“A seemingly average person continually surprises and unsettles us by doing something strange and following it up with something even more spectacularly strange.”
A (Luther Price, 1990)
In one of the more imaginative double bills on record, in 2001, the San Francisco Cinematheque, thanks to legendary programmer Joel Shepard, paired Josef von Sternberg’s Scarlet Empress with Luther Price’s A. At first glance, linking von Sternberg and Boston video and performance artist Luther Price would seem as perverse as the grotesque statues that litter The Scarlet Empress. But Price’s scratchy super-8 feature A (1990) mines some of the same imaginative territory as Sternberg in its treatment of female exotica. Unlike Sternberg’s carefully constructed, gorgeously lit muse, though, Price’s Edie (played by the director) is a skanky faded starlet and drag queen with a frozen grin who spends most of this 60-minute movie practicing dramatic entrances and exits, playing spin-the-bottle by herself, and being “courted” by various men who somehow seem separated from her, even when they’re lying on top of her. The cumulative effect of Edie’s endlessly repeated, apparently mindless activities (a Price obsession), which take place in a seedy apartment that appears detached from time and space, is as hilariously unsettling in its way as Sternberg’s take on Russian history, and some of his formal strategies are equally over the top. Particularly inspired is a recurring motif of Lassie (seen in sampled footage) running frantically through various landscapes in an implied attempt to rescue poor, demented Edie, but from what? Note: Alas, A, along with the rest of Luther Price’s work, is almost impossible to see, restricted to occasional museum screenings and rentals from Canyon Cinema. See my article here for more on this brilliant talent.
One of the happy byproducts of the queer film festival circuit has been the thematic LGBT shorts collections on DVD, assembled by companies like Wolfe Video and Picture This Video. These collections, while often all over the map in terms of quality, at least give us a chance to revisit the worthy ones. Two recent DVDs devoted to gay male themes have enough gold among the dross to make them worth considering for rental or purchase.
A perennial favorite in this group are the series Boys Briefs 5: Schoolboys and S Is for Sexy. Boys showcases several international entries.” The “boys” here range from pre-teens navigating an innocent crush in “Benny’s Gym” to decidedly post-“boy” exercises such as “Flatmates” (above) in which two twenty-somethings — one gay, one straight — indulge in some homoerotic horseplay to mask deeper emotions. While some of the shorts tackle timeless issues of coming out and fitting in, others address more timely concerns. In “You, Me, & Him,” Danilo and Marcos become surrogate parents to Marcos’ 10-year-old brother when their parents are killed. The film doesn’t sugarcoat the problems of a needy child disrupting the relationship of a couple who already have problems of their own. “Kali Ma” won awards on the festival circuit, and it’s easy to see why: who doesn’t love the idea of a gay boy’s fierce mother turning the tables by attacking his bully?
Speaking of award winners, that phrase describes more than half of the seven shorts in S Is for Sexy. “Signage” offers a sensitive take on the common theme of the pleasures and pitfalls of picking up, but the context is fresh: the main characters are either deaf or understand sign language. “Mr. Right22” is a witty look at the frustrations of Internet hookups. By far the most ambitious of these shorts is “Shahram and Abbas,” a veritable extravaganza in the genre at 35 minutes. The title characters are both straight Iranians, both applying for refugee status in The Netherlands by pretending to be gay. Is it a sign of our community coming to age that an only marginally gay film like this can make it into a gay shorts collection by simply being well written, well-acted, and compelling? Let’s hope so.
Brüno (Larry Charles, 2009)
Brüno’s marketing campaign invokes the earlier film in a sardonic tagline — “Borat was so 2006″ — and if anything, Brüno goes even further in skewering star culture, the fashion world, homophobia, and racism, though some viewers may be too busy flinching and covering their eyes to notice. This film is not for the faint of heart.
Brüno is a series of vignettes loosely based on Cohen’s latest character, a ridiculously narcissistic Austrian queen in butt-hugging Alpine shorts, and his endless attempts to become an international superstar. This of course involves fashion, one of Brüno’s obsessions. In a typical sequence, he crashes a prominent (real) fashion designer’s show dressed in a total Velcro outfit. Staggering and stumbling down the runway, his outfit sticking to him and everything else, he more or less dismantles the set, a perfect metaphor for the comic’s culture-jam shtick. Cohen ratchets up the attack on the absurdity of haute couture with a scene of Brüno interviewing an airhead model and shots of real models wearing absurd clownlike dresses on the runway.
