Tuesday, May 26, 2009
As Queers prepare to celebrate Stonewall's 40th anniversary next month, it's fitting that films spotlighting LGBT elders be at the center of this year's Frameline festival. That was the summational spin placed on this year's event by new Executive Director K.C. Price and longtime Festival Director Jennifer Morris, as they walked us through the 2009 line-up at last week's press conference. The festival turns 33 this year, and here's an acknowledged fact that always bears repeating – Frameline is the oldest and largest LGBT film exhibition event in the world. Appropriately, 2009's rousing theme – "The Power of Film" – is emblazoned upon a purple, fist-pumping Socialist-Realism inspired logo, and the festival's trailer features THE original Super-8 projector used at the very first festival in 1977.
At a time when many arts organizations are struggling to retain funding, Frameline has emerged relatively unscathed. Price explained that while many of the festival's corporate sponsors have slashed all arts bankrolling, when it came to Frameline, "they just couldn't do it." Happily, this enabled a hold on ticket prices which are already among the lowest of all Bay Area film festivals. There's more good news for the wallet. For those with weekday afternoons free (whether because of a job layoff or otherwise), the festival is introducing a $35.00 Weekday Matinee Pass good for all 15 Castro Theater screenings, Monday through Friday before 5 p.m. This breaks down to roughly $2.35 per show. Also new in 2009, audience members can eschew paper ballots in favor of voting for films by text-messaging. I'm mighty ambivalent about this one and hereby issue a warning: anyone seen texting their vote (and emitting that horribly distracting light) before a film is finished, will be smacked upside the head with a rolled-up Frameline catalogue by one very annoyed LGBT elder.
K.C. Price replaces 27-year vet Michael Lumpkin as Frameline's Executive Director, although he's hardly new to the organization. Price was Development Director from 1999 to 2003, at which point he became Managing Director of the Ninth Street Media Consortium (the SOMA edifice which houses Frameline and other film arts organizations). At the press conference he jokingly revealed his greatest fear – that his first year as director might also turn out to be an off-year in terms of quality programming. By the time Morris and Price finished running through the line-up, however, it was evident his fears were unfounded.
Ah yes, the line-up. The 2009 breakdown is as follows: 220 films (80 features and 140 shorts) from 32 countries presented in 96 separate programs spread over 11 days (June 18 to 28). As always, it's an almost mind-numbingly broad selection, representing every imaginable depiction of LGBT existence on Planet Earth. (To Price and Morris' great surprise, there were no films concerning Prop. 8 and the issue of marriage equality). What follows is a very subjective look at this year's roster, as filtered through the interests of a 55-year-old gay guy with a penchant for biographical documentaries and foreign narrative features.
This is where I tend to spend the least amount of time at Frameline. I've seen some great US features over the years here, but have found it can also be a minefield sprinkled with clunky issue-driven dramas, sappy romances and idiotic comedies. There is one American film I'm dying to see this year and it's Maggots and Men, Cary Cronenwett's homage to early Soviet cinema. This is a re-imagining of the historic 1921 Kronstadt Uprising of Russian sailors, and features a largely transgender cast. Maggots and Men (official site) is a local production and is one of six films in the fest which received a grant from the Frameline Completion Fund.
The only film I've already seen (and one I heartily recommend) is Fruitfly, H.P. Mendoza's follow-up to Colma: The Musical, which got an uproarious reception when it world-premiered at this year's SF International Asian American Film Fest. After three decades I'm also anxious to have another look at Curt McDowell's 1975 screamingly outrageous, horror/porno hybrid Thundercrack! I took a boyfriend to see this in the late '70s and he fled the screening, vowing never to see me again. I think it was Marion Eaton yanking her vomit-covered wig out of the toilet and placing it back on her head that did him in. The Karen Black fetishist in me is curious about Watercolors, in which she plays art teacher to the high school nerd who's in love with the swim team champ (who's coached by Greg Louganis!). I might also have a look at Hollywood, je t'aime, where a young Frenchman comes to LA-LA-land to escape a failed romance back home.
US features also open and close this year's festival. In Opening Night-er An Englishman in New York, John Hurt reprises his role as queer icon Quentin Crisp, a part he first played in 1975's acclaimed The Naked Civil Servant (a film that's just been assigned one of the festival's TBA slots on Friday, June 19). As tradition dictates, the festival closes on Gay Pride Day – this year with Hannah Free, the tale of a decades-long love affair between a butch lesbian (Sharon Gless, who is expected to attend) and a married straight-laced housewife. This may be a perfectly fine film, but given that June 28 is also the exact 40th anniversary of Stonewall, I might have expected something more – I don't know – revolutionary to close the festival.
