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PS Burn This Letter Please BFI Flare Film Review

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

★★★★

 
Female Impersonator holding up Resist poster
PS Burn This Letter Please

Nostalgic, elegiac and fabulous all at once, PS Burn This Letter Please is a touching documentary featuring in this year’s BFI Flare Film Festival. In 2014, hundreds of letters were discovered in an LA Storage Unit, addressed to a young man in the 1950s named Reno Martin (who later in life became the established talent agent, Ed Limato). These letters to Reno reveal some dazzling gossip and anecdotes circulating an inner circle of gay men and female impersonators at the time. Directors Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera recreate this world for us through diary recitals and interviews with some of the very people who sent those letters - some of America’s most precious golden age performers. Once having arrest records shape their past, they are here given the power to reconstruct their own history, to relive a past that still speaks to us in the present.


The documentary’s power lies in its ambition, to produce a queer archive that pays tribute to the female impersonators (how the interviewee’s prefer to identify) who paved the way for modern drag, and suffered in doing so. How could anyone ignore comments like ‘Don’t wear the sins in your heart on your face’. Unlike today where drag queens are so beloved in the queer community - held up as beacons of stardom and glamour - PS Burn This Letter Please draws attention to the fact that drag queens were once the most reviled members of the queer community (a stigma no doubt rooted in misogyny held by straight and gay cis men alike), that they faced harassment and emotional abuse from their own community, let alone the police.


But the documentary doesn’t linger in tragedy and trauma, not without contouring these hardships with the sheer, sequinned fun of the craft, the pageantry and joys of sisterhood, the best bars, the contests, the scandals. As one queen notes in retrospect, 'We didn’t have any civil rights but who needed it?' There’s a pronounced joy to the documentary, where crimes against the straight world are bragged about like a schoolyard victory. Queens reminisce about the time they stole wigs from the New York Opera House, redistributing such treasures to their friends all over the city. Additionally there’s a gem of an interview with James Bidgood, the notorious director of Pink Narcissus (1971) who once famously transformed his apartment into a splendid gay fantasia.


Perhaps a little unstructured at times, the directors occasionally neglecting to curate the material they’ve amassed in a way that offers nuance, variation or guided detour, the documentary nevertheless leaves you thinking about the trans-generational nature of community, and the space between the present and the past. It’s both moving and thrilling to see queens who are now in their eighties and nineties once again donning the costumes they wore at Pride back in the 60s. PS Burn This Letter Please is a powerful tribute to beauty that is fought for, upheld against all odds.

 

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