The world’s biggest lesbian and gay filmfest shows the pleasures and pitfalls of gay auteurs caught between assimilation and opposition. Watch out for the “Stepford” homosexual!
Gay culture is at an historical turning point, caught between the lure of assimilation and the need to maintain an individual, oppositional voice. Wedding bands are suddenly threatening to replace cock rings; rosy monogamy is beginning to unseat the less sanguine but more exciting anonymous sex; queers continue to join a military that doesn’t know what to do with them, to protect a country that barely tolerates them; and the general “Stepfordization” of homosexuality looms large. Assimilation has its benefits and pleasures; proving we’re “just like anybody else” implies a whole host of legal and social freedoms. Still, are we really ready to reject the cultish thrills of the gay ghetto for the satisfaction of saying we’re just as conventional and middlebrow as our boring straight neighbors?
Nowhere is this conundrum more evident than in the images of gays and lesbians in advertising, movies, and television. Like other minorities, queers historically have fashioned much of the aesthetic life of American society, far out of proportion to our numbers. And how were we repaid for these efforts? With legal sanctions, social disapproval, and ongoing insidious attempts to devalue our lives by controlling our images. Surrounded by decades of cinematic portrayals of psycho-lesbos, pedophilic faggots, vampiric trannies, and simpering evil queens, it’s no wonder many queers are finding solace in acceptance, no matter what the price.
On the other hand, there are reassuring signs that the elusive “gay sensibility” is making serious inroads into mass culture, without the kinds of enormous compromises implied by assimilation. A more cynical analysis would say that since business rules America, the queer community has simply been decisively pegged as a niche market, to which corporate media-makers must pander. Major studios now vie for gay projects; even Disney has a subsidiary, Miramax, that routinely releases gay and lesbian “product.” Britain’s Channel 4 is dispersing sensitive, realistic gay imagery to venues worldwide. Then there are those omnipresent “For the last time it’s a life, not a lifestyle” billboards and ads. Events like the Ellen coming-out show proved not only that it’s possible to triumph over right-wing threats of boycott and brimstone, but also that large numbers of straight people are willing to watch an upfront lesbian work out her identity problems on national television. Whether pushed by a business agenda or our own increasing insistence on visibility, America may be getting used to its deviants — in other words, growing up.
The San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival has survived its own growing pains to reach a milestone — this year is its 21st. The SFILGFF has always been a crucial player in rescuing gay imagery from its mainstream manipulators. Like most festivals, this one has a double agenda: matching films with distributors, and showcasing the range of artistic expression in the gay film community. Unlike most festivals, the SFILGFF is also about a specific kind of visibility and assertiveness, allowing queer voices to resonate in a culture where they haven’t always been heard. This year these voice are articulating the wide array of possibilities open to a community clearly in transition.
Not surprising at a time of transformation, many of this year’s best films are concerned with coming of age and coming to terms with queerness. A highlight is John F. Keitel’s Defying Gravity (1997), a penetrating look at Griff, a handsome closeted frat boy whose inability to admit his relationship with another guy indirectly triggers a brutal gay-bashing. This film has the faint aura of an After-School Special, but builds to a striking climax through its sheer sincerity and emotional intensity. The hero of Ira Sachs’ moody, provocative The Delta (1996) is another gorgeous, privileged white boy who’s afraid to express his inner life for fear of losing the plush trappings of his outer one. In David DeCoteau’s black-and-white Leather Jacket Love Story (1997), the treasured white boy is an uncloseted 18-year-old poet who’s unable to find his voice. Only after an affair with a hunky construction worker 10 years his senior does his writing become authentic. Steamy scenes in a Silverlake sex club and explicit encounters between the two leads add resonance to this sometimes trite drama.
Writer Daniel Harris has lamented that gay youth culture is virtually indistinguishable from straight youth culture, and many of the films in this year’s festival verify this. In Gael Morel’s fragmented, affecting Full Speed (1996), a group of good-looking twenty-something pals, male and female, bed-hop and break each other’s hearts. These kids are political and polysexual romantics — fighting against class and race inequities but unable to solve their own interpersonal problems. Samir, a young Arab, expresses a world of frustrated desire when he begs his indifferent white boyfriend, “Turn toward me. I’ll make do with your heart beating next to mine.” A brilliant French-Canadian film, Denis Langlois’ L’Escorte (1996), mines similar territory. In this case, a mysterious callboy named Steve disrupts the lives of a group of friends whose relationships are already fraying. In both these films, there’s a deadly three-way male triangle and a woman who navigates through it; typically she’s the most reasoned voice in the group.