There are seven personal must-sees in this section, beginning with Argentine director Pablo Trapero's women's prison drama Lion's Den. I'm a big fan of the director (Crane World, Rolling Family, Born and Bred) and this one appeared in Cannes' main competition last year. (If you miss this, it'll pop up again in late July on the SF Film Society's Kabuki screen). I've heard great things about The Country Teacher, about a gay science teacher who moves to the country and befriends a single woman and her troubled 17-year-old son. The film is directed by Bohdan Sláma (Wild Bees, Something Like Happiness), considered by many to be the best Czech director working today. (The film opens at a Landmark Theater in early July). Admirers of Filipino director Aureus Solito's adorable The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros surely won't want to miss his latest, Boy. This one follows a romance between a teenager and the rent boy he brings home on New Year's Eve (whose affections he's purchased by selling his collection of comic books and action figures). Longtime Frameline attendees will be very familiar with the challenging works of acclaimed Canadian director John Greyson (Lilies, Urinal, Zero Patience, Proteus). His latest film Fig Trees is an "experimental documentary" described in Steve Jenkins's catalog capsule as a "complex and moving rumination on AIDS activism, St. Teresa of Avila and Gertrude Stein, all plaited into an avant-garde opera featuring a singing albino squirrel." A single, middle-aged farmer in Spain's Basque country finds his life changed after hiring a Peruvian immigrant in Roberto Castón's Ander.
Rounding out my seven international must-sees are two French films, Born in '68 and Give Me Your Hand. The former comes from partners-in-life and partners-in-filmmaking Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, who are no strangers to Frameline (they were here three times previous with The Adventures of Felix, My Life on Ice and Côte d'Azur). Born in '68 is a social drama following two decades and two generations of gay men, from the student riots of '68 to AIDS activism of the '80s. In Pascal-Alex Vincent's road movie Give Me Your Hand, real-life twins Alexandre and Victor Carril play twin brothers en route to their mother's funeral in Spain. The film screened in this year's prestigious New Directors/New Films series in NYC, where Slant Magazine's Ed Gonzalez wrote this typically snarky review. Let's say I'm discouraged, but fully expect to enjoy the "scenery" anyway.
Should time and stamina permit, there are several other foreign features I might check out. Patrik, Age 1.5 is a Swedish comedy about a gay couple who mistakenly adopt a homophobic 15-year-old. The films of German frequent-Frameliner Monika Treut (The Virgin Machine, Gendernauts) are usually worth a look and her latest is Ghosted, an exploration of gender and cultural identity set in Taiwan. A young woman with a horribly disfigured face and a lesbian nurse who passionately tends to her is the stuff of Maria Beatty's Bandaged, a twisted-sounding German film executive-produced by Abel Ferrara. Fabiomassimo Lozzi's Anotherworld is an experimental narrative exploring Italian gay male identity, and is composed entirely of actors performing monologues scripted from real-life interviews. 21-year-old first-time director Simon Pearce spins a gritty tale of young British gang culture in Shank, a film which promises explicit sex and graphic violence.
Finally, I'd like to at least make mention of two films which, strangely enough, didn't make it into this year's festival. Frameline can always be depended upon to import all the important LGBT films from each year's Berlin Film Festival. So where, I'm wondering, is Raging Sun, Raging Sky, the latest from Mexican director Julián Hernández (A Thousand Clouds of Peace, Broken Sky) and The Fish Child, Argentine director Lucia Puenzo's follow-up to XXY (last year's Audience Award Winner for Best Feature Film)? Whatever the reason, I doubt it's from a lack of awareness or effort on Frameline's part.
(Update 6/8/09 I've just been advised that Lucia Puenzo's The Fish Child will be screened in the festival's second TBA slot on Monday, June 22, 3:30 p.m. at the Castro Theater!)
Speaking of the Berlin Film Festival, the film I most hoped to find in this year's Frameline was Nicole Haeusser's Little Joe, which had its world premiere there in January. This is a bio-doc about Joe Dallesandro, the teenaged Athletic Guild model turned Warhol Superstar turned international sex icon, who is forever immortalized in the lyrics of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." As a high-school senior in 1971, I snuck into the X-rated Andy Warhol's Trash. To say it made a staggering impression would be the understatement of the millennium. I actually got to meet Joe at a San Francisco book signing in 1998, where he graciously autographed the one-sheet poster for Heat I'd been dragging around for over 25 years. And now, thanks to Frameline, I look forward to seeing him again when he appears in-person at the Castro Theater for the screening of Little Joe.
