“Film festival” sounds intellectual, like an oasis of cinematic and anthropological rumination in the midst of the crass commercial marketplace. Even so, if we’re honest with ourselves, a film festival is also an aberration; people don’t need more encouragement to go to the movies. When the grossest Hollywood efforts based on a half-remembered ’80s toy and wise-cracking, AK-47-wielding gophers can make millions in their opening weekends, it could even be argued that people go to the movies too much. There are few good reasons for film festivals to exist, and yet they still proliferate like E-coli outbreaks across the country. The big film festivals are megalodons that prowl the waters of international cinema, filmmakers and distributors with films floating helpless and still, hoping to be swallowed up. To premiere at Cannes is divine. If Cannes won’t take you, then perhaps Toronto or Rotterdam will. Or maybe Berlin or Venice? There’s always Sundance. Seattle? No? San Francisco, then? Someone? Anyone? Black-Asian Women’s Wichita International Festival of Foreign Film, roll out the red carpet!
In the case of Outfest and other gay-themed film festivals (it seems like every city has one now), the one good reason for their existence is to provide a venue for LGBT audiences to see their stories up on screen. Some note that the growing mainstream acceptance of gay subject matter is making film festivals like Outfest obsolete. According to filmmaker and this year’s Outfest Achievement Award recipient Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex), it’s not a question of acceptance, but of interest; the straight world, i.e. the mainstream, is just not that interested in gay people’s stories. Admittedly, I’m interested, but only when the story comes packaged in a really good movie. My main objective at Outfest was to discover the next Almodovar or Van Sant and hopefully learn about the LGBT community in the process. Regrettably, the first objective was not met, but the second was.
Do you have to be gay to have fun at Outfest? Hell no. It was priceless to see Roos, at his very own “Conversation with Don Roos,” get attacked for his “controversial” stance against actors coming out. He told the audience: “I don’t think actors should be out at the level of press, radio, TV and film. I have a deep respect for homophobia [in American society] and I don’t think it will ever go away. I don’t think actors coming out is going to help end homophobia. I think doctors, teachers and lawyers coming out will end homophobia.” According to the attendees, he’s missing love in his life (his husband and two little kids were sitting in the back). Fancying myself the Helen Thomas of the festival, I asked Roos if he thought the Sundance Film Festival should be boycotted because Alan Stock, CEO of movie chain Cinemark, donated almost $10,000 to Prop Yes on 8 (Sundance uses the local Cinemark-owned Holiday Village Cinema as one of its biggest screening venues), he simply replied: “I felt uncomfortable when they published those lists. I don’t think people should be made to suffer for their opinions…people lost jobs…I just felt…uncomfortable.”
I also got to witness, first hand, a phenomenon I had only heard of: queer on queer discrimination. While waiting to be seated, a lesbian turned to a gay couple and said: “Why are you standing in this line? This is a lesbian movie.” I asked her if I was allowed, since I was straight but had a vagina. She walked away in a huff and the boys and I couldn’t help but bust out laughing. And where else can you see old gay activists tell the audience Prop 8 is the best thing to happen to the gay community? Well, maybe at the Salt Lake White Studs for Jesus Film Festival. Do yourself a favor. LGBT or not, attend your local gay film festival. Maybe you’ll see some good movies, but you’ll have a blast for sure.
