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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Interview: Submerged Queer Spaces filmmaker, Jack Dubowsky

Posted By on Wed, Jun 13, 2012 at 9:30 AM

  • Benjamin Coopersmith

Composer, writer, and filmmaker Jack Curtis Dubowsky has scored five feature films, and directed several shorts. But now he's ventured into feature-length territory with his first  documentary film, Submerged Queer Spaces, a study of San Francisco's queer history through architecture and urban archaeology, which premieres at this year's LGBT Film Festival, Frameline36. Dubowsky will be a big presence at the festival, with a walking tour of spaces highlighted in the film and and his choral work, Harvey Milk: A Cantata, featuring unpublished texts by Milk.

Dubowsky told us about finding interview subjects who were going out in San Francisco in the '40s, the effect architecture has on our lives, and the importance of getting out in the world and talking to people.

How did you go about finding the people you interviewed?

A group called San Francisco Prime Timers connected us to several people. Beyond that, it was word of mouth. Larry Bob Roberts, a local queer activist and writer, connected us to several people as well. Guy Clark had actually appeared in a documentary feature, That Man: Peter Berlin, for which I had composed the score in 2005. We made sure to find women and people of color, as well as subjects who had been in queer spaces as far back as possible. Gerald Fabien, who was going out in 1940, was really a home run in that area.

What was one of your favorite stories people told you?

One of my favorite stories is Gerald Fabien's story about cruising a sailor who ended up being a murderer. It's chilling, it's harrowing, and it harkens back to a time when being openly gay or actively sexual comported a lot of risks. Gerald's stories really reflect a certain era, long before Stonewall, that could be dark and gritty.

How do you think architecture affects our lives?

Doug Hilsinger makes an interesting point about this in the film, when he discusses the Eagle Tavern, and how the architecture of that space affected the vibe and socialization there. All the elements were represented in the space. Fire (by the fire pit), water (by the fountain), earth, and dky (by the open patio). While the "Eagle in Exile" parties have re-created the Sunday Beer Busts, the physical and social space of the Eagle Tavern played an enormous role in its original creation and success.

Why did you want to make this movie?

I am very nostalgic. I moved to S.F. in 1991, and I realized that population and spaces turn over fairly quickly. People even tear down Victorians! There's always a new wave of people and places, and the queer collective memory is fairly short. I started to consider how I could resurrect or show people what had been lost in various places that had been submerged by gentrification or the passage of time. And the farther back I could go, the more interesting it was. Gold Street, while it was not a gay bar at the time, had been built around 1850. And the Old Crow on Market Street was a gay bar in the 1930s. No one even knows it's there now.

You say you felt that doing this was sort of urban archeology. How so?

Visiting some of these sites and finding architectural remains was like unearthing an ancient tomb. At the Blue and Gold and the Club Baths, there are still bits of tile that are decades old. There were also many mysteries: a lot of street numbers had been changed, so a documented address might no longer exist. Polk Street has been renumbered so many times, we went to the city engineer's maps at the San Francisco History Center to try to locate addresses. We had archival photographs of buildings we could not find, like a YMCA by a freeway overpass. We have an archival photograph of a bar that adopted the name The Black Cat, but turned out not to be the original Black Cat of the 1950s. That was very confusing, and it was Gerald Fabien who cleared it up for us. So there was little that was on the surface, we really had to dig to make sense of the clues we had.

Along with this movie at the festival, there's a Submerged Queer Spaces Walking Tour and Harvey Milk: A Cantata. Say a little about those.

The Walking Tour will enable people to visit some of the spaces in the film in person. A film forces your eye to travel in a certain way, but being there in person allows you to explore and discover for yourself, and perhaps even see architectural remains we missed.

Harvey Milk: A Cantata is a 20-minute piece for mixed voices (men and women) and piano. It was jointly commissioned by the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco and the Lick Wilmerding High School Chorus, both conducted by William Sauerland. With the help of Archivists Susan Goldstein and Tim Wilson, Sauerland was able to access Milk's original papers. I was in Minnesota, where my teaching job is, and Billy was sending me texts. I compiled and edited a text that is entirely by Harvey Milk, some of which has never been published before. Goldstein, Wilson, Sauerland, and myself will all be at our pre-concert talk. Harvey Milk: A Cantata was composed over a period of about six months. It's in five movements. It begins with a call to action, includes his message of hope, and ends with a prescient postlude wherein Milk exhorts people to stop watching a "make believe world" and talk to their neighbors instead. Now in 1978, that was television. Today, that could be understood as the Internet and its mediated artificial realities. But the message is the same: get out of your chair and meet your neighbors and talk to them. It's a universal message, and illustrates beautifully Milk's activism and philosophy.

Submerged Queer Spaces screens at 1:45 p.m. June 16 at the Roxie Theatre, 3117 16th St. (at ) S.F.

For more events this week and beyond, check out our calendar section.

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