Bright Lights Film Journal

Lucky 13: The 2009 Portland Lesbian and Gay Film Festival

Getting out of the ghetto

One of the encouraging developments of a maturing queer subculture is that the gay ghetto mentality is giving way to a more complex, outward-looking world view. This is nowhere more evident than in an event like the Portland Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Now in its 13th year, this showcase for recent LGBT cinema sidesteps the predictable coming-out narratives, simplistic porn-based stories, and frivolous light romances that have long been a staple of indie gay cinema. Instead it offers more surprising, substantial, and ambitious variations. The coming-out story here does not feature troubled 16-year-olds but seasoned men and women in their sixties and seventies. The tired porn-based narrative is transformed into a fascinating genre hybrid and a David Lynch-like mindbender. The frivolous comedy is reborn as a hilarious dyke riff on a straight cult classic. Call it Post-New Queer Cinema.

Opening night’s Patrik 1,5 offers a case in point. This consistently unpredictable blend of comedy and drama tackles the timely issue of gay adoption and what makes a family against a background of subtle homophobia. Swedish couple Sven and Goran seem to have it all: they’re handsome, married, and have just moved to suburbia. The only thing missing in their lives, so they think, is a baby. Alas, their plans go awry when a typo on their application delivers a sullen, homophobic teenager instead of a bouncing baby boy. Fifteen-year-old Patrik, passed through foster homes and institutions all his life, immediately calls the men “homos” and threatens to murder them in their sleep. Much comic business ensues as the beleaguered couple hide all the knives and sleep in four-hour shifts to monitor the brat. Then something happens. Goran’s maternal instincts kick in, and he’s determined to reach Patrik, assigning him chores, providing structure, and instilling trust – even at the risk of alienating Sven. Sven, who’s struggling with addiction issues, leaves the house in a rage. Will Sven return? Will Patrik stop calling them names? Will Goran’s plans for the boy succeed? Director Ella Lemhagen keeps us guessing in this bright, well-constructed film. She indicates, without overstating, the Swedish penchant for quiet homophobia in the interactions with neighbors, and skewers Swedish authority figures from clueless adoption agency bureaucrats to a prissy policeman obsessed with rules. Evocative performances by the trio keep us engaged to the end of this “feel-good movie” that actually deserves the name.

A different and darker take on gay adoption appears in the documentary Off and Running. Avery Klein-Cloud is an African American teenager in Brooklyn with an unusual family: white Jewish lesbian parents, an older mixed-race brother, and a younger Korean brother – with all three kids adopted. The home is shown as a loving, nurturing one, and all seem happy there. But when Avery, a nationally ranked runner, decides to contact her birth mother, it triggers powerful, indeed devastating consequences. Avery drifts away from her family in a desperate search for a black identity, and her moms and siblings struggle with a problem they can neither repair nor comprehend. This unsparing true story is atypical of most documentaries perhaps because the filmmaker, Nicole Opper, is an intimate friend of the family and gains the kind of trust and emotional access rarely seen on film. Off and Running is often wrenching to watch, but it’s also an important story that moves beyond the gay adoption motif into a larger commentary on the human condition.

One of the advances of this fest is the number of women directors featured. Of the ten films sampled here, exactly half were made by women, and they’re some of the best. One of the liveliest is the documentary Out Late, by Jennifer Brooke and Beatrice Alda. In a brisk hour or so, the film profiles six men and women who came “out late,” in some cases after decades of heterosexual marriage. First up is 81-year-old Elaine. While she expresses regret at waiting so long (she came out at 79), she lives her new life with gusto, whether tooling around in her convertible or partying with friends. She’s also seen in a classic queer locale that’s usually taboo for the elderly: a discotheque, where she exhibits some memorably sexy moves. The sequence about Cathy, 59, examines the intricate dance of gayness, religion, and friendship in the relationship between a straight, nominally homophobic neighbor couple and their best friends, Cathy and her lover. The idea that life is a series of contradictions is evident in this friendship, when the straight couple seem to pay lip service to homophobia while being unmistakably, and somewhat confusedly, devoted to Cathy and her mate. The film subtly interweaves the personal and the political most effectively in Cathy’s story, but it informs much of this worthy film.

