Showbiz Documentary Two-Fer : “I Am Divine”

Posted: July 28, 2014 in movies
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I gotta be honest — sometimes I’m not exactly sure what “direction,” if any, this blog is headed in. Which is probably a good thing. Way back when I started out here, I pretty much concentrated all my “efforts” on reviewing what could loosely be called “cult,” “fringe,”exploitation” or “low budget” cinema, but before too long I found myself worming in reviews of then-current Hollywood efforts, or cinematic oddities from around the globe, or documentaries that caught my attention, or amateur SOV efforts, or — well, anything, I guess, as long as it could loosely be described as a “movie” of some sort. A few years later, mostly on a lark, I started to occasionally sprinkle in some comic book reviews,as well, and now those have become more or less a mainstay around these parts. Heck, once in awhile I even swim in the cesspool that is television and talk about it here.

What’s any of this got to do with anything? Simply this : I was about to start my review of director Jeffrey Schwarz’ 2013 effort I Am Divine (which is now available via Netflix instant streaming, as well as on DVD and Blu-Ray — I chose the first option, so no technical specs for its physical-storage iterations will be included with this review, sorry) by saying “let’s take a brief sidestep from our usual proceedings here by looking at a couple (more on that later) of recent documentaries about subjects of interest to fans of  ‘cult’ cinema   —” when I realized that there’s really no such thing as “usual proceedings” around here anymore. And I guess I kinda like that, because it means I can basically write about whatever the fuck I want.

Not that I couldn’t before, mind you. I just didn’t, at first, because I wanted to stick with some kind of “format.” But now I can’t even remember why, apart from feeling like the name I’d chosen for the site, “Trash Film Guru,” should at least be kind of, ya know, relevant to what I was talking about. Which I guess it isn’t anymore. Unless it still generally is — except when it’s not.

Oh, who the hell cares — I think it’s probably fair to say that it is and it isn’t. And it’s definitely both in this particular case because, even though I don’t talk documentaries too terribly often (so that “brief sidestep line” probably might have worked after all), the fact is, when you think of trash cinema, Divine is pretty much an icon, is s/he not? I mean, those early John Waters flicks are pretty much textbook examples of what a “trashy movie” is all about, and Divine was the reigning queen of OTT outrageous-ness in all of them. Sure, there would be a world of “Trash Film” for me to be a self-declared “Guru” of without Waters and his larger-than-life (and, ultimately and tragically, too large to keep living) friend/muse, but it would be a much duller place, and one with far fewer people interested in it.

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I’m pleased to say that Schwarz gets that. He seems to understand not only what Divine represented to the LGBT community, and yeah,  that’s arguably his primary historical focus here (and seems to be the raison d’etre behind Wolfe Pictures, who distributed this flick),  but he also understands what a flat-out transformational (pun only slightly intended) figure the subject of his little celluloid biography was to the wider world of “bad” movie lovers and aficionados of “low brow” culture in general.  Let’s face it — you can’t see Pink Flamingos and not have the image of Divine impressed upon your memory forever.

Schwarz goes back even further than that, though, to the drag legend’s first appearances in various short films with Waters and his motley gang of outsiders, and even includes a ton of ultra-rare super-8 footage of hir (yes, I meant to type that) stage appearances and other various other oddities I would’ve thought lost to the ages. For hard-core Divine fans, this is a flat-out treasure trove of material.

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Where this film really succeeds, though, is in tracing how the shy young outcast from Baltimore born Harris Glenn Milstead became the deliberately offensive, crude, uncouth figure that would eventually be known the world over. Thanks to the heartfelt personal reminiscences of those who knew Milstead best both before and after his “other” persona emerged — including Greg Gorman, Mark Payne, Michael Musto, Mink Stole, Milstead’s equally-closeted-at-the-time former high school girlfriend, his mother, Francis, and, of course, Waters — we get a reasonably complete picture of a complex and intriguing individual who will probably remain well-nigh impossible to ever fully fathom, despite the very best efforts of all involved here to do so.

Also worthy of note is the fact that this film, while being largely celebratory in nature, resists the urge to degenerate into complete hagiography and deals fairly honestly with the compulsions that drove Divine to attempt to fill some sort of void in his/her life by over-indulging, particularly when it came to food. A figure and persona defined by excess is often very well familiar with that subject themselves, and Schwarz has constructed a flick that is frank and honest about that.

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It remains a genuine tragedy that Divine’s life was cut short just as he/she was achieving mainstream “crossover” success for hir work both in and out of drag — you absolutely must see Alan Rudolph’s sublime Trouble In Mind if you haven’t yet done so — but it’s heartening to see films such as this and the earlier (though, frankly, not quite as good) Divine Trash doing their part to insure that this fascinating, talented, enigmatic, and genuinely singular figure’s legacy is kept alive.

Oh yeah —  I said earlier that we’d be taking a look at “a couple of recent documentaries of particular interest to ‘cult’ movie lovers” or somesuch, did I not? So check back tomorrow (or the next day, depending on how much free time I’ve got) for a long-delayed look at Jodorowsky’s Dune. Hope to see you then!

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