It’s uphill, downhill, or perhaps sideways from there. Cohen/Brüno’s victims pile up fast: a group of Deliverance-style hillbilly hunters that he tries to seduce; a bunch of swingers; a queeny ex-gay minister (who he says has “blow job lips”); and in a sequence that will surely have some viewers writhing, an elaborate scene in which “single parent” Brüno trades an iPod for a black African baby, who’s then taken away from him by a child welfare officer on a trash talk TV show. The latter sequence is a brutal satire of the celebrity adoptions of third-world children for, the film implies, photo ops and conscience salving. Other sequences find our hero, who calls almost everybody “girlfriend,” wagging his ass at a panicked Ron Paul in a hotel room and turning basic training into an exercise in style. Normally, describing such scenes would constitute a spoiler, but doing so with Brüno doesn’t remotely capture their knife-in-the-eye effect.
The sheer queerness of Brüno may prevent it from being as ragingly successful as Borat, which has taken in $260 million at this writing. The original ending, involving what has been reported variously as an ill-timed “cruel joke” on LaToya Jackson and a grim tableau of the after-effects of a gaybashing, was cut. And Cohen’s schtick is so intense, and the scenes sometimes so unsettling as he puts himself in one life-threatening situation after another, that it’s hard not to feel a bit bludgeoned by the end. For those who can stand it, Brüno offers a bracing, mondo-style tour of subculture mindsets from swingers to hunters to celebrities and religious fanatics. Despite Brüno’s mincing ways, the film does not feel homophobic, as some have charged. His monomaniacal pursuit of celebrity exposes the insularity and fear (including homophobia) from which many have yet to evolve.
City of Borders (Yun Suh, 2009)
Probably few outside Jerusalem know about Shushan, a gay bar that caters to both Israelis and Palestinians. Shushan plays a variety of critical roles in these troubled cultures — dance club, performance space, safe haven, dating service. In this documentary’s opening scene, a group of Palestinian queens defy the Israeli military and sneak through a fence to “have a little fun.” Once they are at Shushan, the borders that obsess and define both Israeli and Palestine melt away, as enemies become friends, tricks, lovers, family. Boody is a devout Muslim queen who endures death threats and performs at the bar as “Miss Haifa.” Gorgeous dykes Samira, an Israeli Palestinian, and Ravit, an Israeli, navigate Jerusalem’s homophobia and their own kind of culture clash. Hunky settler Adam wants to build a house with his bear boyfriend. Presiding over Shushan and its denizens is fearless Sa’ar, Jerusalem’s only gay city council member, who also receives daily death threats and the venomous insults of the council’s ultra-orthodox members. Like Sa’ar, the people featured in the film show understandable fear but also incredible bravery. Even Adam, who still bears the scars from being stabbed by an orthodox Jew during a gay rights rally, methodically makes his plans to marry his lover and build their house. Highlights include a rarely glimpsed lesbian Shabbat ceremony, interviews with Jerusalemites on both sides of the issue, and Samira and Ravit’s ongoing tug of war over whether to have children. But the film’s heart is the strength of its subjects in a world that can turn deadly at any moment.
Fig Trees (John Greyson, 2009)
John Greyson is known for his experimental films (Lilies, Zero Patience) that incorporate all manner of “cinemagic,” from split screens to kaleidoscopic effects and, in this case, a boy soprano and an animated albino squirrel with red eyes. Here Greyson deploys more than his usual share of sleight-of-hand to often stunning effect. Originally a music and video installation, the film is at heart a tribute to two “saints” of the AIDS activist movement: Cape Town’s Zackie Achmat, who famously boycotted the drug companies (and invoked their wrath via a lawsuit) for refusing to provide low-cost drugs to South Africans; and Toronto’s Tim McCaskell, a tireless agitator. Greyson interweaves a gloss on Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s 1934 play “Four Saints in Three Acts,” wittily visualizing Stein and Thomson “kidnapping” Achmat and McCaskell to make an opera out of their lives. (The gorgeous music, by David Wall, samples everything from medieval polyphony and classical opera to more contemporary sounds.) While this may sound too outré to be intelligible, Greyson’s constant inventiveness keeps the eye and mind dazzled. In a typical, irresistibly over-the-top sequence, a black queen dressed in candy colors and surrounded by a rainbow of pills sings a version of Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues (Marry Me Bill)” that indicts Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, and Big Pharma for not doing more to stop the pandemic: “I was on your side, Bill,” croons the queen, “when you were spending. I believed you, Bill, when you said AIDS was ending. . . . Come on and cure me now, Bill!” This is just one of the many surprising pleasures of Fig Trees.
