"The Opposite of Straight" -- Queer Cinema Unspools in Park City
by Jenni Olson
"Relax, It's Just Sex" stars Jennifer Tilly, Lori Petty,
and Cynda Williams.
Photo Credit: Randall Michelson
Listening to filmmaker Q&A sessions is often a lot like listening to post-game interviews with professional athletes. One hears endless variations on the themes of teamwork and triumphing against great odds, coupled with jargony short sentences about how they finally got to this pinnacle of accomplishment. In my attempt to see all the gay-interest films in this year's festival I sat through many such Q&As. The glamorous highlight of which was undoubtedly Wednesday's Egyptian screening of Lisa Cholodenko's masterful lesbo junkie pic, "High Art" (the sole lesbian feature of the festival).
This year's films include a brightly-colored batch of smart, ensemble comedies ("Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss," "Relax. . . It's Just Sex", "The Opposite of Sex," "The Misadventures of Margaret") squared off against a trio of dark single-protagonist portrait pictures ("Gods & Monsters," "High Art," "The Hanging Garden"), offering a hopeful preview of 1998's gay releases. With one definite thing in common -- they were, in my opinion, all very well-made films.
Among the grouping, a number of trends emerged: production design featuring Fiesta-ware color schemes (nobody in L.A. has plain white walls); smart and funny dialogue ("He's never met a Princess, only queens," Ian McKellan introducing Brendan Fraser to Princess Margaret in Bill Condon's "Gods & Monsters"); good sex (P.J. Castalenetta has the right idea with two guys butt-fucking in the opening shot of "Relax. . . It's Just Sex"); debut features from short filmmakers, (Tommy O'Haver's "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, Lisa Cholodenko's "High Art", Brian Skeet's "Misadventures of Margaret", Thom Fitzgerald's "The Hanging Garden"); great soundtracks (in particular Skeet's "Margaret"); long titles compared to gay films of years past (remember "Poison," "Swoon," "Grief," "Frisk?"); and finally, disappointing endings (the main flaw in pretty much every gay film I saw: flat finales).
As it seems to do every year, the festival also brought to light a few gay docs to watch out for. Jeff Dupre's "Out of the Past" delves into Kelli Peterson's controversial "Gay-Straight Alliance" at a Salt Lake City high school interspersed with vignettes about notable figures in gay history (coming to PBS in June). Randy Barbero and Fenton Bailey's "Party Monster" gets the behind-the-scenes story on Club Kids killer Michael Alig (Christine Vachon plans to produce a feature version of the story). And Steve Yeager's "Divine Trash" looks at the early career of John Waters. Also of interest was Anne Makepeace's intense "Baby, It's You," an account of the filmmaker's journey (with her husband) through the process of in vitro insemination. The only couple in the film who has a child -- among all of their siblings -- is her husband's lesbian sister.
Other surprises of gay-interest among this year's feature slate included:
"Blind Faith," Ernest Dickerson's New York City period piece which explores race politics and homophobia in the 1950s; Samantha Lang's "The Well" (based on Elizabeth Jolley's novel of the same name) which serves up a rather creepy portrait of a young spinster (Pamela Rabe) infatuated with a pale young waif (Miranda Otto) in the Australian outback; and "2x4,",Jimmy Smallhorne's dark drama about an Irish-American construction worker in New York City. Jimmy, the film's straight protagonist -- played by Smallhorne himself -- finds intimacy (and respite from his recurring nightmares) in the arms of a young hustler, but continues his relationship with his girlfriend as he gradually unearths the truth about his Uncle's sexuality, and about the abuse he suffered as a child. The film offers a complex look at a working-class Irish immigrant milieu, exposing some of the some of the tragic vulnerabilities of masculine identity along the way.
The buzz on queer shorts was mostly nil this year, with only three titles popping up regularly on the chapped lips of our informants. Film Arts Foundation programmer Mark Taylor proclaimed two favorites: David Grotell's "Melvyn Schatzman, Freudian Dentist" (inarguably the best title of the entire festival), and Tom E. Brown's "Don't Run Johnny" (a faux AIDS movie in the style of Ed Wood Jr., which also laid claim to our Best Festival Chatchke award for those stylish skull key chains). LA publicist Mickey Cottrell and film critic Lydia Marcus gave their thumbs up to Lane Janger's "Just One Time" (the hilarious short -- a late addition to the festival -- is rumored to be in development as a feature).
Slamdance hosted a few gay films as well, with the U.S. Premiere of Wiktor Grodecki's "Mandragora", a fictional feature drawn from "Not Angels, But Angels," Grodecki's 1994 documentary about rent boys in Prague; as well as Roland Tec's gay comedy "All the Rage."
1997 was a banner year for gay film and 1998 looks pretty bright from the titles on view here in Park City. Still, "Gods & Monsters" director Bill Condon summed things up quite nicely when he posed the perhaps not so rhetorical question, "There are still so many more gay films to make, don't you think?"