Chef’s Special (Nacho G. Velilla/Spain)
This Almodóvar-wannabe comedy swirls around high-strung and anally retentive Maxi (Javier Cámara), the flamboyant chef and owner of a trendy Madrid restaurant who wants a Michelin star so badly he can taste it. He feels he’s on the brink of culinary superstardom- that is, until his two estranged children show up on his doorstep. Not only are the children grieving over the recent death of their mother, they must now come to terms with their father’s openly gay lifestyle. Things only get more chaotic when, Horacio, a sexy, closeted Argentine ex-soccer star, moves in next door, diverting the attentions of both Maxi and Alex, the restaurant’s unstable boy-crazy female maître d’ (Volver’s Lola Dueñas). First-time director Nacho Velilla’s frothy mix of anarchic comedy and melodrama explores themes of jealousy and fatherhood but lightens most scenes with the farcical antics of Maxi’s stressed-out kitchen staff. Cámara, one of Spain ‘s finest actors and familiar to American audiences as the nurse in Almodóvar’s Talk to Her, demonstrates wide range with his portrayal of Maxi as a comfortably out-of-the-closet character who tackles complex family issues that transcend mere sexual orientation. He injects witty new life into the stereotype through a range of precise mannerisms and is able to switch in a second to a darker register. Chef’s Special sticks to the Hollywood formula and is by turns outrageous and predictable but manages to be moving, as Maxi learns what’s really important in life. A lovely and hilarious little cameo from Almodóvar veteran Chus Lampreave makes the film worthwhile. Chef’s Special won the Outfest 2009 Audience Award for Outstanding Dramatic Feature Film.
An Englishman in New York (Dir: Richard Laxton/UK)
Over 30 years ago, John Hurt portrayed writer and raconteur Quentin Crisp in the movie The Naked Civil Servant and here Hurt revisits the same role in the made-for-British television film An Englishman in New York, which depicts the gay icon’s life in Manhattan, a place where his eyebrow-raising gender-bending eccentric flamboyance and defiant exhibitionism were welcomed and celebrated. Laxton traverses the East Village and the legendary corners of gay culture, eliciting nostalgia while capturing the shifting sensibilities within New York’s gay and lesbian community during that pivotal era. The film deserves to be seen thanks to yet another of Hurt’s exquisitely observed performances in which he furthers his claim to be the straight actor who has played the highest number of gay roles. Crisp’s insightful, witty and sharp comments, writing and performances provide much of the dialogue as Hurt dispenses Crisp’s aphorisms with poise and charm. Englishman is more of a succession of set pieces than a composed drama, but Hurt is too good not to reveal some of the man’s doubts and loneliness in a fully rounded performance that proves more affecting towards the second half. The last half-hour, which shows Philip Steele still devotedly looking after the now-failing Crisp, and Crisp’s final bounce-back during the Clinton era in a two-person show with performance artist Penny Arcade (Cynthia Nixon), contains the most moving material. Hurt’s heartfelt and deeply embodied reprisal of the role is astonishing throughout, and Nixon, Swoosie Kurtz, Jonathan Tucker and Denis O’Hare round out the excellent supporting cast.
We Are the Mods (E.E. Cassidy/U.S.A.)
With in-your-face references to Godard’s Band of Outsiders and Antonioni’s Blow Up, We Are the Mods is the stuff pretentious film school shorts are made of. Fortunately, because E.E. Cassidy really seems to know and love the mod scene, she doesn’t exploit this quirky milieu for cheap laughs and manages to stage a believable mod subculture in Los Angeles by calling in favors, raiding closets for Mary Quant-style dresses and skinny ties, and filling the low-budget production with authentic scooters and retro artifacts. With her dowdy threads and good grades, Sadie (Melia Renee) is a typical high school nerd who has her sights set on art school. A loner with a passion for photography, Sadie sees the world through the lens of her 35mm camera, experiencing little outside her family and quiet existence. That is, until one morning when Treg (Lance Drake) pulls up on his Lambretta with girlfriend Nico (Mary Elise Hayden) onboard and they catch Sadie’s eye. Nico, a beauty with a husky voice, micro-miniskirts and Army-surplus parka, later shows up at Sadie’s photography class and the two girls become instant buddies. Nico would easily have been the most popular girl in school except she suffers from Milroy’s Disease, which causes her to have an excessively swollen foot and walk with a cane. Sophisticated and experienced, Nico is the life of the party; she introduces Sadie to a Los Angeles glowing with friends, music and fashion inspired by the 1960s British Mod subculture, causing Sadie’s world to transform as she gets caught up in the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of the scene. Experimenting within this new realm, Sadie discovers a world beyond her narrow experiences, and sometimes her comfort zone. As Sadie and Nico venture onto unfamiliar territory, their newfound relationship tests the limits of a tentative and sometimes vulnerable friendship. Cassidy’s coming-of-age story feels genuine, affectionate and good-hearted. She gets great performances from her unknown cast, with Hayden capturing the vulnerability and darkness beneath Nico’s cool exterior. The super-16 footage looks great, but the editing and sound mix could use some polish. Sadly, it’s unlikely this film will get seen outside the festival circuit since the producers have not cleared the rights to the music and the Antonioni and Godard clips, essential aspects of the story and Sadie’s transformation. Mods won The Audience Award for Outstanding First U.S. Dramatic Feature Film, Audience Award for Outstanding Soundtrack and the Grand Jury Award for Outstanding Screenwriting.
