Reel Q Film Festival closes with final screening

Go-go boots, glamour and tons of glitter, 54: the Director’s Cut was the perfect way to close Pittsburgh’s 30th annual Reel Q film festival last Saturday night at the Harris Theatre. Following the screening, the Pittsburgh Lesbian & Gay Film Society (PLGFS) board of directors among other spirited guests dressed up in their funkiest '70s garb and got down to hip jams like "Stayin’ Alive" and "YMCA" at the disco themed after-party to celebrate the film festival’s longevity and success.

Originally released in 1998, 54 tells the story of a young adult, Shane (Ryan Phillippe), born and raised in Jersey City, as he pursues fame and fortune at a New York City nightclub, “Studio 54.” The film’s original release was heavily edited, cutting out a third of the original footage including key scenes that display the fluidity of Shane’s sexual orientation as he struggles with his sense of identity. The cuts were made by an executive producer of Miramax that feared the public’s reaction to bisexuality, and the film was diluted to suit the current social climate. Its original release was successful, but not lasting. The watered-down version lacked the emotional stakes and was unable to hook its audience.

Eventually, director and writer Mark Christopher and his co-producer Jonathan King pitched the idea of a remastered “director’s cut” of 54. The controversy surrounding the severity of Miramax’s original cut was kept alive in cult-film circles where a bootlegged VHS copy of the original footage had been circulating since the 1998 release. This resurrection was not picked up until 2014 and by then, some of the original footage could only be found on these bootlegged VHS’s. The incorporation of distorted footage only served to enhance the film, melding the societal controversy with the trials of the film’s characters.

As a final result, some scenes of the director’s cut are grainier, darker, and have distorted audio. These seeming impairments actually serve to highlight Shane’s confusion as he attempts to navigate the moral ambiguity of Studio 54. In particular, the relationship between Greg (Brekin Meyer, who you may remember as the lovable pothead of the 1995 romantic comedy Clueless) and Shane as well as the villainy of club owner, Steve Rubell (Mike Myers), is stunted in the original release. In the director's cut, however, their turbulent relationship and the horror of Rubell’s irresponsibility are displayed in full, increasing the stakes and making the film a more cohesive and compelling experience.

After beginning to work as a bartender at Studio 54, Shane is disowned by his Jersey City family and finds a new home with Greg and his wife Anita (Salma Hayek), both working at the club as well. Greg and Shane’s kiss (and Meyer’s first onscreen kiss) is one of the scenes recovered for the director’s cut. It illustrates the height of Shane’s confusion as he tries to reconcile his need for family, which he has left behind in Jersey City, and his misconceptions of love, which he observes at Studio 54. In the pursuit of fame, Shane has lost what it means to express familial love. The pulsating lights of the dance floor, dark alcoves, and seedy basement rooms of the club paired with the distorted audio and visual heightened the sense of moral ambivalence which Shane, Greg, and Anita all experience in different capacities.

Other recovered scenes involve the compelling and colorful Steve Rubell (Mike Myers), the co-founder of Studio 54. Rubell is characterized off-the-bat by his obsession with beauty and wealth, which are played off initially as comical, and even charming. He intelligently explains his unapologetic hedonism through philosophy where he subscribes to the belief that “excess is the path to wisdom.” Rubell’s recovered scenes for the director’s cut characterize his descent into villainy through the sexual exploitation of his bartenders and abuse of drugs which nearly incapacitated him. These intermediary scenes, originally omitted, are invaluable to the setup of Rubell’s part in the film’s tragic climax, which drives Shane to finally leave his legacy at the sordid night club.

The Reel Q film festival has “grown substantially in sponsorship over the past three decades,” said Mitchell Leib, executive director of PLGFS. They now have the freedom to show a wider array of films from around the world. Other notable films included in the festival were Baby Steps (Taiwan), Liz in September (Venezuela), and While You Weren’t Looking (South Africa). Finally, 54: the Director’s Cut was a high-energy finish to the festival and a film that Leib has been wanting to incorporate ever since the original controversy of the 1998 release. The disco-themed after-party was the icing on the cake. Reel Q has established itself as a fixture of Pittsburgh’s film scene with a successful 30th annual week of screenings.