Susanne Bartsch: On Top
(USA, 84 min.)
Programme: Nightvision (Programme: Nightvision)
Hot Docs’ team of programmers have chosen a large number of character portraits this year—more than in previous editions of the festival. While the focus may illustrate a trend in production, audience interest, or both, it also amplifies the virtues and weaknesses of that genre of documentaries. The strength of character portrait docs generally relies on two elements: the charisma of the subject and the filmmaker’s ability to extend the profile of a single character into a film of greater meaning. The excellent Susanne Bartsch: On Top stands out in the field of first person p.o.v. docs because it has both a great character and a resonant story that situates the subject’s narrative within a larger canvas. This doc about the queen of New York nightlife is a roaringly good time and an empowering story of LGBTQ rights.
If Bette Davis’s attitude was to go out with her heels on while still in action, then Susanne Bartsch’s philosophy is to go out with the biggest, wildest pair of eyelashes one can find while at the centre of the biggest, wildest party New York has ever seen. On Top profiles the long-time Hotel Chelsea resident and reigning Manhattan party queen who still has the spunk and energy needed for a wild bash. Bartsch is a precursor to Lady Gaga, Cher and other party divas who know how to make heads turn with the right “look.” Every appearance Bartsch makes is an utter transformation behind heavy make-up, false eyelashes, eccentric wigs, and bright, vibrant garments. Her appearance is a kind of performance art that has helped her gain attention in the scene and establish herself as one of its most vivacious fixtures.
The Switzerland-born Bartsch recalls her experience of bringing a little life back to the party in the Big Apple when the indie/underground scene faded out with Andy Warhol. She tells how her interest in high fashion (outrageously bright and loud threads) inspired her to import all the hottest trends from the London scene to New York. By opening her boutique, Bartsch established a successful business and a legacy of taking pride in being and looking openly fabulous.
Bartsch herself is heterosexual, but she’s also a flamboyantly gay character with infectious joie de vivre. As the camera observes her testing a variety of looks, one sees how she’s one of those people who simply lights up a room with life and energy. Bartsch is fun and peppy as directing duo Anthony&Alex captures her while she organises and attends parties and humorously commands a room with gaiety and authority. She also readies an exhibit for New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. The show gives the film easy access to Bartsch’s past as she mines her voluminous wardrobe, oversees the maquillage of mannequins, and tells the stories behind her many looks and hairdos, like her wild beehive of a wedding veil that gives the film a gateway to fruitful interviews with her son and her ex-husband (with whom still still has a friendly relationship).
The documentary is especially strong when Bartsch poignantly recalls the friends she lost with the onset of AIDS and the cultural crisis that followed. Susanne Bartsch: On Top looks at how the conservatism of the Reagan years pushed the queer community further past the margins and created stigma rather than support. Bartsch tells of how taking the pulse of this community let her see how much the system was failing her friends and clients. The doc shows the socialite harness her event planning skills and nightlife savvy into one big philanthropic bash.
Susanne Bartsch: On Top extends Bartsch’s story to the community that thrives on her parties. The doc looks at Bartsch’s role in New York’s queer community as residents from all walks of life congregate, mingle, let loose, and thrive in each other’s company. The story of her success is also the story of coming out in America. Her outlandish ensembles and, more significantly, the confidence with which she wears them, invites an atmosphere of openness and acceptance.
On Top sees numerous fixtures from the New York nightlife scene discuss their comfort in coming out with the subculture of drag and performance that Bartsch’s parties invite. The doc lets each of these characters discuss the comforts of finding the right layer of skin into which one may find one’s best self. The film extends the conversation to heterosexuals like Bartsch, including one married couple, who love to dress in drag or make themselves look extravagantly fabulous. Susanne Bartsch: On Top dissolves binaries of gender in an inclusive portrait that encourages audiences to be loud and proud.
Whether it’s an escape or a proud expression of living without fear, nightlife as depicted in this powerful doc, is a necessary alternative to the suffocating attitudes of daytime. What seems like frivolity and excess for some affords a life preserver for others. As far as character portraits go, Susanne Bartsch: On Top is one of the most fabulous docs at this year’s festival.