FESTIVALS: New Fest Highlights, from "Hedwig" to
Stevies, "Eunuch" to "Guy"

by David Noh

(indieWIRE/ 06.18.01) -- With its strongest film line-up ever, the 13th annual
New Festival disproved aforesaid number's unlucky
associations. Director Basil Tsiokos and Development
Director David Kwok outdid themselves in terms of
selection and slamming fun events fueled by Sponsor
Alize cognac. Things got off to a literally kicking
start with rookie director John Cameron Mitchell's
terrific screen transferral of his Off-Broadway show,
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch." Mitchell, who also wrote
and starred, opened the piece up brilliantly, making
full use of the medium's ability to show what he could
only talk about onstage. As a result, this darkly
ironic piece about the ultimate, transsexual rock 'n
roll misfit, lightened up considerably andbecame
doubly moving. Todd Stephens' affecting "Gypsy 83" was
another attempt at reinventing the musical, at a
fraction of the cost of "Moulin Rouge." An
autobiographical tale of Stevie Nicks-crazed Gypsy
(Sara Rue), it turns out to be a funky road movie,
with a gay goth-boy (Kett Turton) and cult favorite
Karen Black, as intriguingly eccentric as ever, along
for the ride. It reached its empowering climax at the
famed annual New York club event, "Night of 1,000

Other transgendered films were featured: Susan
's whimsical "Gaudi Afternoon" played all
kinds of games involving Marcia Gay Harden, Lili
and Juliette Lewis in a bewildering cadre of
sexual possibilities for a befuddled, but game Judy
, adrift in that most magical of cities,
Barcelona. A huge audience favorite, it generated
immense goodwill before being weighed down with a
surfeit of cutesiness by the finale. (Seidelman's
unholy fascination with magic shows unfortunately
remains intact from "Desperately Seeking Susan.")
Alexandra Shiva's absolutely fascinating "Bombay
" took the New Festival Award for Best
Documentary Feature. (Facetiously speaking, it was yet
another of those movies about a hijira (eunuch)
surviving ostracism and poverty.)

There was a healthy lesbian presence this year. Lili
Taylor, who was as butch as they come in "Gaudi
Afternoon," actually showed herself off to better
advantage in Bob Gosse's touching Sundance 2001
premiere "Julie Johnson." As a New Jersey housewife,
freeing herself from an abusive marriage and
discovering her potential, both mentally (in physics)
and sexually (with a girl chum), she gave one of her
best screen performances ever. Courtney Love played
her very down-to-earth inamorata in a truly lovely
fashion, and again proved her near-uncanny natural
instinct for movie acting (a gift Madonna would kill
for). "Monkey's Mask" (directed by Samantha Lang),
however, was a disappointment: a determinedly wacky
noir improbably set in the world of Australian poets.
Diminutive Susie Porter played a detective who becomes
involved with Kelly McGillis, in a Sapphic variant of
all those betraying, sexy dames like Stanwyck, Astor
and Hayworth. Their love scenes were certainly
unbridled -- and somewhat amusing due to the
actresses' size difference -- but the whole thing was
often extremely enervating. Korean entry "Memento
" (Min Kyu-Dong, Kim Tre-Yong) was a ghost story
set in "Maechen in Uniform"-land, replete with a
Lillian Hellman-styled suicide.

In the "boys-will-be-boys category," Brazilian
Pedro Rodrigues' "O Fantasma" won the Jury Award for
Best Narrative Feature. This ultra-dark piece was an
hypnotic tale of sadomasochistic obsession, involving
a garbageman who slowly descends into a primal state
of animal hunger. It was, among many things, mad-sexy
in a hardcore way; you could hear a pin drop during
the screening, but there were hisses afterward, as it
evidently didn't completely satisfy all viewer tastes.
At the opposite, super-glossy spectrum was Dominick
's "My Life As a Troll," about an overweight
comedian (Brascia) coming to terms with himself and
his straight buddies. It had some moving moments, but
was too awash in a glib sentimentality, besides
proving that the dreaded "mullet" hairstyle is still
thriving on the Left Coast. A far better Los Angeles
offering was Julie Davis' terrific romantic comedy,
"All Over the Guy." Bright and commercial, it improved
on the "Will and Grace" formula with its equation of
two couples, played with terrific comic verve by Dan
(who wrote the screenplay), Richard
, Sasha Alexander and Adam Goldberg. The rocky
relationship between the neurotically needy Bucatinsky
and alcoholic, commitment-shy Ruccolo, in particular,
was both hilarious and emotionally authentic, making
theirs one of the best gay male partnerships ever

