Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Frameline38 2014 Preview

The 38th edition of San Francisco's Frameline, a.k.a. the world's oldest and largest LGBT film festival, launches Thursday, June 19 and carries on through Sunday the 29th. This year's event boasts films from 31 countries, spread across nearly 80 narrative and documentary features and 18 programs of shorts. As in years past, my subjective overview of the line-up will stress the "G" over the "BLT," features films over shorts, and foreign fare over domestic.

Out of 14 films previewed, my top Frameline38 pick is Bruce LaBruce's sweetly comic Gerontophilia, which I caught at January's Palm Springs International Film Festival. Canadian DYI provocateur LaBruce has been a Frameline mainstay since 1991's No Skin Off My Ass. This latest work represents not only his biggest budget to date, but it's the first of his eight features not to include graphic on-screen sex. Gerontophilia regales us with the tale of Lake, an 18-year-old, heretofore straight lifeguard who discovers he's sexually attracted to old men (in a hilarious scene where he pops a woody giving mouth-to-mouth to a drowning geezer). Lake promptly secures a job in a nursing home and falls in love with a sassy 81-year-old resident, whom he kidnaps and takes on the road. It's the funniest film I've seen this year and I can't think of a more quintessential Frameline experience than watching it in a packed Castro Theatre this Friday night.

Given the emergence of a kinder, gentler Bruce LaBruce, I suspect the most transgressive film in Frameline38 may well be David Wnendt's Wetlands, a German entry that has caused a ruckus everywhere it's been screened. The film's protagonist/narrator is a young woman named Helen. She has a perpetual case of raging hemorrhoids and is a self-described "living pussy hygiene experiment." After a rectal shaving mishap results in acute anal fissures that require hospitalization, Helen reflects back on a life of parental issues and body fluid obsessions – complete with riffs on masturbatory vegetable tests, underwear stains and jizz-covered pizzas. Wetlands has a welcome punk sensibility and I was reminded of Trainspotting more than once (it kicks off with a revolting public restroom scene, for starters). The succession of Helen's infantile infatuations, however, does become wearing, and a murky denouement meant to humanize it all falls somewhat short. And for those who care about such things, the LGBT content of Wetlands is kind of negligible.

Other German language films in the fest include Frameline38's closing nighter, I Feel Like Disco. In this broad, genial-enough coming-of-age dramedy, an overweight gay teen struggles to reconcile with a gruff father following the hospitalization of his beloved mother. All the while he pursues an unlikely friendship with a Romanian teen swimming champ. The title derives from a song by gaudy German popster Christian Steiffen, who plays himself in a handful of fantasy sequences. I've also had a look at Jochen Hick's well-constructed and informative documentary Out in East Berlin – Lesbians & Gays in the GDR. Hick is a veteran non-fiction filmmaker whose works like Via Appia, Sex/Life in L.A. and East/West – Sex & Politics have all played Frameline over the past 25 years. During the festival proper I look forward to seeing Stefan Haupt's The Circle, a docu-fiction hybrid that reveals Zurich, Switzerland to have been the center of European gay life in the 1950's. Finally, enthusiasts of Monika Treut (Gendernauts, Ghosted) should be advised that the prolific queer German filmmaker has a new work in Frameline38, Of Girls and Horses.

French language films always hold a prominent place in Frameline's programming and this year is no exception. Abdellah Taïa's Salvation Army, based on the director's autobiographic novel about growing up gay in Morocco, was one of the best films I saw at this spring's San Francisco International Film Festival. (My SFIFF capsule review is here.) At that same festival I also caught Jalil Lespert's rather mainstream and hagiographic biopic of Yves Saint Laurent, which opens at Landmark Theatres' Opera Plaza on July 4th. The production had the blessing of YSL's surviving partner, Pierre Bergé, which means the on-screen couture you see are the exact originals worn by runway models many decades ago. The lead performances from Comédie Française actors Pierre Niney (Saint Laurent) and Guillaume Gallienne (Bergé) are, as they say, better than the movie they appear in.

Another French biopic soon to hit Bay Area theatres is Martin Provost's Violette. It stars one of my favorite French actresses, Emmanuelle Devos, as the lauded 20th century lesbian writer Violette Leduc. Provost directed 2008's memorable biopic of naïve artiste Séraphine de Senlis, and his portrait of Leduc appears to focus on her obsessive friendship with feminist author Simone de Beauvoir (played by another great French actress, Sandrine Kiberlain). Frameline's lone screening of Violette takes place on Monday night, June 23. If you're like me, you'll be back at the Castro Theatre on Tuesday morning for the related documentary, Violette Leduc: In Pursuit of Love.

