The only exterior shot Playland shows of the iconic Boston gay dive that lends the film its name is a black-and-white photograph slotted seconds before the end credits. Established in 1937, the Playland was the city’s oldest gay bar and served as a crucial queer hub until 1998, when the owners surrendered to Boston’s “urban renewal” projects and the building turned to rubble. Never once does writer-director-editor Georden West beckon us outside its premises. From the minute the camera first glides across dust-covered tables to the monochrome pictures with which it closes, West’s feature debut reconstructs the dive and keeps us locked inside. It’s the night before demolition, and what unfurls is a kind of farewell ceremony as owner Lady (Danielle Cooper), decked head-to-toe in black leather, travels across sixty years of Playland’s history to conjure the ghosts of a few regulars for one final call. “A play presented by” Lady and bartender Viv (Constance Cooper), per the title card, Playland is best thought of as a seance, a communion with a lost place and its denizens that pointedly refuses to drown everything in formaldehyde, and it brings bar and patrons to life with infectious, raucous energy. This is not an obituary; it’s a resurrection.
I have no way of knowing if the Playland really did look like the decrepit, dim-lit hideout West and production designer Kristen Dempsey recreate. The film doesn’t stint on period details. Radio broadcasts and uniforms offer a few temporal markers in a tale that keeps somersaulting across decades, leaving staff and customers to float in a time-space maelstrom. But settings retain a stage-like quality, long before Lady and others turn the bar into one by dancing and singing in the many musical interludes that pepper the film. A drag queen sings a Strauss aria; staff and regulars dance around a giant swan straddled by a server; a DJ spins records under flickering neon lights. So rich and vivid is the queer utopia West concocts inside the Playland that when the black-and-white photo of the bar graces the screen the film undergoes a kind of short-circuit. Here’s what the joint actually looked like, sandwiched between liquor stores at 21 Essex Street. It’s a testament to the vitality Playland radiates that reality feels like a frozen, atrophied intrusion. The bar may be dead, but the film isn’t; part of its appeal is the way it so vehemently refuses to peddle cheap melancholy.
Anchored as it is to a physical place and its untimely demise, Playland is primarily concerned with the feelings the bar radiated, the many different things it signified to those who frequented it. The actors populating Lady’s play seldom talk; West (who based their script on research conducted at The History Project, Boston’s LGBTQ archive) fills the silence with recordings of prominent habitués. Their voices carom off the dilapidated walls, adding to the sense we’re watching a ghost story where phantoms and place share a symbiotic relationship. We hear from gay-rights activists who used the dive as their unofficial headquarters, patrons who went on to found gay magazines, others who helped organize Boston’s Pride. The Playland offered them all a refuge, and West doesn’t gloss over the circumstances that made the refuge necessary in the first place. The bar was nestled in Boston’s “Combat Zone,” a crime-riddled district that was also the epicenter of its adult-entertainment industry. And it triggered the contempt of local residents and authorities both, whose bilious complaints intersperse the more affectionate memories of regulars from decades past, to whom the Playland served as a haven of self-expression, solace, and pleasure.
Even as the camera never leaves its premises, Playland has a way of growing outward. The chief reason behind the bar’s closure–rampant gentrification propelled by Boston’s urban makeover–connects it to a vast lineage of other community havens wiped away by rising prices and zoning laws, across and beyond the United States. But West aptly understands gentrification as a financial and cultural phenomenon: the annihilation of a physical space goes hand-in-hand with the erosion of its memory and significance. Which makes their film an act of resistance. Toggling between Lady’s play and the real-life testimonies of old patrons, between footage of city-wide demonstrations and the elaborate spectacles performed under the bar’s peeling roofs, Playland straddles fantasy and archive. It’s a reenactment designed to rescue a defunct institution from oblivion. And by drenching it all with so much magic, by filling it with characters who are so defiantly, bracingly alive, it doubles as a testament to the political powers of the imagination.
It is also a profoundly immersive experience. Shot by Jo Jo Lam in a boxy 4:3 that dovetails with West’s penchant for frames (windows, doors, a serving hatch), Playland hopscotches from the singing and dancing routines to more menial moments, such as when, early on, West squeezes in a close-up of a plate being scrubbed in the sink, and the soundscape (designed by Kal Pipal) gives illusion of being underwater, an effect that jolted me back to the experiments of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab. With its sophisticated choreographies (courtesy Mayte Natalio), the bar interactions captured as tableaux vivants, and the theatrical aura of its scenes, Playland couldn’t be farther from a film like, say, Leviathan. But it too represents an ethnography of sorts, one that, à la SEL offspring, is intimately attuned to the different textures of the environment it portrays. A sense of liquidity suffuses the place. The sun sending puddles of light dancing on the walls, the whispers and voices washing down the ceiling–everything in Playland feels viscous, sinuous. Lam’s palette juxtaposes the prison-lit kitchen with the jaundiced looks of the bar in daytime, and the warm reds and purples as the night unfolds. But it’s the deep focus used in several shots that best translates the film’s ethos. For a tale that feels almost sponge-like in its attention to all form of detail, anecdote, and personal history, the deep focus carries an ethical import, bestowing equal importance to the several micro-stories unfolding onscreen.
Playland teems with an inordinate fondness for the bar at its center, and the countless outcasts who sauntered through it. But nostalgic West’s film is not, for the word doesn’t quite square with the ebullient, rebellious energy their film thrums with. West addresses the past as a battleground, not a postcard; far from a two-dimensional still life of what the Playland once was, their playful tribute shivers with rage and love, grief and hope.
Playland premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam.