Many people have written that this film provides an interesting look at gay life in the 1970s.
But that is not the case. It actually depicts gay life in the 1960s, and that fact makes it an incredibly rare and special document in gay history.
Sticks and Stones was released in January of 1970, but it was filmed the summer before, in 1969. And if you don't think that makes a huge difference, consider this.
The summer of '69 was the summer of Stonewall. Indeed, since this film takes place on the 4th of July in 1969, it technically occurs only six days after the Stonewall riots, which erupted on June 28th, 1969. (I don't know the precise date Sticks and Stones was filmed, but it's clearly mid-summer of 1969.)
Historians of gay life argue that the liberation movement unleashed by Stonewall transformed gay life in cities like New York, transforming the closeted 60s into the wide open 70s relatively quickly. Within a year of Stonewall, thousands of people had come out of the closet, declared themselves to be openly gay, organized political groups and launched the vast project of gay liberation.
The immediate aftermath of Stonewall produced revolutionary ideas that would have been shocking just months earlier. Activists began marching in the streets chanting Gay is Good. The Gay Manifesto, an influential treatise of early 1970, declared war on both external homophobia and internal self-loathing.
The gay world of the 70s was a product of this explosive movement. But Sticks and Stones was filmed before any of it happened. So it's actually a reflection of the era that Stonewall was rebelling against.
At that time, virtually no one was 'out.' Even gay men who lived in the Village or the Castro often didn't admit to each other that they were gay. Many, perhaps most, assumed they were somehow 'ill.' Huge numbers went to shrinks to get cured.
As a result of this blanket of secrecy and self-loathing, there is very little documentation showing what gay life was actually like in the crucial years just before Stonewall, or how people lived and how they related to each other.
Which is one reason why Sticks and Stones is such an amazing document. It's an openly gay film made before almost anyone was openly gay. It takes us into the white hot center of a secret world - Fire Island just before that world went public.
With its 'guru' and its rap sessions, it shows the clear connection between the hippie movement that dominated the late 60s (Woodstock happened just a few weeks later) and the soon-to-erupt gay movement.
With its sub-plot about an alcoholic boyfriend, it reflects the sad fact that Fire Island was absolutely drowning in booze, an unsurprising reaction to oppression. (People used to say that you were not a real Fire Islander until you had fallen off the boardwalk dead drunk.)
Reviewers forty years later can complain that the characters seem like stereotypes - the leather guy, the screaming queen, the pretty boy, the young innocent, etc. But they could hardly have been stereotypes in 1969, when such characters had not yet appeared in any major book, play or film, with the possible exception of the highly theatrical and artificial Boys in the Band.
A lot of the underground movies of the late 60s were not really scripted. Actors were given the outlines of a scene and a few key points and told to wing it. This gives things like the Paul Morrisey/Andy Warhol films of the same era a documentary, vérité feel.
Sticks and Stones has that feel. It is as though these are not so much professional actors as gay people chosen to play themselves. Which is possibly why almost none of them ever appeared in another film.
Instead, they now live on as embodiments of a vanished gay society on the cusp of monumental change. I highly recommend this film.
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