Internationally, "Fleeing By Night" (Li-Kong Hsu, Chi
) was a truly impressive, epic work from Taiwan.
Set against the enthrallingly colorful background of
the Peking Opera, it recounted the story of a young
girl caught in a romantic triangle between a musician,
an opium-addicted playboy and a magically talented
opera performer. Exquisitely acted, it cast a real
spell, which was only broken when it went on for too
long. Two French films, "Come Undone" (Sebastien
) and "Adventures of Felix" (Olivier Ducastel,
Jacques Martineau), were rather disappointing.
Although both had some engaging ideas and sensuality,
they suffered from a certain predictability and lack
of real dramatic weight. "Come Undone," another
adolescent coming-of-age tale, went for
hyper-sensitive moroseness, while "Felix" was a bit
too suffused with the singular, tra-la-la Jacques
-influenced feyness which infected the same
filmmakers' "Jeanne and the Perfect Guy" (which also
lightly dealt with HIV+ characters).

AIDS figured prominently as well in Sharon Zurek's
"Kevin's Room," a video produced by the Chicago
Department of Public Health. It centered around an
African American gay men's support group, and
addressed vital issues like promiscuity, prevention
and the universal -- yet barely touched upon -- fear
of test results. Just to see men of color dealing with
this stuff on the small screen was a welcome antidote
to the whitebread antics of "Queer as Folk" and it is
to be greatly hoped that this first in a projected
dramatic series of programs continues. Steve
's disarming "Shooting Blanks" was one of the
best. Superbly acted (by Turhan Caylak and especially
Joey Dedio), deeply funny and true to a certain
urban-Italian psyche, it exposed the tensions between
two brothers and managed to completely surprise you
with its every plot turn and twist.

Pure raunch was supplied by "Sex Becomes Her" (Mike
), an unbridled video doc about porn auteur ChiChi
. Originally a nice Catholic boy from Minnesota,
this joyously overweight drag queen, truly has her own
style of direction -- not all that removed from
Strasberg -- when she exhorts her actors to "Stroke
it, spit on it and snap it!" "Taking Back the Y"
(Richard Shurtliff, Michael Peyton) inserted real porn
shots into the famous "Y.M.C.A." number from "Can't
Stop the Music
" in a way that was at first amusing
then tiresomely repetitive. "West Fucks East" (Jurgen
), a video set in Berlin, also featured porn
actors as hustlers who spend their days in a listless,
careless manner which, unfortunately, rather matched
Bruning's direction. A special video presentation,
"Bette Midler: Dirty Girl in a Bathhouse," curated by
Andrew Ingall, featured rare footage of everyone's
favorite diva, from her early Continental Baths days
to the near-present. Particularly telling were clips
of her at an early Gay Pride rally in Washington
Square and at a United Jewish Appeal telethon,
hilariously stripping for charitable contributions.

Other New Festival juried awards were for Best Short,
"Early Frost" (France, directed by Pierre Pinaud);
Audience Award/ Best Feature "The Iron Ladies"
(Thailand, Yongyooth Thongkonthun); Viewers
Choice/Short Film, "Rick and Steve The Happiest Gay
Couple in All the World
" (Q. Allan Brocka). There were
honorable mentions for Breakthrough Performance to
Paul Franklin Dano in "L.I.E" (Michael Cuesta) and
Artistic Merit to "The Wrestlers" (Buddhadeb
). The Vito Russo Award, which provides funds
to a New York-based film project went to Cecilia
, and the Peter S. Reed Achievement Award
went to Isaac Julien.

[David Noh also writes for Film Journal International,
The New York Blae, and Opera News.]