Tuesday, June 16, 2009
The 33rd edition of Frameline, L.K.A. (lesser-known-as) the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, is set for take off this Thursday. There are 80 feature-length films in this year's line-up, and I've spent the past few weeks pleasurably plowing my way through 17 of them. Overall, they're a solid and satisfying bunch. Only three films had me regretting the hours I spent in their company. And two others – a phantasmagoric documentary about AIDS activism and a tale of overdue love transforming a middle-aged Basque farmer – are perhaps my two favorite films of this year. Let's begin this preview with them.
I'm not an especially ardent fan of opera, or the provocative films of Canadian director John Greyson, which made it all the more surprising when I flipped over Fig Trees. In terms of mad ambition, fierce intelligence and artistic audaciousness, nothing I've seen in recent months, perhaps years, comes close. On its most pragmatic level, Fig Trees is a documentary about two globally disparate AIDS activists with intersecting missions. Canadian Tim McCaskell founded AIDS Action Now! and has smuggled prescription HIV drugs across international borders. Zachie Achmat is a South African activist who went on a HIV treatment strike to protest the inaccessibility of lifesaving drugs to those who can't afford them.
While some of Fig Trees consists of straight-on interviews with these courageous men, most of their story is told via a hallucinatory video opera written by Greyson and composer David Wall – which is itself a reflective homage to Four Saints in Three Acts, the surrealist Virgil Thompson/Gertrude Stein opera which premiered on Broadway in 1934 with stage sets made of cellophane and an African-American cast. McCaskell and Achmat are represented by actors/singers, as are Thompson, Stein and a gallery of Catholic saints. St. Martin, who narrates the proceedings in four different manifestations of albino squirrel-dom, is seen at one point whacking a piñata filled with meds. There's an aria completely sung in palindromes ("Zeus was defied, saw Suez," "A nut for a jar of tuna"), and another in which 26 gay classical composers, each representing a different letter of the alphabet, compete for the rights to Achmat's life story. From time to time, the opera is interrupted by a hilarious VH1-ish countdown of the top 100 AIDS songs of all time. Greyson lobs bombs at pharmaceutical companies, Bono's RED campaign and the South African Minister of Health who preached that AIDS could be cured with beet root, garlic and lemon. And as often as not, the screen is split in two, with words, words and more words – sometimes the opera libretto and sometimes not – scrolling and crawling across your field of vision. It sounds like a mess, I know, but it really does all come together in miraculous ways, with the tragedy of AIDS being equated with the tragedy found in many operas.
Fig Trees screens only once during the festival – on Monday, June 27 at 7 pm at the Castro. When it ends, you'll need to run like hell to the Victoria Theater seven blocks away, where the other film I loved, Roberto Castón's Ander begins at 9:30. Seeing Ander after Fig Trees will be like two hours in the chill-out room after a fevered night on the dance floor. It's set in the lush hills of Spanish Basque country and moves at its own slow, purposeful pace. Ander is a single, middle-aged farmer/factory worker who lives with his cantankerous mother and a younger sister who's about to be married. It's a solitary, repetitive existence, peppered by drunken trysts with Reme, a prostitute and single mother, whom he often visits in the company of his neighbor and only friend, Pelo. When Ander fractures a leg, he hires a young Peruvian named Jose to help out on the farm. This sets into motion a series of dramatically credible events that lead to a life of new possibilities for Ander, Jose and Reme. It's a thrill to watch an adult drama with such fully-formed characters, and one that completely lacks dramatic missteps. Astoundingly, this is Castón's first feature film, for which he won the C.I.C.A.E. (the association of European arthouse theaters) award at this year's Berlin Film Festival. It's worth mentioning that Ander is also one of the few Frameline films being screened in 35mm.
In addition to Fig Trees, I've previewed six other documentaries – the most anxiously anticipated (by me at least) being Little Joe, Nicole Haeusser's bio-doc on Warhol superstar turned international sex icon Joe Dallesandro. Much like James Toback's recent film on Mike Tyson, this is 100% Joe talking about Joe, and it's curious to find the man who said so little on screen orating a blue streak about his life and career. I got the feeling he was being less than forthright on certain subjects, however, and some outside perspective would have been welcome. Dallesandro says such a film can be made after he's dead, so meanwhile we'll make do with this. In addition to Joe's frequently insightful ruminations, the film contains dozens of film clips and over 300 still photos, enough to satisfy both longtime Joe-worshippers and the newly curious. A hold-review restriction on the film prevents me from elaborating more. For those planning to see this at Frameline, it's been confirmed that Dallesandro will definitely be attending the Saturday, June 20 screening at the Castro Theater.
