Though Judge Bill Gibron often dreams of being a half-dressed state employee, he found this documentary on the famous "naked civil servant," Quentin Crisp, to be a little lacking.
"See me walking down Fifth Avenue
He was born in 1908 as Dennis Charles Pratt. All his life, he knew he was gay. At 20, he changed his name and began wearing make-up and nail polish. He left home in 1930 and headed for London, where he thought all U.K. country boys could go and dream their wildest dreams. During World War II, he dyed his overflowing locks a rich red henna and plumped this hair on top of his head in outlandish coiffures. He cruised the Blitz-ed out streets, picking up American soldiers along the way. He worked as a prostitute, a county worker, and an artist's model. Such a strange life became the basis for a memoir, the oddly accurate The Naked Civil Servant.
The book's minor fame was quickly amplified by a 1975 television interpretation, and soon this onetime mark for attacks and anger was a celebrity. He became a performer, developing a one-man show that featured his carefully considered takes on all aspects of life. Long in love with the United States, he finally moved there permanently in 1981, at the age of 72. When filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter found him, it was 1989, he was 81 and living near the Bowery—not broke, but far from the Park Avenue prima donnas who claimed him as their own. Not quite a citizen, Quentin Crisp still loved his newly-adopted homeland. He didn't mind being a Resident Alien—however you take the term.
Resident Alien wants to be a final elegy for the sad and solitary iconic individual known as Quentin Crisp. It wants to signal his slow decay into old age and force a kind of peace onto the otherwise outgoing eccentric. Newly minted as a Manhattanite after spending over 72 years in England, Crisp brought his documented dandyism to a country that didn't cotton to camp easily. His blatantly fey demeanor matched his controversial queer quips. He believed being gay was like "a disease" and that homosexuals were "not normal," and he said this while resembling one of the swishiest, most flamboyant queens in the history of alternative lifestyles.
More or less a collection of well-honed witticisms, he was Oscar Wilde without the spotlight or society patronage, a considered character in a world that wants nothing but the comfort of conformity. As he ran around with the last vestiges of New York's experimental hoi polloi, he became a kind of observational emblem, the man sitting in the corner, drinking in the drone of finally finding a place and being accepted. Not bad for a boy who spent his life in England being mercilessly demeaned for his effete façade and quite a fitting way to die, when you think about it.
The joke, of course, is that Crisp lived on, packing another 10 years of life into his always fleeting fame, making the death knell sounded by director Jonathan Nossiter very premature indeed. Certainly, what Resident Alien seems far more prescient about is the fading New York avant-garde scene, a slow draining off of the city's idiosyncrasy for a safer, more Disney-fied metropolitan experience. Crisp is someone—or in his own mind, "something"—that is timeless, a Billy Pilgrim of peculiarities. But the individuals we see him share solace with, like the performance artist Penny Arcade or Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto, all appear to be grasping for the grandness that will soon elude them, taken away and given to The Lion King and the Virgin Music Superstore.
As a portrait of New York in a kind of ennui-exploiting transition, Resident Alien is remarkable. As throughout his entire career, Crisp is not really a personality so much as a mirror. He absorbs the essence of the area around him, drinking in its spirit and specialness, topping it off with a well-rehearsed bon mot or two. Only he could make this otherwise whiny wisenheimer of a movie work.
Since Nossiter is not really trying to make a documentary, he can be forgiven for fudging many of the format's more important elements. Created during the upper cusp of New York's final fascination with performance art, Nossiter's nods to the weird and the wooly are self-aggrandizing and obvious. He stages scenes and reconfigures recreations. He invites actor John Hurt, who played Crisp in the classic British bio pic based on his memoirs, The Naked Civil Servant, to sit and watch the film with its subject. The two share a lot of genial nods and clever conversations, but the moment of transcendence never arrives. Crisp is not known for introspection and Hurt is not about to undermine his friend and career catalyst.
There are a lot of moments like this in Resident Alien. Nossiter shoots Crisp talking to Screw Magazine maverick Al Goldstein, but after the initial joke (Goldstein wants the aging, asexual Crisp to write a piece on the changes in carnality over the decades), the interaction goes nowhere. We are introduced to others, like the fascinating and fantastic Fran Leibowitz, yet their time on screen is scattered and unfocused. About the only person who comes out of Resident Alien looking a helluva lot better than when we came in is former Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn. Absolutely amazing at 42, Holly's campy cabaret act and the still-shining diva herself are a joy to behold.
Even the gay angle is underserved here. Nossiter seems to wag his finger at us for even suggesting that his subject's homosexuality is unimportant. He gives us an angry homophobe and an obsessed Jesus freak jeering Crisp during an appearance on the Sally Jesse Raphael show, and Crisp delivers a rather negative speech at a local gay and lesbian organization that has the audience up in arms. Crisp does have a method to his controversial madness. As someone who used interpersonal invention to render himself inoffensive to the rest of the world (therefore securing his safety and sanity in the process), Crisp believes the outwardly militant members of any minority do their cause a deep disservice. In his mind, you will never get people to accept your obvious idiosyncrasies—sexual or otherwise—without rendering yourself harmless.
This may be a mid-20th century notion he is working from, but many modern homosexuals are furious with him. One even refers to him as a "gay Stepin Fetchit." Yet Crisp was out of the closet long before these individuals had the implied right to demand respect for their sexual civil liberties. Cutting the man some slack for a lifetime in the firing line seems like the respectable thing to do.
The combination of all these concerns makes Resident Alien an uneasy treat. The film does fly by on a wicked whimsy and even if some of the New York art scene is indecipherable (we meet a group of vague Victorian-esque "dandys" who paint images of sodomy because it's "beautiful." Huh?), it's still a solid souvenir of its place and time. Quentin Crisp is so plastic fantastic, so overly prepped for every occasion—he has a number of catchphrases that he uses relentlessly—that you want more of his mannered merriment and less of the self-absorbed associates who claim him.
>From a visual standpoint, Nossiter's film is fine looking (the DVD transfer from Docurama is a near -pristine 1.33:1 full-screen dream), but really doesn't set any cinematic standards. The conversations cover many bases (offered here in a professional Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 configuration) and are never dull, but Nossiter doesn't seem to have a final thought on his subject. He lets Crisp swing in the breeze, belittled and debased by the strange narrative path the film has taken. By contrast, the sole major bonus feature here, another Nossiter documentary entitled Losing the Thread (about an Italian artist who uses painted string which he calls "fimo"), is excellent, telling its story in a similar, but much more salient, manner.
Maybe Crisp's contradictions got the better of this filmmaker. Maybe, when faced with all his many malleable beliefs and steadfast sense of self, Nossiter had no choice but to deconstruct the scene that would embrace such a smart-assed shadow. Resident Alien is indeed a fascinating look at New York in flux, but don't be surprised if you know even less about its center subject than you did before going in. Quentin Crisp was always an enigma. Jonathan Nossiter has managed to turn him into ether.
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Scales of Justice
• Additional feature film: Losing the Thread (2000)
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