A genre hitherto unnoticed in previous festivals is here in force: the lesbian regional romance. The region is predominantly the South, with two of the features coming from Dallas. The first, Julia Dyer’s Late Bloomers (1996), is a nuanced look at an affair between a formerly straight secretary and the dyke geometry teacher/basketball coach. The school bathroom becomes a secret escape route for the women, with the startling motif of toilet paper secretly exchanged between the stalls as a token of their feelings. Kelli Herd’s It’s in the Water (1996) is amateurish in its treatment of heartland homophobia, but shines when it focuses on the core romance between a southern belle bored by her dull husband and a beautiful nurse. Another film that benefits from its extreme scrutiny of the details of a growing relationship between women is Raquel Cecilia Harrington’s sensual Entwined (1997), shot in Florida. The director wisely avoids widening her canvas too far, and the emotions are cast into high relief. Moving far from the American hinterland is Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996), a masterful Canadian feature shot in India. This film combines a cutting critique of a patriarchal society with a refreshing view of lesbianism as a clear road out of it. As in Entwined, the lovers are considerably different in age, and struggle with the often incompatible expectations that go with their generation.
One of the signs that the ghetto is growing up is that the maudlin “AIDS drama” a la Philadelphia and Love! Valor! Compassion! is less evident here than in prior years. Whether they want to or not, mainstream audiences may have to get used to not identifying homosexuality exclusively with the disease. In a film like L’Escorte, it’s only part of a larger canvas of troubled relationships. Nancy Meckler’s well-acted Alive and Kicking (1996) has the obligatory KS-covered queen in a hospital bed, but the film manages to skirt sentimental kitsch. When the dancer Tonio (Jason Flemyng, from Hollow Reed) says “My body betrayed me.” he does it matter-of-factly, without the overweening self-pity that usually accompanies such sentiments. Richard Natale’s Green Plaid Shirt (1996) looks at a group of bourgeois queens being decimated by AIDS without moving far from the tiresome mantra, “I can’t shake the images of death and dying . . .”
If much of the festival is about looking forward, modern filmmakers are also finding new uses for old forms. John Greyson’s breathtaking Lilies mingles a fin-de-siècle romantic sensibility with innovative formal tricks that include radical time shifts and males playing women as women, not as drag queens. Greyson seems to be moving away from the emotional coldness of earlier works (Zero Patience) in this wonderfully florid, almost Firbankian view of thwarted love among beautiful boys.
Another hoary genre ripe for resurrection is the musical, and there are two entertaining examples here. Victor Mignatti’s Broadway Damage (1997) is an ode to New York in the classic musical mode, this time substituting gay men for the lovestruck hetero couples of the past. Watch for Mara Hobel, who played little Christina Crawford in the infamous Mommie Dearest, as a chubby fag-hag who can’t face the terrors of the real world. If Broadway Damage approaches the top, Franchesca Page lumbers over it. Starring “underground sensation” (per the press notes) Varla Jean Merman as a Divine-like stage mother, this gaudy, foolishly fun production mixes equal parts John Waters, Rae Bourbon, Phantom of the Opera, and Vincente Minnelli.
Camp and social consciousness don’t usually mix well, and that’s certainly the case with Stephen Winter’s Chocolate Babies (1996). This ragged, meandering tale of black gay, HIV-positive drug addict drag queen terrorists is not credible in any conventional sense, but maybe that’s not what the filmmakers were after. In spite of their activism, which takes the form of ACT UP-like assaults on various officials, these are some of the most self-absorbed queens in cinema history, and their antics quickly prove wearisome. More successful in the pure camp realm is Yon Fan’s Bugis Street (1994), the first gay feature from Singapore. This is an intermittently sweet and silly coming-of-age tale, with a young straight girl learning about life by working in a hotel full of transvestite and transsexual whores. Ela Troyano’s amusing Latin Boys Go to Hell (1997) works a different corner of camp. The gorgeous “boys” of the title spend all their time either watching soap operas (“Dos Vidas”) or living them, and it’s no surprise when the operatic emotions here reach the point of violence.
The screaming retro trannies of Bugis Street and Chocolate Babies might not recognize — or claim — their ’90s sister Kim (Steven Macintosh) in Richard Spence’s Different for Girls (1995). Kim is a genteel greeting-card writer who has a tortured affair with a rowdy straight boy played by Maurice‘s fetching Rupert Graves. The film has a more subtle radicalism than its campy counterparts when it reveals Kim’s altered body and Rupert Graves’ prick in tantalizing detail.
As always in the festival, some of the most exciting works are the least classifiable. That’s certainly true of John Greyson’s Uncut (1997), a dazzling mix of fiction and documentary. The story, such as it is, concerns various men named Peter, each with his own obsession: circumcision, Pierre Trudeau, the Jackson Five. The film recalls another Peter-Greenaway-in its imposition of text on the visual image, particularly in a comical cruising scene where two men type, on imaginary typewriters, a conversation that appears letter by letter on the screen. Duncan Roy’s Clancy’s Kitchen (1997) is also hard to pigeonhole, a short feature (53 minutes) that’s by turns black-comic and emotionally wrenching. Handsome, popular TV chef Clancy has the same problem as Griff in Defying Gravity: he’s deeply involved in a gay relationship but terrified to admit it. Clancy can only live authentically when he speaks with his own voice — a crucial lesson this festival brings home again and again.