Outfest 2012—July 12th through 22nd—looks like it’s gonna be a particularly fired-up festival, with docs about activism at its core and plenty of adventurous filmmaking in the lineup. There are a lot of intriguing films I wasn’t able to preview, including the Iranian transsexual drama Facing Mirrors, the 1963 Ron Rice film The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man starring Warhol favorite Taylor Mead, and I Am a Woman Now, a doc that brings together a pioneering group of outspoken, elderly transwomen who had their sex change operations some 50 years ago.
The beating heart of the festival is the opening-night screening of Vito, a documentary on the incredible life and times of activist and writer Vito Russo. In 90 minutes, the film powerfully conveys the sweep of LGBT history since the 1960s, from the early protests against bar raids, through the heyday of the Gay Activist Alliance and the subsequent celebratory and hedonistic late ‘70s, to the onslaught of AIDS and the founding of ACT UP in the 1980s. Russo was a beacon, a key figure in every major activist movement of his time; he was also the best-selling author of The Celluloid Closet, a mammoth work of research and commentary on the representation of homosexuality throughout the history of film. He’s a golden subject for documentary, embodying on a personal level as well as in his public persona the spirit of his times. Director Jeffrey Schwartz has assembled a wealth of archival footage, and gets access to all the important figures in Russo’s life. It’s an inspiring and deeply moving story, artfully crafted so that the filmmaker all but disappears and the subject is allowed to shine. (If you aren’t at Outfest, fret not, as this HBO Documentary film makes its television debut on July 23rd at 9pm.)
Vito leads nicely into two new docs that tackle the unique phenomenon that was ACT UP, twenty years after its heyday. How to Survive a Plague and United in Anger: A History of ACT UP both attempt to summarize and make sense of the trajectory of ACT UP/New York, the movement’s original and most powerful chapter, drawing on a lot of the same primitive, consumer-grade video footage. David France’s How to Survive a Plague is the more conventionally structured of the two films, using the through-line of activist Bob Rafsky’s visits with his daughter and ex-wife as the human story that knits the wider narrative together, and ultimately focusing on Peter Staley and the members of TAG—the Treatment Action Group—and their brilliant efforts to penetrate the healthcare establishment and create real policy changes that eventually led to the discovery of effective drugs to manage the disease.
Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger tells a similar but somewhat more complex story, daring to tackle some of the interesting contradictions of the movement, such as the cruisy, sex-positive atmosphere in the meetings, as well as the sense of entitlement of the middle-class men that made up a large part of ACT UP’s membership—how to some extent it worked in the movement’s favor, but ultimately created angry rifts with members who had a broader view of the need for social change, including a lot of the women and people of color. The film casts a wide net, and conveys the multifaceted personality of ACT UP and its non-hierarchical power structure with a great deal of perspective. In the end the two films complement each other—these are heartfelt documents of a movement created by people who had been abandoned by society to die, banding together to create power where there was none, and affecting meaningful changes within seemingly untouchable government institutions.
Kieran Turner’s Jobriath A.D. is the story of Pennsylvania child prodigy Bruce Campbell, who reinvented himself as Jobriath when he moved to L.A. in the late ‘60s and landed a role in the West Coast production of Hair. After a series of ups and downs as a musician he fatefully met Jerry Brandt, a rock manager and promoter with a stellar track record and a sleazy reputation. It isn’t clear if they actually became lovers, but Brandt was seduced by Jobriath’s talent and charisma and decided to gamble every penny he could raise to make him the world’s biggest star. Turner’s film shows Jobriath as a gifted performer who did actually deserve to become a glam-rock legend, but was derailed by the backlash to an absurdly over-the-top marketing campaign (including a massive billboard in Times Square), as well as the decision to come out of the closet as part of his image. His album was one the most embarrassing commercial flops in the history of the recording industry, and Jobriath and Brandt became estranged. But Brandt himself is the lifeblood of this beautifully realized doc: interviewed at length in his modest Florida condo, he’s like a character out of Shakespeare, filled with equal parts hubris and regret as he tries to make sense of a story that clearly still haunts him.
A successful filmmaker with tons of Facebook friends but very little human contact goes on a cross-country driving trip to meet 50 of those Facebook friends in person. The premise of Katherine Brooks’ Face2Face doesn’t adequately prepare you for the film’s impact: the stakes are huge for Brooks, both in terms of her mental health and in terms of her Hollywood career, which she is jeopardizing by going public about the extent of her emotional instability. Each time the film seems like it might stray into reality-TV contrivance, it turns around and hits you with a scene of brutally human intensity. The absolute show-stopper is Katherine’s visit to Madison, WI, and her friend Asia’s astonishing, cathartic story of surviving a disfiguring, fiery car crash.
Wildness is a fascinating look at The Silver Platter—L.A.’s venerable MacArthur Park-area gay/trannie bar—and the Tuesday-night club “Wildness,” which filmmaker Wu Tsang and three of his middle-class, multi-culti artist friends established there in 2008. It examines the tricky balancing act of putting on avant-garde performance in a space that caters to working-class, Latino drag queens. The club promoters are eventually sucked into a dispute over control and ownership of bar, even as they fight to avoid becoming a doorway to gentrification—an extremely delicate and complex issue, which they handle with commitment and sensitivity. Best line in the festival—a middle-aged drag queen, gesturing at her own body: “These ruins you see before you were once a MONUMENT!”