To Faro (Dir: Nana Neul/Germany)
Mel, a tomboy in her early twenties, works in a catering factory wrapping up endless meals to be had by passengers on the airplanes she longingly observes departing the nearby airport in her spare time. Her drab work routine livens up somewhat when she meets Nuno, her new Portuguese co-worker. At home, Mel’s life is also dull and hardly bearable but she has big plans to travel the world with her brother Knut – until his plans suddenly change. He has gotten his girlfriend pregnant and she’s about to move in with them into their father’s house. Knut constantly teases her about not having a boyfriend and, the truth is, her appearance and manners suggest a lot more a young heterosexual male than a young heterosexual female. In fact, so much more that when the 14-year-old Jenny, whom she one night almost runs over on a badly lit road assumes that the driver is a young guy, it seems comic but still quite believable. Persuaded by Jenny and her equally underaged friend, Mel helps them get into a local night club where she quickly falls for Jenny and decides to play along by inventing a new identity for herself – Miguel from Faro in Portugal. In order to avoid her family’s suspicions and to continue seeing Jenny, Mel crafts a careful web of deception as she convinces Nuno to pose as her fake boyfriend at a family dinner and becomes enthusiastically lost in her lies, learning Portuguese and constructing a whole new history for herself. Trouble, of course, follows when it turns out that not only has Jenny already got a boyfriend but that she is much younger than she claims. Romance between the two girls becomes reality but how long can Mel keep it up? Gender perception can play tricks not only on those perceiving but also those perceived. And in a world with deeply rooted gender roles and appearances, can you achieve your ultimate goal by pretending to the bitter end that you are something that you are not, too infatuated with the process and too confused to foresee the consequences? To Faro does not attempt to be moralistic, nor does it victimize any of its characters – it simply shows a possible turn of events and offers a plausible (if not the only) way out. Mel’s journey from quiet tomboy in a family of men to the beginnings of an understanding of her sexuality and gender identity is dealt with in an understated and sweet way, making this an endearing account of a rather problematic relationship. A tale of the journey from tomboy to the beginnings of an understanding of her sexuality and identity, To Faro is a tender film about youth and the impact of first love. The realization that identity is fluid, and not carved in stone, is its highly optimistic message.
