Out of the closets and onto the screen
Queer film festivals have always been a crucial flashpoint for community. Starting in the 1970s, with the now sprawling San Francisco version, these events have been essential to erasing queer invisibility, happily marketing fags and dykes to a culture that hasn’t exactly welcomed them as well as supplying affirmations to the GLBT population. The PlanetOut website lists nearly 150 queer film festivals worldwide at last count, including such unlikely locales as Slovenia, Korea, and four in that bastion of homophobia, Ohio.
It’s now 2006, and queers are more than visible; we seem to be everywhere, with our own magazines, newspapers, sitcoms, indie and mainstream movies, billboards. With all this visibility, it’s tempting to dismiss queer film festivals as irrelevant. Why pay money to see big-screen homos when you can see little ones on the all-queer Logo cable channel or just watch re-runs of Six Feet Under (right) or Will and Grace?
But the fact is that these events remain important not just to reinforce our presence but also to see where we’re at as a community at this moment. It’s no accident that the closet continues to loom large in recent homo cinema. But it’s also reassuring to see unrepentant queers largely ignoring it in favor of being out, bitchy, playful, sexual, romantic, even obnoxious.
A sampling of the entries in the Seventh Portland (Oregon) Lesbian and Gay Film Festival shows a wide range of characters and stories, from a quirky indie about quasi-dysfunctional urban queens to a sizzling doc profiling gorgeous New York drag dykes. As always, the quality varies, but this year the winners considerably outweigh the stinkers. Ironically, the least worthy is probably the most “feel-good” film of the fest, the sunny but saccharine German sports drama Guys and Balls.
The terrors of coming out may seem too-familiar territory, but that cultural narrative remains a powerful one, rooted in the reality of many people’s experience. Tennyson Bardwell draws on his own youth for the endearing indie Dorian Blues (2004). This low-budgeter centers on Dorian (Michael McMillian from TV’s What I Like About You), a cute, likeable gay teen who spends the first half of the movie struggling mightily with his orientation. He follows the common trajectory — a furtive fling with a geeky classmate followed by guilty tooth-brushing, visits to psychiatrist and priest and a simpatico female lap dancer. His biggest obstacle is his homophobic father, an abusive know-it-all who tyrannizes his wife (a sad Stepford type convincingly sketched by Mo Quigley) and sons Dorian and Nicky. Bardwell mines this vein with casual humor and pathos, giving scenes that might be cliché in other hands freshness and power. Dorian’s blow-ups with Daddy, particularly, have the eerie feel of reality as the latter verbally annihilates his son without raising his voice. Audiences will cheer his escape to New York, but new difficulties arise there as Dorian jumps on and off the merry-go-round of love and lust. The film is a showcase for Michael McMillian, a natural actor who strikes the right note of vulnerability and strength throughout. Lea Coco provides soothing eye candy as gorgeous jock brother Nicky. Typical of the film, Coco’s not just a pretty face but an effective actor, especially in the emotional scenes with McMillian.
Sherry Hormann’s Guys and Balls represents a different kind of coming out that may cause some viewers to wish the guy had just stayed in. Cute Ecki (Maximilian Brückner) is a baker’s son and gifted soccer player in a German village with a secret penchant for other boys. Caught in flagrante trying to kiss one of his surprised straight pals, he’s teased and tormented until he decides to head to the Big City and enlist a bunch of fellow fags to form a gay soccer team that will kick the asses of his homophobic rivals. The pickings seem surprisingly slim, if not completely incredible — a few ancient leather queens, a gigantically tall tranny, a “male lesbian,” and a gaggle of other misfits. But that doesn’t stop Ecki from forming his dream team. Sporting a bright palette and an equally upbeat attitude, Guys and Balls is a curiously retro mix of sports film and queer affirmation drama. There are innumerable subplots: Ecki’s sister’s attempts to find romance, Ecki and his dad’s estrangement, one of the leather queens deprived of seeing his son by his hateful ex-wife, Ecki’s attempts to find romance, to name a few. But there’s no confusion — or depth — in the storyline of this relentlessly propelled, cliché-drenched narrative. The gay characters are stereotypes of the “we’re people underneath so love us!” variety, the homophobes are cartoons, and the situations grimly predictable. Expect to feel at least a little guilty afterward if you enjoy this one.
