It may be too early to proclaim a revolution, but if this year's remarkably strong Frameline28: San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival lineup is any indication, the world's longest-running lesbian-gay film fest may finally be outgrowing its ghetto.
The first indication is the name change, from the San Francisco International Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender Festival to the more succinct Frameline28. Frameline, the SF-based sponsoring org of the fest, brought Bisexual and Transgendered under its umbrella years ago, and the festival has prided itself in maintaining a Bay Area hang-loose mentality, but this year there's something new in the wind.
Call it metrosexual if you must, but where previous editions of the fest were defiantly, defensively inward-looking -- in the name of giving the "us" of oppressed communities a true slice of "our" lives that mainstream movies did not -- the 2004 selection is wide open to the world, including the world of heterosexuality, like never before. Maybe gender politics got boring. Maybe depictions of imaginative sexuality in regular commercial releases caught up. Maybe the fest looked around at Madrid, Moscow, Bangkok, Dublin, Paris, London, and Tokyo, and decided LGBT didn't quite cover it all anymore. Frameline's festival has never looked so relaxed, so sure of itself, so open to experimentation -- without sacrificing its principles. This year, men kiss women, women kiss women, women kiss men, men kiss men, and your granny is a tranny. It feels free. And the world reflected in this festival -- in contrast to the real world out there -- feels like a place of infinite possibilities.
No shortage of permutations in The Adventures of Iron Pussy, a free-for-all from Thailand with a Bay Area pedigree. In this ultra-campy, lowbrow musical spy comedy, Michael Shaowanasai (who went to the SF Art Institute in the '90s) stars as a former go-go boy moonlighting as a 7-Eleven clerk, ready to change in a flash into crime-fighting superheroine Iron Pussy. The 2003 production, directed by another trained-in-US filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is that rare example of domestic Asian fare we rarely see at American film festivals -- sappy string music score, weepy-alternating-with-slapstick acting, corny long-lost-sister plot -- sending she-male Iron Pussy undercover as a housemaid in a mansion, along with his tuktuk-driving sidekick Pew, to catch a gang of crooks manufacturing a drug that turns people into zombies.
France has its share of mix-and-match gender confusion as well. The protagonists of Sébastien Lifshitz' Wild Side (reportedly named after the Lou Reed rock tune) are a pre-op male-to-female transsexual streetwalker named Stephanie (played sensitively by real-life tranny Stephanie Michelini), a burly Russian illegal immigrant named Mikhail, and a French Arab named Jamel, who hustles tricks in train stations. As in many another story of beautiful losers, the three of them care for each other when no one else would (Stephanie's ailing mother is thrown into the mix for good measure), while director and co-writer Lifshitz gets under the skin of his characters in that unique, oblique French way. Stephanie's outcall date with a middle-aged customer (she's on top) is something you won't see from Hollywood. Not even in an election year.
Contrast Wild Side's outré warmth with an icicle like director Sylvie Verhyde's Un Amour de Femme. In it, a Parisian osteopath named Jeanne (statuesque Rafaëlla Anderson) deals with her midlife crisis by dumping her husband and son for professional dancer Marie (petite Hélène Fillières), whom she meets at a bachelor party. The sex is hot, but there's a practiced European chilliness at the heart of this "romantic drama." Hard to imagine a through-story for this one that's anything other than tragic. By the way, Jeanne's hapless hubby is played by Anthony Delon, son of actor Alain.
What film fest would be complete without a Coffee Table Picture? That demure, picturesque, resolutely inoffensive subgenre is represented by The Journey to Kafiristan, the true story of a 1939 auto trip from Switzerland to deepest Afghanistan, undertaken by Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach (Jeanette Hain) and German "Aryan scientist" Ella Maillart (Nina Petri), perhaps the fest's oddest couple. Annemarie is literary, a dreamer, bohemian, a diplomat's wife, and a morphine addict, elegant and Dietrich-like. Uptight ideologue Ella is worse than bourgeois -- she's seeking the lost region of Kafiristan (the name means Land of the Unbelievers) in order to research Nazi racial theories, something about blue-eyed blond tribesmen and cranial-measuring. Guess which one is the butch. Directors Fosco and Donatello Dubini pack the German production with echt Coffee Table values: exotic settings (ha!), deluxe wardrobe (ha! Annemarie changes five times a day), a designer tent with great lighting (ha! how does it all fit into the trunk of that Ford?), and tasteful (ha!) lesbian trysts. They almost never interact with natives in the eerily depopulated lands they visit, only fellow Nazis they meet en route. A Banana Republic safari with questionable politics. Why was this film made?
