Tender Is the Gender 

Frameline29 is in love with the modern world.

Frameline29, the 2005 edition of what was formerly known as the San Francisco International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Film Festival, reflects more than just a name change. Along with the streamlined brand name, in the past few years the fest has also adopted a new diversity -- a gregarious, open view of the world, with much less of the ghetto-style defensiveness, the us-against-them mentality, that often seemed one of its chief badges. In its maturity, Frameline encompasses such a wide-ranging view of human experience that it crosses over into "general-interest" turf -- even while retaining its gender-blender edginess. It's a good thing, this one-world, we're-all-in-this-together vision. And Frameline is leading the way. Version 29.0, with its 91 features and 177 shorts from 33 countries, is particularly compelling and adventurous.

The opening-night film, Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau's Côte d'Azur, marries two favorite French themes -- the vacances comedy and mock-musicals à la Jacques Demy -- to a gay (and straight) roundelay of summertime romance in the Midi. Naturally, it's a family story. Béatrix (the delightful Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) secretly brings her boyfriend along on the family vacation, and her husband Marc (Gilbert Melki) has a guilty-past thing going on with Didier the local plumber (Jean-Marc Barr), who meanwhile makes his move on Béatrix and Marc's gay-curious son Charly and Charly's gay-convinced friend Martin. Lots of showering, masturbation, naked tiptoeing through dark hallways, and slammed doors. Très cute title sequence, too. Somehow only the French can concoct this special brand of froth. Côte d'Azur (French title: Crustacés et Coquillages) screens Thursday (7:30 p.m.) at the Castro, with a commercial opening soon after.

The pick of the festival, however, is strictly Made in USA, in fact Made in SF. The ironically titled The Joy of Life, by San Francisco lesbian filmmaker (and former codirector of this festival) Jenni Olson, is pure art film, an essay on loss and suicide that nevertheless transcends its own gloom to become a cool, gray, gorgeous tone poem, the epitome of doomed San Francisco romanticism. Over a rhythmic montage of beautifully composed shots of seldom-seen corners of the city, Olson's film-hymn unfolds in two seemingly incongruous halves: the longings of a lovelorn butch lesbian who never quite connects, spoken by performance artist Harriet "Harry" Dodge; and a meditation on the Golden Gate Bridge and its notoriety as the number-one suicide landmark in the world. That notoriety is reinforced, no doubt, by the fact that Olson's friend and associate (and artistic director of this festival, as well), Mark Finch, jumped to his death from the span in 1995. Between the two halves is a short, dark-screen reading by San Francisco poet laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Throughout, the establishing shots are lovely and lonely, devoid of people. Unrequited love and solitude are the specials of the day. The first-half narrator is constantly unsatisfied in love. No one ever calls, and she spends her days wishing. We hear from such authorities as Goethe, Jack Kerouac, and Frank Capra's Meet John Doe, but it's "old Frisco, with end-of-land sadness" (in Kerouac's words) that speaks the loudest. Not for everyone, The Joy of Life is a reverie for depressives, with expensive scenery, and one of the most sensuous documentaries you will ever see. It plays Friday at the Castro.

But very few of the loves in this year's fest actually go unrequited. From Germany, historically home of frank portrayals of lesbian and gay life, come two buddy pics -- one for girls, one for boys, both arguably charming. Beautiful Women, directed by Sathyan Ramesh, posits five female actors d'un certain âge who meet while trying out for the same part, then decide to chuck it all and take a proto-feminist road trip that climaxes, if that is the word, in an empty seaside hotel where they meet two women singers for a sort of pajama party, with soul-baring. Less Thelma and Louise than an urban German chick flick. No mad slasher breaks into the hotel and murders any of the women, but they do learn a few Queen Bee songs. Sisterhood is powerful, ja!

Summer Storm, on the other hand, is a familiar-looking coming-of-gay-age flick about a group of Bavarian high-school boys who travel to Berlin to compete in a rowing-crew regatta, and to discover things about themselves. No suspense here. It's just a matter of time before the boys, especially blond Tobi (Robert Stadlober), have sex with some of the guys from the Queerschlag team of Berliners. An old-fashioned gay romance all the way, courtesy of director Marco Kreuzpaintner, with most the genre's most beloved conventions -- locker-room rowdiness, thwarted schoolgirls, swimming scene -- and the requisite harmless youth comedy cuteness.

