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Maggots, Figs, and Light: The Power of Three at Frameline 33

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire July 1, 2009 at 6:7AM

As the theaters of Frameline - the world's largest and oldest LGBT film festival - darkened for the 11 days of its 33rd edition, a grainy nostalgic image of a clunky projector being wound with film stock greeted attendees; the words "February 9, 1977, Gay Community Center, San Francisco" briefly wobbled on screen, and a swell of strings and horns vaguely reminiscent of the Star Wars theme built up as the projector's beam shot out triumphantly toward the crowd before settling on an image of a raised fist foregrounded with this year's theme: "The Power of Film." It would be easy to dismiss this trailer as a hokey commercial re-packaging of the iconography of revolution, with the stale whiff of commemoration for the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots thrown in (the anniversary, which coincided with the Sunday's closing night, was indeed honored with a sidebar focused on underground queer cinema from the 60s and 70s and a special program honoring the work of George and Mike Kuchar).
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As the theaters of Frameline - the world's largest and oldest LGBT film festival - darkened for the 11 days of its 33rd edition, a grainy nostalgic image of a clunky projector being wound with film stock greeted attendees; the words "February 9, 1977, Gay Community Center, San Francisco" briefly wobbled on screen, and a swell of strings and horns vaguely reminiscent of the Star Wars theme built up as the projector's beam shot out triumphantly toward the crowd before settling on an image of a raised fist foregrounded with this year's theme: "The Power of Film." It would be easy to dismiss this trailer as a hokey commercial re-packaging of the iconography of revolution, with the stale whiff of commemoration for the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots thrown in (the anniversary, which coincided with the Sunday's closing night, was indeed honored with a sidebar focused on underground queer cinema from the 60s and 70s and a special program honoring the work of George and Mike Kuchar).

This jaded approach would be swiftly discredited by the packed houses' loud approval however - at every screening the trailer was followed by buoyant cheering, a clear affirmation of the wide support enjoyed by what "Ghosted" director Monika Treut referred to as the gay Cannes. Surely this hurrah is due in large part to the fest's status as a cultural Mecca of sorts - drawing the diverse alphabet soup of the queer community together for merriment and reflection on an annual basis. This year the festival's magnetism was matched by the hefty pull of its cinematic attractions, renewing empirically the charge that film is powerful indeed.

Profiled below are three films that left a particularly strong impression, each wielding a very different sort of might - poetic, melancholy, erotic, and irreverent. All three are noteworthy films, but the two lengthier notes comprise what were, for me, the best of the fest.

"Maggots and Men"
A sustained romp through the homoerotic possibilities offered by Sergei Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" (and other works such as "Strike" and "October: Ten Days that Shook the World"), Cary Cronenwett's "Maggots and Men" is a historical fiction that loosely reenacts the events of 1921 Kronstadt uprising, when a group of disillusioned sailors, who had fought alongside the Bolsheviks during the revolution, sickened of the vanguard's corruption and protested from an island stronghold. While this mutiny was eventually quashed in bloody fashion by a legion of red troops, the debacle led Lenin to privately rethink his position that a proletariat led global uprising was imminent.

Cornenwett's cast of over a hundred transgender actors paint a tickling portrait of life on the island between 1917 and the uprising - days are long and languid, moods easy and manual labor romantic. Whether pickling vegetables, heaving heavy sacks of grain, or participating in a daily work-out regimen, the wayward seamen maintain a sunny disposition. Down time is plenty and when not knitting shirtless or swinging idly on the fortresses' phalanx of hammocks, the men can be counted on to exchange sly flirtatious glances leading to more private encounters as often as not.

Cleverly leveraging the power of agit-prop theater to contend with a DIY budget, the film courses with a cavalier spirit that fits it's subject matter perfectly. As the sea town's utopia is threatened by a Bolshevik party increasingly worried by the sailors' growing autonomy and support of mainland dissidents, the camera's slow cruise through a sea of platonic trans-male bodies is replaced with a frenetically paced jaunt through a series of agitator meetings and disapproving megaphones; angry cardboard telephone exchanges between Lenin and Trotsky; balletic boxers duking it out; printing presses madly punching out posters calling for revolt; and eventually a frozen massacre in which only maggots can be winners. Throughout, Jascha Ephraim's original score can be credited with keeping the action airy yet driven making for a delectable mix of fantasia and dementia.

The fact that Frameline actually bankrolled a part of this local production, and that several of the festival's staff member's participated in its creation, made its nervy and successful world premiere here all the more fitting. Even more appropriate is the film's implicit warning about the dangers of complacency and loss of focus in the wake of popular revolt and the resonance this message holds during this unsure moment in the fight for LGBT rights forty years after Stonewall.

"Fig Trees"
Using a hodgepodge of cinematic trickery, pop flotsam, and hip academism, Canadian auteur John Greyson violently shakes the viewer out of a the sense of complacency with the current situation in global fight against AIDS, the self-righteous content that s/he knows everything about the epidemic - that it's simply old news. Stacked with a mountain of layers both visual and intellectual, at its core, "Fig Trees" tells the inspiring and heart-wrenching stories of two long-time AIDS activists, Zackie Achmat (who refused to take medication after being diagnosed with HIV to protest the lack of global access to antiretroviral drugs) and Tim McCaskell (who has waged battle against pharma industry corruption for over two decades).

Not one to dwell for long in the world of straightforward storytelling however, Greyson has decided to frame the tale in the guise of an opera. Parallel story lines shift between interviews with the two activists and a fictional version with lead parts played by Virgil Thomas and Gertrude Stein. Weaving together arias from the experimental opera Four Saint in Three Acts, a collection of the top 100 AIDS Songs, a farfetched investigation of Stein's casual wordplay, and a downright silly series of games with palindromes are a troupe of interlocutors that can be an animated squirrel one moment, a hooded child the next, and finally a real-life scientist or the victim of a AIDS-related hate crime.

While the mix sounds confusing, unnecessary, and perhaps even inappropriate for a topic of such gravity, in Greyson's hands all the static has the truly surprising effect of yielding emotional clarity and rational outrage. A culture that refuses to lower the prices of drugs to save the lives of millions, and then touts President Bush and Bono as the frontline crusaders in the fight to cure the AIDS is steeped in nonsense and absurdity, and Greyson intends to fight back with a wittier version of the same. Yet, while he plays and laughs and mocks, it's clear that he's being deadly serious throughout, and the innovate approach to telling a much-needed tale usually treated with sad eyes and somber tones has an effect akin to a bucket of cold water right in the face - wake up, he resoundingly, operatically, belts out.

"Light Gradient"
Jan Krueger offers a fable about two young lovers who journey into the woods and push the boundaries of their relationship - and our acceptance and empathy for them as an audience - through a set of self-inflicted tests and odd decisions. As Robin and Johann venture into the unknown, Robin decides to spice up the adventure by leaving their tent-poles behind. Soon, their bikes are lost as well, and the directionally challenged pair wander aimlessly through the forest until they happen on a farmhouse kept by a gonzo bohemian and her gloomy son. Along the way the couple are held captive in a dungeon, follow the mystical tale of a man-beast living in the woods, and learn first-hand the dangers of eating strange berries in the wild, but luckily for us this is all irrelevant.

The movie finds its magic in the glow between the pair, in their naturalistic sex, their prefect young love, the slight mischief in their glances, the way in which they're young and brash and shy all at the same time. The narrative itself seems only halfheartedly real and content to be so, as we are given the rarest of glimpses into a first-person love not our own - into an all-consuming affair that shares its starry-eyed tunnel vision with us all.