This history's a drag

There is fact, and there is cinema. If the two happen to meet, you'd damned sure better guarantee the filmmaker understands the emotional essence of the story. That way, the documented events will be portrayed with an effective urgency.

Stonewall purports to take the events of June 1969 and personalize them with fictitious composites of real people who participated in the Stonewall Inn's rock-hurling resistance against a raid by New York City cops. The state's liquor law was the excuse for the bust--"no establishment shall knowingly serve drinks to an admitted homosexual."

Such a simple ordinance compelled dozens of hustlers, drag queens, closet cases, and a few adventurous straights to bash back at the city-supported police raids that had long held private homo institutions in terror. The Stonewall riots are invoked as an annual national holiday, as a symbol for every gay man and lesbian pushed to the breaking point by the government's systematic humiliation.

The subject has such an emotional charge, you'd expect the filmmaker who wanted to portray it would face a dilemma: How do I arrange a wealth of provocative moments so they equal a solid historical epic? British Broadcasting Company alumnus Nigel Finch wanted to trace the oft-cited "birth" of the contemporary U.S. gay-rights movement through the medium of entertainment, but he stumbles at every opportunity. As both feature film and dramatic history, Stonewall is a monumental misfire, a potluck of hoary celluloid archetypes motivated by real resentments that never translates either as compelling melodrama.

Remember, a British director is responsible for the flatness and hypersentimentality that mars this tale of Greenwich Village eccentrics who navigated radically different personal experiences to unite under one sexual banner. It's as if Nigel Finch based his facile treatment on stories about U.S. homo history from his mates down at the pub: This is the American gay-rights movement rendered as hazy, unsubstantiated gossip and precious anecdotes, parenthesized by tiresome sequences in which drag queens lip-sync '60s girl-group tunes.

The one nearly successful element of Stonewall is its clear-eyed, ruthless dissection of the disparate types whose best interests appeared (and continue so even today) to conflict inside the gay community. LaMiranda (Guillermo Diaz) is the film's predictable emblem of queer rebellion, a Marlo-Thomas-wigged provocateur who considers her refusal to cry a sign of strength. She is waylaid (actually, just laid) by a corn-fed, panther-limbed stud (Frederick Weller) who goes by the pseudonym of Matty Dean. But this Southerner has a vision of homo revolt inspired by Martin Luther King and Bob Dylan, which leads him away from the world-weary LaMiranda and toward Ethan (Brendan Corbalis), a beautiful prude who fights repression by offering the world a painfully censored vision of homo propriety.

Basically, Stonewall describes the legendary insurrection through the prism of stormy romances. Besides the politically charged, symbolic triangle of LaMiranda-Matty Dean-Ethan, an additional couple is introduced for maximum hormonal wattage. Bostonia (Duane Boutte) is the cross-dressing moll who passes sincere warnings to her sisters and brothers from the privileged backseat of a limo provided by her gangster-lover Vinnie (Bruce MacVittie).

It's established history that the Italian mob has nurtured a strong financial interest in the gay and lesbian bars sprinkled across New York City since the turn of the century. The character of closeted Vinnie is a tiny weasel artfully employed, especially as a participant in one of America's sleazier law-enforcement secrets--the cooperation of police and organized crime in the fast-buck business of homosexual taverns.

Such unholy alliances are what pissed people off and inspired them to rush the establishment doors. The film Stonewall capitalizes on a sun-dried American movie convention--the underdog prevails!--but establishes repressive conditions of the late 1960s in the most clich terms. The conflicts that explode throughout the film are incited by stock characters mummified during the 1950s pinnacle of film noir--brutal, corruptible cops; mobsters with tortuous pangs of conscience; street freaks who find purifying qualities in their stigmas.

If you want to wallow in a delicious, ambisexual urban morality play, rent Uli Edel's 1990 Last Exit to Brooklyn and gorge yourself on one tragic loser after another. Stonewall possesses no such seedy charisma, mostly because the historical imperative of a Really Big Event poisons the chance for momentum. The film begins with brief testimony from actual Stonewall participants and ends with a monologue delivered straight to the camera by actor Guillermo Diaz, who announces drag queens "deal in dreams...We're as American as apple pie."

Director Nigel Finch has a grasp of American-flavored fantasies that's even weaker than his understanding of the cruel context that surrounded the formation of a late 20th-century homosexual-rights movement. Stonewall preserves an important saga as a tale told secondhand by a drunken bar patron. There's plenty of enthusiasm for the topic, but not much convincing detail.

Stonewall screens April 20 at 10 p.m.

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