Georgie Girl (Annie Goldson and Peter Wells, 2001
The ascension of Georgina Beyer, a former sex worker and present transsexual, to a powerhouse role as a member of the New Zealand Parliament in the 1990s was greeted with surprise and shock in some quarters, but most of her constituents, and her fellow MPs, clearly adore her. Georgie Girl, directed by Annie Goldson and Peter Well, shows why. Beyer, a Maori whose voice recalls Dame Edna’s, is absolutely authoritative, funny and direct — as she’d have to be to gain the respect of the largely white rural population that makes up her constituency. Unlike most politicians, Beyer is accessible, whether she’s judging a children’s sheep-riding contest or visiting and actually listening to an old woman in a retirement home. Salt-of-the-earth types are shown cheering her on. As one elderly woman says, “She has a wonderful range of talent. She could go to the top!” The film doesn’t shy away from Beyer’s controversial and sometimes troubled history of prostitution, being gaybashed and raped, and going on drug binges “to obliterate my mind.” Vintage footage shows her as an exotic dancer in drag clubs. The ease of Beyer being herself in her skin is unmistakable, and when she tells a news reporter she had no qualms about undergoing her sex change, despite the physical pain and psychological adjustments, we believe her. That’s how strong and self-directed she is.
Hand on the Pulse (Joyce Warshow, 2002)
Joan Nestle’s writings and performances encompass erotica, memoirs, poetry, and politics — a rare mixture in the world of queer agitprop. One of the most intriguing sections of Joyce Warshow’s loving biography examines Nestle’s pivotal role, at the height of the 1980s feminist anti-porn “sex wars,” in celebrating lesbianism in general and butch-femme relationships in particular. A self-described femme, Nestle pioneered the backward glance at 1950s gay bar culture, finding strength and power in women who dressed like men and early versions of the lipstick lesbian — something we now take for granted. The film explores Nestle’s unusual upbringing by a mother who became a prostitute; her early activism and teaching activities; and her co-founding of the indispensable Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York. The Lambda Award-winning Nestle emerges as a generous, loving, brilliantly articulate woman with an endless capacity for discovery, and both a hero and role model to women — and men — seeking liberation.
It Came from Kuchar (Jennifer M. Kroot, 2009)
Gay twin filmmakers George and Mike Kuchar, who live in San Francisco, are noted as major influences on trashmeister John Waters and other modern underground filmmakers. Indeed, Waters’ notorious films have a clear antecedent in the Kuchars’ work, as the generous clips on view in this documentary show. Titles like Hold Me While I’m Naked, Sins of the Fleshapoids, Secrets of the Shadow World, The Devil’s Cleavage, and Eclipse of the Sun Virgin mine the same camp territory as Waters, but there’s a rampaging creativity at work that sets them apart. The brothers, born of working-class parents in the Bronx, started making films as pre-teens in the 1950s. Their inspiration came from watching Hollywood melodramas and remaking them as dime-store epics. Both skilled visual artists, the twins devised their own special effects from the start, using puppets, miniatures, paintings, any kind of prop they could grab, and even staging mock-Biblical floods and epic conflagrations. The film shows George boldly maintaining those early DYI traditions at San Francisco Art Institute, where he teaches students how to make movies on almost no budget by doing it with them. It Came from Kuchar includes interviews with students, as well as actors, directors like Wayne Wang and Atom Egoyan, Warhol superstars like Gerard Malanga, and others in this well-rounded portrait of two of the treasures of cinema and culture.
Pedro (Nick Oceano, 2008)
Dustin Lance Black made waves with his Oscar-winning script for Milk. His script for Pedro is a similar loving biopic of a legendary gay activist. Pedro Zamora (1972-1994) became world famous as “the gay guy with AIDS” in the pioneering MTV reality show The Real World. Pedro’s story spans countries and cultures, from his childhood in traditional Cuba to young manhood in America, where he must navigate family homophobia and a new world fraught with possibility but also danger. Pedro’s life as seen here was brief but intense, from the tragedy of being wrenched from half his family by Cuban authorities to the short-lived triumph of his AIDS activism. Director Nick Oceano has a sure touch with the actors. Justina Machado and Hale Appleman excel as, respectively, Pedro’s loving sister Mily and his devoted friend Judd. But it’s Alex Loynaz who holds the drama together with his incisive performance as Pedro. Loynaz is as charismatic as Pedro Zamora was, and brings a gravitas to the role that keeps all eyes on him.
