Lavender Hill: A Love Story

Austin Bunn, a new professor in the Cornell Department of Performance and Media Arts, will be showing his documentary film Lavender Hill: A Love Story at Cinemapolis on Sunday, Sept. 15 at 2 p.m. and then again at the Schwartz Center of Performing Arts on Thursday, Sept. 19 at 7:30 p.m. It documents the life and eventual dissolution of a commune in Danby. There were a large number of communes in this area during the 1970s, but Lavender Hill was the only one whose members were all gay men and lesbians.

“It was rare for there to be a gay commune at that time,” Bunn said. “And it was really rare for gays and lesbians to be living together. There was more of a separatist ethos in the lesbian community at the time, and gay men didn’t really see them as part of the gay world.”

Bunn was first told about Lavender Hill by his department colleague Prof. Amy Villarejo. “I thought it was a neighborhood in Ithaca,” he laughed, “but it turns out it was 10 or 15 miles south of town in West Danby.” Then he bumped into a former member of the commune at a Christmas party. He visited the property and found many of the old outbuildings in ruins, but the main house is still intact and occupied by David Hirsch, one of the founders of the Moosewood Restaurant and one of the original members of the commune.

Lavender Hill was established in 1973 and remained intact for about a decade before beginning to splinter. The center of the group, according to Bunn, was the couple of Hirsh and Allan Warshawsky. After they broke up the commune began to come apart. The dissolution was also impelled when one of the members fell ill with AIDS in the early ‘80s. His death in 1988 was the final convulsion.

Bunn was a magazine journalist for a decade before getting into the movie business as a writer. His Kill Your Darlings with Daniel Radcliffe premiered at Sundance this past winter. The film chronicles the lives of four members of the Beat Generation before any of them became famous, exploring the ramifications of a murder one of them committed and in which all of them became involved. It will open next month in wide distribution.

Bunn made Lavender Hill with Bob Hazen. Hazen is the editor and cinematographer, while Bunn is the writer, producer, and fundraiser. “People are a little puzzled that there isn’t really a director,” said Bunn. Hazen lives in Ithaca and works at Photosynthesis, a film and video studio.

This past June, Bunn and Hazen attended a reunion of the Lavender Hill commune, 40 years after its founding. “There were poignants moments,” said Bunn, “when they were visiting what had been their homes and were now shattered and open to the elements.” The filmmakers also went down to New York City to interview other members who have relocated there.

Bunn was surprised to discover this rural “back to the land” gay population. “There was a certain amount of gender-f**king,” he said, “masculine men wearing dresses all day, some drug exploration—it was the ‘70s—and some experimentation with intimacy. And they built the house; they had this real constructivist ethos that is rare in gay men.”

Lavender Hill: A Love Story premiered at Outfest in Los Angeles in July. Hirsh, Warshawsky, Ned Asta, and Yvonne Fisher, former members of the commune, will be at the Cinemapolis screening for a discussion after the screening, which will also include the short Spooners by Brian Hortch. 

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