Women were also behind the camera in two of the features sampled. And Then Came Lola opens promisingly, with a pair of gorgeous young dykes making out in a stairwell, and just gets better from there. Directed by Ellen Seidler and Megan Siler, this 70-minute feature transforms cult fave Run, Lola, Run into a lesbian romp through San Francisco. Who doesn’t love the idea of a story having three different endings to choose from? That’s the premise of the film, with photographer Lola in a desperate race across town to deliver a critical set of photographs to her designer girlfriend Casey. Each of the three stories has its own set of vignettes featuring characters like a butch meter maid, who appears by turns cruel, simpatico, and hot for Lola. Interspersed throughout are witty cartoon segments a la Run, Lola, Run, comical postcard images of the characters, and psychiatric sessions in which the girls and their friends and lovers act up and rage on. The dialogue from these sophisticated women crackles, as when Lola’s ex laments about their lousy sex life, “When we met, she said she was immune to lesbian bed death.” And Then Came Lola has something so many gay indies lack: skillful acting. Underneath the clever comedy is a sexy, affecting romance that deserves play outside the gay festival circuit.

Less successful but still oddly intriguing is Nancy Kissam’s Drool. Named inexplicably after the bodily fluid that drips out of an abusive husband’s mouth as he more or less rapes his wife, this black comedy covers a lot of ground – sexism, domestic violence, race relations, teenage lust, homophobia. Anora Fleece, who’s white, is cursed with a monster husband and obnoxious kids. New neighbor Imogene Cochran, a black beauty product saleswoman, shakes up their scene with her sassy ways. When hubby – after being forced to give his boss a blowjob to stay employed – discovers wifey and neighbor in a liplock, he goes berserk, tries to shoot Anora, and is in turn shot by her. The remainder of the film is a Thelma and Louise-like female-bonding road trip in which the newly constituted family must get rid of the dead dad. Writer-director Kissam excels at capturing trashy teen angst in the form of slutty daughter Tabby, and Jill Marie Jones (of TV’s Girlfriends) as Imogene evokes laughs with her colorful banter and drag queen-like hauteur. But the film can’t quite commit to its obvious black comedy intentions, and the mix of brutality and humor never gels in the John Waters way Kissam seems to be striving for.

Angst-ridden teens are also at the center of Rivers Wash over Me, a sort of inverted After School Special rife with teenage sex, drugs, and violence. Sequan is a sensitive gay youth forced to move from New York to rural Alabama when his mother dies. He’s viciously bullied but won’t tell anybody. His closet-case cousin Michael abuses him, and the local homophobes make him an ongoing target. One of his classmates, Lori, spends her time snorting and screwing her way to teen-slut oblivion. But she takes a breather to get to know Sequan and introduces him to her gay brother, which leads to a romance. A side plot follows the disappearance of a gun and the appearance of a dead teenage-boy body. Rivers Wash over Me has some problems, most glaringly the underdeveloped main character. Actor Derrick L. Middleton spends too much time silently staring to make Sequan feel entirely real. However, there’s a nasty edge to the film that makes it continuously watchable. Director John Young doesn’t stint on the cruelties of kids to each other, or on the drugs, sex, and violence, which are rampant and brutal. These things nudge Rivers Wash over Me out of the purely formulaic.

Equally brutal but much more ambitious is David Kittredge’s Pornography: A Thriller. It’s difficult to provide a precise synopsis of the film, since characters and times shift and change with abandon. So a character playing a role in one part of the film is liable to reappear as somebody else later – or earlier. The film is divided into three sections. In the first, a gay porn star in the 1980s, Marc Anton, gets $40,000 for a private meeting with a client who may have murdered him. In the second, a writer working on a history of porn moves into Anton’s old apartment and discovers a tape that shows Anton being killed by a Leatherface-like character. In the third, a contemporary porn star wants to film the story of Marc Anton. It’s advisable to add “Or did he?” to these brief descriptions, since it’s never quite clear what’s real and what’s not. As in David Lynch’s films, an evil otherworld of deadly sex and violence is hinted at and sometimes shown here in creepy video segments and overlapping identities and locales. Where Pornography falls down is in a certain moralistic vibe about porn, and in hammering its spooky thrills too hard. When Leatherface appears after the fourth or fifth time sticking a needle in poor Marc Anton’s neck, the effect is more silly than scary. Nonetheless, director Kittredge deserves props for attempting something on this scale and for keeping it lively, it not coherent, to the end.

