Bright Lights Film Journal

Queer Quickies: Random Short Reviews from April Shower to Wedding Wars

Note: With so much queer media happening lately — from feature films to reality TV shows to movies-of-the-week — I decided, like Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, to “go gay all of a sudden!” with these “stabs.” Next time I’ll bring back some heteros, promise.

April’s Shower (Trish Doolan, 2003)

April’s Shower (I’ll resist the temptation to call it April’s Golden Shower) is a combination of farce and hothouse drama in which pesky, problematic, long-repressed “truths” are forced into the light. But the Forced Truths genre is getting increasingly wizened, and farce is a delicate form. Cartoonish characters like the ones in April’s Shower are permitted, but they must be charismatic (these are not). Dishy dialogue is a must, but it has to be funny (this isn’t). New plot twists? There plenty of those here, but they’re more a function of having way too many characters than of any real inventiveness on the filmmakers’ part.

Trish Doolan wrote, directed, and stars as Alex, who’s hosting a bridal shower for her best friend April, who’s going to marry a guy named Pauly. The guest list ends up including just about everybody in town, not least several fireman and a pizza delivery guy. But Alex has a secret: she and April are ex-lovers, and each may still be carrying the torch for the other. Complications expected and unexpected occur as each person’s backstory emerges, amid an onslaught of second-rate dish. Example: the obligatory queeny best friend, Jake, says “She looks like the Chef Boyar-Don’t!” Or how about, “Rocco, that’s Italian, right?”

Director Doolan gets some points for sincerity, and some of the acting pops out of all the contrived zaniness and endless character revelations. Doolan and Maria Cina as April both have their moments, but they’re gasping for air in a sea of stereotypes. These include a Scottish stalker in plaid pants, a therapist who spends all her time dishing everybody while trying to drum up business, a country bumpkin cousin in pigtails — you get the picture. The idea that characters like Alex and April could keep their five-year lesbian relationship a secret, when they’re ruthlessly social and blab every other intimate detail of their lives to their vast social scene of family and friends, isn’t the only thing that isn’t credible about this film but it’s a fatal touch.

Bewitched (Nora Ephron, 2005)

It’s official: Remake Fever remains a chronic condition in Hollywood. Actually, the trend has been at least a decade long, with clueless producers desperately mining baby-boomer TV comedies, cartoons, and thrillers to boost sagging profits. Some of these fizzled (Leave It to Beaver), others sizzled (Mission Impossible), but the world wouldn’t be worse off without them. This is the tiresome Cult of the Familiar, playing to audiences’ supposed need for comfort, safety, and cheap nostalgic thrills. And there are plenty more — from Home Improvement to The Huxtables — in the offing, so be prepared.

Nora Ephron’s Bewitched reworks the ‘60s mega-hit that featured probably the queerest cast of characters in pre-Will and Grace television history. This time the filmmakers didn’t try for a straight remake, opting instead for a self-reflexive homage in which egomaniacal star Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) unwittingly hires a real witch, Isabel (Nicole Kidman), to star in a TV remake of Bewitched, with the two of them in the main roles. There’s also Endora, played by Shirley Maclaine; dotty Aunt Clara; queen extraordinaire Uncle Arthur; and as Isabel’s father, the ubiquitous Michael Caine. And while Kidman and Ferrell aren’t supposed to be Samantha and Darren in the narrative proper, they’re veritable doubles, with Kidman reprising original Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery’s mix of sweet and sultry, and Ferrell echoing Dick York’s quasi-hysterical nice guy.

The film opens with Isabel, like Samantha, determined not to use her magic powers. She meets Jack Wyatt at a bookstore, where he notices her crinkling her nose a la Samantha. Since he’s casting the Bewitched remake, he lures her onto the set with the idea that even though it’s supposed to be about a married couple, she’ll be content as window dressing for his comic antics. (One witty scene shows the old cartoon credit sequence with Samantha/Isabel’s face totally obscured and Darren/Jack’s mug on heavy display.) Of course, Isabel eventually figures out what a selfish pig he is and gets her revenge in the way you’d expect from a witch. Saying much more would give away the store, though even dimwitted viewers will probably figure it all out well in advance.

Kidman, always likeable, here makes a middling Elizabeth Montgomery clone, though her character doesn’t extend too far and her emotional explosions don’t amount to what the filmmakers seem to think they do. Ferrell is typically crazed, with a few moments where some recognizable emotion shines through his overamped hijinks. Most of the rest of the cast is wasted. Maclaine, given only a few scenes, seems out of her element, while notable talents like David Alan Grier and Amy Sedaris barely register.

Queer viewers may lament the lack of gay vibes in the movie. After all, this was the show that featured real-life queens (Maurice Evans as Sam’s father, Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur), fag hags (Montgomery, an enduring, outspoken friend of the gay community), and even a rumored dyke (Agnes Moorhead as Endora). At least they had the good sense to include an Uncle Arthur clone, but unlike Lynde, he’s woefully unfunny and does an unconvincing impression of the unexcelled master of the smirk and snigger.

Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life (Robert Levi, 2007)

Billy Strayhorn (1916-1967) was a major 20th-century composer, compared by some critics to Ravel, Debussy, and Stravinsky for the complexity and beauty of his melodies. Yet he’s far from a household name. He wrote jazz classics like “Satin Doll” and “Take the A Train,” but most people associate those tunes with Duke Ellington. Strayhorn had one major strike against him ever assuming the role of public entertainer that an obvious showman like Ellington relished: he was gay. Not closeted exactly, in the sense that we understand that term today; private is probably more accurate.

Robert Levi’s fine documentary Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life tells his story, and it’s a fascinating one of an elusive subject cobbled together through interviews with friends, family, biographers, and associates; archival footage; and musical performances.

Born in dire poverty to an artistic mother and a violent father, Strayhorn escaped into music. A piano prodigy, he was writing brilliant songs and even complex suites while in his teens. A fortuitous meeting with Ellington in his twenties would bring him to what most believe was the defining relationship of his life. In Strayhorn, Ellington found a veritable angel, a quiet, amenable young man who could churn out complex masterpieces that were also hit tunes, practically overnight. Ellington in some ways took advantage of Strayhorn’s talents and seeming submissiveness, taking credit for his friend’s songs and sabotaging all attempts by Strayhorn to leave his nest for more ambitious projects or collaborators. The unmistakable first read on this relationship is that Ellington exploited Strayhorn’s insecurity as a gay man and a sissy, exponentially increasing his own legend by expropriating the sissy’s extraordinary artistry as his own. But Strayhorn clearly benefited too — he gained a loving, admiring father figure, one who stimulated his highest creativity and allowed him the “lush life” he enjoyed, far removed from his hardscrabble youth and perhaps out of the limelight that might have frightened this sensitive gay man, particularly in the hyper-macho world of jazz.

This unusual relationship is at the heart of this film, and provides much of the drama. But Strayhorn’s life was ultimately about more than Ellington. Lena Horne’s daughter calls him “soft” but also “a tiger” whose friends soon learned not to trifle with him. He had a rich social life away from the concert stage and recording studio. The film shows him partying with friends like Horne and Quincy Jones (who speaks of him in awe, like most of the interviewees here), setting up housekeeping with boyfriends, indulging perversities like drinking beer for breakfast, going to Paris to work with Orson Welles or Hollywood to score movies. Most impressive, though, is the music. The samples — from the film scores and orchestral suites that filigree Lush Life, to Dianne Reeves singing the extraordinary title tune, written when Strayhorn was 16 — confirm the portrait of a gay genius whose complex, melancholy sound remains one of 20th century popular music’s most distinctive.

Strayhorn died of cancer at 51 in the arms of his lover Bill Groves. His death had a profound effect on those in his circle, not least on Ellington. The Duke’s eulogy is one of the most loving and respectful here, particularly in the terms in which he describes this shy, shadowy “sissy” nicknamed “Sweet Pea”: “He had the greatest authority,” he says, then pauses. “With Billy Strayhorn I had the greatest security.”

Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds (Phillip J. Bartel, 2006)

The first Eating Out movie (2004) was praised and panned about equally. Some complained it was poorly written and acted, filled with stereotypes, and ultimately just another empty-headed gay indie. Others appreciated the film’s unexpectedly sharp one-liners, gorgeous boyz, and sexy, upbeat approach to the homo love wars. The sequel is exponentially better, a hilariously rude comedy that might satisfy both critics and fans of the earlier film.

In the first film, ex-American Idol (the show’s famous first casualty) Jim Verraros played Kyle, a gay boy who convinces his straight roommate to pretend to be gay to attract his girlfriend. Kyle reappears in the sequel trying to figure out whether the new guy in town, knockout farm boy Troy (Marco Dapper), is gay or straight, and of course how to get him in bed. As in the earlier film, the characters go to any lengths to have their sexy fun: this time, thanks to a scheme hatched by consummate fag hag Gwen (Emily Brooke Hands), Kyle pretends to be the boyfriend of slutty Tiffani (Rebekah Kochan). The trio engineer another test of Troy’s orientation when Kyle pretends to be an “ex-gay,” with the two attending meetings of “Coming In” run by an obvious closet case who drools over every description of the male members’ stabs at hetero sex.

Eating Out 2 packs a surprising punch as the plot to uncover Troy’s sexuality spins out of control. The eye-candy here is pleasing indeed, with porn-pretty Troy and indecently handsome Marc (Brett Chukerman), Kyle’s ex, being especially alluring in jockstraps and towels. (For penis-spotters, Troy bares all.) There’s a serious message in here about honesty and acceptance, but it doesn’t get in the way of the fun. The film’s satire of the ex-gay movement is dead-on, and indie goddess Mink Stole registers nicely as Kyle’s sympathetic mom. But the real attractions in this satisfying campfest are the amusingly lowbrow sexuality and the irresistibly dishy lines, which come at warp speed. The fag hags have many of the best lines. Gwen: “What is it with straight guys and their aversion to sucking dick?” Rebekah: “I just want to hear ‘I love you’ instead of ‘Take it you tight little snatch!'” When Marc self-righteously sniffs “I don’t treat people like pieces of meat.” Tiffani replies with a smile, “Well, you should. It’s fun!”

First Comes Love (Logo Channel, 2007)

Last season’s First Comes Love (aka My Fabulous Gay Wedding) was hosted by “Wedding Fairy” Scott Thompson of Kids in the Hall fame. This second season Scott has gone missing, replaced by another comic, Elvira Kurt. Elvira’s no Scott Thompson, but it hardly matters. This show that tracks the wedding prep and nuptials of various gay and lesbian couples rises or falls on the strength of its subjects, not the hosts. And if the first episode is any indication, season 2 should be a good one.

Joa and Denis are, respectively, a French-Canadian floral designer and a German flight attendant living in Toronto. Together 11 years, they want to tie the knot in front of a large contingent of supportive family and friends. As always with this show, the Cinderella motif runs riot. “The boys,” as Elvira calls them, are a mess, financially challenged and stuck with a house wrecked by water damage and termites. Not to worry, though — Elvira corrals some friends to fix the house, while wedding planner Fern Cohen waves her wand and conjures a spectacular wedding space for free.

The one-hour show (including commercials) works some familiar reality-TV tropes like the cliffhanger-before-the-commercial (“Can Fern pull it off? Or is this wedding in trouble?”). There’s never much doubt that, like a Popeye cartoon, this one will end positively. But what’s surprising, and engaging, here is how charismatic, lovable, and emotionally intense Denis and Joa are as they willingly expose every raw nerve. One of the highlights is a dramatic scene between Denis and his mother, who helps him resolve a lingering trauma about his late father. One unintended downer: the show’s strong message about the rewards, and rightness, of gay marriage is a little bittersweet given the very different attitudes toward it here in the supposedly civilized U.S.

Janet Gaynor

During Hollywood’s Golden Age (the 1920s through the 1950s), press agents worked overtime selling Tinseltown to the world as Hetero Heaven. Fan magazines happily cooperated, flooding fans with saccharine tales of marital bliss among the stars, along with the occasional regret-tinged story of divorce or mystified account of a certain bachelor, male or female, who just can’t seem to find the right soul-mate.

Of course, sophisticates could read between the lines, and even the fan magazines couldn’t entirely disguise every gay relationship. Photo spreads portrayed alleged occasional lovers Cary Grant and Randolph Scott as “zany bachelors” dawdling by the pool and cooking dinner as they roomed together between marriages. Despite his admission in an interview quoted in Marc Eliot’s biography of him that his first two wives “accused him of being homosexual,” Grant denied it to the end, in fact suing Chevy Chase in 1980 for saying about him on The Tom Synder Show, “Oh, what a gal!”

Closet cases mostly cooperated in these scenarios, particularly in the 1930s, but a few stars did what they could to distance themselves from the elaborate lies and fantasies that fed the publicity machine. Among the latter was Janet Gaynor, a bisexual/lesbian whose early strategy was to divert fan mag questions about her romantic life to discussions of her work. This was less necessary when she was married, which happened three times: to Jesse Lydell Peck (1929-1933), Adrian (1939-1959), and Paul Gregory (1964-1984, when Gaynor died). Between marriages, and sometimes during them, she apparently had reasons to be discreet that went beyond simply her well-known penchant for privacy.

But first, some history. Gaynor (1906-1977) made her first major feature, the melodrama The Johnstown Flood, at age 20. Studio execs immediately saw her star power and put her in higher-profile films at Fox Studios. Standing a mere 5′, Gaynor was the quintessential American gamine — beautiful, beguiling, and in her own quiet way, a commanding personality. She also exhibited serious acting chops early on, winning the first Academy Award ever given for best actress in 1928 for two films:Sunrise and Seventh Heaven. She was nominated again a decade later for her pre-Judy Garland role of Vicki Lester in the first version of A Star Is Born. A year later she retired from films, returning only once in 1957 for a guest spot in the saccharine Pat Boone vehicle Bernardine.

Qualms about her high-pitched, sometimes cloying voice notwithstanding, Gaynor always registered as a powerful presence, but she’s best remembered for three silents — Sunrise, Seventh Heaven, and Street Angel — and one sound film, A Star Is Born. In Sunrise, she plays “The Wife,” a beleaguered farm woman whose husband, played by George O’Brien, is lured by a temptress from “The City” into a potentially lethal affair. Gay director F. W. Murnau not surprisingly expends much camera time on the hunky O’Brien, but Gaynor holds her own, particularly in the grim sequences where her crazed hubby tries to murder her.

Gaynor made ten films with Charles Farrell, and the two became top box-office, generating millions for Fox Studios. The best of the films are Seventh Heaven, Lucky Star, and Street Angel. Seventh Heaven is the quintessential romance, with Gaynor stunningly real as Diane, a street waif and prostitute in love with a sewage worker, Chico, who dreams of moving up in the world — to sweeping the streets rather than working under them. In this gorgeously shot drama in Borzage’s sensual-romantic style, even poverty, war, and death can’t keep the lovers apart. Street Angel has a similar look and feel, with Gaynor striking as a girl forced into prostitution to save her ailing mother and then falling in love with an artist who doesn’t suspect her dubious past.

Gaynor usually played an enchanting naïf in these films, but in real life she was apparently far more worldly. An early advocate for better parts and more money, she did the unthinkable in going on strike against Fox Studios, paving the way for future star-activists like Bette Davis. One of her 1930s co-stars, gay actor Richard Cromwell, called her “terrifyingly tough” when he worked with her in summer stock. Gaynor was also a gifted painter, and she and her husband lived in Brazil during the 1950s and ‘60s. According to some accounts, this was to get away from prying eyes that might pay attention to her closeness to Mary Martin, who had a farm adjacent to Gaynor’s there. Numerous sources claim that Gaynor’s three husbands were gay. The second was MGM’s legendary fashion designer, Gilbert Adrian, and the two had a son. (Rumor had it that during labor, doctors told Adrian his wife might lose the baby, to which he replied, “Oh no, I’ll have to go through that again!”) According to C. David Heymann’s authoritative biography Liz, Adrian was busy himself, having a long affair with Elizabeth Taylor’s father, Francis, while married to Gaynor. Not that Gaynor minded. William Mann’s meticulously researched book Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910-1969 says that Gaynor was a lifelong lesbian, seriously involved with at least two other stars, Margaret Livingston and, most significantly, Mary Martin. Actor Robert Cummings once quipped: “Janet Gaynor’s husband was Adrian, the MGM fashion designer. But her wife was Mary Martin.”

Gaynor’s work was her legacy, as she surely would have wished, and it remains a powerful one even today. If she was forced, like so many actors of her name, to live a closeted life, she at least did it as much on her own terms as she could in those tricky times.

The Great American Christmas (Arts and Entertainment Network, 2006)

Produced by the makers of Laguna Beach,The Great American Christmas is a reality-TV show presented as a happy ode to diversity, with six very different real-life families working toward a “Christmas miracle.” As miracles go, these are pretty mundane. A straight guy drives from New York to L.A. to move in with his girlfriend. Will he make it? How dramatic is that? Inexplicably, for a show supposedly about the holiday dreams of ordinary people,Christmas also features one of America’s wealthiest religious hucksters, Robert Schuller and his white-bread family from Orange County’s famed Crystal Cathedral. Schuller’s “miracle” is probably the hope that he never gets audited.

The queer interest angle is by far the most intriguing of the six here. It comes from a thirtysomething couple, Ted and Drew, who decide to leave their big-city life and supportive friends in L.A. to spend Christmas with Ted’s right-wing, homophobic relatives in a rural Illinois town. A friend warns them to “book a hotel!” And Ted ups the anxiety factor by mentioning that his dad called begging him “Don’t bring Drew!” and that his mom “doesn’t accept our lifestyle but tolerates it.” But Ted still yearns for his family’s acceptance, and no amount of degradation is too much to try to get it.

Christmas bounces back and forth between the various families, so we get Ted and Drew’s story in fits and starts. They’re a surprisingly timid pair who carefully avoid visible affection, grovelingly accept separate bedrooms in Ted’s mother’s house, and grasp at the crumbs of emotion tossed at them. It’s like Stonewall never happened. Ted’s father refuses to see them at all. His mother tries, but the strain is evident in the silences during the visit. Ted’s brother Bobby, a grim hetero in the Cro-Magnon mold, tries to shelter his kids from Uncle Ted as if he’s leprous; Bobby’s clearly mortified at Ted’s gayness but also fighting to resist his natural, and apparently deep, feelings of caring for his brother. (Bobby’s kids seem much less conflicted; too young for the brainwashing to be complete, they affectionately jump on Ted and ask him wistfully, “Leaving already?”)

Howie Mandel narrates the show in a shtick-drenched, noxiously upbeat manner: “Will Ted get his Christmas miracle?” Mandel says yes: “Even though he’d only come a few miles, Bobby had actually come a long way for Christmas!” This is hard to reconcile with scenes of Bobby tearfully wailing that seeing Ted and Drew together was “way too hard for me to handle!” Poor baby. This show has the smarmy feel of a Thomas Kinkaide tableau, a misguided “special” that is anything but, with the gay segment an unintentionally gruesome look into pre-Stonewall homophobia, apparently alive and well in 2006 in the oddly named “heartland.”

The Hill (Sundance Channel, 2006)

If the parade of wannabe supermodels, grizzled bounty hunters, scheming chefs, desert island castaways, and other creatures of reality TV have worn out their welcome, perhaps a more rarely glimpsed variety — the political reality TV show — is in order. Sundance Channel addresses the issue handily with The Hill, six half-hour shows documenting daily life inside the office of Florida congressman Robert Wexler between 2004 and 2005.

