Camera Obscura's 'Virtue' — rarely-seen cautionary tale at the Roxie

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Tuesday May 23, 2023
Share this Post:
a scene from Camera Obscura's 'Virtue'
a scene from Camera Obscura's 'Virtue'

"We're in the middle of the most profound technological event to hit humanity since the capture of fire. Is fire a good thing or a bad thing?" — John Perry Barlow, in "Virtue"

The late 1990s were a period of massive change, both technologically and culturally. In the face of that change, filmmaker Camera Obscura's "Virtue" comes to us like a latter day version of James Whale's "Frankenstein" to assure us that indeed, "Fire bad!"

The film follows Hundée, who loses her husband in an autoerotic accident early in the film while he is watching virtual porn on VR goggles. Her search for a virtual substitute to her husband (a "man-chip" as she calls it) leads her into the world of VR chip pusher Trip (Phillip R. Ford) and his supplier Dr. Pluto (Timmy Spence).

Notably the film casts "real world" events in black and white while scenes seen through the VR goggles are in color. It's also worth noting that the black and white world that the film depicts is the hollowed out South of Market area (hollowed out at the time because of the death and bankruptcy that followed many during the AIDS crisis).

One of the VR addicts in the film lives in a makeshift home under the freeway, which has a dystopian ring to it but hits rather close to reality, and points out that our current housing crisis has been with us for some time.

Leigh Crow as Elvis Herselvis in 'Virtue'  

Prescient but panned
The film was not well received when it was initially released. Peter Stack accused the film of being "essentially a form of voyeurism" and called it a "virtual mess."

In 1999, The Examiner's Wesley Morris wrote that the film conservatively imparts that "perhaps all that's available in a techno culture is D-grade porn and phantasmagoria."

Perhaps the naiveté of the reviewers is explainable when you remember that X-rated streaming vendors like Xtube weren't online until the middle of the decade after the film was released, so perhaps they believed the internet would be not be used for porn as much as it is in the film. If they believed this, they were wrong. A 2018 Business Insider article pointed out that porn sites were accessed more that Twitter, Netflix or Wikipedia.

Admittedly, the phantasmagoria elements are a bit difficult to take, and I did have to glance away at some of the more graphic surgical and piercing scenes. But it is important to remember that this film happened in the midst of the "Modern Primitive" era, which makes this element a bit more understandable.

The cast is amazing and includes the late Arturo Galster as Patsy Cline, Miss X as an assistant to Trip in the VR den, Deena Davenport as a VR Waitress and Connie Champagne as one of the two actresses playing Hundée, Leigh Crow as the Handsome Prince (as Elvis Herselvis), Jello Biafra as a VR Poker Dealer as well as luminaries like Barlow, Timothy Leary and William Gibson offering commentary on online culture.

The film may have seemed over the top at the time it was in the theaters, but for anyone who has had to dodge pedestrians mesmerized by their phones or held a conversation with someone under the influence of internet conspiracy theories it seems quite prescient and Camera Obscura was something of a Cassandra.

Director Camera Obscura will be interviewed after the screening by San Francisco historian Jack Boulware in a discussion that will also include Leigh Crow (Elvis Herselvis), Phillip R. Ford, Lu Read (Fudgie Frottage), Alvin Orloff, Beth Custer, R.U. Sirius and others.

I recently interviewed Camera Obscura for the June 5 showing of the film.

Michael Flanagan: I'm wondering about the set of the club where Phillip R. Ford as Trip and Timmy Spence as Dr. Pluto meet. Was that an actual club and if so where was it filmed?
Camera Obscura: Yes, that was filmed in the back room at DNA Lounge. The "Star Spangled Banner" scene was filmed at The Marsh in the Mission. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence scene was filmed at Club Townsend.

One of the scenes near the end with one of the VR Addicts gambling with Jello Biafra has him living under the freeway in SoMa. Were all of the street scenes filmed in SoMa?
Yes, both those scenes were filmed south of Market. It's on Berwick alley around 10th and Folsom. It looks like a different street now. Graffiti all over the street level with over-priced condos on top; the perfect metaphor for the city's current malaise.

Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in the wedding scene in 'Virtue'  

There are a number of local luminaries in the film including members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Miss X, Alvin Orloff and Elvis Herselvis/Leigh Crow. Were there performances or performance groups from around the time of the filming that you found inspirational?
Oh my gosh, yes! These people were diving into their own humanity and exploring, with great detail and inquisitiveness, every nook and cranny, no matter how divergent from the mainstream. It was so incredibly liberating and inspiring! They led the community in modeling how life is lived with joy, humor and authenticity.

