A Latino transgender bar tells its own story, courtesy of the performance crew who transformed the space into a once-a-week hipster hangout, in “Wildness,” named after the outre art/fashion/music night that filmmaker Wu Tsang and his friends brought to Los Angeles’ Silver Platter. Considering the various groups who struggled to coexist there, it’s no surprise that the resulting documentary should reflect such an enigmatic mix of identities. Simultaneously vital and unwieldy, this occasionally self-serving yet undeniably eye-opening project is the closest thing the community has to a self-portrait, fancifully narrated (in Spanish) by the Silver Platter itself.
Having begun its festival life at SXSW and continued its journey along the LGBT, nonfiction and art-film circuit, “Wildness” adapts easily to any of those crowds. Rather than being merely an ethnographic snapshot — or worse, a commemorative video of a short-lived avant-garde happening — the pic serves up various artistic, cultural and political entry points to suit different auds.
Helmer Tsang privileges the club’s point of view via the somewhat precious decision to write the pic’s primary narration (penned in collaboration with art curator Roya Rastegar) from the Silver Platter’s perspective. As the camera lingers on the welcoming glow of the club’s neon sign — a motif to which Tsang returns throughout the film — a maternal voiceover delivered by actress Mariana Marroquin suggests an all-embracing, protective spirit bemusedly watching over those who congregate within her walls.
Tsang reinforces that position by leading with a history of the gay and trans men who have found comfort at the MacArthur Park club over the years. Pic introduces club owners Nora and Gonzalo Ramirez, who generate a dramatic subplot about the Silver Platter’s fate. It also features oncamera testimonies from many of the club’s drag-queen regulars, treated with nobility rather than ridicule, no matter how unconvincing their gender-bending charade.
Generous as this approach may seem, there’s no denying that Tsang is the film’s real star. A magnetic, pronoun-confounding presence, the androgynous mixed-race performance artist eventually allows his own narrative to overtake the Silver Platter’s story: Like the locals, Tsang finds sanctuary in the club, but he also sees opportunity. Together with his posse of frustrated Chicago performance artists, Tsang tests a weekend geisha show before turning Tuesday nights into an aggressively experimental avant-garde showcase, aimed a different clientele.
“Wildness” tracks the ensuing meltdown as the wild party night (exhaustively recorded by its hosts, whose footage makes for saucy, mouth-dropping montages) attracts negative press to what was once a happily un-hip safe space for a largely closeted Latino community, many of whom are also undocumented, in the legal, not filmic sense. Tsang is so much at the center of this upheaval that it’s fair to question whether he’s the right person to capture it. Then again, who else possibly would?
Though driven by the same attention-seeking energy that initially inspired Tsang and his cohorts to host the Wildness nights, the film benefits from an older/wiser awareness. In retrospect, Tsang clearly realizes how his well-meaning activities disrupted the delicate ecosystem, having witnessed the downside of treating another group’s sanctuary as his personal playground. Heavy on academic and queer-theory concepts, the resulting assembly serves as yet another form of dress-up, one in which Tsang strives to capture the spirit of the Silver Platter itself — a messy, amorphous thing as contradictory as the mix of electronica and Latin cabaret numbers found jostling on its soundtrack.