Fruit Fly (Dir: H.P. Mendoza/USA)
This polished musical from composer/scenarist-turned-first-time director H.P. Mendoza looks and sounds good but nonetheless founders on a low narrative drive, less-engaging characters and too many uninspired numbers. L.A. Renigen plays Bethesda, an adopted Filipina-American performance artist obsessed with finding her birth mother. Arriving in San Francisco, she’s the newcomer in a communal house full aspiring artists that include stage designer Windham (Mike Curtis); painter Karen (E.S. Park) and actress Sharon (Theresa Navarro), a lesbian couple; and teen runaway Jacob (Aaron Zaragoza). Bethesda is annoyed when she’s branded a “fag hag” (also the name of a funny and entertaining staged song), but she nonetheless becomes Windham’s nightly gay-bar companion. Meanwhile, she pins her hopes on performing her autobiographical show at a competitive venue, discovers possible clues to her mom’s identity and beds vain, egomaniac avant-magician Gaz (Christian Cagigal). Fruit Fly is heartfelt and charming at times, but it’s not quite as clever as it thinks it is. The script is underdeveloped: there’s little plot, not much happens and once introduced, subplots are simply neglected. Mendoza’s haughty fun at the expense of the San Francisco art, insular theater and gay scenes covers familiar terrain with little variance, while Bethesda’s performance-artist characterization feels dated. Nineteen songs leave little room for narrative development and they’re too often about similar protests and complaints, one-joke ideas or dialogues in song that suppress staging and mobility. As a result, the highlights lean toward the few up-tempo tunes that involve multiple participants and some choreography in wide shots, like catchy punk-pop “My Makeup” and “We Are the Hag.” Fruit Fly could benefit from further editing, sacrificing some of the duller songs. Richard Wong’s widescreen HD cinematography stands out as he opts for candy-colored lighting and slick compositions, and Mark Del Lima’s animation segments, from the delightful opening/closing title designs to cool video game-like manipulations of San Francisco’s skyline, enliven the proceedings.
Give Me Your Hand (Pascal-Alex Vincent, France/Germany)
Chisel-faced identical 18-year old twins, Antoine (Alexandre Carril) and Quentin (Victor Carril), hitchhike to their mother’s funeral in Spain, but what begins as a buoyant, innocent escapade grows emotionally darker as the journey progresses. The twins are almost indistinguishable; one draws, the other plays a Jew’s-harp and sports an eyebrow scar, and rarely speak, except when engaging with the slightly more colorful people they encounter along the way, who trigger in them either shared alienation or intense rivalry. Antoine (the outgoing social one) sleeps with Clementine (Anais Demoustier), a girl with whom Quentin has started to bond. Quentin broods, stirring up long-simmering resentments and beats up his brother. Later, during a brief farming gig to make money to continue the trip, Quentin’s tryst with fellow hay-baler Hakim (Samir Harrag) leads a jealous Antoine to play a dirty trick on his brother, who inexplicably disappears. Antoine’s increasingly distraught search for his other half provides the film’s most dramatic moments. Pascal-Alex Vincent’s debut feature is an ode to brotherly love and loathing, rivalry and intimacy, as the twin’s symbiotic relationship borders on the obsessive and is defined by their shared and separate experiences. The palpable beauty of the physical world mirrors the character’s internal states and is observed by a director who has a penchant for Impressionist paintings. Opening with an animated sequence, the film’s self-conscious visual language recalls Japanese anime as well as the palette of Vincent Van Gogh. Give me Your Hand is flawed, nonetheless it feels like an original piece of work, in which choreographed images contain secrets that make the minimal dialogue even more meaningful.
Making the Boys (Crayton Robey/ USA)
A revolution was born on the evening of June 28, 1969 in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan. Police raided the Stonewall Bar, a haunt that remains home to the gay habitués of the West Village. Fighting for their right to assemble in public, the patrons marshaled enough resistance to beget a revolt that changed the course of history. So significant was the Stonewall rebellion that LGBT history is essentially divided by two chronological spheres: Before Stonewall and After Stonewall. No more would gays stand for being rounded up onto the paddy wagon like prisoners. The uprising ushered in the modern gay liberation movement, creating a community instilled with self-respect. The Boys in the Band, a ground breaking play by Mart Crowley, landed right in the middle of the pre and post-Stonewall era. Originally produced for the stage in April 1968 at The Playwrights Unit, a theater founded by playwright Edward Albee in downtown Manhattan, The Boys in the Band was a blunt and incisive commentary about the lives of gay men and the diverse emotional profiles of the characters emphasized the breadth of attitudes gay men had towards each other and about themselves, equal parts pride and self-loathing.
