With Political Awareness And Slasher Films, Outfest 2004 Offers New Angles on Queer Culture
by Jonny Leahan
With films like "Control Room," "Fahrenheit 9/11," and "The Hunting of the President" doing unprecedented business at the box office, and a crucial election just a few months away, moviegoers are thinking and talking about politics in far greater numbers than usual, and with a lot more passion. The term "voter apathy," which was bandied about constantly during the last presidential election, seems to have disappeared from the airwaves, replaced by images of war protesters marching on Washington, same sex couples getting married in San Francisco, and Bush giving speeches to rally support for his "war on terror."
Just about everyone seems to have an opinion, and audiences at Outfest 2004 were no exception, as a heightened political awareness permeated the festival, which ran from July 8-19 in Los Angeles for its 22nd consecutive year. "The audience created the somewhat more politicized feel of the festival as opposed to last year," said Stephen Gutwillig, executive director of Outfest. "Last year's festival took place in almost the immediate wake of the Supreme Court ruling that overturned the Bowers sodomy decision. Because it was a celebratory time, there was a lot of fun and humor about the legalization of sodomy, but it was not a moment of call to arms."
This year was a little different. "This is such a complicated moment, when marriage is suddenly legal in one state, and there's been so much focus on civil disobedience around marriage in San Francisco and other places, and there's this really grim, ultra-homophobic administration up for reelection," Gutwillig explained. "It's resulted in a time that any gathering of queer people has an inherently political edge to it. So the festival in many ways did not need to consciously add on to that; we knew that it was going to be a political moment."
To that end, Outfest did not create a special section or even a sidebar devoted to gay marriage, unlike many of the other major gay and lesbian festivals this year. Although the program did include two excellent documentaries on the subject, "Tying the Knot" and "Freedom to Marry," organizers didn't feel the need to further emphasize the subject. "It's not like it was Outfest's role to remind the gay and lesbian community that gay marriage is a big topic right now," said Gutwillig. "So we made another choice by creating a sidebar about gay horror films, because that was of interest to us and it was something that wouldn't otherwise have gotten a lot of attention. It represents a broadening of the dialogue about what gay and lesbian film is and can be."
The Homo Horror sidebar featured Paul Etheredge-Ouzts' "Hellbent," the over-the-top gorefest about a handsome boy named Eddie and his three best friends. As the group gets caught up in the infamous West Hollywood Halloween Carnival, decapitated bodies start to pile up, along with some other shocking surprises -- and it's all set to a gritty, queer punk soundtrack. In a nod to the past, the horror program also included Tony Scott's 1983 classic vampire film "The Hunger," starring David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve, and Susan Sarandon.
Among the most compelling programs in the Homo Horror section was Harry M. Benshoff's special event, "Queer for Fear," which examined gay and lesbian subtext in the horror genre while exploring how queer history and monster movies intertwine. Benshoff, author of "Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film," discussed everything from "The Bride of Frankenstein" to "Silence of the Lambs" in this truly unique presentation which showed how horror films play on society's fear of the outsider while appealing to gay and lesbian audiences' identification with being ostracized.
Anything but horrific, Outfest opened with Angela Robinson's "D.E.B.S.," a sassy she-spy satire that's a cross between "Clueless" and "Charlie's Angels," but with a lot more savvy. Chosen by the government for their exemplary skills in lying, cheating, fighting, and killing, the D.E.B.S. make up an elite, top-secret paramilitary group who wear the uniforms of Catholic schoolgirls. Sarah Foster plays Amy, the perfect girl-next-door, who is captured by Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster), the most dangerous criminal in existence. The two fall in love, and the lengths they go to in order to hide their relationship make for some truly hilarious moments.
Another film involving captivity, but far more serious in tone, was Tony Piccirillo's "The 24th Day," starring Scott Speedman ("My Life Without Me") and James Marsden ("X-Men"). The film, which played to a packed house for both of its screenings, is a psychological thriller that began as a play written by Piccirillo himself. With the bulk of the story taking place between two men in one room, under very strenuous circumstances, "24th Day" manages to be both compelling and surprising.
