American Fabulous

A film by Reno Dakota  

Bob Satuloff in The New York Native
October 26, 1992

Winner of the Best Experimental Comedy Award at the 1991 Houston International Film and Video Festival and the Audience Favorite Award at the 1991 San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival, Reno Dakota's American Fabulous, at the Public Theater through November 3, makes a highly persuasive case for documenting those extraordinarily entertaining and anthropologically important gay men and lesbians who are natural-born storytellers; for preserving their stories, as well as their vocal and performance styles, for the benefit of a wider audience than that to which their individual life paths wouldbe likely to expose them. I'm not tlaking about professional entertainers or performance artists, but the gifted men and women whose lives are otherwise-ostensibly, at least,-ordinary, those whose autobiographies rarely manage to get written, but whose colorful, hilarious stories are likely to be enjoyed at bars or at parties, then passed along as a kind of gay oral history; these are the people who, were we living tribally in the wilderness, would surely be the ones best equipped to hold the rest of us rapt in front of the campfire.
American Fabulous is a video portrait of Jeffrey Strouth, a gay man from southern Ohio, as seen and heard from his perch on the back seat of a 1957 Cadillac, as it tools around the environs of Columbus. The part of the state in which Strouth was born and raised isn't the midwestern Ohio of Sherwood Anderson, but the region more likely to be identified with its neighbor just across the Ohio River, West Virginia. Raised in trailer parks with his brothers and sisters by a drunken, often utterly crazed father and a put-upon mother who has no trepidations whatsoever- when her husband becomes too much to take- about experimenting with the occasional murder attempt, Stouth's often bizarre life takes him from working the graveyard shift with Valkyrie-like, big-haired waitresses at a truckstop diner; to hustling, at age fourteen, the beaches of Fort Luderdale, Florida; to a brief, penniless existence in a Salvation Army residence in a one-horse Colorado town after being physically attacked, robbed,and left naked by the side of the road on the Utah flats in the middle of the night by a psychopathic trick; to a period in which he lived as part of a network of upscale junkies in the East Village.
While the above may sound more tragic or distasteful than it does wildly hilarious, and Strouth, who died of AIDS-related complications in June of 1992, may not have been the sort of person to whom one would have wanted to get all that close, there's no disputing the man's ability to tell excruciatingly funny, often hair-raising stories, and create verbal character portraits that make their subjects come brilliantly alive. Had he ever had the desire to become a monologist, it seems clear that he would have been right at home on the stage of P.S. 122.
Among the figures we get to hear about from Strouth's checkered past are his mother, Betty Maxine, who, in one story, merrily grows a batch of botulism to mix with her abusive husband's dinner; "Miss Earl," Strouth's first gay boyhood friend, dedicated to the roller derby and to getting himself "the operation"; a 400-pound cook and weekend drag queen whose pride and joy is his vast collection of color-coordinated, polyester leisure suits, and a leather-clad butch lesbian who turns her lover's long-awaited trailer Tupperware party into a flapping fiasco that is the stuff of legend.
I once believed, along with much of my filmgoing generation, that movies were either cinematic (good) or static (bad). These academic, artificial distinctions quickly disintegrated, however, upon seeing Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre and Jonathan Demme's film of Spalding Gray's performance piece, Swimming to Cambodia. As amazing as it may seem, one person, as seen through the camera of a straightforward director who is more interested in doing justice to his subject than showing off his arsenal of cinematic tricks, can engage and audience thoroughly. It's an intimate kind of filmmmaking that will never be confused with what, say, James Cameron or Tim Burton do for a living, like chamber, as opposed to symphonic music. On its own, modest terms, American Fabulous, a celebration and record of a unique gay man, is entirely successful.





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