FEATURE: Cathartic, If Repetitive: This Summer's Gay Fest Highlights
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE/ 06.19.02) -- Gay film festivals are like the Gabor sisters. Each Gabor sibling had or has her own accomplishments. Eva was on "Green Acres." Zsa Zsa reigned in "The Queen of Outer Space," had some muscles cut in her ankles so her high heels would no longer pain her, and slapped a Beverly Hills cop. While Magda... Well, she must have done something or other.
Now if you dug up Magda and Eva and placed what's left of them alongside Zsa Zsa, and then took samples of the gals' DNA, the results would be extremely similar. It's the same with gay film festivals. Their locales, ice cream brands, and weather may differ drastically, but the ability of attendees to quote lines from "Queer as Folk" is equal, plus around 88 percent of the films they show are the same.
I mean just try escaping Sherman Alexie's "The Business of Fancydancing." You can't. It'll track you down with a vengeance no matter on which coast you try to hide. Poorly acted, directed, written, and paced, here is a film that intelligently, but ineptly, tries to expound on the problems of being a famous queer Native American poet in the States. Best line of dialogue: "It's an Indian thing, man." On the positive side, the Boy Scouts do award you a "homo activist" merit badge just for sitting through it.
But a dreadful queer Native American film is better than none if you're a queer Native American. To see your face and problems laid out on the screen... to find out you're not alone in your misery... and to discover others like you have found happiness without the use of Lithium can be a cathartic experience. (I personally achieved the same thanks to Pia Zadora in 1982's "Butterfly.") This is the purpose of gay film festivals.
Shannon Kelley, director of programming for the widely respected Outfest, Los Angeles' Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, concurs. Even with the competition of "Will and Grace" plus "Six Feet Under," he says that "gay films are doing what they always used to do, which is to provide an outlet for points of view that aren't ever expressed in any other setting." Kelley continues, "The films we screen provide a picture of lives at a community level and sometimes at a larger level that few people have imagined. The mainstream TV shows you mentioned serve as a vanguard introducing a lot of people to the idea of gay lives. To these folks, especially in the middle part of the country, gayness has been more of a mythological idea. TV has played a very important role in adding a positive reality to their concepts of gayness, but it's an incomplete reality because it's one trying to appeal to the greatest number of people possible. The usefulness of a gay film festival is to round out that picture with more texture and different kind of experiences."
Margaret Cho in her truly hilarious "Notorious C.H.O." concert movie certainly shatters the Midwestern concepts of those who haven't bedded an Asian bisexual woman before. The hard-working comedienne notes how day after day she was giving blowjobs to rescue workers at Ground Zero "because we all have to do our part. Also we learn something about ourselves during times of crisis. I learned I lost my gag reflex." Cho, as you can see, prefers men. "I'll eat pussy if they run out of what I really want... Pussy, although delicious, is a mess to eat. You really need a Wet Nap if you're going to eat that." But underneath her lusty sex rap, there is an astute political consciousness: "A government that denies a gay man the right to a bridal registry is a fascist state." This is a must-see laugh fest.
"Notorious C.H.O." was the highly successful opening night feature of New
York City's The New Festival. Other notable moments from this year's New
Fest included Lauren Himmel's sweet, sexy but insubstantial "Treading
Water," with some fine lesbian-lovemaking-on-a-boat to carry the female
crowd through to the end.
Andrew Lancaster's highly clever, hugely sardonic short "In Search of Mike"
was a delicious tale of a man coping with the world's worst mother -- a
four-star-knee slapper. As for Miles Swain's "The Trip," an often funny tale
of a 1970s love affair between a gay activist (a terrific Steve Braun) and a
cute homophobe, it even included Jill St. John as a kleptomaniac,
We finally caught up with New Festival's director Basil Tsiokos, the day
after the fest ended. His verdict: "It went fairly smoothly. There were some
technical issues in some venues. But there were many high points. We had a
remarkable number of sold-out screenings. Audiences were happy with the
programming. In general, it felt like a very good and smooth festival."
As for World Trade Center disaster, did that hurt the fest or help it as it did Ms. Cho? "There was an effect from 9/11," he noted. "We're very happy with our sponsors that we had this year. Some of our long-term sponsors came through, but certainly we did not have as many paying sponsors as we did in the past. While we're blessed with an appreciative audience and have a membership system that allows people to make donations, individual donations were less than usual."
Ray Murray, founder and executive director of the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Festival, had reported no fallout terrorist problems in the City of Brotherly Love. His slate of 170 films and videos -- which starts July 11 -- is ready for a smooth cruising. Murray thinks he knows why his fest has a much bigger impact on his home city than the New Festival has on the Big Apple. "The major press treats us like a major festival. We get the same coverage as the Festival of World Cinema, which happens in April, so we get the Inquirer and the Daily News and the Metro and then all the straight weeklies. Then you have the gay press," he explained. "This is why we have a kind of greater acceptance. Then we have Kenneth Cole and a couple other stores doing window displays for the festival. We try to spend a lot of time on that kind of promotion end, and we have parties every night."
Also partying until his festival ends on June 30 is the highly respected Michael Lumpkin, executive director of the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. "Ours is a big, huge community event," he notes. "Our attendance last year was like 84,000."
So why is his fest such a success?
"There are several things," Lumpkin explains. "I think holding it during June and ending on Pride Day kind of works because so many people come into town for that every year. But also we're very lucky to have the Castro Theater. A wonderful theater, a huge movie theater. It's located at the crossroads of gaydom on Castro Street. So we have location; we have a wonderful venue; and I think we've been very lucky with having really great community support. We've also had consistency. A lot of people have been around for years, including myself. Consistency in people that operate and run the festival is certainly special."
The following films that played or will play at most of these four fests are also special:
Rosa von Praunheim's "Queens Don't Lie" centers on four Berlin drag queens, three of whom are HIV positive, two design clothes, one used to have S&M sex in Berlin toilets, and one has come up with a technique to cure HIV called "Visualized Masturbation."
Wolfgang Murnberger's "Oh Baby, a Baby" is a grade-B, soft-core porn flick that is outrageously dubbed into English. Two hot lesbians decide to have a baby. A problem arises when one of them falls in love with the sperm donator. Perfect for Showtime at 3 a.m.
Duncan Roy's sensational "AKA" is quite possibly the best narrative gay film to appear this year next to "Dahmer," which is at no gay fest. Here the screen is divided into three as we watch three aspects of 18-year-old Dean, an impoverished youth who steals a rich boy's identity and tries to break into British high society. Unforgettable, with startling direction by Roy.
Other notables: Stanley Kwan's "Lan Yu" (a naive college student falls in love with a business executive who finds out almost too late that he loves the boy back); Deborah Dickson's "Ruth & Connie: Every Room in the House" (a doc on two Brooklyn lesbians who left their families behind for each other 25 years ago. Phenomenally moving and inspiring.) Erin Greenwell's spirited "21" perfectly captures the anxieties of dysfunctional sibling behavior among teens and those first pangs of same-sex passion. Throngs of women with bad posture will identify with Ms. Rachel Style, a fresh young actress who blesses her gangliness with charm. Steve Porcelli as the bastard bro is eye-candy for the gay boys who show up with their lesbian roommates. And, yes, we do get to see him wrestle in one of those tight little Spandex suits.