If it wasn't hard enough to be gay in America, imagine trying to locate a safe haven for personal expression in Mississippi. "Small Town Gay Bar" takes a closer peek at the gay movement in this southern state and the ways rural discrimination rears its ugly head.
Directed by Malcolm "Paul Martin" Ingram, "Gay Bar" is a kindly, almost polite investigation into how gay nightclubs survive up against overwhelming community disapproval in the more excitable Bible Belt sections of our country. The documentary isn't fueled by volcanic debate or head-shaking revelations; instead it's more comfortable with patient observance of the lives changed by these glittery establishments that welcome the GLBT community with open arms.
The film's focus is primarily locked on to the "Rumors" nightclub in Shannon, Mississippi. A prototypical small southern town, Shannon jolts awake once the sun goes down, encouraging hundreds of people from the surrounding communities to visit "Rumors" and celebrate their lifestyle with dancing, drinking, and an outpouring of unbridled affection.
Of course, "Rumors" has been the center of great controversy in the area, with locals heavily vocalizing their disapproval of the nightclub, and patrons feeling the pressure to bottle up their inner-queen once outside of the building. Through interviews with the exasperated owner of "Rumors" and the countless patrons who flock to the club any chance they get, Ingram evokes a potent feeling of unity, while also capturing a bizarre sense of danger to the bar, where everyone has to keep a close eye on the outside world for safety. Still, even in the middle of a hornet's nest of intolerance, "Gay Bar" lifts the spirit a few inches off the ground in the lovely way it depicts souls temporarily free from oppression, spoiling themselves in the lone place they can entertain their desires.
"Gay Bar" darkens some when detailing the death of Scotty Weaver, a young local who was tortured and killed because of his sexual identity. Not much screen time is devoted to the case, but the inclusion of the murder is a chilling reminder of the danger the Mississippi locals face from their neighbors, heightening the importance of places like "Rumors."
"Gay Bar's" second half looks at the roller-coaster life of "Crossroads" in Meridian, Mississippi. A hedonistic nightclub catering to more eccentric tastes in entertainment, the bar became a target for local government agencies to uncover any sort of infraction to expand to a full shut down of the club. They succeeded, leaving Meridian temporarily in the hands of Fred Phelps and his posse of apocalyptic abhorrence.
The mastermind behind the bile-spitting "God Hates Fags" media whore movement of verbal warfare (perhaps his daughter, Shirley Phelps, is the most famous of these hucksters of hate), Fred comes to embody Ingram's most infuriated, foaming opposition to the gay community, the irony being that he shared a hometown with one of the most aggressive lifestyle bars in the state and didn't even know it.
Even presented in non-anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio), "Gay Bar" remains a convincing visual experience. With HD and film cameras skillfully capturing the flamboyant nightlife of the title haunts, the DVD does a satisfactory job with the visual details, though the darker minutiae has a tendency to be lost due to excessive smearing.
Nothing to get keyed up about here, but the 2.0 Dolby Digital audio track keeps music and dialogue separated nicely. There's a wonderful soundtrack here to enjoy, so make sure you turn the volume up!
Co-financed by Kevin Smith, "Small Town Gay Bar" arrives on DVD with a full "View Askew" assortment of extras, giving the viewer a basic understanding of how this meager indie documentary came to be.
First up is a feature-length audio commentary from director Ingram and "principal technical officer" Scott Tremblay. Ingram is a fiercely opinionated man who speaks to his audience as though we were all dear friends. I applaud his honestly in some areas of this track, and found his spiels on the Pope and deceptive studio executives to be hilarious and explosive. Overall, the commentary doesn't break down the movie past the obvious, but Ingram can be a one-man-band of ballsy tangents, which is almost more fun to listen to than tech details. Tremblay adds very little to the track and it begs the question, where was Smith?
Well, he shows up for an intro (6 minutes), horsing around with Ingram as they prep the viewer for the flick. Smith and Ingram have an amusing back-and-forth, with the "'Clerks' Guy" busting out his "if I were gay" routine for the umpteenth time. It still gets a laugh from me.
"Story of 'Small Town Gay Bar'" (5 minutes) is the extension of the intro, only now the focus is on how Smith became involved after viewing Ingram's first passes at this subject matter through short films.
"A Chat with Editor Scott Mosier" (16 minutes) brings together Ingram and Mosier to discuss how the producer/editor came to be involved with "Gay Bar." It's a lengthy conversation, but Mosier's experiences on the film, his first documentary, are interesting.
"A Conversation with the Folks of Tupelo" (10 minutes) is an odd, unexplained video of members of the gay community in Tupelo, Mississippi sharing their feelings with Ingram on the homophobic situation in the south. The participants are articulate and animated, but a hint of context would've been nice.
"Willie Washington at 'Rumors'" (1 minute) is a brief deleted scene of little consequence and even less explanation.
Two more deleted scenes, "The New Owners of 'Rumors'" and "Selling of 'Rumors'" (7 minutes) go into further detail about the last days of the famous nightclub, and what it took to get the original owner to sell such a popular bar.
Shot with an accomplished visual palette (by Jonathon Cliff), using both stark and affectionate film and HD sources, "Gay Bar" induces a strong feeling of location and welcoming personality, which Ingram uses as clay to create this lovely snapshot of people gathering to celebrate themselves and an infrequent feeling of freedom. It's an accomplished documentary, thankfully showcasing Ingram's growth as a filmmaker, and provides a hopeful encapsulation of muted struggle inside a larger, overwhelming portrait of intolerance.