Basically an accidental documentary, this film came about when director Robert James went in search of stories about gay hippies in 1960s San Francisco and stumbled upon Rumi Missabu, a notorious raconteur who calls himself a “male actress”. As one of the original Cockettes, he is an oracle of anecdotes. They may not be completely reliable, but they’re hugely entertaining. Ruminations, which played at Raindance Film Festival, is a collection of his stories, balanced by archive footage and the reminiscences of his friends and colleagues.
Missabu was involved in forming the Cockettes in 1969, and in the following two years the group created a tidal shift in gay culture, pushing the idea of gender fluidity into the mainstream and inviting audiences to join the party. Then the original members started drifting away to make their marks in other ways. After spending more than 30 years off the grid, Missabu needed the help of his old friends to re-establish his legal identity. Since then, he has dedicated his life to archiving the drag/art group’s history, building up an enormous collection of memorabilia, photographs and footage. Just putting all of this into one place has allowed the original Cockettes to reconnect, and many of them tell their personal histories on-screen for the first time.
Missabu’s life story is colourful on its own. He gleefully recounts stories about his cruelly racist father and slutty, fat sister. He also talks about how he fled his abusive childhood, moving to Los Angeles to be near stars including Tina Turner and Andy Warhol, after which he moved to San Francisco, changing his name from Jim Bartlett to Rumi Missabu, after an Asian mystic. His goal was to live a more authentic life and find ways to encourage other young gay men who were depressed after being rejected by their families.
For this film, James uses colourfully witty animation to dramatise scenes for which there is no footage. There are also some hilarious re-enactments of some of the more jaw-dropping stories. This includes a sequence in which Missabu describes dating three brothers sequentially, even though only one of them was gay. And there’s also a rather fabulous wealth of real footage available, from riotous clips of the Cockettes performing to clips from Elevator Girls in Bondage, a lurid z-movie in which Missabu played a character named Maxine (frankly, it looks like essential viewing).
There are also plenty of interviews. Like Missabu, these are people who have given their lives to queer performance, so they’re often outrageously outspoken. The most notorious one is the snarky Tahana, who criticises everyone without any filter whatsoever. His story would make a great movie on its own (his father was a rodeo clown who forced him to participate in the family act). All of the Cockettes have vivid tales to tell about their lives during the heyday and afterwards, often going through years of drug abuse and, of course, the Aids epidemic. As one member says, “Being avant garde takes a heavy toll on the soul.”
Thankfully, Ruminations remains remarkably upbeat even as it covers these darker aspects of the story. It’s a superb companion piece to David Weissman’s seminal 2002 doc The Cockettes, adding to the important exploration of a group of people who defiantly rejected conventions about gender and sexuality.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Robert James