The NYC underground filmmaking scene of which Dallesandro was an integral part is at least tangentially connected to three other programs at Frameline33. Jennifer M. Kroot's It Came From Kuchar is a long overdue tribute to legendary filmmaking twins George and Mike Kuchar, who began making weird little 8mm films on the rooftop of their parent's Bronx apartment in the 1950s. In the documentary, filmmakers as diverse as John Waters, Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin and Wayne Wang testify on camera as to the Kuchars' influence on their work. The brothers have (mostly) been residents of San Francisco for close to four decades now, and it will be an honor to see them receive this year's Frameline Award at the Castro Theater screening of It Came From Kuchar. George Kuchar's 1977 I, An Actress is one of eight short films included in Canyon Cinema's Queer Underground, a curated program of queer experimental shorts from the foremost guardian of America's avant-garde film heritage. Other filmmakers include Curt McDowell, Kenneth Anger and James Broughton. Finally, Crayton Robey's Making the Boys documents the whole zeitgeist surrounding William Friedkin's loved and loathed 1969 movie version of Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band. Among the film's revelations is that Friedkin was filming blocks from where Stonewall drag queens were rioting. And according to Mark Freeman's program capsule, "Worth the price of admission alone is footage of a Malibu beach party showing Mart Crowley cavorting on the sand at Roddy McDowell's house with Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Judy Garland, Rock Hudson and a dozen more of Hollywood's gay glitterati and female admirers."
Each year at Frameline I like to check out those documentaries which examine the socio-political status of LGBT folks around the world. Yun Suh's City of Borders, which just screened at the SF International Film Festival, surveys the Arab and Jewish denizens of Shushan, the only gay bar in Jerusalem. I'm always shocked when I read news reports of Moscow gay rights marchers being beaten to a pulp and hauled off to jail. Jochen Hick's East/West – Sex & Politics examines why homosexuality, or at least its most visible variety, remains reviled in Russian society (hint: the Orthodox Church has a lot to do with it). For issues closer to home we have Pam Walton's Raging Grannies, which looks at the political street-theater antics of The Raging Grannies Action League of the San Francisco Bay Peninsula. These women aged 50 to 90 employ songs, skits and costumes to protest issues like gay rights and the environment – rejecting certain stereotypes of older women while playfully embodying them. A number of these Raging Grannies are expected at the screening, so watch out.
The remaining five documentaries I hope to see can be loosely filed under "people are not always what they seem." Yulene Olaizola reflects back on a former lodger at her grandmother's Mexico City boarding house – one who was an artistic genius and possibly a serial killer – in Shakespeare and Victor Hugo's Intimacies. In the festival Centerpiece Film Prodigal Sons, transgender filmmaker Kimberly Reed returns home to reconcile with an unstable adopted brother, only to discover that he's the only grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Two films are portraits of legendary drag artists. Michelle Lawler's Forever's Gonna Start Tonight profiles 74-year-old Vicki Marlane, who continues to perform regularly in San Francisco nightclubs. And Brazilian rock singer/activist/actress Claudia Wonder is the subject of Dacio Pinheiro's My Buddy Claudia. Last but not least, Andrew Haigh's Greek Pete follows a London rent-boy through one year on the job.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Director Alexis Dos Santos with actors Déborah François and Fernando Tielve
It's the 13th day of the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival and my brain is exploding with images and opinions. I've consumed 26 screenings since opening night and zipped through another dozen screeners at home, all while working two jobs. Unfortunately, that's left me zero time to write, but I wanted to at least post something on the festival's closing night film – Alexis Dos Santos' extraordinary Unmade Beds. The SF Film Society was kind enough to press screen it and I can attest that they're saving one of the best films for last.
Unmade Beds is London-based Argentine director Dos Santos' second feature. His first film Glue, screened here at Frameline in 2007, was a sweet, edgy look at the lives of three teens living in a Patagonian backwater. For Unmade Beds, the director has shifted his setting to London and increased the age of his characters – but in terms of theme and tone, much remains the same. This is another melancholic, frequently hilarious film about young people struggling to establish identity, told with an energy and passion that befits the filmmaker's own vernal age. Its two main characters are Axl (Fernando Tielve), a Spaniard in search of his unknown British father, and Vera (Déborah François), a Frenchwoman on the run from lost love. Their link is a London squat that houses artists and musicians, and a music club where their alcohol-fueled nights frequently converge. Like Glue, the film features great music, and perhaps you'll exit the theater like I did, singing along to Black Moustache's Hot Monkey, Hot Ass. A "Hold Review" restriction prevents me from saying more (it's being distributed by IFC Films later this year). I'll just add that if you're no longer young, impassioned and foolish, Unmade Beds will make you wistful for the days when you were.
Unmade Beds screens at the Castro Theater at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 7. Both director Dos Santos and actor Fernando Tielve are expected to attend. Following the film, the festival's Closing Night party takes place at the SOMA nightclub Mezzanine. There isn't an official trailer for the film yet (or a poster for that matter), but there is this teaser which doesn't quite do the film justice: