Before I moved to the West Coast in 2004, I had the pleasure of becoming a fan of the local LGBT film festival here in Indy. So imagine my excitement when I discovered that the festival had not floundered in my absence. Not only that. This year marked the 10th anniversary of the Indianapolis LGBT Film Festival.
With that in mind and my umbrella in tow, Saturday afternoon found me in the Toby Theater at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Packing in a larger audience than the premiere night feature film Violet Tendencies, Kent J. Henry's documentary Talbott Street 1980-1986 was a huge success with the Indianapolis family and allies alike.
After a short introduction from Talbott Street's current owner, Michael Strapulos, and a brief "What was my motivation?" from the man himself, Kent J. Henry, the documentary opened on black-and-white photos and a narrative voiceover explaining the history of Talbott Street. History buffs and Indy natives are not only given a fresh perspective on this singular hotspot, but are introduced to yet another reason for local Hoosiers to be proud of their hometown. In addition to the footage of drag queen showstoppers like Billy Blake and Ruth Dix, Talbott Street of the 1980s also played host to performances by such gay icons as Linda Clifford, Grace Jones, Sylvester, and the one and only Divine.
During the first half of the '80s, Talbott Street grew to become a mecca of Indianapolis' queer nightlight. Without taking any direct credit, Henry is clearly responsible for the launch of the Mr. Talbott Street contest, the In Concert series, and the Miss Gay Indiana pageant. One particular story the film shares involved the nightclub marquee displaying "MISS GAY INDIANA" in large letters in preparation for the inaugural event. A few days before the big day, Henry was approached by local police officers asking him to take down the sign or at least remove the word "GAY" for they could not guarantee anyone's safety on the night of the show. Henry politely refused and went ahead with the extravaganza (marquee and all). The event went off without incident.
One of the more enjoyable details of the documentary is how Henry makes a point to hammer home that Talbott Street was not just a popular disco to help you forget your troubles week after week. It was also a home to many Indianapolis gays and lesbians who weren't accepted yet in their own homes at that time. For example, the Christmas holiday brought many together not only for the celebration of the season, but for solace as well. This reality is all the more reason to note the poignant sadness that lingers over the film's end when Henry declares --- rather abruptly --- after six wonderful years, he chose to close the nightclub's doors.
Thankfully, during the Q&A following the documentary, an attendee thought to ask what led to Henry's decision to close Talbott Street in 1986. Although he was only a hyperactive 22-year-old when he opened the club in 1980, Henry admits that it was a big success in spite of the odds. He wanted to created a safe space where local Indy gays, lesbians, transgenders, and, yes, even straights, could hang out without fear or shame. But the AIDS epidemic began to take a large toll on the club by the mid-80s. This combined with the fact that smaller bars were becoming more popular --- some declaring that the Talbott Street scene was "so over" --- he decided to close up shop.
Overall, the documentary is a wonderful homage to a unique piece of Indiana history. Although there were a few tales of celebrity wrangling, Henry confesses that it wasn't too difficult to book major headliners like Linda Clifford and Sylvester because the artists loved coming to Indianapolis thanks to local hospitality and friendliness. Given that it's Henry's first foray into documentary film making, I believe Talbott Street 1980-1986 is an ambitious piece. One might be quick to notice the film's imperfections, such as the editing quality suffers from his lack of experience and the narration feels a bit thin in places. However, in the end, the film serves as a delightful love letter to an historic Indianapolis landmark that I hope the city truly comes to appreciate.
Switching gears from the tale of a nightclub to the industry standard for nightclub tail, the second half of this festival block featured Christopher Hines' new documentary The Adonis Factor. The film shines a spotlight on the seemingly superficial nature of young gay culture, exploring the out and proud fetishization of the überfit, muscular boy toys that frequent many gay nightclubs, discos and circuit parties. Hines does a wonderful job of lambasting the superficiality of this mindset while at the same time compelling the audience to take a closer look at the hearts of men simply trying to stay afloat within yet another social circle that judges them on appearance.
A number of the men are essentially responding to the universal question: "Do looks matter?" The answer is a resounding yes, and, sometimes with heartbreaking results. Hines interviews several physicians and psychologists who share shocking statistics this phenomenon has produced. More than 15% of gay men have suffered from eating disorders compared to less than 5% of their straight counterparts. Plastic surgeon Dr. Greg Miller reveals that 80% of his male patients are gay. Everything from hair transplants, butt implants, botox, collagen fillers, penile implants and neck lifts are on the menu for many gay men attempting to attain "the Adonis factor". And judging from the audible cringes and gasps from the theater audience, the photos of botched penis enlargement surgeries tell us that it's a high price to pay for the sake of beauty.
At the same time, the film provides proof that many within the gay community openly acknowledge the superficiality of the culture, but feel beholden to it nonetheless. One gentleman shares how he feels a constant internal struggle due to a lifetime of growing up in a world where it's not acceptable to be gay. So when a young man finally does come out, he can't help but want to do anything to be accepted by his new family. Sadly the Catch-22 is, he explains: "The more accepting it is to be out, the more pressure it is to look good."
The documentary doesn't lay the entire blame at the feet of the gay men individually. It also places a large focus on the media --- mainstream and queer. Advertising for grooming products for men has skyrocketed in the last five years for magazines like Instinct, Out, Genre and The Advocate. Mainstream retailers such as Abercrombie and Fitch and Coca-Cola often feature men with washboard abs to die for and magazines like Details and GQ don't hesitate to showcase only the most svelte male models within their pages. The film also takes a look at this surface adoration from the perspective of those who defy it, namely talking with members of the Twink and Bear community. But one can't help but wonder if their rejection of "the Adonis factor" is largely due to the fact that it's a standard that many of them would never be able to obtain.
In the end, Hines decides to finish the documentary on a positive note. We're treated to interviews with couples who clearly feel this superficiality is unnecessary and counterproductive if you're a gay man searching for more than just sex. Michael Sigmann, spiritual seminar and community leader, also discusses his therapy techniques on how to overcome this notion that an imperfect body somehow translates into not being worthy of love and respect. Ultimately, we all suffer from bad body image, he concludes, but allowing it to dictate how we treat each other and ourselves will only continue to harm a community already struggling with a world unwilling to accept gay men for who they truly are.
Indpls LGBT Film Festival logo photo credit: Matt Mutchmore
Talbott Street logo photo credit: Razorline Media & Services LLC