FESTIVALS: LA's Coming Out; Outfest 2001 Lets it Show
by Matthew Breen
(indieWIRE/ 08.02.01) -- A perennial Los Angeles favorite, Outfest 2001, the 19th edition of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival (July 12-23) kicked off with typical Hollywood pomp and circumstance, with perhaps just a bit more pomp than most L.A. festivals. Two lucky ladies were honored at the Opening Night Gala event, starting with an East German babe in a band: the much-anticipated L.A. premiere of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" opened the festival at the newly refurbished historic Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles.
Also honored that evening was Outfest Achievement Award recipient Christine Vachon, producer of such gay film milestones as "Hedwig," "Boys Don't Cry" and "Go Fish," and the first female recipient of the award. Festival Executive Director Stephen Gutwillig called Vachon, "the single most important producer in the history of lesbian and gay cinema." The Opening Night Gala, as usual, featured a diverse celebrity attendance from Kathy Griffin and Camryn Manheim -- who presented Vachon with her award -- to Samantha Mathis and Meatloaf.
Boasting their biggest festival ever, and the largest festival of any kind in Southern California, Outfest 2001 featured a record 231 films and videos (organizers might consider altering the festival's name to reflect the significant component of video offerings) from 23 countries unspooling over it's 12 days. Featuring screenings, events, parties, and art installations, the fest was based at the Directors Guild of America in West Hollywood with additional venues across the L.A. area.
The centerpiece screening, and part of the festival's new Transcendent series, was "Southern Comfort" (Kate Davis, winner of the Special Programming Committee Freedom Award), the Sundance grand jury documentary prizewinner about Robert Eads, a middle-aged transgendered cowboy who was born a woman. The Transcendent series continued with the wearisome "Princesa" (directed by Henrique Goldman), winner of the OUTstanding International Narrative Feature, a tale of 19-year-old transvestite prostitute from the Brazilian rainforest trying to earn money in Milan for her sex-reassignment surgery. Despite the novelty of a cast largely comprised of non-professional and transsexual actors, the melodramatic "Princesa" fails to elicit any real sympathy.
A favorite among Outfest audiences is the Outfest Under the Stars series, an outdoor film series at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater. At the only Outfest venue where open air and open wine bottles are de rigueur, the attitude is decidedly cruisy and schmoozy. The French gay feel-good road movie "Adventures of Felix" (directed by Olivier Duscatel and Jacques Martineau) kicked off the series. "Felix" tracks a mixed race Arab-Frenchman as he sets out on an unintentional family-finding quest. It's subtly poignant, warm and vibrant, and totally frank about its title character's HIV status.
"Edge of Seventeen" writer Todd Stephens returns as director of "Gypsy 83," a delectably wry drama about a Stevie Nicks-obsessed singer (Sara Rue) and her young gay, gothic protégé (Kett Turton, winner OUTstanding Actor award). They languish in Sandusky, Ohio until they hear about the "Night of a 1000 Stevies," prompting an eventful road trip to New York. Look for the fantastic Karen Black as a one-hit wonder lounge singer.
Also at the Ford was "Julie Johnson," Bob Gosse's wonderful story about growth and change starring Lili Taylor and Courtney Love (winner of the OUTstanding Actress award). Taylor is Julie, a young housewife and mother who turns her life upside-down when she kicks out her controlling husband, gets her GED, starts to study theoretical physics, and makes a pass at her best friend Claire (Love).
The film that took center stage in the 5 @ 5 series (debuting filmmakers at five o'clock) was "Friends and Family" (directed by Kristen Coury), a slight comedy that imagines Stephen and Danny, an out gay couple, as enforcers in an Italian mob family. The hijinks begin when the pair tries to cover up their unsavory profession from Stephen's parents by hiring their mob buddies to pose as gay caterers.
Other domestic highlights include Michael Cuesta's "L.I.E.," a dark and ultra-realistic story about the relationship between a neglected teenager (Paul Franklin Dano who shares the OUTstanding Actor award with Turton) and an ex-Marine pedophile (Brian Cox), and "Kissing Jessica Stein" (Charles Herman-Wurmfeld), a smart, sexually fluid, metropolitan comedy tracking the love affair between a neurotic journalist (Jennifer Westfeldt) and a beautiful art dealer (Heather Juergensen). Both are slated for release this fall.
The U.K.'s Channel 4 series "Metrosexuality" (Rikki Beadle Blair) was this year's TV import matching lightning fast dialogue and Technicolor costumes with gay, straight, punk, and glam characters -- and everything flamboyant in-between. And from Sweden, Lucas Moodysson brought "Together," a warm and witty piece of nostalgia that examines a 60s-style commune in disco-era Stockholm. Other imports include the somewhat slow Australian lesbian murder mystery "The Monkey's Mask" (dir. Samantha Lang) starring Kelly McGillis, the ultra-violent and ultra-sexy Argentine crime caper "Burnt Money" (dir. Marcelo Pineyro). Among the best of the imports was French director Sebastien Lifshitz's sophisticated story of young love in the sand, "Come Undone" ("Presque Rien").
Noteworthy documentaries include the fall release, "Trembling Before G-D" (dir. Sandi Simcha Dubowski), an unprecedented look at Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish gays and lesbians as they struggle to reconcile religious and sexual identities. "On the Bus" (dir. Dustin Lance Black) is a much lighter film, tracking seven young men as they pop pills, preen, and cruise at the annual Burning Man celebration in the Nevada desert. Similarly light, but much more enjoyable was "Queen of the Whole Wide World" (dir. Roger Hyde) which depicts the several-month preparation for the riotous Aid for AIDS fundraising drag pageant. Though hardly in strict documentary format, cult favorite Trent Harris' "Beaver Trilogy" envisions an Olivia-Newton John drag scenario three times -- first as pure happenstance with the real McCoy, and then reconceived with Sean Penn and Crispin Glover in the blond wig. Glover has never been better.
Additional Outie awards winners include a tie for OUTstanding Narrative Feature: "Stranger Inside" (dir. Cheryl Dunye) and "By Hook or By Crook" (dir. Harriet Dodge). Lisa Udelson's "Lifetime Guarantee: Phranc's Adventures in Plastic" took home two awards, for OUTstanding Documentary Feature and OUTstanding soundtrack. Rich Burns and David Mixner were awarded the Screenwriting award for their script "The Dunes of Overveen."
Aside from requisite cocktail hours at the DGA and after-screening film parties, Outfest 2001 offered up perhaps it's most outrageous program yet. The Platinum Oasis, an 18-hour interactive art installation curated by Ron Athey and Dr. Vaginal Davis, took place in the "historic" (read: "infamous") Coral Sands, a Hollywood bathhouse motel, and featured torch singers, electroshock video games, manicures, Bruce la Bruce photo shoots, and baptisms.
While mainstream Hollywood continues to question the merits or dangers of publicly coming out, the career ramifications of actors appearing in gay roles, and the limits to which filmmakers should push the boundaries of sexuality, Outfest has seemed to dispense with these questions (largely to the wide-ranging efforts of co-programmers Shannon Kelley and Shari Frilot), and the result is a festival that makes all feel welcome.