"At the end of the day you've got two guys in one room talking about ideas and to translate that to film doesn't sound that exciting," Piccirillo told indieWIRE. "To make the movie version feel very alive and not feel static was without a doubt the biggest challenge." Judging by the audience's reaction, he met the challenge successfully, delivering an actor's piece that features two powerhouse performances by Speedman and Marsden.
Piccirillo was pleased with the reception at Outfest, and grateful that he was able to take part in the festival. "In so many ways, it meant so much being at Outfest," he said. "Because the material is very touchy stuff, it really made me feel great that people were so enthusiastic about it. It meant a lot to me personally that it had that impression with them."
Another film that challenged and impressed festival attendees was "Proteus," written and directed by both John Greyson ("Lilies") and Jack Lewis. Loosely based on a historical account of love between a white man and a black man in 18th-century South Africa, "Proteus" chronicles the intense relationship between Claas Blank, an indigenous man doing time on Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela later served) and Rijkhaart Jacobsz, a Dutchman sentenced to hard labor for the crime of homosexuality. The period film uses disconcerting anachronisms, such as a Jeep in the opening scene or women with beehive hairdos, perhaps to make the point that this tale of persecution is only one of many throughout history.
Outfest also featured all manner of galas, special events, and panels, including one entitled "A Conversation with Todd Haynes," moderated by Don Roos ("The Opposite of Sex," "Bounce"). Haynes discussed his career as a filmmaker, from "Poison" in 1991 to last year's "Far from Heaven," and even elaborated on his earliest cinematic influences. "My very first movie was 'Mary Poppins' when I was three, and I got stuck there for a while," Haynes told the audience. "I needed to respond to that experience creatively, so I started drawing Mary Poppins everywhere, then I even started putting on plays for my parents. 'Mary Poppins' is maybe the singular text that defines me -- and why not?"
In addition to great American directors, there was no shortage of foreign films represented at the festival. Ekachai Uekrongtham's "Beautiful Boxer" was a particular standout from Thailand. Telling the true story of Nong Toom, one of the most famous kickboxers in Thai history, the film follows his surgical transformation into the woman he always knew he was, and the unlikely cult hero he ultimately becomes. "Beautiful Boxer" won the special programming award for emerging talent at the festival.
Out of 220 films from 22 countries, 15 other awards were announced. Among the most notable were Rodney Evans' "Brother To Brother," which won the grand jury prize for American narrative feature, Sebastean Lifshitz's "Wild Side," which won for international narrative feature, and Jessica Chandler's "A Fine State This Is," which took home honors for documentary feature.
As for the audience awards, noteworthy winners included Tennyson Bardwell's "Dorian Blues," which won the HBO first narrative feature prize, Lee Friedlander's "Girl Play," which took home honors for lesbian narrative feature, and Sonia Slutsky's "Drag Kings on Tour," which garnered the prize for documentary feature. Patrik-Ian Polk took home the freedom award for "Noah's Arc."
The festival closed with Michael Mayer's "A Home at the End of the World," starring Colin Farrell, Robin Wright Penn, Dallas Roberts, and Sissy Spacek. "Home" tells the story of Bobby and Jonathan, two misfit teens who meet as teenagers and have intertwined tragic yet beautiful lives in adulthood. The ensemble cast shines, but two actors really steal the show -- Erik Smith is truly brilliant as the young Bobby, and Spacek is phenomenal as the cookie-baking mom who learns to open her mind to pot smoking and eventually to accepting her son's non-traditional relationship with Bobby and girlfriend Clare.
"Outfest featured a bunch of films that focused on wildly non-traditional relationships," said Gutwillig, "exploring unfettered, unregulated queer sexualities that do not even remotely resemble the kind of neat and tidy relationships that fit into mainstream notions of marriage and monogamy. Films like Todd Verow's 'Anonymous,' Christopher Munch's 'Harry and Max,' Bruce LaBruce's 'The Raspberry Reich,' Sebastian Lipschitz's 'Wild Side,' and the Russian film 'You I Love.'"
"These films are all about what's wrong with mainstream notions of regulated relationships, with state sanctioned monogamy," said Gutwillig. "They remind us of some of the more radical instincts that were at the core of gay liberation at the birth of the modern gay and lesbian rights movement. Those are the films that made a particularly strong political statement, and I was proud that the festival created space for films that represented another way of looking at queer culture."