For the SFILGFF, this is the year of the closet – empty!
The proportion of successes to stinkers is reassuringly high in this year’s San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, higher than in recent memory. The best features – Show Me Love, Spin the Bottle, Desperate Acquaintances, Head On, Manly Love, Sitcom, Miguel/Michelle, among others – seem to answer a number of lingering criticisms of the most important queer film festival in the world. These include complaints that the acceptance ratio (approaching half the submissions) is too high, stressing quantity over quality, and that there are too few films made by or dealing with women, whether gay, straight, bi, or trans.
Speculation on why this year’s 267-odd features, documentaries, TV shows, and shorts should offer a richer selection – and, it would seem, more films by and about women – than in previous years is undoubtedly futile, but let’s indulge anyway. Perhaps it’s the millennium that’s driving good writers to their computers and directors to their megaphones. Or maybe it’s age; even the tightest closet doors eventually age and splinter, making a graceful exit increasingly easy as time goes on. And an open closet door surely makes for more expansive art. Another factor may be that at the end of the century, women no longer automatically relinquish the role of creator to men; evidence of this can certainly be found throughout the festival in the form of superior scripts and direction by women. It may be, too, that the higher visibility of queer youth movies is pumping fresh blood into a form that, in the mainstream, has become quite anemic. Young people weren’t raised in the ’50s and ’60s, and don’t carry that period’s peculiar darkness. (Of course, they have their own darkness.)
Moving Fast but Going Nowhere
This is not to say that all this year’s films are good, or even watchable. Let’s dispose of some of the turkeys first. From the “dead goldfish” school of filmmaking comes the Eurotrash annoyance S, directed by Belgium’s Guido Hendrickx. This is one of those self-consciously grungy nightmare movies about a psychotic lap dancer whose boyfriend eats her goldfish and who spends most of the movie blowing bums, doing drugs, murdering people, screaming, puking, and generally in a rage. A few rungs up the ladder – but no more than, say, halfway up – is San Francisco’s Nick Katsapetses’s The Joys of Smoking, which looks like it was blown up from 8mm. This purposely lo-fi film has some worthy moments in its endless monologuing by a gay couple having marital problems, but they probably won’t outlast the screening.
Stanley Kwan’s Hold Me Tight promises much as his first feature as an out gay director, but the film is a boring, incoherent mess populated by creatures of melodrama that include a mooned-over dead wife, a pathetic sauna queen, and a tediously unevolved main character. Even the usually wonderful Eric Tsang (as the sauna queen) can’t reanimate this corpse. Nickolas Perry’s Speedway Junky, with its androgynous boy-hookers and teenage urban angst, looks suspiciously like a Gus Van Sant film, and no wonder – Van Sant produced it. The film moves fast but goes nowhere, a mountain of tortured-boy clichés with one strong performance by Darryl Hannah as a world-weary whore. Van Sant’s star appears to have sunk for good with his indefensible Psycho remake, and Perry should look to other models.
A favorite of Sundance audiences this year was Jim Fall’s trick, but this lightweight “confection” doesn’t justify the praise. The plot – two handsome young gay men meet, are instantly attracted, and spend a day and night searching in vain for someplace to fuck – tries to capture the spirit of a romantic musical comedy from the ’40s or ’50s, but in fact reeks of subtle repression in its endless delaying of the touchy homo coupling.
Far more successful in the youth movie sweepstakes, in fact, a highlight of the festival, is Show Me Love. Director Lukas Moodysson’s self-assured first feature (he’s 29) was released to more enlightened European audiences as Fucking Amal – Amal being the Swedish town the film’s two budding 15-year-old lesbians want to escape. The girls’ insistence on being themselves, and the film’s obvious relish in their brazenness, makes their interplay and their rude relations with their family and friends a delight. The fact that the film outgrossed Titanic in its native country may inspire some viewers to consider emigrating.
Another solid import about a young deviate is Ana Kokkinos’s Australian feature Head On. This intense film, about the ne’er-do-well, druggy, secretly homo son of Greek immigrants, gets the award for having arguably the sexiest male lead in the festival. All of Ari’s relationships are dysfunctional, so he finds solace in frantic anonymous sex in various alleys and tearooms. The immigrant angle adds emotional heft; garrulous scenes of the family dancing and eating and getting married show Ari’s double-outsiderness as both gay man and immigrant. He’s half-closeted but constantly flirts with exposure. Like the girls in Show Me Love, in his own blind way he resists the social pressures of peers and family and follows his own course, even if it seems violent and self-destructive to those around him. And the film disproves the cliché that women filmmakers can’t show hot gay (male) sex.
The demands of machismo also drive Francisco J. Lombardi’s Don’t Tell Anyone. This Peruvian film looks at handsome young Joaquim, a budding bourgeois homo ruled by a tyrant father who puts him through every noxious ritual imaginable to “make him a man.” (These include boxing, beating up the mestizos who work for the family, and visiting a whore.) Joaquim eventually escapes to Lima, where he learns it’s possible to have a gay life as long as it’s kept secret and on the side. The film is a powerful expose of the hypocrisy of South American machismo, well acted if a bit overlong.
