Lesbians have always gotten a pretty raw deal from Hollywood. They've generally been portrayed as either villains or seductresses, take your pick. Sure, you'll find the occasional self-consciously sensitive film (usually made by a man) like John Sayles's Lianna or Robert Towne's Personal Best, which took themselves so seriously that they were almost painful to watch. But lurid nonsense like Basic Instinct, with its man-hating black widow femme fatale, is more representative. Even this year's "groundbreaking" (at least according to its own hype; everybody else saw it for what it really was -- patronizing) three of hearts, which tried to get over on the boy-girl-girl relationship, wimped out in the end by opting for heterosexuality.
Into the breech have stepped a passel of independent women filmmakers, making low-budget movies that deal forthrightly with lesbian issues and relationships. Sometimes they are shocking (Barbara Hammer's Nitrate Kisses) and sometimes they are merely amateurish (Claire of the Moon). But the one thing they all seem to have in common is a receptive audience, eager to see anything that treats lesbianism with intelligence and candor.
Which is why a film like Paris Poirer's directorial debut, Last Call at Maud's, should be a welcome arrival during its brief run at the Alliance on South Beach. The film is a labor of love, a 77-minute historical documentary that bids a fond farewell to the self-proclaimed longest- lasting lesbian bar in the world on the occasion of its closing in September 1989. Nestled in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district since 1966, Maud's was a hub of West Coast lesbian life for 23 years, and took on the atmosphere of a sorority house for the women, most of whom are now in their fifties, who frequented it.
Mary Wings, author of lesbian mystery novels with titles like She Came Too Late, She Came Too Fast, and Divine Victim, tries to sum up the watering hole's appeal: "I can think of no place better to have suspense and a real eerie feeling of decadence than a lesbian bar, because lesbians have always been outlaws."
Hanging out at Maud's in the early days was like belonging to a secret sisterhood. South Beach regulars (or Swelter readers) who weren't even born when Maud's opened its doors, and who take for granted the flamboyance, nudity, and heavy-duty pelvic grinding that have become so commonplace in the clubs may have difficulty believing Last Call's recollections of the days when gay bars were routinely raided by the cops, forcing both male and female patrons to employ the subterfuge of going out in mixed groups. Lookouts were stationed at the doors, and if a raid was imminent they would hit a panic button that turned on a flashing light inside the nightclub. Same-sex couples on the dance floor would scramble madly for an opposite-sex partner. The police would arrive and find nothing but nice heterosexual couples (or so they thought) innocently tripping the light fantastic.
Much of Last Call at Maud's feels like that -- dated, nostalgic, quaint. It's like a fond memorial to a bygone era, one when many women who would eventually become Maud's habitues had never even heard of lesbianism, much less openly embraced it. Things moved slowly back then. First women couldn't dance with each other. Then they could dance but they couldn't kiss publicly. Then they could kiss, but not for too long. One of the film's more surprising revelations is that women could not legally tend bar in California until 1973.
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Maud's enjoyed quite a ride, and Poirer's documentary recaptures much of the camaraderie and conviviality. But while the film occasionally feels like eavesdropping at someone else's alumni reunion party, it's more than just a video scrapbook. Footage of drunken softball games and theme parties is balanced with anecdotal history of the lesbian and gay rights movements in America.
AIDS, high costs of doing business, the passing of the sexual revolution, and wider mainstream acceptance of homosexuality eventually spelled the end for Maud's. But not before it had seen its share of passionate affairs, jealous quarrels, undercover vice cops, and colorful patrons. Cheers, it wasn't.
An ironic footnote that was omitted from the film but included in the accompanying press kit:
Today it's a sports bar.