|There was nothing like the Angels of Light in the 1970s. Absolutely nothing.
Gregory Pickup’s Tricks, which recently screened at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, documents the rise and fall of a long lost San Francisco where theater was rowdy and free, sex was radical, and an untamed community of gender-fucked freaks and dandy creatures roamed the streets thriving on acid, sex, some food stamps, and loads of glitter. Preceding David Weissman’s 2002 documentary, The Cockettes by about 30 years, Pickup’s footage, which was all taken between 1971-1973, became one of the primary sources for the feature film and serves as a grainier and grittier, more intimate account of the world surrounding the Cockettes and the Angels of Light.
Early on, we know we’re in for a treat when a two-part operetta disintegrates into an extended smut scene where Hibiscus’s gown is ravaged by a group of hooligans, and he proceeds to thrash about in utter ecstacy under a shower of their piss. Pickup follows The Cockettes through underground cabarets, unending drug-addled can-can lines, beautiful outfits, and over-the-top cardboard stage props. He goes to the backstage orgies, to the on-stage orgies, and travels out to a cold beach to participate in Hibiscus’ own cracked-out crucifixion and resurrection. The film comes to a close with Hibiscus packing up his belongings and shipping out to New York, signifying the sad end of an amazing era. A narrating voice laments that San Francisco “feels like a city now”. One is left understanding that whatever outrageous scene was witnessed on the Cockettes’ stage was more than a performance—it was a way of life. Some of the scenes in Tricks even lack any concrete relevance to a viewing audience—particularly the crucifixion scene, where non-participants are nowhere to be found.
Pickup’s Tricks emphasizes the strength in their radically inspiring lives. More than just performance troupes or countercultural icons, The Cockettes and Angels of Light communities were able to fashion an entire anarchist enchanted world from second-hand evening gowns, slinky lingerie, glitter, dumpstered flowers, make-up, elaborately adorned headdresses, and painted cardboard. Gregory Pickup resists any urge he may have had to glorify the brief stint of commercial success that ultimately created the breach between the Broadway-bound Cockettes and the Angels of Light. In doing so, the film pays tribute to those for whom fame, success, and money had nothing to do with art. For them, the impetus for life and creativity lay within the very nature of their trouble-making, perverse, and communal lifestyles which allowed them to completely reinvent their world, if only for a brief moment.