We're living in a time when the documentary is undergoing a startling renaissance as a mass-entertainment product. Perhaps the deluge of so-called "reality television" programs (most of which have as much relationship to reality as that of a three-toed sloth to a slab of drywall) has created a shift in the cultural zeitgeist that's both inspired viewers to take a chance on non-fiction films and encouraged documentarians to create lighter, more accessible fare. Many of these crossover documentaries, like March of the Penguins, Hoop Dreams and Bowling for Columbine, offer both entertainment and enlightenment. The downside to the trend -- or upside, depending on your perspective -- is that more and more documentaries are being produced, and most of them err on the side of palatability rather than intellectualism.
The IFC television production Fabulous! The Story of Queer Cinema is one of those, and it really is extraordinarily entertaining -- if a bit light on serious background. It follows the now-familiar formula of having a number of recognizable actors and directors chat amiably about their experience with gay cinema, sandwiched between a generous smattering of clips from the films in question. If you don't pay close attention to Fabulous! you might get the impression that gay themes didn't exist in cinema until Todd Haynes and Sundance revolutionized the medium in the early 1990's, with just a quick reference to Kenneth Anger's work in the 1970's and a nod to early lesbian flicks Go Fish, Watermelon Woman and Desert Hearts serving as the meat of the picture's LGBT history lesson.
That said, Fabulous! is a saucy, fun bit of nostalgia, with 37 notables like John Waters, John Cameron Mitchell, Alan Cumming, Rose Troche (director of Go Fish and one of the creators of Showtime's "The L Word"), Ang Lee, writer/actress Guinevere Turner, and director Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex) chatting amiably about their own experiences with gay cinema and the overall history of this tiny suburb of moviedom. Some of the best nuggets, in fact, are the bits where the subjects talk openly about the effect of gay films on their lives. Heather Matarazzo shares that she didn't know what the word "lesbian" meant when her Welcome to the Dollhouse middle-school-aged character was accused of being one; after it was explained to her, she realized that, oh yeah, that's why she preferred girls. And when the subject of the red-hot 1996 Wachowski Brothers noir Bound comes up, Matarrazzo can only say, "Oh ... Bound. Bound! Bound..." with nostalgic delight.
For a more in-depth examination of the history of queer cinema, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's The Celluloid Closet (1995) takes a more scholarly look at the subject, but as a lighter, more info-taining companion piece, Fabulous! is a great deal of fun.
The Video: The DVD release offers a very clean, bright and sharp full-frame (1.33:1) transfer with excellent color saturation. It looks great, although the seemingly random color choices in backdrops for the various talking heads can get a tad distracting.
The Audio: The Dolby 2.0 sound is as good as it needs to be -- this is a film that's mostly people talking, so there's no need for a lot of action in the outer channels.
The extras: The bonus features aren't nearly as robust as the menus would have you believe, but they're interesting nonetheless -- unused footage is re-edited into mini-features under subjects like Coming Out Stories, First Gay Movie Memories and Favorite Movie Love Scenes, and much of the material is genuinely interesting, dealing as it does with more personal accounts than most of what appears in the film.
Final thoughts: A highly entertaining look at queer cinema through the eyes of actors and directors who've helped make some of the very slow progress in the genre. Hardly an intensive history lesson, but a very pleasurable and educational documentary nonetheless.