Wexler, one of three Democrats to defy the leadership by voting early for withdrawal from Iraq, isn’t the most dramatic subject for this kind of show. But maybe the more colorful characters on the Hill — the lamentably un-reelected Cynthia McKinney and vile shrew Jean Schmidt come to mind — weren’t available.

Each episode is built around important events such as Hurricane Katrina, John Roberts’ Supreme Court hearings, Iraq, etc., and how Wexler’s passionate staff can position him to best respond. The staff consists mainly of two women, Lale and Haile, and two men, Jon and Eric. Eric is the chief of staff, and queer. Scenes of these true believers scrambling to schedule Wexler and to help him decide how to vote on various issues are interspersed with brief snippets from their private lives. We see Lale breaking up with an unseen boyfriend, Haile getting engaged, and Eric with his lover and their son, Kai, checking out Kai’s preschool and a muddy lot where they’re building a home.

None of these personal scenes have much impact, and they’re not the reason to watch this series. Most riveting is the bitchy interplay among the staff, who are frequently at each other’s throats over policy issues and how to formulate Wexler’s stance. Eric’s the ringleader here, alternately laughing things off or bossing the others (especially the women), as his mood strikes, which it does often. Amidst the drama, there’s some serious insight into the Democratic mindset that makes The Hill must-viewing for political junkies. Eric is a typical “centrist Democrat” (and ex-Republican, natch), constantly ensuring Wexler doesn’t follow Haile’s pleas to act in conscience and get tough with Bush. It’s no stretch to see in Eric’s timidity the same self-destructive impulses that once helped the Republicans maintain power despite their vast “culture of corruption” and woeful, lethal incompetence.

Hip Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes (Byron Hurt, 2006)

Some of the less remarked aspects of the hammering, brutal sounds of the “urban soundtrack,” the music that “keeps it real,” are the subject of Byron Hurt’s excellent documentary Hip Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes. Hurt gathers an intriguing array of cultural commentators, media execs, rappers, and wannabes to talk about the spiraling sexism, racism, and homophobia in the genre.

It’s a big subject, increasingly so in the last few years when media consolidation has virtually killed off the blistering social critique that characterized hip hop’s early days with groups like Public Enemy. Corporate monoliths like Clear Channel, a major contemporary purveyor, prefer images like rapper Nelly swiping a credit card in the “shakin’ booty” of a “ho'” in the video “Tip Drill” or the gaudy death-march of young black men “capping” each other. Because they’ve cornered the market, companies like Clear Channel have been massively successful in selling grotesque images like these to consumers (two-thirds of whom are white, we learn). Supposedly community-minded venues like Black Entertainment Television are shown as all too happy to grab their piece of this unappetizing pie by promoting this imagery as urban cool, the plantation reborn as a cable network seemingly run by blacks but owned and shaped by whites.

The film covers a lot of ground in an hour, but some of the most probing material is on homophobia and homoeroticism. Lyrics like “it ain’t no fun unless we all get some” and the endless emphasis on tats, muscles, and “my boys” show there’s plenty of queer vibe here. Some interviewees like Busta Rhymes are so insecure they simply slouch away when director Hurt asks about gay rappers and anti-gay lyrics, while BET execs shrug off questions about the promotion of sexism and racism in their videos. As is so often the case, the drag queens get the last word when one of them laughingly explains how easy it is to have sex with even the most macho, homophobic-seeming rappers, as long as it’s “around the corner” and “on the down low.”

The Lady in Question Is Charles Busch (John Catania and Charles Ignacio, 2006)

Charles Busch is a well-known New York writer and actor whose gender-bending camp, based on old Hollywood divas, has lit up — or darkened, depending on your viewpoint — Broadway, off-off Broadway, and movies for a several decades. The Lady in Question Is Charles Busch is directors’ John Catania and Charles Ignacio valentine to the star of Die, Mommie, Die! and Psycho Beach Party. The film is a witty collage of facts, interviews, rare footage from his stage work, mock promotionals, fake movie trailers, and even a vignette of a nonexistent silent film in which Busch plays an overwrought “lady” in distress until he prances off into the sunset with his beau. We learn about Busch’s eccentric upbringing as a suburban New York kid blessed with movie-obsessed parents and his own Auntie Mame; his practically forensic study of camp movie goddesses like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis; and his early struggles in creating a rag-tag theatre company of drag queens, muscle boys, and fag hags, enacting overheated melodramas with titles like “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom”; “Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium”; and “Pardon My Inquisition.” Watching the generous footage of these works sampled in The Lady in Question, it’s easy to see where films like Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die! came from (whatever we think of them). But Busch’s rise wasn’t easy. He had a near-death experience with a ruptured aorta, and the company lost members to AIDS. (In a powerful sequence, Busch describes how one of his actresses insisted on finishing the show despite being gravely ill and was taken by ambulance from the theatre to the hospital. Footage of her performing that night is particularly poignant.)