Miguel/Michelle also critiques the cult of masculinity, but in an easier, more casual way than Don’t Tell Anyone. This charming and funny Philippino film shows what happens when a village has to deal with one of its favored sons who, after seven years in America, returns as a woman. Religion and small-town mores are roundly ridiculed – at their reuniting, Michelle’s clueless mother says, “What you’ve done is a mortal sin. Can you change it back?” A highlight is a hilarious drag pageant (“Miss End of the World”) in which one of the contestants’ mothers suddenly denounces her son not because he’s a drag queen but because his gown is too tacky.
Another notable culture clash occurs in Nisha Ganatra’s Chutney Popcorn, which features young Indian dyke Reena, who agrees, to her white lover’s horror, to carry a baby for her sterile sister. The film is refreshing in allowing space for shifts of allegiance and acceptance – Reena bonds with her sister’s husband in one of the scenes – but retains a sense of humor about it all. Like Relax … It’s Just Sex, Chutney Popcorn includes a very funny mother who simply can’t accept her daughter’s breakup with Reena: “I can’t believe you left your pregnant girlfriend!” she screams.
Soap Operas, Surrealism, and Vengeful Fag Hags
The festival scored a coup when it scored a controversial eight-part gay soap opera from Britain’s Channel 4. A kind of English version of Tales of the City set in the ’90s, Queer as Folk does the unthinkable in showing us in intimate detail the lives of three out, sex-positive gay men. The series makes its heroes human without deifying them, a strategy that works well on screen but won’t endear it to American venues that are used to showing gays as sexless best friends or camp window dressing.
Speaking of camp, a highlight of the festival is Francois Ozon’s Sitcom. This Bunuelian farce uses a deceptively simple device – a father bringing home a lab rat – to expose the dementia seething under the surface of a supposedly respectable middle-class family. In the classic tradition of European absurdism, the film shows how bourgeois life collapses under the slightest strain. Under the rat’s mysterious spell, the once-dutiful son becomes a queen who hosts orgies in his room, the daughter turns into a wheelchair-bound dominatrix, and the parents madly pursue a variety of perversions, including incest.
That much-maligned figure in queer mythology, the fag hag, finally gets her due in Yolanda Garcia Serrano and Juan Luis Iborra’s Manly Love. This film is reminiscent of the Italian comedy Men Men Men, which showed a few years ago at the SFILGFF, in portraying the alternately warm and vicious relations between queens and the women who adore them. Esperanza can be as brittle as her beloved Ramon – “If you bite your tongue, you’ll poison yourself!” she tells him – but Ramon’s callousness eventually capsizes what turns out to be the most important relationship in both their lives. The film has been called “Spain’s answer to The Object of My Affection”, but it’s got a much harder edge. Like Head On, this is another example of a woman director handling sex scenes between men with aplomb.
Manly Love is also one of a number of well-scripted features this year that offer surprising subjects or unusual takes on prosaic genres. Spin the Bottle is another. This queerish update of The Big Chill brings together a group of five now-grown childhood friends for one of those familiar psycho evenings in which alliances shift, hearts and homes are broken, and the lines between homo and hetero become permanently blurred. Amy Sohn’s script has more plot twists than characters and a very hot sex scene between two straight-identified men.
AIDS in Absentia
It may be complacency or sheer burnout, but AIDS is not a major theme in this year’s fest. It appears in a few features from the third world – notably Victor Sava’s grimly effective There Is No Pain in Paradise (Mexico) and Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar’s Long Live Life (India) – but it’s mostly present in brief, sometimes coded references that show it not as an overwhelming nightmare but as just one part of life. In Miguel/Michelle, the title character’s adored mentor is dying from it. In Spin the Bottle, it’s invoked by a woman who denounces her boyfriend after he sleeps with another man. In Beloved Friend, adapted from a stage play, it surfaces metaphorically, as an undisclosed ailment afflicting an aging gay intellectual hopelessly in love with a young hustler.
Intergenerational love, or rather lust, also distinguishes Hermine Huntgeburth’s gritty black comedy The Trio. Hunky, middle-aged thief and evil queen Zobel (well-known German TV star Gotz George) becomes the object of his daughter’s boyfriend Rudolf’s attentions, and the two of them carry on wildly until she catches them in the shower. The film is refreshingly perverse in refusing to punish its petty criminals and quite open-handed in its view of sexuality; Lizzie’s as aggressive and driven as her dad, and the terminally horny Rudolf bounces with energetic innocence from one to the other.
Another sleeper in this year’s festival is the Norwegian feature Desperate Acquaintances, directed by Svend Wam. This is a “small” movie that doesn’t try to disguise its low budget. The focus here is on an unusual three-way friendship between drugged-out psycho Terje, uptight closet case Anders, and needy, childlike straight guy Yngve. One of the most startling and seductive things about the film is its reversal of expectations; this time it’s the straight character in desperate pursuit of the gay one. When Anders comes out to Yngve, Yngve immediately tries to kiss him, begs Anders to hold him, let him sleep in his bed. He’s upset not that Anders is gay but that his friend never confided in him and won’t respond. The film, which has the look of an Ingmar Bergman chamber play, is a sweetly comic look at new possibilities in relationships, at forgetting stereotypes and labels and pursuing human connections regardless of where they lead. Soulful and charming, and proof that an empty closet has far more possibilities than a filled one, Desperate Acquaintances typifies the best of this year’s fest.