Delayed Gratification 

Lightning strikes more than once at the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

Grow or die. The San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival got the message, but heeded that all-purpose business advice in its own idiosyncratic, public-spirited way. This year's fest is as big and far-ranging as ever, but Frameline, the festival's organizing body, responded to audience requests by adding an extra week for essentially the same number of screenings -- thus eliminating overlapping events and giving audiences eighteen days to see and digest all the festival has to offer. Eighty feature films and more than two hundred shorts are being shown in 119 separate screenings at three venues led by the venerable Castro Theatre, with ancillary programming at Herbst Theatre and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theatre. (The Roxie Cinema and Victoria Theatre were dropped.) If the SF International Film Festival wisely took the same advice, it would last a month next year.

While acting locally, the Lesbian & Gay certainly didn't forget to think globally. This year's lineup has a pronounced international flair. Queer cinema has evidently hit Asia like a typhoon. In addition to Hong Kong stalwart Stanley Kwan's (Rouge, Hold You Tight) fitfully engaging male love story Lan Yu (the opening night premiere, Thursday, June 13, 7:30, at the Castro), there are dispatches from the gay bars of Shanghai (The Snake Boy) and the Tokyo dyke scene (Sugar Sweet). There are also a deadpan-realistic women's romance from Beijing (Li Yu's anti-histrionic Fish and Elephant), a teenage-female-empowerment sci-fi anime from Japan (Revolutionary Girl Utena), a documentary on gay men working as spiritual mediums in Myanmar (Friends in High Places: The Art of Survival in Modern-Day Burma), and Ke Kulana He Mahu: Remembering a Sense of Place, a doc about the revival of traditional gay and transgender roles in indigenous Hawaiian society.

Then, of course, there are films from everywhere else: Norway (the congenial cross-dressing doc All About My Father), Germany (Rosa von Praunheim's Queens Don't Lie), Tanzania (Thomas Allen Harris' personal doc That's My Face), Canada, France, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Australia, Ireland, the Netherlands, Brazil, and Mexico. Meanwhile, Joseph Gaï Ramaka's wild and woolly sexpot-hellcat yarn from Senegal, Karmen Geï, continues its rampage through the festival circuit (it played the SF International), appearing here no doubt for its steamy Afro-femme sex scene between the lusty Karmen and the women's prison warden. Ah, art.

The best thing about any well-organized institution like the SF Lesbian & Gay fest is that, despite the all-things-to-most-people marketing approach, certain films burst out of the pack unexpectedly. Lightning can strike anywhere, even in the unlikeliest places. If we were to proclaim that the best film in this festival was an imitation 1920s-era silent fantasy from Atlanta, Georgia about a magic princess who is discovered in an ear of corn, would you believe it? Believe it.

Milford Thomas' Claire is a rare treasure, an ancient legend told in an archaic, low-tech way that somehow enchants us far more than Spider-Man or any other multi-million-dollar CGI marvel. Thomas was inspired by the Japanese fairy tale Kaguyahime, in which an elderly childless couple becomes caretakers of a castaway moon goddess. The filmmaker sets his adaptation on a farm in the American South of a hundred years ago, where a pair of gentle, whiskered gay farmers (played by former SF resident Sister Missionary P. Delight and James Ferguson) find the tiny, luminous moon-child Claire (performance artist Toniet Gallego) glowing one night amongst their harvest of corn. As Claire grows up, she casts a benevolent spell on everyone around her before entering what can only be called a state of grace. Milford shot the film with an antique hand-cranked 35mm Mitchell Standard camera, and, most importantly, directed his actors toward an anachronistic D.W. Griffith-Victor Seastrom-style naturalism (with flashes of Jean Cocteau) that lets the story's awestruck simplicity shine forth. Claire is being presented with a live orchestral accompaniment written and conducted by Anne Richardson of the SF Conservatory of Music on Wednesday, June 26, 6:30 p.m., at Herbst Theatre. This one-of-a-kind movie-lover's treat is a genuinely moving experience.

