At age thirty, most people even the wild ones stop for a minute, take stock of their lives, and plot their next move. Not Frameline. On its thirtieth anniversary the annual San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Film Festival, now known simply as Frameline, is still out on the street corner whooping it up like a crazy, mixed-up kid. We wouldn't have it any other way.
Not that the festival hasn't critiqued itself. Its decisive move a few years ago away from the battlefront of strident sexual politics and toward a more benign "We're all in this together" attitude has made its wide array of points of view even more stimulating, not to mention accessible. The Frameline ethos seems to be: "Never be satisfied." Its open, inclusive, youthful outlook, combined with a never-ending supply of talented filmmakers, makes Frameline one of the handful of festivals in the fest-crazy Bay Area that keeps getting better. It's never satisfied, and the audience reaps the benefits.
As the eleven-day fest opens Thursday evening (7:30) at the Castro with filmmaker Maria Maggenti's female romantic comedy Puccini for Beginners, executive director Michael Lumpkin and director of programming Jennifer Morris unveil an extremely strong lineup (109 features and 157 shorts from 32 countries), one of its best, including eleven world premieres, more than half by local filmmakers. The best way to look at the fest is down in the trenches with a rowdy Frameline audience. Follow your instincts. Pick a screening at random, or take a chance on one of these:
If Richard Wong and H.P. Mendoza's Colma: The Musical were the only thing playing at this year's Frameline, the fest would still be a smashing success. The film is that good. Its setup sounds routine: two guys (one of them gay) and a girl coming of age in the SF Peninsula suburb of Colma, with songs and dancing. But in the hands of Mendoza (he wrote the screenplay and songs, and plays Rodel, the gay guy) and director and cinematographer Wong, who adapted it from their stage play, post-adolescent life in the foggy "graveyard town" looks more magical than anyplace on earth. Mendoza, Jake Moreno (as Billy), and L.A. Renigen (as Maribel) make an appealing little barkada of high-school buddies sorting out their moves, and Mendoza's songs helped immensely by a great sound mix and imaginative on-location camera work are actually worth listening to, especially the opening number, "Colma Stays," and the frantic "Crash the Party." The "Deadwalking" production number in the cemetery, with its waltzing ghosts among the tombstones, is an instant classic, too. Few San Francisco movies have captured the multiculti, mellow-melancholic spirit of the place like Colma does. Kudos all around.
If anything, Frameline's 2006 best films seem to be fantasy-heavy, with characters escaping into dream sequences and musical interludes, perhaps inspired by Bollywood, or maybe The Matrix. That's true even in Boy Culture, director Q. Allan Brocka's gay male modern romance, which features a hustler named X (Derek Magyar, a sort of gay Russell Crowe, terse and studiedly aloof), his two extracarnal roommates (Darryl Stephens and Jonathon Trent), and their, uh, acquaintances, set in Seattle. At first it seems like just another movie by someone who loved Trainspotting a bit too much, but Brocka (a nephew of the late Filipino director Lino Brocka), who also wrote the screenplay, carries X's search for peace of mind into some interesting territory, helped along by Euro veteran actor Patrick Bauchau as one of his tricks.
Multiculturalism goes hand in hand with Frameline's whole-world sexuality, of course. Two of the fest's better films take place in England with immigrant gay men in the leads, then switch locales to the old countries. Rag Tag is the story of Tag (aka Tagbo), a London barrister and son of rich Nigerian parents, and his boyhood pal-turned-lover Rag (from Raymond), a West Indian ne'er-do-well who is nevertheless trying to improve his status by becoming a firefighter. The writer-director-producer is Adaora Nwandu, a Briton who studied film at USC. She handles the material as a cross-cultural odyssey first (Rag and Tag take a long weekend in Nigeria, with wonderful local footage) and a gay romance secondly the guys' relationship is seen as a given, not so much a work in progress.
