“Just as in real life, many of the characters in these works – fictional, real, or reconstructed – don’t fit a precise, undeviating profile.”
There are encouraging signs in this year’s Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (SFILGFF) that the ghetto is losing its grip. Many of the programs, both features (51) and shorts (230), resist easy pigeonholing, with the happy implication that the queer community’s longstanding obsession with roles and labels may be starting to loosen up.
Breaking down the films into categories proved surprisingly difficult. For one thing, just as in real life, many of the characters in these works – fictional, real, or reconstructed – don’t fit a precise, undeviating profile. In Totally Confused, for example, the resolutely straight male lead sleeps with his gay best friend in order to salvage their friendship. The Brandon Teena Story shows how two identities – biological male and self-constructed female – can coexist, if torturously in this case, in one body. The title character in Vera,in defiance of biology and social strictures, demands the world acknowledge her as male. Many of the festival’s signature films this year – High Art,The Sticky Fingers of Time, Relax … It’s Just Sex – have strong pansexual aspects, and some – like the raunchy short Pansexual Public Porn – follow the sexual implications of polymorphous perversity to the far fringes.
Moving away from the monolith of identity politics makes it easier to survey the films in this festival for their aesthetic achievement, entertainment value, and of course camp content. Using these criteria, there is much to cheer here and no more to vilify than should be expected.
At the top of the must-see list are three imports, one of which has historical significance beyond its considerable cinematic interest. Dakan (1997) is the first West African gay feature, and announces itself as such from the first scene, a steamy make-out session in a car between two teenage boys. Director Mohamed Camara, filming in secret due to the touchy subject matter, convincingly overlays a class conflict and social critique onto this gay Romeo and Juliet update, but the focus is always on the emotional power of a taboo relationship. Zhang Yuan’s Chinese/French coproduction East Palace, West Palace (1996) details an equally “impossible” relationship, this time between a hunky, sadistic straight policeman and the masochistic queen he arrests and tortures for cruising a park. As in Dakan, the attraction here is the unassailable truth of emotions and the desperate need to live authentically. The subdued, beautifully shot Steam (1997), directed by Ferzan Ozpetek, is a bittersweet picture of a married Italian architect who finds emotional liberation in a gay romance during a business trip to Turkey.
Another high point of the festival, High Art (1998), has a pedigree that might put off viewers who think well-known stars like Ally Sheedy aren’t compatible with “independent film.” But director Lisa Cholodenko’s quietly dire vision of a burned-out lesbian junkie artist and her pals in New York should not be missed. More classically “independent” is Gary Rosen and Greg Pritikin’s ragged, wonderfully funny slacker comedy Totally Confused (1998). Rosen charms as a Woody Allen-like gay schlemiel who, like his straight best friend (played by Pritikin), spends most of his time in a fog of comic self-delusion. If no one has suggested to this talented pair that they sell this as a TV show, let me do so here.
Another comedy, Marta Balletbo-Coll and Simeon Curgeo’s Honey I Sent the Men to the Moon (1997), is a too-tame satire of gender wars and consumer culture. This labored effort is a major disappointment from the talented director of 1995’s Costa Brava. Perhaps the lack of the kind of lesbian element present in the earlier film capsized this one. Better is Waris Hussein’s intermittently droll Sixth Happiness (1997) about a “boy” (he looks about 50) with a bone disease who stops growing at four feet but manages to seduce several beautiful people, male and female. Moving down a few notches is Bernard Salzman’s maudlin “AIDS movie” The Unknown Cyclist (1998). This film has the suffocatingly fake ambience of a Lifetime cable TV movie, which also accounts for its target audience. Stephen Spinella regurgitates his trademark screaming, self-righteous queen routine, Lea Thompson evaporates before your eyes as the legal wife of Spinella’s dead “ex-husband,” and poor, beautiful Danny Nucci tries vainly to conjure a character out of the script’s microscopic pickings.
AIDS appears to be less pressing in this year’s lineup than in the past, perhaps for pharmacological reasons. Together Alone, P. J. Castellaneta’s two-person, single-set, almost-real-time talkathon about safe sex and other topics, actually dates to 1991. Ioannis Mookas’ documentary Only Human (1998) takes the opposite tack of most AIDS movies, examining in moving detail the peculiar problem of men surrounded by an epidemic who’ve managed to avoid it. Shorts about AIDS like Christos Dimas’ Breath carry their own caveat in the catalog description: “Breath says goodbye through four elegaic dance pieces.”