At least two movies in the fest shatter our preconceptions about a place. The most surprising revelation about Olga Stolpovskaya and Dmitry Troitsky's You I Love is not only that Moscow has yuppies, but that they're such swingers. Complications arise for pretty TV news anchor Vera (Lubov Tolkalina) when the man she has the hots for, advertising executive Timofey (Evgeny Koryakovsky), has a little thing going on the side with a young drifter from the Asian provinces named Uloomji (Damir Badmaev), whom Tim literally runs into with his car on the street. Okay, says Vera, three-way, we can work it out. But there are further complications. What ever happened to the cramped, five-families-in-a-room Russian way of life we thought we knew from movies? In this good-natured 2004 romp, only the vodka is recognizable. Halfway through, it hits us that we're watching a sitcom, but we don't care. It's too entertaining.
Writer-director Liz Gill's Goldfish Memory also smells a little like cable TV, but with a brogue. This Irish Sex in the City is set in the new, modern Dublin, home of anti-Saint Patrick's Day protesters and an energized gay and bi scene. Everybody in the large cast has a fling with everybody else, set to Brazilian music, and they all live in wonderful flats. Sample dialogue: "I wish I could get pregnant with you" or "I'm not gay." "Of course you're not." There are nice travelogue shots of the River Liffey. Chalk it all up to the Four Weddings and a Funeral syndrome.
And while we're on the subject, we might as well throw in Rose Troche's London lightweight mixed grill, Bedrooms & Hallways. A lively cast of Brit urbanites (Kevin McKidd, Jennifer Ehle, Simon Callow, Hugo Weaving, James Purefoy, Tom Hollander) wrings toob-style laffs out of men's groups (dig the Wild Man Weekend), turning thirty, the dilemma of a woman who discovers her new boyfriend is shagging her ex-boyfriend, etc. Weaving is especially good as a nasty, Matrix-like real estate agent who likes to screw in other people's houses.
Shall we make it four rom-coms in a row? Inés París and Daniela Fejerman's My Mother Likes Women (A Mi Madre les Gustan las Mujeres) has similar queer-bi-straight-undecided fun with its would-be daffy tale of three straight women in Madrid driven into a tizzy when their classical-pianist mother falls for a female Czech visitor. Actor Leonor Watling's Meg-Ryan-with-a-Castilian-lisp barely -- just barely -- makes the trip worthwhile.
Japanese director Sachi Hamano could have traveled down the same easy sitcom route with her 2001 romantic drama, Lily Festival, but she chose instead to seriously address an unusual, elusive subject -- the sex lives of seniors -- in the story of what happens when a roguish septuagenarian former actor (Mickey Curtis, who typically plays gangsters) moves into an apartment complex full of lonely old ladies. He's a busy boy; plenty of hetero coupling here. We have to wait until the last reel for the themed punch line, but it's worth it.
Craig B. Highberger's documentary bio of '60s-'70s-era Andy Warhol habitué Jackie Curtis, Superstar in a Housedress, is closer to customary (read: old-school) gay film fest fare -- lots of period footage and a parade of talking heads (Paul Morrissey, Joe Dallesandro, Taylor Mead, and the hilarious Holly Woodlawn) arguing that the late Jackie, who died in 1985 at age 38 of a heroin overdose, was more than just a drag queen. They may have a point there. The six-foot-two Lower East Side Manhattan native was also a poet, playwright, stage actor, and all-around nut who worked for his art, not money, and did things like ripping up shoplifted designer dresses before wearing them, using Raid for hairspray on his wigs ("There are roaches in New York; this way I kill two birds with one stone"), and channeling James Dean during one "male phase" of his career.
In the HIV realm, check Kevin's Room 2: Trust, a narrative PSA about the need to talk openly about using condoms in Chicago's African-American gay community. It has surprisingly good acting, considering the film was financed by that city's department of public health. Kevin's Room 2 plays on a bill with the workmanlike short documentary Reflections Unseen, about black women living with AIDS.
The festival's opening night film, Thursday, June 17, at the Castro, is Touch of Pink, a gay-nostalgic riff on movie star Cary Grant (portrayed by Kyle MacLachlan) and his purported homosexuality, told through the imagination of a young South Asian (Jimi Mistry) in London. New this year at the fest are two East Bay venues, Renaissance Rialto's Grand Lake and Speakeasy's Parkway. The Oakland dates amount to only two days per moviehouse, but it's tacit recognition that lesbian-gay life, among other things, does not cease at the foot of the Bay Bridge. There are many more movies at this year's festival -- 80 feature films and more than 180 shorts, from 25 countries. For full schedule and details, visit Frameline.org
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