CAMP CLASSIC NOW AVAILABLE ON REMASTERED DVD
EXCLUSIVELY HERE FROM DIRECTOR!
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by David Alex Nahmod / Bay Area Reporter
“The past is a foreign country: we do things differently there.” – This quote, courtesy of the late English author L.P. Hartley, can certainly be applied to Whatever Happened to Susan Jane?, the delightful early Marc Huestis film that takes us back to the Golden Age of the Castro.
Whatever Happened to Susan Jane? began filming on the very day Ronald Reagan became President, according to the director. By the time the film opened, we were experiencing the first wave of AIDS. The film now stands as “the last great burst of innocence before the dawning of the age of AIDS,” Huestis says.
“Susan Jane came from trash, literally,” says Huestis. “I was walking in the Haight in the early 80s and spotted an old 16mm film in a trash can. It turned out to be The Outsider, the campy 50s ‘educational’ film that is the glue that holds Susan Jane together.”
Now commonly known as “school scare films,” these educational shorts were produced by small independent film-production companies from the late 1940s until the early 80s. Most were produced specifically for classroom viewing, and were designed to teach the era’s children how to avoid the horrors of VD, how to be a “good sport,” etc. Often overly preachy and cast with non-actors, most of the films, when viewed today, are unintentionally humorous.
The Outsider is set somewhere in Virginia, and tells the woeful tale of Susan Jane, a lonely girl who just can’t seem to fit in, until kind-hearted Marcie Clark invites poor Susan to a party, rescuing her from oblivion. In a stroke of genius, Huestis took a few select scenes from The Outsider and shot new scenes around them, updating the lives of Susan Jane and Marcie when they meet again, years later in the Castro.
After we see “the girls” in glorious black & white, the film abruptly switches to color, when Susan Jane, who now calls herself Sujana (brilliantly deadpan Francesca Rosa) is living in the Castro, hanging out with kooky artists, punk rockers and drag queens. Along comes Marcie (magnificent Ann Block), still dressed as though she were in a 50s sitcom. Marcie comes looking for her old friend and gets a strong, mind-altering dose of neighborhood life in the early 80s.
It’s Block’s film all the way. Her acting style is very much in keeping with the one-note line readings of those old educational shorts, but with a campy self-awareness that lets viewers in on the joke. Her big glasses, polyester outfit, tacky kerchief, and “gosh gee” approach to everything she sees are part of a hilarious send-up of the values of suburban USA, circa 1950.
Lulu, a famed drag performer of the period, steals a few scenes with her over-the-top, somewhat foul-mouthed persona. Her table-top dance in Cafe Flore is classic drag hilarity. Huestis expertly weaves these new scenes with footage from The Outsider. The laughs never stop coming in this short, sweet look back at an unforgettable SF era.
“What I liked about that period was that there was an infectious energy that transcended sexuality,” Huestis says. “Gay and straight artists were collaborating in theatre and music. There was an innocent ‘let’s put on a show’ spirit that permeated the scene.”
Whatever Happened to Susan Jane? has been missing in action for years as Huestis busied himself with other projects and his popular stage shows at the Castro Theatre. But after a long wait, this early gay indie is back, on DVD and fully remastered. The film is as funny as ever, and now, with so many from that period no longer with us, it’s bittersweet as well. It’s a time capsule, a history lesson, and a wonderful example of what a talented filmmaker can do with little cash but lots of panache!
Whatever Happened to Susan Jane? is available at Amazon.com.
“Superior to any John Waters film, and ten years ahead of the last thing Andy Warhol did.”
- Bay Area Reporter
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO SUSAN JANE (1982) is Marc Huestis’ “only in San Francisco” truly underground “Tales of the City” , featuring a vibrant sountrack by San Francisco based bands Tuxedo Moon, Noh Mercy with Esmerelda, Ben Bossi of Romeo Void, The Wasp Women, Indoor Life with Jorge Socarras and others. This camp classic follows Marcie Clark (Ann Block), a polyester suburban housewife dissatisfied with her bouffant-and-barbecue lifestyle hot on the trail of an old high school chum, Susan Jane Smith (Francesca Rosa). When she reconnects with Susan Jane (now “Sujana”), Marcie stumbles into the wild and wacky world of San Francisco bohemia circa 1980, replete with wild drag queens and glitter, kooky artists, Mohawk hairdos, new wave slackers, and a pool of well-known celebutants. She gets high and finally gives herself over to the intoxicating whirl of a wild party.
The colorful cast features appearances by Lulu, Coco Vega, members of the legendary theatre group the Angels of Light, Rodney Price, Silvana Nova, Tommy Pace San Francisco Chronicle critic Edward Guthmann, .
Talk about a “trash masterpiece.”
While digging through a garbage can one day, San Francisco filmmaker/video store clerk queen Marc Huestis discovered a discarded 16 mm copy of an old junior-high educational film . Shot in Kansas in 1951, the hokey yarn chronicles the trials and tribulations of one Susan Jane Smith, a farm belt misfit who nearly goes off the deep end when she (mistakenly) believes she hasn’t been invited to Marcie Clark’s big bash. (Never mind that Marcie’s guest list is heavily weighted with big-time lame-os like the loud-mouthed “Junior,” a pendulous-breasted chow hound who refers to the party as “the Big Feed.”) But all ends happily when Susan Jane discovers she really is invited to the fete–if she’ll bring a cake.
Like most cynics ever forced to sit through this rural morality tale (all the “actors” speak with such thick Midwestern accents, the 12-minute short practically begs for subtitles), Huestis wondered what really happened to the popularity-imperiled heroine after the gooey fade-out.
The answer is a zip-budget howler that explores what transpires when the grown-up Susan Jane (now a San Francisco scenestress who calls herself “Su-jahna”) receives a surprise visit from her old “pal” Marcie, now a polyester-clad suburban rube who looks like she wandered in from the set of a John Waters flick. Tables now turned, the mortified Susan Jane shleps the clueless Marcie through an early-Eighties bacchanal of SF hip: live sex performers, punk rock parties and the motliest assortment of dentally challenged transvestites to flash their gums at a camera.
In between cultural clashes, the gals reminisce, via cleverly, intercut flashbacks from Su-Jahna’s miserable black-and-white film. For example, following a social-Siberia malt-shop faux pas (she orders “ruht beer,” while the rest of the gang opts for chocolate cones), Susan Jane runs home, throws herself onto her bed and thrashes around in a pity party worthy of a 911 call.
Susan Jane: I’m just. . .different.
Mom: Why, of course you’re different, dear. Everybody is.
Susan Jane: No! Everybody’s not different. Oh, maybe they look different or dress different but the kids at school seem to belong. They plan parties together; they do homework together. And they all choose chocolate ice cream cones!
Mom: Chocolate ice cream cones?! Why, Susan, that doesn’t make sense!
Neither does much of the rest of this movie, which hilariously ping-pongs back and forth from old footage to newly staged scenes, many of which contain in-joke references to cult favorites ranging from Orgy of the Dead and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to Midnight Cowboy . (Wandering through an underground party replete with an S&M floorshow, a stunned Marcie exclaims, “Susan Jane, you didn’t tell me this was going to be a costume party!”)
So what ever really happens to Susan Jane? The good news is that her way-out lifestyle finally sends Marcie Clark packing.
And the bad news? No sooner is she celebrating her guest’s departure than, while relaxing at a Market Street cafe, she’s confronted by another unwanted blast-from-the-educational-celluloid-past.
Not to spoil the ending but suffice it to say that the newest arrival from Susan Jane’s old stomping grounds has apparently come out of the closet (via the pantry) and is now even more pendulous-breasted than before.