Yann Gonzalez' stylized and trippy You and the Night, which venerated magazine Cahiers du Cinéma put on their 2013 ten-best list, is sure to prove one of Frameline38's more outré entries. Set in some sort of hyper-sensualized netherworld, it's "about" a young couple and their transvestite maid who've invited a quartet of archetypes (The Star, The Bitch, The Stud and The Adolescent) over for a late-night orgy. Springing from this set-up are a series of flashbacks, dreams, side-trips and monologues, the latter of which range from risible hooey to achingly poetic. If seeing ex-soccer star Eric Cantona crawl around a cage dressed only in bulging white briefs while getting whipped by a snarling, white fur-clad Béatrice Dalle is your idea of a good time – as it certainly is mine – then You and the Night, çest pour vous. Apart from Cantona and Dalle, the other recognizable cast member is Niels Schneider, who played the object of desire in Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats. (Speaking of M. Dolan, the 25-year-old French-Canadian director is probably the world's best known contemporary gay filmmaker. So one wonders why his 2013 film Tom at the Farm, is M.I.A. at Frameline38?)

Unless you've lived under a rock for the past year, you'll know these are awful times for LGBT people in Russia. For Frameline38, the festival has curated a pertinent sidebar, Spotlight: LGBT Films in Today's Russia, from which I've previewed the narrative feature, Winter Journey. This debut film from writer/directors Lubov Lvova and Sergey Taramaev tells the hard-to-believe but no less compelling story of an aspiring gay opera singer and his "relationship" with a bug-eyed, sociopathic thug (a searing performance by Evgeniy Tkachuk). I was struck by Winter Journey's richly inventive cinematography and unsurprised to learn it was shot by ace Russian D.P. Mikhail Krichman, who has worked with top directors like Andrey Zvyagintev (The Return) and Aleksey Fedorchenko (Silent Souls). The other films comprising this Russian sidebar are the narrative feature Stand, the documentary Campaign of Hate: Russia and Gay Propaganda, and a shorts program titled Pussy vs. Putin.

As always, I'm especially excited by Frameline38's line-up of new works from Latin America, beginning with a pair of high-profile Brazilian films that emerged from 2014's Berlin Film Festival. Daniel Ribeiro's The Way He Looks took home the fest's Teddy Award, which is generally acknowledged as the world's most prestigious LGBT film accolade. For this feature directorial debut, Ribeiro expands upon his multiple award-wining 2010 short in which a blind high school student and his female best friend both fall for the same new boy at school. Ribeiro is expected to attend the film's Frameline Showcase screening. Then in Karim Ainouz' Futuro Beach, a lifeguard (played by Brazilian superstar Wagner Moura) becomes involved with a German tourist he rescues from drowning. Frameline audiences might remember Ainouz for his impressive first feature Madame Satã, which played the fest nearly a decade ago.

While Brazilian films are a regular occurrence at Frameline, the same can't be said for Venezuela - it is therefore a pleasure to find two such works in this year's line-up. The first is Miguel Ferrari's My Straight Son, a glossy melodrama set in an upper-class Caracas milieu. On the same day his estranged son arrives from Spain for an extended visit, photographer Diego loses his lover in a vicious gay-bashing. Although the film is overly broad and juggles too many side characters and issues (anorexia, spousal abuse), it's honest and heartfelt and very much recommended. I also thought highly of Mariana Rondón's Bad Hair, another highlight from this year's SF International Film Festival. In contrast to My Straight Son, Rondón's film takes place in the Caracas slums and traces the contentious relationship between a stressed-out single Mom and her 9-year-old effeminate son. Bad Hair deservedly won the top prize at last year's San Sebastian Film Festival.

My favorite of the Latin American films previewed is Rodrigo Guerrero's The Third One, a 69-minute, formalist accounting of a 3-way between an established gay Argentine couple and a young man they meet on-line. Guerrero's film is essentially composed of four set-pieces. The first is a 15-minute seduction via webcam, followed by a chatty, 20-minute dinner scene at the couple's apartment. The latter is comprised of only two stationary shots; the first with the young man's back to the camera flanked by the couple facing him on the other side of the table, and the second is its exact opposite. Dinner is followed a lengthy sex scene, also consisting of only two shots, discretely filmed from the waist up but as hot as anything you're likely to see at the festival. I'll leave the final act of this naturalistic, sex-positive, drama-free filmic exercise for you to discover on your own. Finally, two remaining Latin American entries I hope to catch during the festival are Holiday, a cross-class relationship story from Ecuador, and I Am Happiness on Earth, the latest from Mexico's preeminent gay director Julián Hernández (A Thousand Clouds of Peace, Broken Sky). The director's fans might also want to check out the shorts program Worldly Affairs, where Hernández has a second film, Wandering Clouds.

