Flatpack Festival and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery are running a marvellous exhibition until 30th October 2022: Wonderland tells stories of filmgoing and cinema culture in Birmingham. It begins with the earliest days of cinematic experimentation, including a visit from Eadweard Muybridge to demonstrate his moving images, through the glory days of the picture palaces in the 1930s and 40s, the influence of Asian and Caribbean immigration, and the slump of the 1980s, to where we are today, with a combination of multiplexes and more specialised venues, including, of course, the Electric, which continues to proudly boast the title of the UK’s oldest working cinema.
It’s a densely packed exhibition, full of elegantly and concisely organised information, focusing not only on places and eras but also people: individual attention is given to notable figures such as Iris Barry, the UK’s first female film critic, Waller Jeffs, who popularised cinema in the 1900s with his annual seasons at the Curzon Hall and travelling show, and Oscar Deutsch, the Balsall Heath-born creator of the Odeon brand, the first cinema of which opened in Perry Barr in 1930.
Wonderland: Birmingham’s Cinema Stories is free to visit at BMAG until October 30th, and it’s a must-see for anyone interested in filmgoing in Birmingham. The history it describes is cultural, technological, social and economic, and it’s beautifully curated and designed to just that. It’s also got a big interactive map in the middle where you can look for your house and see the five cinemas that used to be on your road back in 1940. Don’t miss it.
Aside from Allan Ellenzweig’s marvellous new biography of George Platt Lynes, my greatest find so far has been THE YOUNG AND THE EVIL, not the notorious novel by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler, but the catalogue of an exhibition curated by Jarret Earnest that set out to map a milieu, to some extent covered in biography, but largely absent from standard accounts of American modernism and which the exhibition labelled as ‘Queer Modernism in New York 1930-1950’. The show illustrates the ‘gravitational forces of emotional, intellectual, artistic and sexual attraction formed by the group’. It was sparked by death.
An archeology of how some of the materials landed in the exhibition itself speaks a queer history. When Joseph Scott and Vincent Cianni went through the contents of the estate of their deceased friend, Antole Pohorilenko, they discovered a series of boxes marked ‘MW/ GPL PRIVATE’ and ‘INTIMACIES’. Pohorilenko had been the last lover of Monroe Wheeler who had himself inherited from Glenway Westcott. This plus additions from the heirs of Platt Lynes and Lincoln Kirstein form the basis of the exhibition, and what a find it is: erotic reveries of practically every sex act a homosexual can think of, alone and in groups, rendered explicitly but aimed for private consumption, and in a few cases drawn specifically for Kinsey, presumably it took them a while to suss out that Kinsey already knew more than he let on, and from personal experience. The images are by some major twentieth century artists (Cadmus, Jared French, Pavel Tchelitchew) and includes also explicit photographs, famously an early selfie of Platt Lynes giving Monroe Wheeler a blow job). The drawings are characterised by a longing and desire but also a dreaminess, a personal and idealised fantasy of sexual want, direct and unashamed; some romantically rendered; some evoking a roughness, clearly desired; some longing for the particular other; some for the anonymous group. They simultaneously speak an individual, an era, and a personal instance of a structure of feeling: They are marvellous.
Apart from Jarret Earnest’s excellent introductory essay, the book also includes, and interview with Jason Yow, Leonard Kirstein’s long-time lover and heir, an explanatory linking of the novel of THE YOUNG AND EVIL to the exhibition, and a superb essay on the paintings Paul Cadmus and Jared French both did of the HERRIN MASSACRE OF 1922 where striking miners laid a siege to the mine, fired on strike-breakers and ended up brutally massacring some of the scabs, Kenneth E. Silver’s essay situating the paintings not only in the labour struggles of the early 20th century but also of the anti-gay ‘clean-ups’ of New York City in the lead-up to the 1939 World’s Fair, and how the paintings lend themselves easily to readings of murderous homophobia, and the significance of that possible anti-labour reading combined with that murderous homophobia.
A wonderful book that offers information, sparks thought, and stimulates the senses.