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July 14, 1998 2:00 AM
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Gay by the Bay: A Look Back at the SF International Lesbian and Gay Film Fest

Gay by the Bay: A Look Back at the SF International Lesbian
and Gay Film Fest

by Stephen Kent Jusick




After the oh-so-exclusive and crowded opening party for Lisa
Cholodenko's "High Art," the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay
Film Festival
continued like a juggernaut until it's rocket-hot close on
June 28. Festival Director Michael Lumpkin has always championed gay
features, as long ago as the 70's. This year's line-up included the
lugubrious premiere of the Greek biopic "Cavafy," the engaging dyke
sci-fi/noir "The Sticky Fingers of Time," Jeff Dupre's conventional gay
history doc "Out of the Past," and the dim and dull filmed play of
Chinese cottaging in "East Palace, West Palace."


Although programs like "Dragtime" and "Fun in Boys Shorts"/"Fun in Girls
Shorts
" provided the sort of traditional whitebread gay ghetto tales, it
was also possible to chart several alternative courses at the fest, and
that variety is what makes the event such a draw. So if you wanted a
more slacker type of festival, see "Surrender Dorothy," "Totally
Confused
," the "Cherry Bombs" program (punk grrl video), and "Skin to
Skin
" (boy skinhead shorts in love and despair). For lesbian history,
look out for Barbara Hammer's excavation "The Female Closet," Jean
Carlomusto's affecting "To Catch A Glimpse," and "Love Story," Catrine
Clay's account of a dyke Nazi-Jewish romance. Trannyphiles could load
up on Hans Scheirl's wonderfully wacky and surreal transvestite tale
"Dandy Dust," Berlin's Teddy winner "The Brandon Teena Story," and
several shorts programs, including tranny porn!


In a reversal from recent years, AIDS was strongly represented, the
focus in at least eight programs, mostly features. "The Human Race," a
doc about an HIV+ sailing race sounded deadly, but was actually
well-done. Ioannis Mookas (who, sadly, couldn't afford to attend his
world premiere) garnered respectable audiences for his Sunday morning
screening of "Only Human: HIV Negative Gay Men in the AIDS Epidemic,"
which combines testimonials and a fictional narrative to look at this
often overlooked population. This tape was a natural for SF, since the
city was the cradle of HIV- negative activism/prevention, and not many
places could turn out a full house at that hour for a work less
concerned with buff bodies than vouchsafing seroconversion.


Other features of note were David Moreton's wildly popular "Edge of
Seventeen
," a bland coming out narrative, set in the 80s, that received
a standing ovation for its pleasing trajectory and pop tunes, despite
the ill-defined characterizations. Lea Delaria as a maternal bar owner
made the medicine go down more easily for me. Despite pedestrian
visuals and script, the film copped the Audience Award for Best Feature.
Politics was more evident in another audience award-winner, Tim
Kirkman's "Dear Jesse," a semi-epistolary "POV"-type doc about the
filmmaker and his relationship to arch-homophobe Republican Senator
Jesse Helms. The film, looking rough in the way that means from the
heart, is best when we see a lesbian and her adopted bi-racial son, and
when Democratic Patsy and Republican Eloise recognize Helms as their
common enemy. Still, the great concept is lightweight in effect,
lacking the firebrand energy of forebears Arthur Bressan's "Gay USA" or
Rosa Von Praunheim's "Army of Lovers," to name just two 1970's classics.


The Turkish "Hammam" (about bathhouses) seemed like a coup for the
festival, since this film was almost nominated for an Academy Award
before homeland officials withdrew it because of its gay content. And
while the film was more visually interesting than many American cheapie
features, it doesn't capitalize on its subject matter. There was little
steam in the film (literal or metaphorical). Director Ferzan Ozpetek
could have spent more time shooting the beautiful architecture of the
bathhouse and refining the film's schematic plot.


For the first time, video was projected in the cavernous and palatial
1,500-seat Castro theater. While this was welcome, it wasn't without
hitches. Mohamad Camara's "Dakan," the first West African gay film, was
screening on high quality video (which actually looked quite good), but
the tape was defective, and a disappointed full house was sent home, to
await replacement screenings at the smaller Roxie, and on far inferior
video equipment.


One revelation of the festival was the rare screening of Ulrike
Ottinger's 1979 German feature "Ticket of No Return." Most famous for
"Joanna D'arc of Mongolia" and "Madame X," Ottinger is spellbinding here
as well. Dispensing, as usual, with traditional narrative, Ottinger
gives us a protagonist, the unnamed Madame, who is stunningly outfitted
at every possible moment. Throughout her entire alcoholic tour of
Berlin, she never speaks, yet she befriends (and bathes with) bag-lady
Lutze, while being observed by a trio of chorines, representing
Rationality, Conscience, and Common Sense


Shorts programs made up a large chunk of the festival, and rightly so.
Most of the work in 35mm wass forgettable calling card material. For
truer vision, look to the smaller formats, though some video, like "Gay
Black Female
," can be pretty atrocious too. The "Bi Boys and Bi Girls"
show (curated by SF Bi Film Festival founder Jeff Ross), was one of the
most consistent and satisfying in the entire festival. Ranging from
slick Channel 4 docs like Erin Cotter's "Greed," filled with well-spoken
bi-Brits, to the super low budget campus comedy "Out on Holiday" to the
"Charlie's Angels" parody "The Kinsey Three" -- the program kept one's
attention. The only misstep was Ross's inclusion of the 35mm New Zealand
short "Peach," plucked from 1993 to boost sales with the presence of a
pre-"Xena" Lucy Lawless.


Michael Burke's "Fish Belly White" rose to the top of the boys shorts,
for its strong performances, and its brave depiction of queerness in a
rural setting. "Close to Home," by Rodney Evans, is an ambitious work
about coming out to his Jamaican family, and coming to terms with his
hyphenated identity. It also featured one of the 2 startling cumshots
in the festival (the other is courtesy former Madonna boytoy Tony Ward
in Jochen Hick's prurient and shallow "Sex/Life in LA"). Also included
was videomaker Hoang Tan Nguyen's "These Are a Few of My Favorite
Things
" which melds Julie Andrews with some deliciously light S&M.


Todd Downing's pixelated doll animation "Dirty Baby Does Fire Island"
(which won the $1,000 Absolut Animation audience award) was a clear
favorite each time it screened. More exquisite but less well-received
was Lewis Klahr's meditative cut-out cartoon "Pony Glass." A slightly
longer piece in the animation show, it was unwisely placed last, when
audience members were restless, and too pumped from Dirty Baby's antics
to engage the subtle presentation of Jimmy Olsen's latent lust for his
pal Superman.


Two other shorts from the past were landmarks then and now. The sold out
screening of Jean Genet's 1950 silent classic "Un Chant D'Amour" remains
a cinematic treasure (take that AFI!) Anyone-queer or not-who hasn't
seen it should, and almost 50 years later, it still stuns, as does the
questionable inclusion of Maya Deren's "Meshes of the Afternoon," from
1943. Warren Sonbert's 1967 "Amphetamine" reminds us, even more than
the Genet, of the counterculture and how gay lib emerged along with
other social struggle. Looser than his later, more rigorous work, the
film depicts its simple depiction of fags shooting up, and only briefly
in each other's arms. This new print is a result of work by Jim Hubbard
and Jon Gartenberg for the Estate Project for Artists With AIDS, and is
only a brief taste of what will be a full feast when the
Guggenheim mounts a Sonbert retro in 1999.


P.J. Castellaneta returns with "Relax...It's Just Sex" after his debut
feature (1991's "Together Alone," reprised this year), this time with
color, multiple sets, a showy cast, and far less earnestness. Although
the auteur is supposed to be king (of the world?), this night the crowd
was panting for Jennifer Tilly, who skipped the fest when "Bound" was
in town 2 years ago. This time the diva was rewarded. Not only did she
cut off her director's acknowledgements, she stole the stage, winning
over the few who weren't already swooning over her. The pro-promiscuous
film hit many of the right notes for a SF closer: beginning with the
never-mentioned issue of swallowing during oral sex, heading into AIDS
territory, and making fun of devout Christian gay boys. Sort of a
"Friends" for the big screen, Castellaneta tripped up egregiously at the
end where things get a bit treackly. After the show, La Tilly, along
with co-stars Lori Petty and Mitchell Anderson posed and chatted in the
pavilion with all the other guests. How else to repay the thunderous
clapping and stomping that greeted them?


Although it would seem appropriate to close with the closing night, some
of the festivities that make SFILGFF more than film deserve mention.
While the parties have always been a crucial, and some times
frustrating-part of the festival (determinedly tight quarters promote
exclusion rather than collegiality), this year the festival really
topped itself. Even though many of the regulars lamented the loss of
the well-catered Canadian Consulate party, and the traditional "best
party of the festival" thrown by filmmaker David Weissman and friends, a
new party eclipsed all those. This was a hot tub party near Half Moon
Bay, about 35 minutes outside the city. How to get there? Why by
stretch limo from the Castro Theater! Generously hosted by Paul
Percovic and Eric Trefelner at their country home overlooking the water,
guests were treated to sumptuous food and flowing drinks. Birthday
suits were the de rigueur fashion at the hot tubs, which were
delightfully co-ed at times, and only mildly gropey. (Sponsor take note:
Festival director Michael Lumpkin remained the epitome of rectitude the
entire evening.) Easily the most decadent festival party I've ever been
to, it sets the hospitality standard for all to emulate. Now if only
it had been a little warmer....


[Stephen Kent Jusick is a writer, curator, administrator and filmmaker
and installation artist. He founded the Baltimore Lesbian and Gay Film
Festival, is an advisor to the Turin Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in
Italy, while remaining assoicated with MIX: The New York Lesbian and Gay
Experimental Film/Video Festival. Next project: Better screening
facilities in Manhattan.]

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