"Harmless" is never the way we would describe Peter Berlin, 1970s-era gay porn star and subject of Jim Tushinski's documentary bio, That Man: Peter Berlin. Berlin made a name for himself in the gay-male demimonde by posing and photographing himself in a series of iconic photos -- heavy on Tom of Finland fetishes, with skin-tight jeans and Dutch-boy hairstyle -- and exactly two films, Nights in Black Leather and That Boy. Berlin's notoriety was a triumph of self-promotion. He met and/or influenced everyone from Andy Warhol to Robert Mapplethorpe to John Waters (who testifies in the film), and migrated from Germany to San Francisco, where he cruised the streets and, amazingly, "did not acquire the virus," although most of his contemporaries did, including his partner. Filmmaker Tushinski catches up to Berlin in SF in 2004, living in an apartment/shrine to himself and still venturing forth, at age sixty, in his bell-bottom jeans. The Rodney Bingenheimer of gay porn? Perhaps, but for all his self-absorption Berlin (who resembles actor Owen Wilson a little too closely for comfort) comes across as a sincere individual. Sincerely what, we may never know.

Three of the fest's films from Asia are worth talking about. Tropical Malady, directed by Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul, is the most intriguing, a seemingly naturalistic gay love story between a soldier and a young provincial working man, which veers off into the jungle and grows delirious, in a fascinating way. It will have a commercial opening soon. Formula 17, a gay male romantic comedy from Taiwan directed by DJ Chen (a female filmmaker from the so-called "Seventh-Grader Generation"), takes an ultra-pop attitude to a routine situation, as a country boy moves to big-city Taipei for his own version of Sex in the City, aka Looking for Mr. Right. If nothing else, this film demonstrates that even in gay movies there's a "gay best friend," in this case that old Asian staple, the comic-relief nerd.

Potentially a captivating, arty thriller and all the more disappointing because it drops the ball, director Julian Lee's Hong Kong gothic Night Corridor has only a few traces of homosexual longing in it, but that in itself is no crime. Shot mainly in the spooky, Victorian-era parts of HK at Christmastime and mostly at night, it tells the story of Sam (Canto-pop star Daniel Wu), a photographer living in London, who is summoned home by the death of his twin brother. Was the brother really killed by monkeys? Who is that lady in white? Is the priest a child molester? These and other plot points flit by, mostly unresolved. The odd, Polanski-esque atmosphere doesn't match up with the often absurd plot elements and hammy acting, especially by Wai Ying-Hung as Sam's drunk, hysterical mother.

What a bunch of repellent characters in Rodolphe Marconi's French drama, The Last Day. In this tediously ugly narrative, art student Simon (Gaspard Ulliel) brings his girlfriend home to his family in Brittany for Christmas vacation, and they all dance a gavotte of chilly disconnectedness around each other. Warning: The shaggy-dog ending of this film may cause rioting in the theater. But it's bright and vastly entertaining compared to Kiki & Herb: On the Rocks, a desperately unfunny mockumentary that follows -- ad nauseam -- drag artiste Kiki DuRane and her performing partner Herb on their lackluster London tour. An unbilled man sums up the proper response to this film by pissing on the sleeping Kiki at a party. He should have let her sleep; she was quiet for once. A pair of more talented performers, singing duet Y'All, the "gay Smothers Brothers of country & Western music," are the subjects of Life in a Box, Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer's documentary on their lives as musicians traveling in a twenty-foot trailer -- which could have profitably lost thirty minutes of running time.

Every film fest has one or two overlooked gems. One of Frameline29's is Both, a nicely paced, well-acted, inexpensively produced, shot-on-video drama about Rebeca (played by Jacky Parker), a young San Francisco woman with a guilty secret. Graphic sex (hetero as well as homo), believable characters, and a genuine feel for its East Bay and city locations mark this impressive debut by SF State grad Lisset Barcellos, which benefits from natural multicultural ambience, something that cannot be faked.

This year for the first time, Frameline is screening films at Oakland's Parkway Theater. For up-todate info, go to Frameline.org

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