Two of my favorite docs in this year's fest are portraits of legendary "gender illusionists," for lack of a better collective term. At age 74, Vicky Marlane is "America's oldest living professional transgender performer," and boy does she have a wild tale to tell in Michelle Lawler's Forever's Gonna Start Tonight. Born on a Minnesota farm in 1934, Marlane was a traveling carnival hoochie-coochie dancer/freakshow attraction, a prostitute and prison escapee in Tampa, and a strip-tease artist in Detroit – all before arriving in 1970 San Francisco to become the toast of its thriving nightclub drag scene. (Director Lawler does a masterful job of recreating Marlane's early misadventures with music and generic stock footage.) In the ensuing years she survived a sex change, AIDS, meth addiction and a lover's suicide, ultimately emerging as the Queen Mother of Aunt Charlie's Lounge in San Francico's Tenderloin, where she still performs on weekends. The film ends with an incendiary lip-synch performance of "Total Eclipse of the Heart." If you want to see Forever's Gonna Start Tonight at Frameline, you'll need to wait in a rush line. Vicky Marlane's legions of fans have rendered this the festival's first sell-out (apart from opening and closing nights).
I equally taken by Dacio Pinheiro's My Buddy Claudia, which is about celebrated Brazilian transvestite Claudia Wonder. Born Marco Antonio Abrão, Wonder appeared in a series of soft-core films and girlie mags in the early '80s (penis and all), before hitting her stride as the queen of São Paulo's underground punk music scene. Archival footage of her "Vomit of the Myth" shows, in which she splashes naked in a bathtub full of blood (actually red currant juice) is a thing of, um, wonder. Later she would take on the theater world, performing in a series of avant-garde plays that were banned during the years of military dictatorship. More recently, Wonder reinvented herself as an electro-clash recording artist. My Buddy Claudia is the kind of off-beat, never-to-be-seen-elsewhere film that makes Frameline so essential.
Transwoman Kimberly Reed is both the "star" and director of this year's compelling Centerpiece documentary Prodigal Sons. A former high school football co-captain and star quarterback, Reed journeys back to Helena, MT for her 20-year class reunion. She easily reconnects with former classmates, but not so easily with her resentful, brain-damaged adopted brother Marc, who's dangerously volatile when off his many medications. Over a period of several years, Reed's camera is there to record a series of increasingly strained family get-togethers, including a trip to Croatia to visit a woman who was Orson Welles' lover for 25 years. That's because – in the film's biggest kicker – it's revealed that Marc is the only grandson of Welles and Rita Hayworth. Again, truth proves stranger than fiction. This is a fascinating, heartbreaking story, but one that ultimately left me to wonder – would certain events, particularly Marc's on-camera meltdowns, have played out differently if Reed's camera hadn't been there to record them?
Pride Month is once again upon us. And despite recent setbacks like Prop 8, it's worth remembering certain things. Like the fact that unlike LGBT folks in Jerusalem and Moscow, we can march without getting stabbed by an ultra-orthodox psycho, and demonstrate without being bloodied by government-sanctioned nationalist goons. Two worthwhile documentaries in this year's festival, City of Borders and East/West – Sex & Politics are a sobering look at life in these two so-called civilized cities. Yun Suh's City of Borders begins with a group of young gay Palestinians sneaking though a hole in Israel's separation barrier/apartheid wall. They're headed for an evening at Shushan, Jerusalem's only gay bar and the film's main framing device. Among the doc's many well-chosen participants are a Palestinian/Israeli lesbian couple who bravely admit that political issues have colored their sex life, and a handsome gay activist who sees no hypocrisy in building himself a house in the Occupied Territories. A good chunk of the film concerns efforts to stage a World Pride event in Jerusalem, and anyone who saw Jerusalem is Proud to Present at last year's SF Jewish Film Festival will see a lot of overlap between the two films.
East/West's German director Jochem Hick might be a familiar name to longtime Frameline attendees. His films Via Appia (about Rio hustlers) and Sex/Life in L.A. (about L.A. gay porn stars) screened in 1991 and 1999. This time he turns his attention to Moscow LGBT life in general (with portraits of a cross section of queer Muscovites), and one event in particular (a behind-the-scenes look at the attempted staging of a Pride event that got gay German parliament member Volker Beck beaten up and thrown in jail). Moscow has a thriving, clandestine gay scene of clubs and saunas, but no public face whatsoever. Many of those profiled in Hick's film would just as soon have it stay that way. But as a recent series of pogroms outside gay clubs proves, invisibility will ultimately get you nowhere.