But the successes outweighed the tragedies as Busch made his mark with campy variations on the stylish but long-suffering woman who veers from the straight and narrow but eventually redeems herself. Most recently he’s starred in his play “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” in its second year of a successful Broadway run. As his other vocation as a writer suggests, the Busch seen here is highly articulate, and rather endearing, in discussing his life and work. The life is perhaps ultimately more interesting than the work, which suffers from a sometimes deadly sameness. How many laughs can be wrung from repeated invocations of the same drag trope — a kind of agonized variation on Joan Crawford’s ambitious but tormented 1930s shopgirl, or the endless parade of female movie martyrs from the Hollywood “women’s pictures” of the pre- and post-World War II decades? The satire in films like Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die! is so broad and retrograde it quickly loses steam. Busch is supported by a loving network of friends, family, lovers, and fans that include Kathleen Turner, Jason Priestley, and other luminaries, many of them seen in this film.

Love Lessons (Logo Channel, 2006)

While some are consumed with the idea of getting their gay relationships legally recognized as marriages, others are just trying to find a date — followed, they hope, by lasting love. That’s the subject of Love Lessons. Part of Logo Channel’s “Real Momentum” series that “explores the diversity and unique true-life stories of the LGBT community across America,” this one-hour documentary profiles two gay men and a lesbian, all unattached, as they bypass the lure of online tricking and bars and the Metropolitan Community Church in favor of a professional: the matchmaker.

Rachel, 36, tells L.A. matchmaker Robin Fox that her last relationship “pretty much tore me down,” and she shows it. Rachel’s a major giver and possibly enabler with a history of hooking up with drug addicts, confused bisexuals, OCD depressives, emotional vampires, and other problem types.

Perry, 34, hires Rob Anderson, advertised as “New York’s only certified gay matchmaker.” Perry’s case is challenging, says Rob — not because he’s HIV-positive, which is common enough, but because he refuses to consider anybody who isn’t. His list of hates is woefully long: children, musical theater, tattoos, certain shoes. His fantasy man is pretty much that; in an amusing moment, he shows Rob a computer presentation of what he’s after, which includes hunky Neanderthal wrestler Goldberg.

Mark, 37, is a hunky flight attendant whose dating history seems to have been conducted exclusively at the baths. Socially stunted perhaps because he still carries major baggage from having been molested for five years as a young teenager, he hires gay dating coach Jim Sullivan to help him land a man.

Reality TV shows tend to only as good as their stars (since by definition they lack production values, narrative interest, etc.), and Love Lessons is a winner on this basis. These are all intelligent, endearing people whose struggle for something that shouldn’t be so hard to find strikes a universal chord. The show tracks the process from the matchmakers learning about their clients’ desires to actual dates and potentially successful matches. It’s fascinating and sometimes painful to watch the dates, which sometimes end very differently than expected, and to see the matchmakers’ varying approaches to convincing their clients to open up (Jim Sullivan simply demands that Mark “take the mask off!”). The only complaint about the show is that it’s so short.Love Lessons is a rarity, a reality show that screams mini-series but only lasts an hour.

Loving Annabelle (Katharine Brooks, 2006)

Variety called this film a “guilty pleasure,” but they’re only half right. Writer-director Katharine Brooks’ debut feature (after directing several shorts and a lot of reality shows) is one of the best — not to mention hottest — lesbian dramas in recent memory. This one has a twist, too: set in a Catholic high school, it hinges on an illicit, in fact illegal, relationship between a 32-year-old teacher, Simone (Diane Gaudry), and her 17-year-old student, Annabelle (Erin Kelly).

At first glance Loving Annabelle has the look of a Lifetime TV “message movie,” with threats of boilerplate soap-opera pacing, predictable characters, and lots of tears and hand-wringing. But director Brooks turns this template on its head with realistic dialogue and fine, nuanced performances from all, but particularly the two leads.

Simone is a sensitive English teacher still traumatized by the suicide of her lover Amanda some years back. She’s in a relationship with a man but only going through the motions. Enter Annabelle: a beautiful Buddhist teenager who smokes and plays guitar and was sent to Catholic school by her Senator mother as a last resort before the horrors of military school. Annabelle makes no bones about her attraction to Simone, to the latter’s initial dismay, and much of the film is a cat-and-mouse game between them as Annabelle tries to act on her feelings and to help Simone reclaim hers.

Loving Annabelle, inspired by the pioneering 1931 German lesbian feature Maedchen in Uniform, fascinates on a lot of levels. The scenes of bitchy repartee, head games, and occasional violent outbursts among Annabelle and her roommates ring true. The film builds the relationship of Annabelle and Simone with meticulous care, with Simone’s struggles against what she knows intellectually is a doomed affair beautifully counterpointed by Annabelle’s unflagging efforts to win her over. Also resonant here is the generational contrast, with Simone representing an earlier, more repressed generation and Annabelle the fresh, cocky, unabashed embrace of her dykedom. The seduction and sex scenes are powerful indeed, more proof of the excellent acting by Erin Kelly and Diane Gaudry, both straight.

Open Cam (Robert Gaston, 2005)

Open Cam should be closed — for repairs. This brainless entry in the increasingly unwelcome gay serial killer genre has a single gimmick it hopes will pull it from the pack: the murders are all featured live online, available to anybody, courtesy of what’s got to be the most clueless website in history. It must be heartening for wannabe killers and edgeplay voyeurs to know that they can turn on their computers and watch live murder.

Set in D.C., Open Cam features gorgeous narcissist Manny (Andreau Thomas), an alleged artist and occasional rent boy who spends much of the film nude or nearly so, wandering around in a daze and saying things like “I’m a gay man who has taken a lot of crap,” and “You surprise me. Not many people surprise me.” (Manny’s “cutting-edge” art consists of the kinds of things you see constantly on the web — e.g., a painting of George Bush’s head on a naked body.) Manny’s bubble of self-absorption is threatened (though the thorazined actor hardly registers a problem) when he learns everybody who’s had sex with him, online and off, is turning up dead. Enter Hamilton (Amir Darvish), a Middle Eastern-looking cop who spends half his time investigating the case and the other half trying to bed Manny, who’s in fact the love object of most of the people in the movie. Throw in some boilerplate neurotic best friends, a loony upstairs landlord, a predictable “cat-and-mouse” plot, acting that varies from hyper to zombie, and loads of tired softcore sex and you have another in a disturbingly long line of unnecessary gay indies.

Queens (Manuel Gómez Pereira, 2004)

With Spain already well ahead of America in legalizing gay marriage, it’s no surprise that one of the first films exploring the issue, albeit in a comic way and none too well, would be this Spanish film. Director Manuel Gómez Pereira is known for his farcical romances, but this one’s more farcical — and not in the good sense — than romantic.

The story takes place in the few days before Spain’s first gay wedding. It focuses initially on three couples: Miguel, a rich boy who wears a white wig, and Oscar, an Argentinian masseur; Hugo, a nervous nellie, and Narciso, who has a nasty little secret; and another rich boy Rafa, who’s set to wed his mom’s gardener’s son Jonas. These characters are barely distinguishable from each other thanks to uninspired casting and drab acting, and it soon becomes clear who the title refers to. The “Queens” are in fact the over-the-top mothers of the boys, and they’re played with varying degrees of success by the cream of Spanish actresses. Carmen Maura registers nicely as an icy hotelier; Verónica Forqué cartoonizes her nymphomaniac; Mercedes Sampietro bores as a homophobic judge forced to officiate at her son’s wedding; Betiana Blum increasingly annoys as a bimbo whose dog gets lost; and Marisa Paredes impresses most as a famous actress who’s hot for her hunky gardener (who bares all in one scene).

The film time-shifts to a dizzying degree, with titles informing us it’s “Four Hours Later” or “Four Hours Earlier,” though the plot is so byzantine, and so loaded with coincidences and sheer incident that it becomes almost impossible to follow. The film works some of its gags, like the lost dog appearing suddenly wherever one of the gay couples is, into the ground. Most aggravating, perhaps, is the fact that Queens seems to suggest that queers (and queer sex) are all well and good but the heteros are really the important ones. How else to interpret the scene where one of the boys goes to bed with his future mother-in-law? One of the characters jokingly mentions Almodovar, but Pereira is no Almodovar no matter how many of the latter’s actresses he employs.

Red Doors (Georgia Lee, 2005)

Dad Ed is a recent retiree whose hobby is the half-hearted (though frequent) suicide attempt — at least when he’s not staring blankly at videotapes of his daughters when they were little. First daughter Samantha is a high-powered exec on the verge of marrying another driven corporate type she doesn’t love. Second daughter Julie is a med student and dyke with a crush on famous actress Angelina, who just happens to be researching a part at Julie’s hospital. Third daughter Katie’s a sweet-faced gangsta girl who inexplicably plays scatological and verminous pranks on a high school classmate. Mom tries to survive by pretty much ignoring all this bad stuff, busying herself with elaborate meals, reassuringly served on a big lazy susan.

Sound like a Chinese reality TV show? A Chinese variation of Japan’s “crazy family” genre a la Miike’s Visitor Q? In fact, this is a well-acted, if not especially convincing, indie feature in the fairly recent “urban quasi-assimilated eccentric Chinese-American family comedy/drama” genre. Director Georgia Lee takes a respectful, quietly comic approach to what in another filmmaker’s hands might be treated as wild melodrama. After all, Katie does deliver bags of shit to her nemesis, and Julie does have a mad make-out session with her hot new gal pal while Mom watches. Shouldn’t such scenes be played for high drama?

But Lee resists this impulse throughout, opting instead for a careful fleshing out of the characters and their dilemmas. Her obvious affection for them is catching, and even reluctant audiences may find themselves hoping that Samantha will dump her yuppie boyfriend; rooting for Julie to stop questioning Angelina’s motives and start fucking her brains out (their scenes are pretty hot); and Katie will stop with the bags of burning dogshit already. Maybe Mom and Dad will evolve too — the former refraining from using food as a panacea and Dad getting a new hobby besides trying to kill himself.

