Continental director Malcolm Ingram. Photo: Lansia Wann
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An ebullient Malcolm Ingram joined Eugene Hernandez on the third installment of Film Society's Daily Buzz podcast from SXSW to discuss his new documentary Continental. The third in an unofficial gay history doc "trilogy"—Ingram's previous docs Small Town Gay Bar (2006) and Bear Nation (2010) premiered at Sundance and SXSW, respectively—the film takes on a surprising but important legacy: that of New York City's most famous gay bathhouse.
"I heard about the Continental the same way everyone else did: Bette Midler," explained Ingram, when asked about the impetus of the film. "It was the place Bette Midler performed. That's a piece of gay history I didn't know anything about so [I said]: let's see if there's a story there. And boy was there ever."
The story of the Continental Baths is the story of Steve Ostrow, whom Ingram describes as an "incredible gay P.T. Barnum-type character." Just after the Stonewall riots in the late 1960s, Ostrow envisioned and built a multi-purpose gay meeting place complete with a cabaret, disco, Olympic-size swimming pool, non-denominational place of worship, and, of course, saunas.
Ingram emphasized the community service the batthouse provided, noting that "the Continental was one of the first places to introduce things like on-site testing for STDs. It was really a revolutionary concept, especially for 1968."
The popularity of the Continental Baths coincided with a period where gay culture was in the zeitgeist. Frankie Knuckles created House music, in part, in the bathhouse's basement disco, straight people regularly visited the establishment, and it would go on to inspire renowned New York nightclubs like Studio 54.
Ingram attributed all of this with increased awareness of gay life not just in New York City, but around the country. "One of the subjects in the films talks about the fact that all of a sudden Bette Midler is on the Johnny Carson show talking about a gay bathhouse... It was a big gay beacon!"
Learn even more about Malcom Ingram's fascinating and entertaining documentary and the history of the Continental Baths on today's podcast and listen to interviews with the filmmakers behind the "first post-post-Katrina documentary" Getting Back to Abnormal and LGBTQ senior citizen doc Before You Know It. In addition, a jam-packed roundtable of critics recaps the first weekend of SXSW Film in Hot Topics and Josh Braun of Submarine explains just what a sales agent does and reminisces about his band with Jim Jarmusch.
Krista Smith, Vanity Fair
Dan Kois, Slate
Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times
Scott Foundas, Village Voice
Dave Karger, Fandango
Getting Back to Abnormal (Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Peter Odabashian, Paul Stekler)
Continental (Malcolm Ingram)
Before You Know It (PJ Raval)
Josh Braun, Submarine