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A Queer Film Historian Discusses Movies That Provoke

Elizabeth Purchell isn’t afraid of “Transexual Menace,” even though she is a transgender woman and the film sounds like the kind of hateful propaganda you’d find for sale at a convention of conspiracy nuts.

But “Transexual Menace” is a cornerstone of documentary filmmaking about transgender people — a 1996 time capsule made by the maverick and prolific queer German director Rosa von Praunheim. And Purchell, 32, is a historian of queer film who has a soft spot for movies that provoke, arouse, tickle and otherwise stir the queer cinema pot.

“It’s great that we have queer rom-coms, but I want to be challenged,” said Purchell during a phone interview from her home in Austin, Texas. “I don’t want to see the 200th coming out film.”

“Transexual Menace” is one of six documentaries in “Revolt of the Perverts,” a new von Praunheim retrospective that Purchell put together for Brooklyn’s Spectacle Theater, where the series continues through June 27. Purchell will be in town at the end of the month to introduce some of the films in person.

The series is one of the latest queer movie endeavors from Purchell. Her work as an archivist, historian and curator includes a podcast, Instagram account and experimental documentary about gay adult cinema history — all named Ask Any Buddy. She also recently recorded audio commentaries on new restorations of films by the gay adult film directors Fred Halsted and Arthur J. Bressan Jr.

For custodians of queer film history, Purchell is a standard-bearer.

“Elizabeth is doing amazing curatorial work in identifying significant and lesser-known things that deserve to be elevated,” said Jenni Olson, a queer film historian and archivist. “Sometimes I’m not sure how she finds things.”

Purchell, who came out as a transgender woman just last November, recently talked about the state of queer cinema and what under-the-radar movie she’d recommend watching for Pride. The interview has been edited and condensed.

What’s your goal as a queer film historian?

To get people excited about history and look beyond the surface of queer cinema. I think people want to see more queer films, not just the same five movies over and over. They want to see performances, actors and personalities they’ve maybe never seen before, like Holly Woodlawn and Taylor Mead.

In what shape is queer cinema now?

It’s remarkable that queer cinema has grown into this gigantic ecosystem of filmmaking. But I want more. I want trans filmmakers to make the films they want to make. I want to see filmmakers push boundaries. Queer cinema should be more than just X film but make it gay — thriller but make it gay or horror film but make it gay. I want to see what’s next.

Is there a queer film out now that does that?

“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.” It’s about trans issues, but other people might not pick up on that. It’s undoubtedly a queer film that isn’t textually queer. I find that exciting.

How did you first become interested in gay pornography?

A few years ago, my partner and I went to a screening of “Bijou,” and Wakefield Poole, the director, was there to introduce it. It opened my eyes to this entire world I didn’t know about. I thought, if this one film exists, what else is out there? So I watched “Thundercrack!” and “L.A. Plays Itself” and it made me want to see more.

What did you learn about the connection between pornography and mainstream gay cinema?

I don’t think people realize there’s this hidden history of queer filmmaking contained in adult films. People tend to think queer cinema began with New Queer Cinema, but adult films laid the groundwork. The films were made for very little money, but the theaters they played at were safe social spaces for people to watch movies, cruise and meet other people.

The other thing that struck me was how connected these films and filmmakers were to mainstream gay culture. If you look at old issues of The Advocate from the ’70s, you see stills from gay porn and reviews of the films. The genre was a crucial vehicle for gay ideas and imagery to make their way across the country.

You came out as transgender pretty recently. How has that experience been?

People have been very kind to me personally. Growing up in Tampa in the ’90s, there was no way for me to know what trans people were or what it was like to be trans or who could be trans. I settled on I’m a gay man and did that for about a decade. I was working on the Fred Halsted Blu-ray, and I slowly started to realize I was trans. “Sextool” is a Halsted film with a trans woman in it. She’s not in the sex scenes, but her presence got me researching all these trans people and trans history. It just suddenly began to click.

Is there an under-the-radar movie you’d recommend people watch during Pride?

Radley Metzger’s “Score.” It’s an adaptation of the play by the great Jerry Douglas, a pioneering gay playwright, filmmaker and incredibly important historian. Jerry passed away last year. It’s one of my favorite movies. It’s about this swinging couple who have this game to see who can make it first with someone of the same sex from another couple. It’s a wonderful example of how sex and cinema can combine to create something honest.

What is it like to be a transgender person working in queer cinema in Texas these days?

You think of Austin as this big liberal bastion, but you’re still in Texas. You drive a mile outside the city and you see the pro-life billboards. I run a queer film series through the Austin Film Society. What I’ve been trying to do is build a community and give people a safe space to explore film. Our screening of “Cruising” sold out. People were in full gear.

Full gear?

There was a furry bear wearing nothing but a leather jock. It was really wonderful.



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