Trouble with trade is the subject of Paul Oremland’s 1998 Like It Is. The trade in question is Craig (Steve Bell), a violent, sexy brat whose ample charms bring grief to his music producer lover. Watch for Roger Daltrey as a clever, manipulative old queen. Jimmy Smallhorne’s mood-drenched 2by4 is another drama about our friends from the British Isles – well, butch Irish expats in New York – struggling with the lure of drugs and queer sex. New York is also the setting for a resurrected classic, Paul Morrisey’s Trash, which showcases Joe Dallesandro’s definitive bored junkie hunk. Less alluring but more compelling perhaps is Holly Woodlawn’s corrosive, wigged-out drag-queen whose goals in life are to get on welfare and get Joe back on top of her (a wish much of the audience will appreciate).
One of the attractions of the SFILGFF is the unveiling of hidden histories and the airing-out of closets of the past. Barbara Hammer’s The Female Closet (1998) is an outstanding example, probing without polemicizing the lives of three women artists and their relationship to the closet. Painter Nicole Eisenman offers refreshing evidence of social change when she says simply, “I don’t think I know any artists in the closet.” A lesbian love affair between a Nazi sympathizer and a Jewish underground worker would seem too improbable to be real, but Catrine Clay’s Love Story (1997) beautifully delineates this obsessive romance that only ended when one of them was shipped to the death camps. Another German, the everpresent Rosa von Praunheim, substantially documents the history of homosexuality (primarily male) in his country in Gay Courage (1997), and winds up in the “gay mecca” of San Francisco to tell us how liberated we are. The historical reenactments are embarrassing, but solid analysis and interviews provide balance. Jeff Dupre’s Out of the Past (1997) is a welcome portrait of noted lesbian high school student Kelli Peterson, whose poise and grace in the face of Mormon fanatics is an object lesson in fighting oppression. The film gives historical perspective by positioning Peterson as part of a long tradition of queer activists. Mark Rappaport is a well-known pop culture excavator (Jean Seberg, Rock Hudson); his new film, Color Me Lavender (1998), is a wry look at the apparently vast queer subtext in Hollywood comedies, westerns, and film noirs. Revisionism, even when fueled by a camp sensibility, can be problematic as an historical method, but Rappaport is convincing, if overlong, on his subject.
Jesse Helms is perhaps the last person any self-respecting queer would want to claim or reclaim, but director Tim Kirkman in Dear Jesse (1997) finds unsuspected links between the wizened pusher of legal drugs and himself: “We both have an obsession with homosexual men!” This documentary also finds spirited resistance, particularly among women, against His Odiousness in the New South, but ultimately Kirkman is preaching to the choir. Perhaps Jesse should be asked to look at Jochen Hick’s aptly titled documentary Sex/Life in L.A (1998). Hick’s endless parade of fucking and cocksucking hustlers, models, porn stars, etc., might inspire Helms to find a new career as a grim-faced daddy, slobbering, toothless old bottom, or ancient, distinguished leather queen, since his time “serving” the nation is running out.
Some of the festival’s treasures are squirreled away in dense shorts programs. The Queer Cartoons II show mines the heights and depths of camp, but there are others worth pointing out. In the Yellow Fever program, Wayne Yung’s The Queen’s Cantonese brilliantly skewers language programs by introducing queer sexual elements: “Fuck me, please . . . Deeper, please. . .” Ian Iqbal Rashid’s Surviving Sabu, piggybacked onto the aforementioned Sixth Happiness, uses the fetching 1940s boy star as a vehicle for a dazzling look into the gap between an uptight Indian father and his inexplicably gay son. Two entries in the Fun in Boys’ Shorts program are worth the show. Harry Victor’s slick Lycanthrophobia, about a peculiar revenge exacted on two gaybashers, has a genuinely creepy atmosphere, and Dean Slotar’s The Absolution of Anthony masterfully sketches a hunky Puerto Rican teenager obsessed with phone sex.
Among the least categorizable films this year is Hilary Brougher’s provocative The Sticky Fingers of Time (1997). Part sci-fi drama (with liberal dashes of The Twilight Zone), part noir thriller, part lesbian/bisexual search story, this ambitious work is alternately confusing and compelling, but ultimately moves in too many directions to be entirely effective. Another elusive film is Sergio Toledo’s 1986 masterpiece, Vera. The mystery-gendered title character’s obsession with living according to an inner reality and refusal to conform to others’ expectations no matter what the cost points the way to a thrilling future of gender chaos – and makes her a dandy poster girl for this year’s SFILGFF.