Absolutely nothing is taken for granted in writer-director Sridhar Rangayan's Yours Emotionally, a gay male travelogue that claims to explore clashing cultural values between India and the UK but comes across as the trippiest flick in the fest, full of fantasy sequences, color effects, and wonderful music, in the service of its story of two young guys from Leicester on Indian holiday. Ravi brings his white friend Paul to a homocentric resort in a small town, where they meet an older gay Indian couple and find themselves, amid much local color and some truly amazing tropical digressions. It has the deep-Indian feel of an early Merchant Ivory film, only gay. From this movie, you'd think India is loaded with gays tour operators are no doubt standing by. The final mind-blower is an onscreen display of the Ravi character's phone and e-address, no doubt saving him the trouble of getting a MySpace page.
Where Yours Emotionally is cross-cultural with a modern English tilt, Shabnam Mousi is a full-out, old-fashioned Bollywood social melodrama in this case the dramatized true story of the life and hard times of a eunuch who dares to assert himself politically despite India's hardened caste system. As an effeminate boy brought up to perform songs for money along with other eunuch trannies, Shabnam (Ashutosh Rana) suffers ill treatment at first, but after being exiled to the boondocks of Madhya Pradesh he rebels against the eunuch's role as a low-paid religious functionary who doubles as a sexual outlet for straight men. Violence, class struggle, rough humor Shabnam Mousi (the title means "Auntie Shabnam") has it all. The eunuchs are actually a pretty rough-looking bunch. Shabnam himself is bigger than most of the cops, and one eunuch resembles John Belushi in drag.
The cross-cultural, cross-dressing theme continues in the slickly made German drama Unveiled, directed by Angelina Maccarone originally scheduled to be in last year's Frameline but pulled because of print troubles. It tells the story of a young Iranian lesbian trying to enter Germany, who switches identities with a dead young man and becomes part of that country's large semi-underground, semilegal immigrant subculture and who falls in love with a German woman, natch. Actor Jasmin Tabatabai does a nice job as the anguished gender-bender Fariba, although we wonder how anyone can believe she's a guy. If you ever wondered what a job in a sauerkraut factory might be like, this movie will make you think twice. Unveiled plays the Parkway on June 19.
Actor Charles Busch, best known as a flaming drag queen in such camp potboilers as Die Mommie Die (from Frameline 2003), stakes out new ground in the inspirational drama A Very Serious Person as Jan, a Danish immigrant gay male nurse who helps a young New York boy in discover his true nature while tending to the boy's ill grandmother one summer. It's sort of a gay Driving Miss Daisy, with Busch combining both the Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy roles. Polly Bergen plays the grandma. The scene with the French Canadians is an uproarious bit of comic relief from the movie's earnest sensitivity. First-time director Busch obviously sees himself as a very serious person.
Of the festival's documentaries, Lulu Gets a Facelift has the most entertainment value. Directed by San Francisco's Marc Huestis (impresario and founder of the LGBT Festival) and starring talkative drag performer Lulu, the doc shows what happens when the veteran artiste decides he's getting a little too veteran, and opts for plastic surgery sort of a how-to for aging cross-dressers, culminating in a "Plastic Surgery Disasters" night at the Trannyshack club. It's shown with 4 Beauties, a hectic live-action-cartoon short with drag stars (including Lulu) in overdrive, backed with generic '60s music.
If you haven't devoted much thought to the plight of transgender male-to-female women incarcerated in men's prisons, Cruel and Unusual will be an eye-opener. The gals profiled in this reform-minded doc may have started out as construction workers, oil-field roughnecks, or holdup men, but now they identify as women with male genitalia, and don't want to be placed in with the rest of the guys in general prison population so they usually end up in PC (protective custody) or solitary. Many of the wannabe women are large and scary. One in particular, Linda Thompson, a hulking, deep-voiced oil worker from Idaho, can't get a job and drifts between homelessness and jail.
Other docs worth seeing: the artists' profile Lover Other, about the Surrealist lesbian half-sisters known as Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, and their WWII experiences; Vice and Consent, a nice but rather bland glimpse into the BDSM (bondage/discipline, sado-masochism) lifestyle; and Meth, a torn-from-the-headlines peek into gay male methamphetamine addiction.
In addition to its three San Francisco venues, Frameline is showing eight films in four nights at Oakland's Speakeasy Parkway Theatre, beginning Monday, June 19. Go to Frameline.org for a complete schedule and ticketing information. And don't ever be satisfied.
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