Strike A Pose
Posted on Tue 15 Nov by AlexK /
In this personal essay, J Johnson reflects on how our relationships with the films we love change over time. The first in a series of reflective personal accounts, this blog looks at Strike a Pose, screening at fringe! Sunday 20th November.
I was fifteen years old when Alek Keshishian’s tour documentary ‘In Bed With Madonna’ landed in cinemas worldwide and burst into the public consciousness. It pushed the envelope further on a global trend that redefined what it is to make a life publically available for scrutiny. This was before Facebook and Twitter had groomed us all with the curatorial skills on how to exhibit our lives for popular consumption, before Instagram had enabled the filtering of reality from every meal and every sunset and every excursion, before every novice with a webcam and YouTube access could play host to their own online TV show.
The film takes us on an international tour alongside Madonna and her seven dancers, six of whom are gay, offering up a no-holds barred gape into her life of superstardom. Forever on high alert for what to appropriate as her own, Madonna took voguing into the mainstream and the gay dancers that went with it. Much like hordes of closeted gay teenagers across the globe, I had never seen sexuality, never mind my sexuality, represented in such dramatic colour on film before (which is possibly ironic given most of the film is presented in grainy black and white). I had few frames of references for my budding sexuality, fewer still that were as playful, sex positive, audacious, or carefree.
I remember creeping downstairs in the middle of the night to watch Derek Jarman’s ‘Sebastiane’ on Channel 4, and craftily recording Nigel Finch’s ‘The Lost Language of the Cranes’ with the masturbatory hope of seeing men embracing men, but predictably these films tinged homosexuality with sadness, shame or at worst death. The sight of Madonna’s phalanx of flamboyant gay men, a handful of years older than me, serving up platefuls of brash homo-ness on stage and backstage shattered my notions of what it meant to be seen as gay. Those six dancers represented what was possible, what unapologetic queerness could be to my teenage self; the same self who voraciously consumed the subsequent Blonde Ambition tour footage as if it held the secret to gay pride itself. As I rewound my VHS copy of ‘Express Yourself’ over and over again with the fervour of a Jehovah’s Witness rapping his knuckles on a front door, I gorged myself on the knowledge that there were people like me out there in the world making waves. And in my fanaticism and childish naiveté, I wrote a letter to one of the dancers, Slam, with whom I found myself terribly smitten. I can’t now remember what I wrote to him, no doubt some wistful romantic musings that only a teenager could spout, nor can I remember to where I sent the letter – this was, I remind you, before the age of the Internet. I can only envisage my childish determination sent it to Sire Records, Madonna’s label, in the vain hope they’d pass it on. Needless to say I’m still waiting on a reply.
Looking back at the documentary now, the resonance has changed. Watching ‘In Bed With Madonna’ as an adult I found it bears scant relation to the soaring adulation I felt 25 years ago. The film is by and large a carefully constructed docudrama of sorts: with adult eyes very little appears to be anything other than contrived. Madonna holds centre stage in every scene, and at all times, ever conscious of the roving camera’s presence. She alternates between gestures of motherly concern for her pseudo-familial cabal (Madonna’s scripted voiceover proffers intermittent narrative bridges which are as wooden in tone as her acting), and then humiliating friends and family members with mean spirited putdowns and crass stories of old (her laughter on hearing of the rape of one of her tour crew remains a grim watch). Of course rediscovering Madonna’s a bit mean after all these years shouldn’t come as a surprise, but that aside the aspect of the documentary I found most surprising on rewatching was what sparse footage of the gay dancers actually features in the film. Sure, they appear in all the live concert footage, but beyond that, they are by and large reduced to fleeting sound bites that serve only to reinforce stereotypes. They attend a Pride parade and vogue, they cackle and bitch about the lone straight dancer (the only one of them to be given any real screen time), and they play Truth or Dare and kiss one another for the camera then cackle some more as Madonna fellates a Perrier bottle. What I had found mesmerising as a teen had lost its charm. In fact it felt pretty depressing.
With hindsight comes knowledge and with the UK release of Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan’s documentary ‘Strike A Pose’ audiences are afforded the opportunity to find out what it actually meant for those seven dancers as they set flight on a worldwide tour with arguably the most famous pop star on the planet. The dancers have regrouped once again but this time to offer their own reflections on what it was to each of them to be catapulted into the limelight so unexpectedly. Bear in mind that on its release ‘In Bed With Madonna’ was the highest grossing documentary of all time. What is drawn forth in ‘Strike A Pose’ is a more measured version of events than Madonna’s film would allow, one that takes into full consideration the time the tour took place – it was 1991 and the AIDS epidemic was in full motion; the personal conflict that arose post film release for some of the dancers on being outed – gay rights as we know them were still a pipe dream away; and what it is to experience the headiness of public adoration and then for it to end. Those men who I adored so much I wore out a VHS cassette player are gone, but on reflection my teenage self needed those six dancers and their brash, unapologetic behaviour, because they gave me something to aspire to, a way of being unavailable to me at home or at school at that time. And now, as I listen to those same men talk, I am re-inspired by what was the unknown content of their lives, the personal narratives unseen as they paraded nightly on stages in Tokyo and Paris and London, the stories Madonna’s documentary served only to quieten. ‘Strike A Pose’ brings us full circle with levity and sorrow and joy and kindness: Madonna could still learn a trick or two from these dancers.
Strike a Pose screens Sunday 20th November, Rio Cinema, 3:30pm.