FESTIVALS: Beyond Power Bars and Hand-Fans, Quality Films to Discover at NYLGFF
(indieWIRE/6.19.2000) --In the Beginning, there were gay characters. And then gay films, and now a city just isn't a city if it doesn't have a gay film festival. New York has enough queer citizens to host at least two major gay festivals (there's MIX, an experimental festival) and the just concluded 12th New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (NYLGFF), which ran June 1 --11. And what a learning experience it was.
It's unclear why it wasn't apparent before -- as sponsors have been integral to the NYLGFF for years -- but in 2000, NYLGFF seems to have developed a new purpose: delivering an attentive audience to companies trying to reach the "gay market." New York audiences are no longer dependent on queer festivals to deliver gay-themed films, but companies like Sony Pictures Classics, Lions Gate, the Sundance Channel, United Airlines, Gay.com, Hero magazine and the Advocate are dependent on NYLGFF to reach their target audience.
This year the marketing reached ridiculous heights. How else to explain the thousands of embarrassing, Mae-West style hand-held fans given out by Showtime to promote their not-yet-filmed American version of the British TV show, "Queer as Folk"; or the free Balance Bars that replaced popcorn inside the theaters; or the simply terrible closing night film, "Broken Hearts League," care of Sony Pictures Classics? There was no reason to screen, let alone close the festival, with such a racist and stereotypically gay film (the only black character dresses up like he's on African safari and there are more swishy queens on display than in "Paris is Burning") -- except for perhaps to impress a company with as much clout as Sony Classics.
There were other things to learn, but a little more difficult to notice. First, directors should never be allowed to act in their own movies: Someone needs to tell them when to hold back. Lane Janger is unbearably guido-esque in his otherwise cute, "Just One Time." Nisha Ganatra ruins her interesting "Chutney Popcorn" with her own dour demeanor. Secondly, Timothy Olyphant is gay cinema's new It Boy. And that's not a good thing. The avowedly straight actor tries to play gay by pouting his way through two NYLGFF entries: "Advice From A Caterpillar" and "Broken Hearts League." (Later this summer he camps it up in Strand's "Psycho Beach Party." Somebody needs to stop him.)
The last and most important thing NYLGFF taught is that there are still some very good films out there waiting to be discovered -- films of considerable quality that make you shake your head in exasperation at a marketplace that has not yet recognized them.
Special Jury Prize winner "Straightman" is a prime example. Thoughtful and emotionally honest, the super low-budget film from Chicago has been floating around for over a year at underground festivals. Produced by its two stars, "Straightman" is a Cassavettes' style portrait of a friendship between a gay man (director Ben Berkowitz should learn from Janger and Ganatra and remain behind the camera) and a straight man. It is the kind of independent film that used to be "discovered" at places like Sundance before that festival went so awry.
Scott Smith's "Rollercoaster" is another winning film. It follows a group of renegade teens as they break into an abandoned amusement park; the film offers a view of adolescence refreshing in its frank and poignant bleakness. Most surprisingly without distribution is the Cynthia ("Sex in The City") Nixon vehicle, "Advice From a Caterpillar." Don Scardino's adaptation of Douglas Carter Beane's play is highly entertaining and just edgy enough to amuse.
Francois Ozon's latest film, "Water Drops on Burning Rocks" won the Best Feature Prize. Based on an early Rainer Werner Fassbinder play, "Water Drops" earned its psychological power from its structurally tight script and wonderful performances. (Zeitgeist will release in July.) With equal emotional depth, Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen's documentary "Benjamin Smoke" tells the story of Atlanta's resident drag queen/avante garde musician, Benjamin, with remarkable verve and style. (Cowboy Booking will release in July.)
"Benjamin Smoke" was the most adventurous documentary in this year's line-up. But winning the Best Documentary prize, "Our House" is Meema Spadola's straightforward look at children of gay and lesbian parents. "Hammering It Out: Women in the Construction Zone," by Vivian Price, was an eye-opening doc about a small, but growing, segment of the workforce. The women portrayed demand and deserve respect for their physical and personal progress. "The O Boys" was a scratchy portrait of a fascinating group of safe-sex activists who host orgies for those willing to play safe.
On the whole, narrative features often failed to meet expectations in spite of their numbers being whittled down from previous years. American directors don't seem to care as much about logic and character development as they do about setting up a humorous situation. For every warmhearted, funny entry, like Jamie Babbit's charming, "But I'm a Cheerleader" (Lions Gate releases in July), there was an unwatchable one like Brian Shepp's "Gypsy Boys." Thomas Bezucha's romantic comedy "Big Eden" won the Audience Award, and has potential to be something special -- if it could lose 15 minutes; while there's no way of saving Jon Shear's should-have-been-a-short-film, "Urbania."
The festival itself ran smoother than ever, benefiting from the decreased number of screenings. The advanced sale box office was inconveniently located several blocks away from the main venue, but once you got your tickets and made it to the theater, lines moved quickly and most features started very near to schedule.
In spite of a couple of inspired acceptance speeches, NYLGFF's award ceremony is still not working. Held prior to the closing night feature, the audience is there for the upcoming film and hasn't seen any of the award winning films being discussed. Thus they sit courteously and clap without conviction. For the second year in a row, the winner of a lifetime achievement award was not present to accept her prize. This year's winner, Su Friedrich, must not have been told in time because she sent a regretful statement from a friend's birthday party she was hosting, literally just across town.
And thinking of parties -- they are often a large part of why people go to film festivals. This year they were uniformly under-attended. Maybe next year Showtime can throw something more useful than hand-fans at NYLGFF attendees -- like a party.
[Aaron Krach is a contributing writer to indieWIRE.]