Considerably more engaging — and with a very different take on the closet — is Cote d’Azur, a charming confection that expertly blends the holiday revelation drama and the sex farce, with a few musical numbers thrown in for good measure. Directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau are known for two previous festival favorites, Jeanne and the Perfect Guy (which mined the same territory less successfully) and The Adventures of Felix. This lively film is a worthy successor, following uptight Marc (Gilbert Meliki), his liberal wife Béatrix (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), and their two kids to a seaside villa where Marc spent his childhood. As in all such stories, this one has a “house of secrets” theme, with Béatrix cheating with her lover, and Marc having a Big Secret of his own. Both obsess over the sexuality of their teenage son Charly (Romain Torres), a long-haired ragamuffin who invites his definitely gay best friend Martin to visit them. The film takes its motifs to hilarious heights — Mom’s lover popping up from a bush, the endless problem of the cold shower and what goes on in there, and best of all, Mom’s certainty that Charly’s gay as she tries to tease him out of the closet she thinks he’s in. She speculates on how he’ll tell them (“Maybe he plans a more theatrical coming out?”), oblivious of what’s really happening with him. Clever dialogue and a couple of musical numbers keep the tone light, but the film’s playfully presented argument for sexual and personal freedom rings true.
Some of the films this year are decidedly post-closet. One of the best is Craig Chester’s Adam & Steve. Chester is one of the pioneering actors of the New Queer Cinema, with parts in such ’90s films as Grief and Swoon. It’s not often that actors successfully transition to directing, but Chester shows talent in this funny and touching story of the misadventures of a contemporary urban queer misfit. The film opens in the 1980s with Adam Bernstein (Chester) and his best pal Rhonda (indie perennial Parker Posey) in full Goth drag, as Adam picks up hunky disco dancer Steve. Steve introduces Adam to coke during lovemaking, at which point something exceptionally gross occurs that ruins their relationship and traumatizes Adam. Fast-forward to today, and Adam’s a neurotic wreck while Steve has become a shrink. A casual meeting at which neither of them recognizes the other triggers their renewed romance, which seems perfect at first glance. Chester’s script hits bull’s-eyes on a number of targets, from the recovery movement (“I’m a bipolar crackhead!”) to crazy Christians in the form of Steve’s parents (Adam laments, “I feel I have a sign around my neck that says ‘I eat your son’s ass!'”) to the queer bourgeoisie (“My friends Jeff and Jeff are bringing their foster child.”) Comic window dressing comes from SNL alumnus Chris Kattan as Steve’s straight roommate, and Posey excels as the extra-neurotic thin girl who tells fat jokes about herself. But this is mostly Chester’s show. His mood shifts and facial tics and body language as he reacts to his life crumbling around him are a marvel to behold.
On a more dour note, the Argentinian feature Night Watch brings that indie gay cinema stalwart, the rent boy, to the fore. But this is no typical portrait. Victor (Gonzalo Heredia) is a sensitive guy whose one-day odyssey through the streets of Buenos Aires takes him through well-worn territory as he showers with a friend and fends off an unwelcome trick. Less familiar are scenes in which he trades sex for protection from a middle-aged man, gets hired as a whore-for-the-night at a classy diplomats’ club, and hallucinates the murder of a man by his girlfriend and his own near-death at the hands of a supposed pal. A twisty ending makes the viewer question much of what’s gone before: reality or hallucination? Director Edgardo Cozarinsky captures the precariousness and aimlessness of Victor’s life in these beautifully shot sequences, most of which occur at night. A former girlfriend tells him, “When the sun rises, all fears vanish.” The story takes place on All-Soul’s Eve, and rarely was a sunset so eagerly awaited as in his movie.
It’s no surprise in a culture that generally favors men over women that there are more gay male narratives this year than lesbian ones. At least there’s El Favor, an amusing if dubious sex farce. This brightly colored film depicts a very different Buenos Aires than the one seen in Night Watch. Here the action involves lovers Roberta (Onetto Victory) and Mora (Bernarda Pagés) and their attempts to drug Mora’s visiting brother Felipe (Javier Lombardo) and seduce him into impregnating Roberta. They try everything in their arsenal — skimpy dresses and lingering caresses from Roberta, drugged drinks — but confused Felipe spurns them all; despite his attraction to Roberta, he’s expecting both his girlfriend and a business partner at their apartment any minute. Complications ensue when the partner arrives and gets dead drunk, and the girlfriend, an uptight Christian, learns — along with Felipe — of the girls’ “troubling lifestyle.” Running gags of Felipe’s job as a “turkey inseminator” in Patagonia, voyeur neighbors, and the drunken business partner stuffed into a cupboard bring some laughs. And the actors make the most of their characters. But the trope of the women’s lack of handy skills (Felipe’s constantly fixing things in the apartment) and their increasingly desperate efforts to get him in bed soon become tiresome. It doesn’t help that the premise of El Favor is a little too close to Spike Lee’s horrendous She Hate Me for comfort.