What was perhaps more inspiring than individual performers was how the city itself supported a network of clubs that were spaces into this creative exploration. Club Uranus, the EndUp, Pleasuredome, Colossus, the Eagle, the Stud, DV8, Klubstitute; I mean, the list goes on and on. The scene itself was the inspiration.

Wouldn't it have been nice if the clubs, which truly enriched the community, had been able to enjoy the same tax breaks that had been given Facebook and Twitter?

I was a regular every week at Klubstitute. I always used to say that its founder, Diet Popstitute, was the High Priest. It was spiritual nourishment for me and for many others as well. I dedicated my film to him, as well as to Sister X-stasy Marie Colette, and my mom.

And let's not forget that before the 1990s club scene, there was Doris Fish, the Cockettes, Angels of Light, the Hula Palace, not to mention the Empress events and the leather and modern-primitive scene. And after "Virtue," there was Trannyshack and the drag king movement. That's why half of all proceeds from the film will go to the GLBT Historical Society. This is the legacy to which "Virtue" owes everything. It is to be treasured.

The scene of the ritual with the Sisters has a real Kenneth Anger feel to it. Was he an inspiration for that portion of the film?
Yes! Good eye! "Virtue" is a conscious homage to predecessors Jean Cocteau, Kenneth Anger, Bruce Connor, Jack Smith, Curt McDowell, with a large dash of John Waters thrown in. I was so pleased to have Lou Weinert as the cinematographer for that scene and a few others, because of his intuitive understanding of how to hone light so that once it hits the silvery surface of the film emulsion, magic takes place.

I asked him to replicate the dreamy, sumptuous style of Henri Alekan, who was Cocteau's camera operator. Unfortunately, because the entire cast and crew worked on a volunteer basis, Lou wasn't able to choreograph the light for every scene. He also did the iridescent "Star-Spangled Banner" scene.

At the time the film was released, there were reviews in both the Examiner and the Chronicle and neither of them seemed to understand the film. Do you think that's because they just didn't understand non-narrative structure or was it because they were so enamored of the technological changes happening at the time that they couldn't hear a dystopian voice?
I'm sure it's because they had no clue how much our lives and society would be so comprehensively disrupted by digital technology. Like everyone else, they believed all the sales pitches that technology would somehow "empower" us, "level the playing field," "democratize" society and give us more leisure time.

I remember sitting in the back of the cinema as the audience was filing out at the end of the movie, and I could hear people mumbling, in very superior tones, things like, "How ridiculous. That could never happen," "No need to demonize technology. It's just a tool," and "Those goggles are just plain silly."

Well, well, well! Look who's the silly one now! (Funny, not funny.)

As someone who intuited the rise of VR and the obsession with virtual video performance, are you surprised that it seems to be moving to a shorter and shorter time span (a la TikTok) or do you think that computers and smartphones naturally lead to a shorter attention span?
The algorithms are programmed — or as they say, "are optimized" — to compete with one another to specifically hijack our attention. That, in itself, conditions us to have ever shorter attention spans because our lizard-brain responses then teach the algorithms what will help them succeed further.

Consequently, our attention spans get shorter and shorter, in a negative feedback loop between human and device. The five-minute long single shot of Arturo Galster as Patsy Cline in "Virtue" singing all four verses of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is a statement about media and attention span, much to the ire of those with attention-deficit disorder.

But one more thing about algorithms. Not only do they perpetuate the race to ever shorter attention spans, but look how they have polarized our communities! It's even been scientifically proven. Control-group studies have shown that of all the human emotions, the emotion of rage is the one that will most likely guarantee engagement on social media. A click, or a "like," or whatever.

So these social-media algorithms are all designed to elicit rage. And as a result, we've got everyone at each other's throats, over every point of division imaginable: trans rights, gun control, vaccines, critical race theory, even whether the Earth is round or flat! It would all be funny if we didn't find ourselves on the brink of civil war. Honestly, when I see all the hostile policy being written toward transgender and other marginalized folks, I lay the blame squarely on social media.

To a certain extent, the small-screen format also makes it hard to maintain an attention span, as opposed to sitting in a comfortable chair in a darkened room before a yummy Cinemascope screen. Maybe the most sage prophet was Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard," when she exclaimed, "I am big! It's the pictures that got small!"

'Virtue,' June 5, 6:30pm at The Roxie, 3125 16th St. Free (members)-$10.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.