Updated: Jun 3, 2020
A NuReality Film by Robert James
Stream Ruminations here.
There couldn’t be a more appropriate time in America to celebrate radical queer history, and Robert James’s new documentary about Rumi Missabu is a much-needed reminder that people are fucking fabulous! I found myself weeping at times watching this beautiful portrait of an artist who lives his truth and bares his artistic soul with honesty, integrity and old-school ‘fuck you if you missed the show’ avant-garde flair.
Rumi Missabu is a performer, writer, director, producer and probably lots of other things, best known for founding San Francisco’s The Cockettes, a 1960s psychedelic troupe of artists and performers who were “immortals of glamour and artistry,” as they’re described in The Cockettes documentary by David Weissman and Bill Weber that came out in 2002. Every theatrical spectacle they launched was drenched in glitter and chiffon, with wild headdresses, shiny gowns, mind-bending set pieces – and lots and lots of humanity. Song, dance, comedy – these vaudeville style shows had it all, and seemed to be single-handedly evolving perceptions of sexuality as they unfolded. The Cockettes were a jaw-dropping, extra-terrestrial band of counter-culture heroes who are most definitely responsible for the feel and tone of a thousand other productions since – including a movie I personally saw 21 times in the theater – The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
But this documentary doesn’t dwell in the 1960s, and it’s not a chronicle of The Cockettes, though it does engage in its own fab pastiche with old film clips, audio, animation and interviews lovingly pieced together. Ruminations is a movie about an artist’s life – and as Rumi’s friend Dan Ricoletto declares in one of the many contemporary interviews, “Avant-garde can be rough on the soul.” Indeed, Rumi disappeared when the glamour of the 70s faded, and he went underground. Completely off the grid, he was working as a housekeeper under the table – no bank account, no passport – perhaps lost without his tribe of fellow artists who buoyed his spirits and rallied around him to make his artistic visions come true. It wasn’t until 1994 at a reunion of The Cockettes that he re-emerged onto the scene and began to re-gain his identity. His friends refer to it as an “intervention,” and remark on how difficult it was to re-establish the societal identity of someone who had been living for decades with only a library card for ID.
For me, this part of the film was a poignant and stinging reminder of the gravity of the homeless or almost-homeless crisis in California, and how difficult it is to navigate the world when you have no agency – how sometimes people just get ‘lost,’ whether they’re international artistic icons, or bus drivers. Jumping from the 1960s and 70s, through the AIDS crisis of the 80s and beyond, the film forces you to grapple with a reckoning of America’s ruthless priorities. Spoiler alert: it’s not avant-garde artists. Yet Rumi’s community had not forgotten their hero. Old friends and new friends came together to revive his career, lifting it up once again and setting it down gently on the pillars he himself built from street-cred and hand-sewn ingenuity. His world of glitter, cigarettes, and a provocative turns of phrase came alive again, captured raw in the closing scene of the film – the only full performance in the piece.