Clapham Junction, inspired by the real-life murder of a young British gay man, trawls some of the same dark waters as Pornography but only shifts characters and locales, not whole decades. This ensemble drama takes place over a compact 36 hours in London. An early scene shows a gay wedding, but this happy ceremony is immediately undercut when one of the grooms sneaks off to do coke with and have sex with of the waiters. Throughout the movie, we see gay life – indeed life in general – as a series of disguises and tricks. A violent homophobe looks like the boy next door. A respected politician is seen kneeling at a glory hole in a public bathroom. And in a bracing reversal of the norm, a 14-year-old boy vigorously courts the pedophile next door. Director Adrian Shergold draws strong performances out of the entire cast and deftly paces the narrative so that the individual stories (and there must be a dozen) are always clear. And the film deserves credit for its emotional and sexual frankness that includes full-frontal male nudity and a graphic gaybashing. Some viewers found it ironic that Clapham Junction was made by Britain’s Channel 4 to help mark the 40th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality, citing it as homophobic. But there’s clearly more to the film, as difficult as it is. The “pedophile” sequence, for example, has a raw intensity and almost poetic power that undercut such complaints. And there’s no question that the portrayal of murderous, self-hating queer Terry is a highly negative one, while a character like Robin, the writer, is positive. This is one film that should provoke intense discussion.

Another provocative Channel 4 film, Greek Pete, explores the world of rent boys. But this is not the standard fictionalized, tricked-out “look at this crazy sexual subculture” take. Greek Pete, a somewhat unsatisfying mix of documentary and improvisation by guys in the life, profiles Peter Pittaros, a 24-year-old Greek-Cypriot working in London as an escort. Pete’s goal is as simple as it is shallow: “I just want to make as much money as possible,” a mantra he repeats to numbing effect throughout the film. The boys themselves do most of the talking here. Director Andrew Haigh studied Pete and his pals for a year, and they “play” themselves in interviews and improvised dramatic sequences. Thus we see them describing in cutting detail their introduction to escorting and their worst tricks, celebrating holidays, and in Pete’s case engaging in hardcore sex with clients and friends. Pete and the gang represent a modern-version of the beleaguered sex worker of the past; these guys, particularly Pete, seem not just okay with their lives but enthusiastic, without all that pesky guilt. Greek Pete has the ring of reality, and if egomaniacal Pete himself goes on ad nauseam about the importance of amassing and safeguarding wealth and “fings,” his sultry body and tireless capacity for sex may offer compensation for some viewers.

While many of the people in this year’s docs and features can be considered heroes and role models, Quentin Crisp, the subject of An Englishman in New York, has a unique importance. This second feature devoted to Crisp’s life (after the legendary Naked Civil Servant) features a striking performance by John Hurt in the lead role. Clocking in at a tidy 74 minutes, the film tracks his final years in the Big Apple as a writer, personality, and performance artist. Crisp emerges as an almost mystical figure who dispenses bon mots like he’s handing out candy at Halloween: “Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level. It’s cheaper.” And: “Even a marriage to oneself can’t last forever. My body and I divorced years ago, but we’re forced to live together.” Bittersweet vignettes show Crisp’s friendships with performance artist Penny Arcade, publisher Tom Steele, and painter Patrick Angus. The film showcases New York in the AIDS era and doesn’t shy away from Crisp’s career-killing comment that the disease was “a fad” – words that alienated much of his queer fan base. But this was the true Quentin Crisp, a man capable of both caustic truths and flip self-sabotage, the ultimate individual who refused assimilation into any group. Crisp’s example has been called negative, but it’s also a sign of progress. As much as we love and need our tribe and our ghetto, it’s also important to remember ourselves, says Crisp in the movie, to reach inside to find “what’s unique about yourself and polish it until it becomes your style.”

Note: Rivers Wash over Me was pulled from the festival at the last minute; I left the review in as a thumbnail sketch of the film.