Later the same evening (Wednesday, June 26, 9 p.m. at the Castro) comes another thunderbolt out of nowhere -- in this case, the Balkan country of Slovenia. Director Maja Weiss' Guardian of the Frontier (Varuh Meje) is being promoted as a lesbian Deliverance, but it has more going for it than its us-versus-them story of three young university coeds from the city of Ljubljana taking a canoe trip down the idyllic Kolpa River (which forms the border with Croatia) and encountering surly locals. Weiss plays smart games with the potentially hackneyed scenario, setting up the river trip in mock-teen-slasher fashion with creepy POVs and psychological inserts. The girls, as Europeans are wont to do, go topless in the summer sun -- while ominous music throbs on the soundtrack. But the real threat is not so much from the right-wing local politician and self-appointed "guardian" from across the river in Croatia, nor from the friendly old man who invites the travelers in for dinner (he has a gay servant and a collection of erotic etchings), but from within. Weiss happens to be a skilled, film-savvy director, and her liberated females ("Who needs men when God invented vibrators?") do justice to the Blair Witch Project framework without sacrificing the all-important elements of mystery and suspense.

British director Isaac Julien (Young Soul Rebels; Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask) appears in person to receive the 2002 Frameline Award for his commitment to New Queer Cinema over the years. Julien is intensely aware of the rhythms of cultural history, as his brilliant 1989 tone poem/biography Looking for Langston demonstrates. The life of African-American poet Langston Hughes plays out as a languid, homoerotic psychodrama amid gorgeous black-and-white images and a 1940s jazz soundtrack. There is no dialogue, only voiceover readings from poetry and texts by Hughes, James Baldwin (read by Toni Morrison), Essex Hemphill, Bruce Nugent, and Hilton Als. This beautiful film is important as an interior record of black American history from a homosexual point of view. As opposed, however, to Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied, Julien sets his meditations in character, as a sort of biographical dream-narrative. Looking for Langston plays Monday, June 24 (6:30 p.m.) at Herbst.

Stefan Ruzowitsky's agreeably ridiculous WWII comedy All the Queen's Men (Friday, June 21, Castro) may have been beat in its race to the theaters by Michael Apted's drama Enigma, but it plays fast and loose with the same historical scenario: the Allied search for the German Enigma code machine. Where Apted's film plays it, er, straight, Ruzowitsky's multinational production wants us to imagine Matt LeBlanc (of TV's Friends), comic Eddie Izzard, and a couple more blokes flouncing around Nazi Germany in full drag, on their way to capturing the Enigma decoder and saving the free world. Right. Izzard portrays a nervous Nellie drag artiste with a patriotic impulse, and the ubiquitous Udo Kier froths fruitily as a decadent (what else?) German general, while Nicolette Krebitz plays a fräulein named Romy, the LeBlanc love interest -- you didn't think they'd let the star of Friends actually play a gay character, did you? Extremely light fun, and the silliest WWII comedy since Privates on Parade.

The British TV series Bob & Rose ventures into uncharted territory: a gay man falling in love with a woman. It does so with witty dialogue by Queer as Folk's Russell T. Davies and wholly believable performances by a large cast led by Alan Davies and Lesley Sharp as a pair of Manchester singles (he's a teacher, she's an office worker) who meet-cute while looking for a taxi and can't help falling in love. The people at Frameline don't quite know what to do with this one politically, but it definitely grows on you. The first three episodes of Bob & Rose screen Friday, June 14 with the next three installments on Saturday, June 15, all at Herbst.

But wait, there's more: Stefanie Jordan's fine documentary on San Francisco women firefighters, Some Real Heat; Jonathan Wald's haimish doc Ruthie & Connie: Every Room in the House, about a couple of lesbian Jewish-American grandmothers; Johnny Symons' thoughtful doc about gay men adopting kids, Daddy & Papa, which raises the touchy sociopolitical issue that more and more, white gay men are raising African-American kids; and one from left field -- Laura Nix's stagey, housebound satirical drama The Politics of Fur, about a Laurel Canyon lesbian record producer who longs to break out of her rut. And let's not forget a sure crowd-pleaser: American Mullet, a whimsical social survey of the most derided haircut in America, aka "sho-lo," "ape drape," "the shlum," "Mexican gang-banger," "shlong," and "it looks like a mudflap." Writer-director Jennifer Arnold didn't have to search very far for material -- it's a notoriously popular lesbian 'do. Did you know that the mullet is significant because it is one fashion choice that is "not appropriated by the capital machine"? Tell that to Siegfried and Roy.

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