Two Queer Film Worlds Divided: A Report From the 1998
by Aaron Krach
The New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival may have ended Sunday night, but
the division it revealed between two sides of the queer cinematic universe
won’t be easily united. The rift became glaringly apparent Thursday night
following two of the bloodiest films in the festival. First, there was a
packed screening for Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s “Party Monster“, the
made-for-cable, slickly produced doc about Michael Alig and his club kid
murder, had a cleverly dressed audience cheering. The partisan crowd gave
little respect to audience members that questioned the filmmakerís blend of
fiction and non-fiction. They just wanted to enjoy the carefully edited
sound bites and catchy soundtrack. Although the film is about a brutal
dismembering murder, the victim is hardly part of the film. “Party Monster”
may be the happiest murder flick you’ll ever see.
As the crowd of hipsters left the building, a leather and lesbian crowd
quickly filled the seats for the premiere of Catherine Saalfield’s,
“Hallelujah!” Saalfield exhaustingly documented the brutal performances of
L.A. performance artist Ron Athey. In spite of it’s length and
do-it-yourself esthetic, “Hallelujah!” strikes an emotional chord that
“Party Monster” will never reach. Saalfield bypassed audience comfort,
allowing Athey and his work to speak for itself. After his run in with the
N.E.A., Athey doesn’t perform in the States very often. “Hallelujah!” is a
valuable opportunity to see his work.
The difference between personal, honest and emotionally invested cinema was
apparent in several of the other features. American independents
unfortunately ended up in the superfluous category more often than not.
“Totally Confused,” by Gary Rosen and Greg Pritkin was admirable, but
embarrassing. Rosen and Pritkin are talented writers, and may become good
actors, but they really should have let someone else direct their gay
version of “Clerks.” Someone else could have stopped Hilary Brougher from
damaging her intricate and original, “Sticky Fingers of Time.” The
art-direction is amazing, the acting is impressive, but the circuitous path
the time-traveling lesbians take is too hard to follow.
International directors took more risks and were rewarded for it. Saito
Hisashi’s “French Dressing” is a cinematic kick in the pants. Combining
elements of early Gus Van Sant, Takeshi Kitano and Hal Hartley, “Dressing”
tells the story of a schoolboy raped by his male teacher. The boy falls in
love with the teacher and a girl in their class catches on. Soon after, the
three move in together and start calling the teacher, “Dad.” It is creepy,
and gorgeous; each frame perfectly composed. Zhan Yuan took so many risks
making “East Palace, West Palace” that he can’t leave China to promote it.
The story of a boy caught cruising by a police officer, is really a two
character chamber piece, yet Yuan opens it up with flashbacks and creative
camera work. There is enough subtext about sexuality and fascism to fill
several graduate school papers.
A trio of African films were another highlight of the festival. Laurent
Bocahut’s “Woubi Dahling” deservedly won the festival’s Documentary prize.
The video about gay life in The Ivory Coast is simply astonishing. From
Guinea, “Dakan/Destiny” was also gripping; a groundbreaking film about
coming out amidst family and tradition in 20th Century Africa. The New
Festival also deserves commendation for programming “Taafe fanga” from
Adamo Drabo. The film was not gay or lesbian, but was an enjoyable fable
about gender, power and sexual politics. Slouching towards the millennium,
it’s comforting to see New York’s pre-eminent showcase for gay and lesbian
film expanding it’s definition of queer.
Closing Night’s world premiere of “Edge of Seventeen,” by David Moreton is
destined to become an audience favorite (or at least the favorite of every
gay white male who came of age in the eighties). Set in small town America,
“Seventeen” captures the nuance of growing up gay better than any film I’ve
ever seen. The female best-friend, the frustrated mother and the Bronski
Beat soundtrack are right on the mark. Lea DeLaria plays his butch boss in
a role that people will be talking about for a long time.