Making the Boys fortunately turns out to be about much more than the creation of The Boys in the Band. Crowley’s play opened the year before Stonewall and the movie opened the year after the riots, so it stands at a unique pivotal point in gay history. Director Crayton Robey (When Ocean Meets Sky) explores this dynamic in Making the Boys, chronicling the story of how The Boys in the Band evolved from page to stage to screen and into history as a defining historical document of gay men in the mid-20th century. It was the first theater piece to focus exclusively on gay men in their everyday lives and it was a hit from its second night. Through terrific interviews with Edward Albee, Robert Wagner, Tony Kushner, Michael Cunningham and more, the documentary gives a surprisingly rich and textured feel for the hostility and euphoria gay men lived with in the ’60s and ’70s as they emerged from the closet in droves. Archival footage shows the early picket marches led by Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, New York ‘s first pride parade, and Gay Liberation Front demonstrations, as well as dancing inside Hollywood ‘s private clubs and Studio 54. Thrilling home movies show Roddy McDowell’s lazy Sunday afternoon Malibu beach parties with Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Sal Mineo, Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland and Natalie Wood who became a friend for life after Crowley was her assistant on a film.
The documentary isn’t adulatory and it isn’t all sunny. Albee speaks very candidly about his dislike of the play (“straights were so happy to see people they didn’t have to respect”); Kameny is reported to have coined Gay Is Good in part to combat the film’s stereotypes of self-hating screaming drunk queens; and Project Runway fashion flake Christian Siriano is one of many young people shown claiming ignorance about The Boys in the Band. Robey examines the fallout from the success; Crowley spent decades drinking his way around the world and, after having played gay in such a defining way, many of the cast members found it difficult to get work and remained bitter about it. The documentary also shows AIDS as the catastrophic comedown from the ’70s high, killing a generation of gay men including most of the cast. The Boys in the Band was important 40 years ago and still remains a vital reference point in a history that, for far too long, was marginalized or completely ignored in the text books.
On These Shoulders We Stand (Glenne McElhinney/USA)
Director Glenne McElhinney heads the San Francisco-based Impact Stories, a modest oral history project that has quickly grown into an effort to collect, preserve and celebrate California’s significant and unsung contribution to LGBT history. On These Shoulders We Stand explores the struggles of the gay and lesbian community in postwar Los Angeles. The project was born out of McElhinney’s surprise by the brutal reality of the collaboration between Los Angeles city fathers, the LA Times and the LAPD to make life miserable for LGBT people between the 1950s and the early 1980s. According to her research, these entities worked very hard to convey the message of “Stay in the closet or get arrested” to LGBT Angelenos. Through her interviews with the diverse likes of activists Ivy Bottini, the Reverend Troy Perry and Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thomas, among others, McElhinney became aware of significant differences between the histories of the LGBT community in northern California and the community in southern California. Los Angeles’ place in the LGBT rights movement is very important and largely unknown, and On These Shoulders We Stand, counters the popular belief that the early gay rights movement was limited to New York and San Francisco. Gay and lesbian seniors recall the challenges, trials and triumphs of the city’s gay past. Particularly heartbreaking was how the LAPD used “anti-mask” laws that criminalized the wearing of disguises in public to persecute cross-dressers. Long time barber Nancy Valverde recounts how she was arrested almost every other day for wearing men’s clothing and how, to this day, she cannot comprehend why she was targeted for exercising her individuality. McElhinney also discovered that a double standard existed in LA and Hollywood during the decades in which local gays and lesbians were persecuted. A-list actors didn’t have their parties raided, but the average LGBT person in Hollywood was at risk. Thomas addresses the reality of this double standard in the film, as well as its residual impact on Hollywood ‘s approach to homosexuality today. The real target audience of the documentary is young LGBT people and getting the word out about how these pioneers fought for the rights they enjoy today and which they cannot afford to take for granted. At the talkback after the film, someone commented that the activism back then seemed very spontaneous and asked if the gay community would benefit from such impetuousness today. The old activists on stage nodded in agreement and remarked that the gay community had turned into check-writers and that Prop 8 was the best thing to happen to them in years. It has brought them together again; they’re out on the street fighting for what’s right.
by Teri Carson