Perhaps the highest-profile film of the fest is Atom Egoyan‘s Where the Truth Lies. Egoyan frequently features gay content, as in Exotica‘s queer financial investigator. Where the Truth Lies riffs on the Hollywood erotic thriller genre with a gay twist. It’s a multi-layered, time-shifting story about Vince Collins (Colin Firth) and Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon), a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis-type act from the ‘50s, complete with trashy comedy routines, heckling crowds, and a polio telethon. Problem is, the act falls apart at the height of the guys’ fame in 1957, when a dead girl turns up in their hotel room, though neither man was charged. Fifteen years later, a reporter who had appeared on their telethon is writing a biography of Vince Collins and is delving into the mystery of the dead girl and the part Collins and Morris played in it. This intricately plotted film is well acted and well worth seeing despite some confusing stretches. But it’s almost more interesting for the off-screen drama of director Egoyan’s unsuccessful fight against an NC-17 rating. The homophobic MPAA that determines film ratings was apparently unhinged by a brief scene of a man-man-woman ménage. Perhaps if Egoyan had followed the porn formula in which two men pay attention to the woman and carefully ignore each other, the film would have passed with the desired R. But this pivotal scene in the movie does quite the opposite. Egoyan made some edits but wouldn’t cut this scene; and thanks to the MPAA, this may be a rare chance to see the film in Egoyan’s near-preferred cut. The DVD release should remedy this ridiculous situation.
Viewers who find reality more stimulating than fiction will find much to love in two of this year’s documentaries. A third one, a comedy performance of the increasingly unnecessary Margaret Cho, is more dicey. Cho’s first two filmed performances were strong, vital, and above all funny works, with the comedian brilliantly describing her experiences as a TV star, her fag-hagdom, and her mother, with prickly political commentary thrown in. In this fourth film, Margaret Cho: Assassin, she’s drawing on a dry well. The film opens and closes with smarmy testimonials about how great and cutting-edge Cho is. But her insights no longer shock, surprise, or entertain. They’re mostly obvious political rants about how stupid and evil George Bush and the Republicans are — hardly news — along with the usual pandering commentaries on queerness and racism and labored mimicry of “Orientals.” She pauses too long for idolatrous whoops and applause, which her brainless audience of fans provides in waves.
AG is an acronym little known outside the band of “Aggressives” — butch lesbians who identify with aggression — who created it. Daniel Peddle profiles this scene through six different women in the bracing documentary The Aggressives. Subculture docs are only as good as the life stories they showcase, and this is one of the most effective in recent memory in getting inside the heart of a small, marginalized community — in this case black, Asian, and Latina gender-busters. Stereotypes of mean, mindless butches evaporate when these eloquent, unapologetic women tell their tales. Their insights are often hilariously raw and decidedly un-pc. Beautiful, slight Octavia says, “I don’t want a skinny girl cuz they can’t keep me warm. I don’t want a fat chick cuz there’s too much to push around.” The film shows them with their girlfriends, at home, on the street, and at a “Ball,” where they compete for prizes and status. Some have been in the closet, some not. Some were accepted by their families, others were tossed onto the streets. All the ones interviewed here identify as female, not male. All share a common humanity and a desire for much more than visibility. They want to be superstars, and they are.
The “Aggressives” pull their superstardom out of themselves. In the 1970s, porn star and “sex personality” Peter Berlin did the same thing. Berlin starred in only two porn features, Knights in Black Leather and That Boy. But his influence was vastly larger as his iconic image — Dutch boy haircut, leather cap, huge hard-on unmistakable through white sailor pants — floated through gay culture. No one seemed to know anything about him at the time. He was seen mostly walking the streets of San Francisco, stopping to pose, luring a trick into an alley and then disappointing him by vanishing, or perched silently in a tree at San Francisco’s famous cruising spot Land’s End. “That boy” becomes That Man: Peter Berlin in Jim Tushinski’s fine documentary. The former cipher tells pretty much all about himself, emerging as a striking, self-aware personality as magnetic as the campy character he consciously created. Among the interviewees who help paint this memorable portrait are John Waters, who calls him “Dinah Shore with a hard-on” and porn legend Jack Wrangler, who calls him “a sculpture.” Berlin’s “living art” consisted of simply appearing in public in his mysterious sexual guise, to be pursued hopelessly by turned-on watchers. The film shows him as a prescient performance artist who predated the personality-out-of-thin-air that would become a major obsession of today’s culture (think Paris Hilton). The fact that behind the image he is in fact a funny, thoughtful, self-deprecating man is one of the unexpected pleasures at this year’s festival.