A Place to Live: The Story of Triangle Square (Carolyn Coal, 2008)
Projecting the Body (Walter McIntosh, 2008)
Stephen Cummins was an experimental filmmaker in Australia whose short films and TV commercials can be seen as a more avant-garde version of the vaunted New Queer Cinema of the 1990s. Originally from a rural area, he went to Sydney in his twenties and became a key member of an innovative queer arts scene there, integrating dance, photography, performance, and cinema in his work. Projecting the Body assesses Cummins’ life and career, with ample selections from his films. Taste the Difference is an extreme close-up of two men kissing aimed at Australian television. Community Advancement startlingly visualizes AIDS as a Grim Reaper with a bowling ball, knocking down people of all ages, races, and sexes. Resonance transforms a brutal gay bashing (based on Cummins’ own experience) into a homoerotic boxing ballet. Cummins managed in his short career to combine activist politics with a stunning visual sense, and his death in 1997 at age 37 was indeed a loss.
Sugar Rush (Various directors, 2005)
Based on Julie Burchill’s novel of the same title, Sugar Rush features closeted young lesbian Kim (Olivia Hallinan), whose dysfunctional family includes a little brother who paints himself blue, a mother who keeps getting caught screwing the handyman, and a kindly but clueless dad. The next-door neighbors are a gay couple, “Dave and David,” whose geeky son keeps trying to date Kim insisting “I’m not gay.” Kim’s life is suddenly complicated by the arrival of Sugar (Lenora Crichlow), a gorgeous girl full of joie de vivre and lots of alcohol and pills. She also stays busy “slagging” various boyfriends, and trying to get Kim to do the same. Problem is, Kim immediately has the hots for Lenora, and the show (at least in the first three episodes screened) follows her nervous attempts to romance/stalk Lenora without being obvious, all the while navigating the whacked-out home scene.
In Sugar Rush, the camera is almost as nervous as Kim. Jerky, jumpy shots conspire with warp-speed editing and a sledgehammer soundtrack to induce vertigo in the viewer. The soundtrack is especially grating. Virtually every scene is underscored, overscored, telegraphed, and drowned in grinding bass and drums or loud “wistful” emo sounds, making it hard to engage with the characters and their dilemmas. And some of the scenes that are played for black comedy seem more creepy than funny — such as when Kim’s little brother drowns his hamster in blue paint, or he tries to kill himself with a ton of pills she leaves on the table. And Kim is a confusing character — on the one hand, tearfully begging mom to stop being such a ‘ho (“for the family!”), on the other telling little bro, a harmless kid who thinks he’s going to the moon, “I hope your spaceship explodes.” Viewers may want to join him on that trip after seeing Sugar Rush.
Training Rules (Dee Mosbacher and Fawn Yacker, 2009)
Women’s sports is a niche that some of us are not conversant with — not surprising, given the lengths to which male-dominated institutions, and some individuals, have gone to suppress it. Within that general suppression is the more specific one of homophobia. Training Rules, directed by Dee Mosbacher and Fawn Yacker, is a disturbing story of the enormous damage one person driven by “religious” convictions can do to young minds. The perpetrator in this case is Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland. Portland was notorious among students for her three rules: “No drinking, no drugs, no lesbians.” Abetted by an indifferent administration, cheered on by alumni for her successes, Portland simply shrugged off the school’s anti-discrimination policy, going after her players’ sexual orientation with a vengeance. A player didn’t have to be gay to invoke the coach’s wrath; she could associate with a lesbian, or even be straight but seem lesbian to Portland’s confused gaydar. And the crusade was all-encompassing. Portland told her girls, “I’ll tell the school, the media, and your parents. I’ll revoke your scholarship. You’ll never work in sports again.” Training Rules tells the story of this appalling character whose career spanned 27 years, and how a gifted straight player, Jennifer Harris, fought back with a lawsuit. The film mixes game footage and interviews with diversity trainers and lesbian coaches of other sports, and of course the young women who were victims of Portland’s reign of terror. Most disturbing are these latter interviews; some of the women, brilliant players by all accounts, remain scarred by their experience.
U People (Hanifah Walidah and Olive Demetrius, 2009)
At first glance, this film looked too feel-good to be true. A group of black women in a Brooklyn brownstone offer breathless testimonials about the transformative power of a two-day music video shoot they’ve just finished: “The whole room just took off into space!” Skepticism soon fades, however, as the personalities of the women and the purpose of the filmmakers come into focus. This remarkable documentary is a freewheeling blend of raucous humor, personal drama, gender theorizing, and even film production primer — all wrapped up in a queer-inflected tribute to the classic “house party” in which black women get together to shoot the breeze and explore every nook and cranny of sisterhood.