Moving on to Frameline's World Cinema section, there are three films apart from Ander I found well worth checking out. Fabiomassimo Lozzi's Anotherworld consists of 43 confessional vignettes representing the broad spectrum of contemporary Italian homosexuality. The film's monologues are based on actual interviews, each performed by a different actor within in a uniquely creative context. They've been sequenced in an evolving arc – the film begins with extreme self-loathing closet cases and gradually transitions to self-accepting modern queers (with stops along the way for hustlers, chat-room addicts and Madonna wanna-be's). Although not uniformly engaging, it's a worthy concept ambitiously executed. Maria Beatty's Bandaged is a campy, gothic, medical potboiler in which a beautiful young woman punishes Daddy by scarring her own face with acid. Fortunately for her, Dad's a scientist experimenting with reconstructed skin, and he's hired a lusty nurse-with-a-past to assist. If you're turned on by sexily photographed medical instruments and quiver at the amplified sound of a starched nurse's uniform being zipped up, not to mention a bit of girl-girl/nurse-patient softcore, then this is the film for you. The protagonist in Simon Pearce's Shank is a cocky young Brit drug dealer named Cal who hangs with a gang of miscreants into fag-bashing and grave-desecrating. He has a massive crush on the gang's leader, and he likes to hook-up with older men on-line and film himself being topped. Clearly there's a conflict here, which comes to a life-threatening head when he rescues an effeminate French fashionista student from a bashing by his buds. Cal hides out from his vengeance-seeking gang while sorting out his feelings for Frenchy, up until the film's monumentally melodramatic climax. In spite of some glaring clichés of the "would you rub tanning lotion on my back" variety, Shank (which means 'cock' in Brit slang) has an undeniable youthful urgency to it – and indeed, the director is all of 21. And for what it's worth, the sex scenes in Shank are steeped in erotic intensity. For gay men at least, this may be the hottest film in the festival.
Now we get down to some of the stuff I wasn't so crazy about. Ella Lemhagan's Patrik, Age 1.5 has been charming festival audiences around the world, but its contrived charms were mostly lost on me. In an idyllic suburban neighborhood that's probably a Swedish version of Edward Scissorhands' bedroom hamlet, a seemingly perfect gay couple yearn to adopt a baby. When a homophobic 15-year-old juvie arrives in place of the expected 1.5 year-old baby, chaos prevails and life lessons are learned. The corker is a happily-ever-after ending as phony and un-ironic as they come. A saving grace is that one half of the couple turns out to be a cigarette-smoking, staggering drunk with a roving eye. Fortunately, Kit Hung's Soundless Wind Chime is not as preciously new-agey as its title would suggest. But it is earnestly mopey – a strained tale of love lost and regained between a Hong Kong delivery boy and his Swiss juggler boyfriend. Fans of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang might appreciate the nod to Yang Kuei-mei's lip-synched version of Grace Chang's "Atchoo Cha Cha" from his 1998 film The Hole.
While I admire French cinema more than any other in the world, I had to force myself to watch Give Me Your Hand and Born in '68 in their entirety. The former is a vapid, overheated road movie about hunky identical twins aimlessly making their way to Mom's funeral in Spain. Some may find the pair's brooding good looks – along with sporadic scenes of skinny-dipping, sex and fraternal mouth-to-mouth resuscitation – worth enduring a lot of pretentious hooey for. If you enjoyed the festival's last treatise on gorgeous, disaffected Euro-youth, Frameline31's One to Another, you should probably buy your ticket for this now. On the plus side, Give Me Your Hand features some extraordinary cinematography and will be screened in 35mm. Born in '68, the latest from Frameline vets Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, is a 173-minute lumbering behemoth that attempts to encapsulate 40 years of French social history – from the student riots of '68 to communal life in the '70s to the AIDS crisis of the '80s to the advent of cell phones and internet. We follow an evolving group of friends, lovers and offspring as they lurch through the decades, the years clumsily demarcated by pop songs and newscasts. I've been a big fan of Ducastel and Martineau's previous work, but I think they bit off too much with this large-scale canvas. In all fairness, the original French TV version was a half-hour longer, but I doubt there's anything extra minutes could do to improve this uniformly uninspired and unoriginal vision.
This year's opening night film is Richard Laxton's An Englishman in New York, which provides a fast breezy spin through the highlights of Quentin Crisp's years as a Manhattan celebrity turned gadfly. John Hurt admirably reprises the role he first played in 1975's The Naked Civil Servant, but his performance is the only thing here of subtlety or depth. I enjoyed this well enough, and I'm sure it will work as a satisfying opening night crowd pleaser. But its script, direction and most of the performances are, as Variety might say, "strictly tubesville." And network tubesville at that. Last and least is a film I won't mention by name because frankly, I couldn't bring myself to finish watching it. It's one of those inevitable Frameline clunky coming-out movies by a first-time director, with half-naked boys (shower scene in the first 5 minutes!), a broken heart, fag bashing, a seemingly straight object of desire, and parents/friends who just don't understand. I suckered myself into seeing this one because of a certain much loved, quasi-cult-film actress in the supporting cast. It wasn't worth it.
So as not to end on a negative note, I'll just mention that there are many hopefully-great films I've yet to see – ones I'm waiting to savor during the festival itself. These include The Country Teacher, Maggots and Men, It Came From Kuchar, Ghosted, Making the Boys, The Fish Child, Thundercrack!, Fruit Fly, Lion's Den, Boy, Greek Pete and Shakespeare & Victor Hugo's Intimacies. Check out my Frameline33 Line-Up post for more details.