Family members turning the camera on themselves are nothing new to JWR. Bruce and Me provided a fascinating account of rogue-father/filmmaker-daughter and their journey toward understanding; The Best of Secter & the Rest of Secter chronicled an uncle/nephew relationship that pulls few punches as the elder filmmaker/hustler goes about his business. Now in Uncle Bob, that same familial tie is explored in a completely different manner. Robert Opel (dropping one p from the surname in an attempt to diminish a too readily traceable family connection for the remainder of his kin who did not want to be shamed by his gaily displaying the family jewels on national television) was murdered in 1979 before his namesake nephew had the chance to learn much about the world’s most famous streaker face to face.
Undaunted and compulsively driven, filmmaker Robert Oppel has no qualms dropping his own pants on the journey back to the gay ‘70s in San Francisco’s lavender mecca where anything was possible (sexually and artistically) until Anita Bryant’s call to arms and Harvey Milk’s murder turned the world of creative possibility decidedly/deadly upside down.
The film is a well-crafted concoction of interviews with Opel’s admirers, colleagues and live-in girlfriend (Camille O’Grady offers many insights into the life and death of her non-sexual—overtly—soulmate) and graphic reconstructions as to how various scenes in Uncle Bob’s life likely played out. The most notable of those is the murder-in-the-gallery sequence where the younger Robert seems to get a vicarious thrill of being shot point blank, only to rip off his bloody makeup and shrivel with the horror of it all.
Subterfuge and “set ups” curiously bookend the production. How did Opel gain easy access to the world’s most-watched entertainment awards show in 1974, run without a stitch before the cameras (and the—apparently—quick on his quip feet David Niven: “The only laugh that man will ever get in life is stripping off and showing his shortcomings”) then, instead of being arrested, doing a series of interviews post dénouement? Much more seriously, who was Dana Challman? While Maurice Keehan pulled the trigger that ended the in-your-face sexual pioneer’s life, the never-found Challman seems to have been calling the murderous shots. Police informer, drug dealer, jilted boyfriend? Intriguingly, a letter exists from Keehan—delivered during his trial—that claims he’d like to share “what really happened.” All these many years in jail, the unrelenting nephew’s requests for a visitation have been summarily denied.
Oppel’s necessarily biased essay is worth a look on two counts: the archive footage (with such luminaries as John Waters, the Princess of Castor Street, HRH Lee Mentley, Robert Mapplethorpe and Abel Ferrara not to mention the Mike Douglas Show where the famed crooner serves up a marvellous medley of streaking-inspired lyrics) vividly describes the life and times of America’s late ‘70s struggle with all things queer. Even better than that is the unintentional psychological study of the filmmaker by himself. Like his exhibitionist relative, Oppel doesn’t hesitate to put everything into the limelight and revel in his too-soon-gone uncle’s notoriety and ground-breaking art. Perhaps the greatest achievement of all is that Oppel the younger’s sexuality never finds its way into the mix and doesn’t need too. That in itself gives a modicum of hope for an all-caring future and the end of systemic bashing of citizens whose truth comes too close to home. JWR