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Upstairs Inferno: historical horror made cathartic - We Recommend - My Gay Toronto

Upstairs Inferno: historical horror made cathartic
01 February 2018.


by Drew Rowsome -

So used to dire disclaimers before even the most innocuous of sitcoms, I barely paid attention to the stark black and white warning as Upstairs Inferno begins. Director Robert Camina (Raid of the Rainbow Lounge) isn't being oversensitive: not only are some of the "graphic images" horrific and heartbreaking, in context they move beyond trigger warnings into a deep place we don't always allow ourselves to travel to. 

The fire at New Orleans' Up Stairs Lounge in 1973 is a moment in gay history that I had heard of and read a few articles about. What Upstairs Inferno does so brilliantly is provide not just a history, but also a historical positioning and places human faces on the tragedy. The first section is, despite the foreknowledge of what is to come, delightful and fascinating. Glorious archival photos of the Up Stairs Lounge and its denizens are interspersed with history, reminisces by those who frequented the bar, and sparse and effective narration by Christopher Rice. Rarely has a time and place, particularly a gay time and place, been brought to life so vibrantly.

A gay bar in the '70s was much more of a refuge and a communal space than it is now. The men describe not only the bar but how it fit into the culture of the time, evoking not only gay history but also segregation, drag, décor, sexual mores and New Orleans itself. The photos are breathtaking, men having fun in their prime with an innocence that hasn't been lost but that is of another era. This is never more effective than when it is contrasted with the men, decades later, talking, the ones who survived and are here to tell the tale. It is shocking and powerful to see men of a certain age, of the generation the plague claimed most of, bear witness in all their crisply filmed sagacity, beauty and vulnerability.

Not only was the Up Stairs Lounge a place to drink, socialize and cruise, it also functioned as a performance space with what appears to be a ramshackle New Orleans' version of Charles Ludlam's Theatre of the Ridiculous. On Sunday afternoons the stage was ceded to the MCC who were just getting established in New Orleans. So a typical Sunday at the Up Stairs Lounge would be a church service followed by the "Beer Blast" and culminating in a sing-a-long of "United We Stand, Divided We Fall." That is until the night of the fire.

The section of Upstairs Inferno dealing with the fire is frankly harrowing. Because we have met many of these people, know a bit about their lives, the graphic images and narration pack a gut punch. And watching the interviewees trying to describe the indescribable as the emotions churn behind their eyes is painful and powerful. And all the more incisive as the aftermath puts gay life and homophobia into historical context. 

The MCC becomes crucial as the survivors and the gay community of New Orleans and beyond, struggle to heal. Or to even be acknowledged. We are reminded that at the time gay was not a sexual orientation, it was an "identity disorder." Survivors had no counselling and many had to go back in the closet in order to go to work the next day, piling a trauma upon a trauma. News coverage was only achieved because it was "the first time that homosexuals would talk on TV in broad daylight." There was never a police investigation beyond the fire marshal's acknowledgment that it was arson. A memorial, and four of the victims were never identified or claimed, had to be held in a black Methodist church because they were used to "aliens" and no other church would let the homosexuals use the supposedly Christian space.

It is here that the first uplifting moment occurs, a real rousing demonstration of the indomitable gay spirit. A sassy queen, of course, makes a very southern point and gives Upstairs Lounge a jolt of adrenaline that leads to the conclusion. Upstairs Inferno posits that adversity is not enough, it took tragedy and horror to ignite the gay rights movement and make the LGBT community become a community and a political force. It is a point that we often forget, that an accumulation of indignities, indifference and prejudice, forged us into being the people that we dared to become. Watching the magnificent faces and listening to the passionate words of the men in Upstairs Inferno is more than a history lesson, it is compelling, devastating and ultimately cathartic.

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