A Safe Space to Dress Up: Wu Tsang’s Wildness at MoMA

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Commentary. © 2012 by David St.-Lascaux

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) International Festival of Nonfiction Film and Media
February 16-28, 2012

THE LAST HAT TRICK I experienced at MoMA was Fred Wiseman’s first three films: heavy going in the USA. Video artist / activist Wu Tsang, it would seem, has pulled off another kind of trifecta in New York: works in the Whitney’s Biennial and the New Museum’s “Ungovernables” show, and a world premiere of Wildness in MoMA’s International Festival of Nonfiction Film and Media. At MoMA’s sold-out screening, he received a warm reception, suggesting that his blog entry about “another cold gray manhattan day = missing LA hard ; )” was just slightly unappreciative.

Wildness is a documentary about the Silver Platter, a bar that opened in 1963 in the MacArthur Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Once a gay bar, the Silver Platter became a haven for a transgendered Latino crowd as the neighborhood changed in the 70s and 80s. In 2008, Tsang and a group of artist, musician and DJ colleagues hosted “Wildness” parties there on Tuesdays, initially confusing the Silver Platter’s regulars, who regarded the newcomers as of a different class (“university”) and race (“blancos of every color”), later literally welcoming them.

Wildness is a sensitive film, filled with humanity and dignity. Its common themes are creativity, community – and disaffection.

In Wildness, the bar’s regulars talk about their lives and their challenges (Paulina Ibarra, a member of the transgendered community, is stabbed to death; years before, one of the owners died of AIDS). An ongoing montage of performances by both the Latino and gringo crowds is voice-over narrated by Mariana Marroquin as the anthropomorphized Silver Platter “herself.”

The Silver Platter’s patrons reflect with profundity, describing their objective “to eradicate homophobia in our community”; how, “when you have to fight for your life every day, it’s hard to dream”; one says, “that has always been my wish: equality and respect”; another, “life moves in and out of me like a wave… but sooner or later we get caught by the tide.”

The Silver Platter’s patrons reflect with profundity; one say, “that has always been my wish: equality and respect.”

The only sour note is Tsang’s self-promotional conflict of interest: Wildness is an autobiographical documentary whose director appears early and often onscreen. The film’s documentation of the Wildness parties inherently promotes Tsang’s commercial endeavors (the Wildness party was solicited, Dan Duray reports in the New York Observer, by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles). To regard this as student work is required for absolution.

Wildness is a sensitive film, filled with humanity and dignity. It’s thought-provoking, too, though perhaps not in the way Tsang might have intended. As one observes both crowds – art and transgendered – comingled at the Silver Platter, the common themes evoked are creativity, community and disaffection. The first two are transcendent and tribal, respectively; the third confusing. It’s as if our society’s dreamers don’t wish to accept the responsibility of community life, or can’t see a way to do so, and so choose to escape into the fantasy of life as a party. Or maybe they’re just waiting to be welcomed, literally.

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