Sparkle’s Tavern

cineflyer & Golden City Gallery present:
Curt McDowell’s Sparkle’s Tavern
Friday, June 17, 2011 at 9PM
Golden City Fine Art
211 Pacific Avenue

Before attending the screening in October, 1992, I’d been talking with friends about the mixed-up family dynamics of American values. `Imagine,’ I said, `a family so lost that the mother is scrubbing the bathtub while her son takes his shower.’

Welcome to Sparkle’s Tavern, a bizarre little hole-in-the-wall. In the Convenience Parlor in the back of the tavern are four more holes in the `Suck Stalls.’ When the chorus girls and headliner Sparkle aren’t singing and dancing, they’re servicing the leather-cowboy patrons. Buster, the proprietor (and Sparkle’s gay brother) runs around nervous all the time and occasionally helps out at the stalls: `All this [fluid] is going to give me the runs,’ he says at one point. These siblings are terrified that their fragile, obsessive-compulsive mother will one day discover her children’s secrets. When gang leader Jock `rapes’ Sparkle in his apartment already full of `whiskey-laden, naked’ bodies, his jealous, white-trash girlfriend, Brenda (comparable to actress Yvette Mimieux), spills the beans about Beth Sue (Sparkle) and her non-sensual, highly dramatic Mom. This info allows Jock to blackmail Buster and seize control of his tavern. Jock sends an invitation to Mrs. Blake for a free night at the tavern…

Sparkle’s Tavern is a lusty, bizarre, sexually-dripping marvel of the emotional dangers in a dysfunctional family crippled with secrets and lost passions. Marion Eaton as Mrs. Blake is the marvelously pinched backbone of this body of decadence and Dionysian mania. After the `enlightenment,’ Buster is stunned that his kooky, closed mother comes to his tavern. She brings a mysterious guest, Mr. Pupik (`pupik’ is Yiddish for belly button), who sings revealing jingles and eats things like Christmas candy wrapped in slices of olive loaf.

Several incest references unfold. There’s a terrific scene where the mother, emotionally inside herself, slides onto the kitchen floor, and in her print dress flows through a protracted orgasm; it’s at first hilarious, then embarrassing, then glorious! Although her wish was granted instantaneously (she relived her entire life, this time without moral stresses), the orgasm was a kind of residue from the experience. Now everyone else wants to try it!

Director Curt McDowell died of AIDS in June 1987. Primary shooting of the film was done in two months in 1976, but it took eight years to finance and finish. An NEA grant finally secured McDowell’s film. It was meant to open at the 1984 Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), but the print and borrowed projectors couldn’t play the film and the premiere was a disaster. It returned to San Francisco but has never before been shown in the Northwest. 1992’s new premiere was the time to see this film, and it makes sense that it took so long. The complex moral issues of AIDS threaten to dam up our sexualities. Let this film pull the plug!

McDowell preferred to make sex films. Actor and fellow filmmaker George Kuchar told me that McDowell `had lost interest in the film because it didn’t have hard-core pornography.’ The four-stall fellatio scene is still highly suggestive – and hilarious! The `rape’ scene is undeniably sexy, especially with the others crawling on the floor. Said Kuchar, `Curt was unhappy about casting his sister, Melinda, as Sparkle, because he felt she trailed off in her dialogue and singing.’ Melinda’s Sparkle comes off as lethargic and highly eroticized – a kind of schoolgirl Mae West, superlative to David Lynch’s `Laura Palmer’ of Twin Peaks.

Kuchar also said McDowell wrote the clever, cliché-parodying story while high on acid in Yosemite National Park. The film is autobiographical, with Buster representing McDowell. Its humor, nerve and unconscious logic blow away the strangling, goof-ball irrelevancies of dubiously avant-garde filmmakers John Waters and Andy Warhol. Masturbation for McDowell is part of a sexual catalog, not a closed system of self-conscious art.

Sparkle’s Tavern is also visually dense. Unlike McDowell’s previous film of shadows on white walls (Thundercrack) the sets here – all built in a loft – are crowded with rambling wallpapers covered with flowers, fruit, or significantly, wide-eyed children dressed as adults.

The moral is to find relaxation in the release of moral turpitude by separating judgement from sexuality. This is the key to recapturing one’s sexual freedom and expression in the age of AIDS, a finely evocative legacy by Curt McDowell. – Frederic E. Kahler

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~ by cineflyer on June 8, 2011.

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