“Playland” is an Avant-Garde Portrait of an Extinct Queer Bar

This Playland review contains very mild spoilers.

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History doesn’t just live in books, in photographs, in memories. It lives in places, it lives in language, it lives in the minutiae of our present.

Geordon West’s debut feature Playland is an energetic portrait of the Playland Café, a Boston gay bar that was open from 1937 to 1998. This is not a documentary, nor a narrative film, but an expansive work of avant-garde art in the vein of Derek Jarman’s The Garden. This approach results in a film that’s as precise in its vision as it is pointedly enigmatic in its narrative.

With beautifully framed tableaus from cinematographer Jo Jo Lam, playful period costumes from Edwin Mohney, and a cast that includes drag legend Lady Bunny, Pose actor Danielle Cooper, and Alvin Ailey dancer Miranda Quinn, West’s film is easy to sink into and enjoy. Even when the story evades, the display of queer talent and queer beauty is irresistible.

The interconnected dreamy scenes go beyond historical reenactments. They are not aiming to achieve historic accuracy as much as a deeper historical truth. The radio and television broadcasts, the archival footage and interviews, act as context and as a reminder of who documents and who is included in what we consider historic record. Media reports of smut do not include the euphoria of young queers looking through a gay porn mag — not even audio of those who started the mag can capture that.

Each queer performer isn’t playing a person from history but playing themself playing a person from history. This distinction is felt each time an actor looks directly at the viewer. With their gaze, they seem to say, join me, join us, in imagining these decades, this place, our history, known and unknown.

The film is not completely devoid of narrative. Different actors play the same people, young and old across different eras. The archival elements create a context for the varied challenges this place and the people in this place confronted throughout its existence. And there is an emotional arc for everyone — even if the culmination is shown through something like opera.

From the imagined history of Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman to the transfeminine fantasia of Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker’s She Gone Rogue, queer filmmakers have spent decades blurring the lines between artist and historian. West’s film continues in that tradition, suggesting the work of a documentarian, while revealing just as much about West, their performers, and our present as they do this real-life bar that existed and then didn’t.

Even queer people who don’t care about history, who are isolated from community, experience the ghosts of queer past. The documented and imagined happenings at a place like the Playland Café — and their backlash — ooze into our present future. They impact our lives before we even know their details, and then impact us even more when we do.

West’s film is a haunted house, a tribute to these ghosts and the living queers most deliciously possessed.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 536 articles for us.

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