its claims of representing lesbians as outlaws, the film remains conventional, glossing over internal conflicts within the lesbian communities, particularly regarding race and class, in favor of a seamless and linear historical narrative in which the butch/femme couples are suddenly and effortlessly replaced by psychedelic, long-haired, braless hippie dykes who are just as suddenly eclipsed by Harvey Milk's assassination, Anita Bryant's antigay crusades, and AIDS. (Historical transitions are conventionally made through photo montages with appropriate accompanying music.) The historical interactions and conflicts between lesbians and gay men are somewhat more fully sketched out, but are uncomfortably subsumed under the AIDS epidemic where lesbians appear as comforting supporters (which they have been), but do not seem to be at risk themselves.

Thus, the film's balance between the personal and the social, between memory and history, between revision and nostalgia, is at best precarious. The choice of subject matter, the closing of Maud's, provides the film with a sense of urgency that asks important questions about what effects these bar closings will have on lesbian culture. (Streicher recently shut down Amelia's, another prominent San Francisco lesbian bar.) At the same time, its narrow focus is at times claustrophobic (all the inter-views and moving footage take place in or around the bar) and the spectator is limited to only tantalizing peeks outside Maud's of the broader historical, social, and political issues of the time.

The film's publicity package comments on its blind spots stating, "Because Maud's was a talking bar,' Paris let the conversation dictate the structure. If something historical is missing in the narrative, well, it's just because it didn't come up in conversation." One thing that doesn't come up during these conversations is the matter of who is speaking. The film defers on-screen credits till the final scroll, missing the opportunity to connect these women to their specific contributions to lesbian history and politics (as with the founders of The Daughters of Bilitis, noted authors, community activists, scholars, police commissioners, and so on).

Talking head documentaries are popular because they give a greater voice to the subjects they depict, avoid authoritarian narration, and function as important oral/visual recordings. One of their major limitations, however, is their inability to address complex historical arguments and issues. The scope and perspective of the documentary depends heavily on what the filmmaker can get' from the interviewee and what the filmmaker is willing to ask. While documentaries like Last Call at Maud's are important in continuing the feminist tradition of the personal as political,' relying completely on the conversation of others can reduce the political to the simply personal.

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