Other international features of potential interest include Quick Change, which concerns a Filipina "doctor" administering illegal hormone shots to transgender beauty pageant contenders. It's the second feature of Eduardo Roy Jr., whose debut film Baby Factory was a highlight of CAAMFest a few years back. In Frameline38's Centerpiece Film Lilting, a young British man played by Ben Whishaw (Bright Star, Cloud Atlas) reaches out to his deceased partner's Chinese mother (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Pei-Pei Cheng). None other than Christina Ricci shows up in the Australian movie Around the Block, playing a teacher determined to engage her inner-city students through Shakespeare. Floating Skyscrapers is a rare gay film from Poland, with a sexually conflicted competition swimmer at its center. A love affair between two teenage relay runners is the focus of Dutch entry Boys. Then in Cupcakes, Israeli director Eytan Fox (Yossi & Jagger, Walk on Water) returns to the frivolous side he first exhibited in the 2009 TV series Mary Lou, in a campy romp about a group of friends entering a Eurovision-like song competition. Be forewarned that Cupcakes will possibly be accompanied by a political demonstration from folks who believe Frameline should, in their words, "discontinue its financial relationship with the state of Israel." The same issue was raised seven years ago when Fox personally accompanied his film The Bubble to the festival.

After the foreign narrative features, my favorite part of the festival is its eclectic selection of documentaries. Frameline38 kicks off with a really terrific one on opening night. Ben Cotner and Ryan White's The Case Against 8 is a thriller-like account of the five-year battle to overturn California's reviled anti-gay marriage proposition. It begins with the controversial hiring of conservative attorney Ted Olson (he argued Bush vs. Gore before the Supreme Court) and closely follows the selection and vetting process of the four plaintiffs (all of whom are expected to attend the screening). We witness the development of the case's legal strategies, and tag along right up through the landmark Supreme Court decision that was handed down in the middle of last year's festival. Another immensely popular Frameline38 doc is sure to be To Be Takei, which recounts the life and times of everyone's favorite starship Enterprise captain and Facebook maven, George Takei. The beloved actor will be at the screening, along with husband Brad, in order to personally receive this year's Frameline Award. The film is directed by Jennifer Kroot, who did such an amazing job chronicling the Kuchar Brothers in It Came from Kuchar. Another famous gay couple expected to attend the festival are former Congressman Barney Frank and husband Jim Ready, appearing with the documentary Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank).

Other celebrated LGBT folks receiving the documentary treatment at Frameline38 include actor Alec Mapa (Alec Mapa: Baby Daddy) and Olympic champion diver Greg Louganis (Back on Board: Greg Louganis,) both of whom are scheduled to attend the fest. There's also a profile of author/intellectual Susan Sontag (Regarding Susan Sontag) and a 10-years-in-the-making portrait of John Wojtowicz, the real-life bank robber portrayed by Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon (The Dog). The something-for-everyone array of Frameline38 docs also includes a look at gays in roller derby (Derby Crazy Love) and surfing (Out in the Line-Up: Uncovering the Taboo of Homosexuality in Surfing), a celebration of the 30-year-old Folsom Street Fair (Folsom Forever), an exposé of Escuela Caribe, the notorious Christian-run "behavior modification" school in the Dominican Republic (Kidnapped for Christ) and last but certainly not least, the self-explanatory Mondo Homo: A Study of French Gay Porn in the '70s.

Finally, those hoping to watch some actual 35mm film at this year's festival (as opposed to the now ubiquitous digital) will want to check out Frameline38's retrospective screenings of 1999's Oscar®-winning Boys Don't Cry (a 15th anniversary celebration with director Kimberly Peirce in attendance) and 1994's seminal, groundbreaking Go Fish (a 20th anniversary screening with director Rose Troche and actress Guinevere Turner attending). Rounding out Frameline38's selection of retrospectives will be a new digital restoration of Derek Jarman's Edward II, which will kick off Derek Jarman, Visionary, a 10-film series scheduled for the Pacific Film Archive this summer.