FESTIVALS: MIX Mixes It Up; Still Coming Out After 15 Years
by Ed Halter
(indieWIRE/ 11.30.01) -- The grand dame of the city's experimental film festival scene, MIX, the New York Lesbian & Gay Experimental Film Festival, almost didn't get to celebrate its fifteenth birthday. A month and a half before the fest, which ran November 14-18, a mass email was sent out by MIX founder and board president Jim Hubbard, detailing the organization's "precarious financial position" for its coming event. A key city grant had been rescheduled, and the outlook for corporate sponsorship seemed bleak.
In a city that was only beginning to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the September attacks, it looked like MIX might get lost in the terror-addled cultural shuffle. A few weeks later, however, another missive from Hubbard brought warmer news: the city grant was back on track, the fest snagged a small corporate donation, and an extra financial boost had been given by a surge of individual donations made online via MIX's website.
This grassroots, do-it-ourselves gumption is the backbone of MIX, the longest running lesbian and gay festival in New York City, and perhaps the most discernable thread running through its wildly eclectic, kaleidoscopic programming. MIX premiered more than 100 new films and videos over its five-day run at Anthology Film Archives, ranging from arch experimental obscurities to raunchy camcorder comedies.
Taking cues from MIX's 15th anniversary theme of "quinceañera" (a kind of Latina coming-out ball), staffers garbed the Archives in dime-store-window finery, fluffing the venerable venue with ruffles, tiaras and teen-sized white lace gowns until its typically dusky halls glittered with campy, fey foofery. Video and sound installations ran through three floors. In the basement gallery, twin towers of TV monitors were erected in a makeshift media memorial. A cacophonous interactive sound installation snaked up the stairwell, and on the top floor, visitors were greeted by a largish video projection of a morphing vagina.
While MIX's 15th edition introduced a new set of helmers (executive director Ioannis Mookas and festival coordinator Lynne Chan), much of the focus was on the event's past. A retrospective series, Memorizing MIX, recapitulated a decade-and-a-half of programming, from the early activist years, through the early '90s burst of multiculturalism and sex-positivity, to the tacky trash and fun-loving flash of the late '90s. Including works by artists as varied as David Wojnarowicz, Leah Gilliam and Patty Chang, Memorizing MIX served as both near-history time capsule of queer experimental cinema, as well as an inspirational primer on some of the best that MIX has fostered.
Another excellent exercise in looking backward was "Mighty Reel," a selection from the media archives of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Historical Society of Northern California. Works included '40s 8mm home movies of post-war gay men camping it up in Vallejo, film and audio footage of legendary Beat-era San Francisco drag queen Jose Sarria, scads of sassy stuff on disco superstar Sylvester (including the trailer for David Weissman and Bill Weber's documentary "The Cockettes," which will premiere at Sundance), and some truly astounding, somewhat intimidating video from the first Ms. Southern California Leatherwoman Contest in 1988. As hidden histories are always hot tickets at gay fests worldwide, curators Marjorie Bryer and Therine Youngblood should definitely take this show on the road.
But MIX 2001 wasn't just about the past. The most popular show of the week was "I've Been Framed," a program of queer youth media organized by Paper Tiger Television. Eschewing the typical gay fest clog of film school coming-out tales, "I've Been Framed" chose gritty, angsty Sadie-Benning-esque diary films and two longform activist videos.
"Fenced Out" took on the history of the West Side piers, where urban queer youth had, until recently, found an open public space in which to congregate, but now find themselves pushed out by renovation and police. "Homecoming Queens" was a winsome self-made portrait of Green Chimneys Gramercy Residence, a unique halfway house for queer youth in New York. While the endearing videos in "I've Been Framed" weren't the most polished works on view at MIX, the palpable enthusiasm of the overpacked crowd showed the continued appeal of MIX's trademark mix of homegrown organizing and innovative media making.
MIX always showcases new works by some of the best contemporary experimental film and videomakers, although this year it felt a bit harder to find them in the fray. Some notable works by auteurs on view in 2001 included Peggy Awesh's Tomb Raider re-mix "She-Puppet," Bobby Abate's eerie internet sexcapade "Hammer," Kate Hardy and Therine Youngblood's D.I.Y. Martha Rosler tribute "Semiotics of the Bitchin'," Patty Chang's Fear-Factor-meets-Chris-Burden performance tape "Eels," Richard Fung's now-classic "Family Trilogy" video essays, and Neil Goldberg's short Dad doc "A System for Writing Thank-You Notes." As usual, however, these gems were buried in middling, over-inclusive programs that asked antsy, critical New Yorker to sit still for far too long.
Though MIX's tone seemed maybe a bit more serious than recent editions, there was still time out for the obligatory dose of drag. The yearly Gong Show, in which a panel of local celebs harshly judge an open screening, was hosted by sharp-witted glamourpuss Linda Simpson (a.k.a. Les Simpson of Time Out New York) and the panel included Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto, breast-juggling nightclub fixture Bob, and tubby drag king MurrayHill, who mooned the audience with impish glee. Hill returned on closing night to host "Glitter," a program of sometimes hilarious, trashy comedy shorts named after the Mariah Carey bomb. The best included Christopher Westfall's naughty stop-action sexfest "Pee-Wee's Sodomy House," Lynne Chan and Yvette Choy's takeoff of the Anne Heche / Barbara Walter interview "Call Me Cwazy" (starring Hill as Walters and underground film starlet Cary Curran as Heche), and the first ten minutes of Lawrence Elbert's otherwise sadly drawn-out spoof "Behind the Biography: Bjork."
Despite the lack of alcohol sponsorship, MIX continued its tradition of aggressive partying, packing ten fetes into its mere five-day run. Most were semi-standard industry drink-ticket affairs, some overpacked, others thin. Though always more free and friendly than the usual fest galas, MIX's parties didn't feel as wild as previous editions. But old habits die hard: one event, a "Lusty Loft" party in Brooklyn's DUMBO district for curator Scott Berry's shorts program "The Skin I'm In," even boasted a real orgy room, squirming with unclothed, unkempt and underwashed young Brooklyn bohemians. At fifteen years old, despite the weight of history under its belt, MIX continues to grope for rebellion.