U People came about when Walidah and Demetrius noticed that the casual, off-set footage they shot was as intriguing as the video. Snippets of the video are seen throughout, along with re-creations of high-style black culture in the Harlem Renaissance mode as a kind of queer spiritual muse. These stylish sequences are interwoven with striking, occasionally devastating dialogues as the women unsparingly map their personal histories and struggles to find their place. In one of the most searing stories, a butch woman describes her toxic relationship with her mother, whose nasty dismissal of her daughter as a “bull dagger” triggers a violent fight that changed both their lives. Such serious scenes are counterpointed with moments of raunchy humor: “Everybody likes a big ass,” says one femme with a laugh. Co-director Demetrius says something that’s typical of a film simmering with insights: “I have to come out every day, all the time. I’m very comfortable in my lesbian identity. I’m not proud. It’s like being proud of your big toe” — a statement that foretells a future in which gender identity will be as accepted as just another part of the person.
Vive L’Amour (Tsai Ming-liang, 1994)
The title makes Vive L’Amour sound like a minor French bedroom farce from the 1960s (maybe directed by Claude Lelouch and starring Annie Girardot). But like the film itself, the title is deceptive. Vive L’Amour is in fact a 1990s Taiwanese film, a major work by one of the pioneers of that country’s New Cinema, Tsai Ming-liang. And its tone is far from the exuberance implied. This is a masterfully bleak, subtly comic treatment of a unique love triangle — much of it unconscious and unrealized — among three people whose lives intersect in empty apartments and the noisy, dehumanizing streets of modern, industrial Taipei.
May (Yang Kuei-mei) is an unmarried real estate agent on the verge of middle age. She spends long hours going through the mechanics of trying to sell an empty apartment in Taipei’s wretched real estate market. The film shows us her typical day in grueling detail, as she climbs on top of garbage cans to nail up her signs; screams into her cellular phone to try to make a contact; diffidently points out the virtues of a property to a prospective buyer; and, in an amazing extended sequence, attempts to kill a fly. Few directors could get this much mileage out of a throwaway moment, but May is somehow made to register both cosmic annoyance and a kind of mindless indifference as she chases the fly through the room for what seems like hours.
Of course, May’s nights are different from her days, as she haunts the streets in search of pickups, a process the director records with microscopic attentiveness to human behavior. Ah-jung (Chen Chao-jung), a hustler type who sells boutiquey knock-off fashions on the street, is the object of her lust. After a lengthy, silent, unacknowledged “courtship,” the two end up in the bed in the apartment she’s trying to sell. But May is in a continuous state of distraction — she refuses to let Ah-jung kiss her, and after sex, she races away.
Meanwhile, Hsiao-kang (Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng), a young gay columbarium (cremation burial-plot) salesman, begins inexplicably to sneak into the same apartment, where he enacts strange rituals like dressing up in drag (complete with boa) and suddenly doing cartwheels through the hall, or submerging himself in the Jacuzzi as if he were dead. The film’s themes of alienation and absurdity are most embodied in Hsiao-kang, particularly in a scene where he sensuously caresses a melon, kissing it tenderly, staring at it close-up as if it were a person, and finally, cutting finger-holes in it and throwing it like a bowling ball through the apartment, where it smashes to bits. This scene is typical of the film. A seemingly average person, a salesman, continually surprises and unsettles us by doing something strange and following it up with something even more spectacularly strange.
These grim characters appear to have no outside attachments — no family or friends — and in the case of May and Ah-jung, not even a discernible interior life. Even Hsiao-kang’s office seems off-kilter in a scene where his co-workers play a preposterous game called “Who Wants to Move?” where they laughingly walk around the room in little groups in a celebration of pointless motion. Hsiao-kang watches them with confusion and detachment, unable to participate even in this.
After accidentally running into each other at the apartment, Hsiao-kang and Ah-jung become friendly — in the remote way that characters interact in this film — and Hsiao-kang encounters his new pal asleep on the bed where May and Ah-jung have finished making love. In this key sequence, Hsiao lies down next to him, and in a painfully extended shot, moves ever closer in a halting, bittersweet attempt to connect.
Vive L’Amour isolates the small, telling details in large events. Hsiao’s attempted suicide early in the film is treated obliquely; it takes us a minute to realize what’s going on as drops of blood form a puddle on the floor. Conversely, seemingly insignificant events become earth-shattering in these cramped lives — most obviously in May’s fly-swatting scene, which recalls Ionesco in its unsettling comic absurdism. The film’s empty interiors are the perfect stage for these disturbing events, desolate spaces that resonate with the limitations of the people who wander in and out of them. More specifically, for May the apartment is emblematic of her failure, as it stubbornly refuses to be sold. For Ah-jung, it’s just a crash pad for a casual fuck. For Hsiao-kang it’s a psychic zone that lets him work out suppressed elements in his personality. The transformative power of an empty room, at least temporarily, is shown when, kissing the sleeping Ah-jung, he begins to look outside himself.