Two people stand on a sidewalk looking toward the camera in a still from The Sixth Reel.

Damn These Heels! Film Review: The Sixth Reel

Film Reviews

The Sixth Reel
Directors: Carl Andress and Charles Busch

Cranium Entertainment and Derby City Productions
Screening at Damn These Heels 10.14 at 10:45 p.m.

This year, the Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival will be screening The Sixth Reel. Fittingly, the movie is a comedy of errors about the power of cinema to connect people during times of tremendous hardship. In The Sixth Reel, directors Carl Andress and Charles Busch explore the concept of lost media through the lens of cinephiles, using it as an allegory for personal loss and grief. Through dynamic editing, witty dialogue and emotional character scenes, the film portrays a gut-wrenching view of love and friendship, no matter how ephemeral.

The Sixth Reel follows Jimmy (Busch), a sassy cinephile with a love for movie memorabilia from the early days of Hollywood. Grief and a looming threat of eviction have made him desperate for a chance to change his lot in life. When Jimmy’s close friend Gerald dies, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with his niece, Helen (Julie Halston). As the two rummage through Gerald’s apartment, they discover a reel from the legendary lost film London After Midnight. Thus begins an off-kilter adventure as the two attempt to sell the reel and foil potential thieves along the way.

The Sixth Reel uses the analogy of lost media to expand its themes of coping with grief and the effects of time. Lost media is perhaps one of the most terrifying and fascinating aspects of artistic endeavor. The inevitability of work being destroyed or forgotten with time is a fear that we all grapple with—whether in relation to our own creations or cherished pieces we’ve come to identify with. Andress and Busch capitalize on this anxiety to deepen the themes present in The Sixth Reel. After Gerald’s death, Jimmy and Helen host a rummage sale to pawn off his possessions. A motley crew of Gerald’s fellow cinephiles appear, attempting to glean information about London After Midnight. However, they all eventually put their agendas aside in order to raise a toast to their fallen friend, creating a heartfelt moment even amongst their theatrics.

Within its first few frames, The Sixth Reel conveys energy and passion. The dynamic duo behind the film, long-time collaborators Andress and Busch, use snappy editing, sumptuous set design and dynamic camera movement to invite the audience into Jimmy’s private world. Odes to Joan Crawford and other starlets from the 1930s litter his apartment, immediately tuning the audience into his inspirations. Throughout the flick, the camera follows characters, peeks around corners and creates the feeling of being intimately involved in the lives of the characters. When Jimmy first discovers Gerald’s corpse, the camera follows so closely behind him that it evokes a sense of claustrophobia. Even before the reveal of the dead body, the audience gets a feeling of supreme unease as we are relegated to peering over Jimmy’s shoulder into the stuffy apartment, dread curling in our guts before the dust even settles. Outdoor scenes are also vibrantly lit and skillfully composed, fully taking advantage of the movie’s setting in New York City. During an emotional breakdown, Jimmy retreats to a park bench to contemplate his options. The shot’s background is crammed with happy bystanders, yet Jimmy sits alone. As a flock of pigeons take flight behind him, his feelings of abandonment and hopelessness are palpable.

Andress and Busch have also infused The Sixth Reel with the clever writing and direction reminiscent of their past comedic plays, such as Charles Busch’s Cleopatra and Judith of Bethulia. With a runtime of just over an hour and a half, The Sixth Reel never drags. Its funny sequences are lightning fast, with zingers exchanged at breakneck speed and jokes that build up to hilarious crescendos. However, sorrowful scenes are also given the proper room to breathe, sitting with the audience for just long enough to glean valuable insight into the characters and their struggles with loss.

The script is also chock-full of movie references, dirty jokes and double-entendres. It’s clearly been written with Busch in mind as the leading man, as he is able to show off his full range of talent as a Broadway legend and a drag icon (with performances in queer cult classics like Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die!). He is able to ham up his acting for maximum comedic effect while still coming off as extraordinarily grounded and sympathetic during emotionally weighty scenes. Halston and Busch also play off of each other spectacularly as their characters undergo parallel arcs. 

The Sixth Reel’s unruly background troupe also oozes charisma—a distinction which scored it the award for best ensemble at Filmout in 2022 and a special mention at Outfest in 2021. The movie features a collective of quirky cinephiles who provide an extra dose of humor and some shocking plot twists. These include ruthless movie dealer Doris (Margaret Cho), suave professor Michael (Tim Daly) and mysterious buyer Mr. Beltrane (Patrick Page). The Sixth Reel revels in the chaos it creates between its characters, with stakes arising from their personal dilemmas as they navigate questions of who is art for and how we should honor the people we’ve lost.

Beneath a veneer of sass and style, The Sixth Reel is an incredibly sincere film. At its core, it is a narrative of love in all its forms; whether in the shape of romance, friendship or passionate interest. Rather than scoffing or degrading any of these, the movie embraces and celebrates all kinds of love. Legacies aren’t forged when we deny the fleeting moments but when we cherish and share them with others. In a world where it feels easy to feel forgotten, The Sixth Reel is a reminder that we can live on through others, even after we are gone. –Nicole Svagr

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