Playland (2023): Being queer and proudly open about it is one of the biggest slaps to the conventional structures of heteronormativity that Western cultures have proudly displayed to the world. Needless to say, the definition of queerness surpasses the boundaries of gender and sexuality; it probes into the intersectionalities of caste, class, and socio-economic hierarchies of power and privilege existing in society. As a result, very few filmmakers have been able to neatly portray this thunderclap of a rebellion – queerness – without relying on traditional storytelling methods.
For example, one of the best queer films of 2022, Fire Island, is a subversive interpretation of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and goes only so far as to give a modern-day queer spin to the heterosexual romance and parties of the Regency era. Playland, written and directed by Georden West, stretches the boundaries of cinema as an artistic medium to portray queer characters, flickering desires, and the sad reality of city life in America, making it one of the best movies I have watched since the beginning of this year.
The Playland Cafe was a real bar in Boston that shut down in 1998. It thrived for around 60 years as a safe space for queer bodies to associate with each other and celebrate their identities, becoming an essential part of the queer history in the city of Boston. However, when we see the bar for the first time in the film, its neon-lit sign has been flipped, and the interior looks dilapidated. We, the audience, have arrived at the bar on its final night of existence. West’s creation attempts to piece together the rich history of this club along with the people who regularly visited it, such as the drag queen Sunday (played by Lady Bunny) or the staff who worked there, including Viv, the bartender (played by Constance Cooper) and Steff, the cook (played by Jose Lapaz-Rodriguez).
The film is like a bricolage. It comprises archival footage, dance, opera, music, tableaux, and performance art. In fact, it is true queer cinema that refuses to limit itself to one designated form and creates its own form to manifest the memory of a living, breathing space so potent with history. If you pay careful attention to the radio and television voices, which form an integral part of the background score, you will come to understand that the bar was torn down during one of the ‘urban renewal’ projects that the city officials embarked upon. It was, as a result, also the site of police raids and crackdowns. In a surreal moment in the film, the voice of protesters fuses with the demand for a safer city and its survival.
While Playland is trying to evoke the memory of this forgotten queer space, it also shows us how the young server, Sunday, is attempting to understand his sexuality and reach out to the version of themselves that feels closer to their true identity. Almost every character is juxtaposed with real-life interviews of queer people, making you feel closer to the character you see on screen. Further, from time to time, the characters break the fourth wall to stare into the eyes of the audience. You may either read this as an invitation into Playland’s queer space or as an accusation labeled against the society wishing to destroy this sanctum of queerness – you are free to choose.
Light and shadow transform into visual poetry in Playland, thanks to the cinematographer Jo Jo Lam. It succeeds at sweeping you into an atemporal space where nothing exists except the overlapping layers of queer identities, their lives and desires, and queer cultures. The costumes of every character also hold up the rich connotations of queerness in sartorial culture as it existed in society then. Every piece of clothing is as richly detailed as the characters who wear it, my favorite being Sunday’s ornate headgear. You cannot categorize the genre to which West’s Playland belongs. It is a piece of art that is as much a biographical drama as a horror movie. Playland leaves you craving a more intimate rendezvous with experimental queer cinema and, like fine wine, promises to age well with time.