This is director Lee’s debut feature, and despite some tedious stretches and clichés, it’s a well-done soap opera that draws you in unawares. Expect to see more of her work in the future.

Venus Boyz (Gabrielle Baur, 2002)

Drag kings emerged during the heady 1990s as the female mirror image of the much higher-profile drag queen. Not that there weren’t always examples of the “female masculinity” that drives the drag king; think of cross-dressing Billy Tipton, a jazz musician born female who donned suits and ties and married five different women, none of whom knew he was a she until death ended the ruse. But the drag king scene really came together in New York and San Francisco in the ‘90s when, serendipitously, a number of DKs got together, forming clubs, making films and art, teaching gender theory, and best of all acting out, with penetration, humor, and high style, what it means to be a “man” in contemporary culture.

Gabriel Baur’s Venus Boyz made the film festival rounds a few years ago and then faded from sight. That’s unfortunate, because this is probably the most intimate, incisive peek into DK culture. The film is a gallery of memorable characters, seen in their daily lives and onstage in performance at New York’s Club Casanova. There’s gorgeous, Haitian-born Mildred Gerestant, who adopts the persona of “Dréd,” a hilariously over-the-top ghetto pimp ladies’ man. There’s Diane Torr, who teaches masculinity workshops; Del LaGrace Volcano and Bridge Markland, who mines decadent Berlin in the 1930s for her send-ups of maleness. These women (and there are plenty of others in this dense, 101-minute doc) are attracted to gender play for a variety of reasons; some are activists critiquing male privilege, others fetishize and get off on the accoutrements of masculinity. If this sounds a little double-domed, it’s in fact anything but. Above all, these are charismatic, brave women taking on the patriarchy with wit and style. Highlights include Diane Torr’s litany of “how to be a man” (“Rule number 2: Stop smiling!”), Bridge’s creation of a “sex bomb named Angela” and “deconstructing her”; and Dréd’s giddy assault on stereotypes of black male masculinity.

Wedding Wars (Arts & Entertainment Network, 2006)

Despite some recent setbacks, gay marriage appears to be one of those formerly taboo, unthinkable subjects that’s edging ever closer to becoming a reality. (Look at the number of films and TV shows that riff on the idea in this article alone.) In one of November 2006’s most contested Congressional races, Colorado Springs’ bilious homophobe Marilyn Musgrave barely edged out opponent Angie Paccione. Colorado Springs is a notorious bastion of fundamentalist craziness, and Piccone favors gay marriage. On the cinematic front, we have A&E Network’s movie on the subject, Wedding Wars.

In this made-for-TV feature, ex-sitcom and soap opera star John Stamos plays Shel, a gifted party planner who’s gay but not entirely out (his parents don’t know). His hunky brother Ben (Eric Dane) is straight, works for the governor of Maine (James Brolin), and is set to wed the gov’s daughter Maggie. Maggie adores Shel and wants him to plan the wedding. Ben’s nervous about it, fearing unwanted publicity for his boss from his gay brother and also dealing, none too subtly, with his own homophobia.

In the long tradition of clever queens selflessly helping confused straights find style (think the Fab Five), Shel enthusiastically embraces his task, briskly disposing of the heteros’ tacky ideas about doves and karaoke in favor of pink tea roses, a tasteful string quartet, and a gazebo on the edge of a lake. But Shel’s less thrilled when he learns that the governor’s come out publicly against gay marriage. Righteously pissed that he’s creating for his brother something he can never have himself, Shel decides to picket the governor’s mansion. Surprisingly, his one-man protest triggers a national gay strike, with seemingly every employed homosexual suddenly leaving their jobs in sympathy with Shel. Translation: Aunt Mary can’t get her hair done!

The film’s scenic backdrop — Augusta, Maine — can’t compensate for ridiculously lame characterizations, deadly dialogue, and by-the-numbers plot “twists.” Shel is especially problematic, and as good a weathervane as any of mainstream TV’s anxieties around the New Gay. First he’s the clever, sophisticated gay man; then, despite being politicized, he sputters and babbles when asked by a TV reporter why he’s protesting, unable to articulate his reasons. Hilarious, yes? The movie doesn’t bother to explain how this dubious martyr could inspire a national protest. An underlying nasty edge keeps surfacing, too — particularly in brother Ben’s schemes to end Shel’s strike. When Ben brings on the parents to shame Shel into stopping, it comes off as mean rather than farcically funny. Secondary characters are mostly appalling, particularly a gauche wedding planner who dresses in leopard skin and screeches R&B songs to accompany the nuptials. Has such a person ever existed? A&E promoted Wedding Wars as a romantic comedy with a serious underlying message about tolerance. But viewers — particularly gay viewers — may have trouble discerning the message or the humor in what is finally an especially grating adult version of an After-School Special.

Note:These “stabs” are affectionately dedicated to — and modeled on — the pithy capsule film reviews pioneered by Calvin T. Beck’s deservedly legendary Castle of Frankenstein magazine in the 1960s. Thanks, Cal, wherever the hell you are!