Dino Dinco’s Homeboy is the simplest of docs, just a series of intercut interviews with gay former gang members, most of whom have been to prison—but it opens a window on the taboo of homosexuality within the subculture. One subject describes the specific sensation of committing a stabbing, of a knife going into flesh; another one explains the kind of lingo used to determine if another gangbanger is up for sex. One of the best stories is about a large family gathering where one of the former gang members abruptly came out of the closet, and was instinctively defended by his mother—at first.
Jonathan Caouette’s Walk Away Renée is his long-awaited follow-up to 2004’s Tarnation. He dials the video art component way back, to focus on his favorite subject, his mother Renée, in his typical scrapbook style. Jonathan decides to pick her up in Texas and move her to New York, but a few days into the trip her meds go missing and can’t be replaced for several weeks, causing her brain chemistry to go out of control. She has very little instinct for self-preservation, and easily falls between the cracks of the healthcare system; having her son as her tireless advocate is the only thing that saves her. Renée is endlessly watchable, whether sweet and childlike or spitting insults—she’s a natural entertainer, a clown, a bipolar savant. She’s a barometer of how we treat the most fragile people in our society, and thanks to Jonathan she lives her life as a kind of movie star. She’s a bit of a national treasure.
You have to be very careful who you call “bakla” (gay) in the world of Jade Castro’s Remington and the Curse of the Zombadings. Remington, as a little boy, makes the mistake of calling out a queen with magical powers, and gets “turned gay” himself 15 years later, unleashing a deliciously campy farce that blithely crosses all lines of political correctness but still manages to convey the idea that gay is more than okay. Dykey cops try to track down the guy who’s been killing the town’s beloved hairdressers with his gaydar gun, as Remington himself, hilariously dressed in sissywear, tries to stop himself from jumping on his hot and willing straight best friend. The dead hairdressers turn into fabulous drag zombies and… seriously, you just gotta see it.
The male heartthrob of the festival has got to be Joey Capone, star of Eli Rarey’s The Famous Joe Project. His character is innocent as a baby bird; he posts video of his everyday life online with a sincere desire to establish a caring relationship with his viewers. When he has sex with some of those viewers, who also help him out with his living expenses, he convinces himself—and maybe in a way he’s right—that it’s acts of kindness being exchanged, and not prostitution. Rarey’s script crackles with great dialogue that digs into the relationship between the desire for fame and the simple need to be seen and to feel connected. At one point Joe’s sister tries to get him to turn off the camera and he responds as if she was making him choose between herself and a lover. Though the supporting performances are uneven, this is exciting filmmaking that tackles with intelligence and a refreshing lack of preconceptions some of the defining issues of the urban gay experience.
Legendary gay filmmaker Ira Sachs, whose career stretches back to the profound and lyrical 1997 film The Delta, is back with Keep the Lights On, which won the Teddy Award in Berlin. It’s a lightly-fictionalized memoir of his tumultuous ten-year relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg (who published his own memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, in 2010). Through the character of Erik, Sachs presents a dissenting view of how best to handle a relationship with a drug addict, one that puts a determination to forgive and to fight for love—even if it means crossing the line into codependency—ahead of self-preservation. The film’s emotional impact is somewhat lessened by its failure to convey what it is Erik sees in Paul, who comes across, for the most part, as a selfish user. But it is steeped in the specific issues that come up in modern gay relationships, issues beyond social acceptance and identity. Dirty secrets like chat line hook ups and an incredibly intense experience involving the two lovers and a prostitute don’t lessen the humanity and need for connection of these characters. Featuring the great Paprika Steen (of Vinterberg’s The Celebration, as well as Sachs’ Forty Shades of Blue) as Erik’s sister.
Axel Ranisch’s Heavy Girls (Dicke Mädchen) features a truly bizarre love triangle—between middle-aged banker Sven, his childlike, 90-year-old mother Edeltraut, and Daniel, Edeltraut’s married caretaker. It’s a real charmer, with bizarre moments of surreal comedy as well as intense drama, anchored in its deeply human and richly conveyed characters. It won multiple awards at this year’s Slamdance. Read my HTN review here.
Writer-director Jonathan Lisecki unfurls his gay-of-the-art wit across the surprisingly sweet-natured Gayby, which has been tearing up the festival circuit since premiering at SXSW. It’s the story of a straight woman and her gay friend making a baby the old-fashioned way—awkward!—and the relationship complications that ensue. It features not one but two sassy gay best friends: scene stealer Lisecki himself, and the hilarious Jack Ferver of Strangers with Candy fame. Read Adam Schartoff’s hilarious HTN conversation with Lisecki if you haven’t already.
David W. Ross’s I Do has the tight story structure and glossy production values of a studio film, but the interesting twist is in its subject matter: it describes in detail the tangle of consequences and conundrums faced by a gay man who gets his green card denied after living for many years in the U.S. and developing family ties.
No one is making films like Kyle Henry’s Fourplay these days. Its sunny, hyperreal tone and very American characters thrust into unabashedly sexual situations are reminiscent of the youth-oriented comedies of the post-hippie, pre-AIDS late-‘70s and early ‘80s—think Eating Raoul and Kentucky Fried Movie, or the TV show Soap. An anthology of four shorts set in four cities, Fourplay starts out with Skokie, where a Christian closeted lesbian—played with inspired nerdy realness by Sara Sevigny—dogsits and then some for her secret crush. Up next is Austin, in which a smoking-hot couple, Danielle Rene and Atticus Rowe, enter a world of fantasy to revive their physical relationship. The film kicks into high-gear with the infamous Fourplay: Tampa, which generated some well-deserved H2N digital ink when it screened separately at Sundance this year [read Michael Tully’s review here]. It tackles the dark and filthy secret of T-room sex by turning the lights on and finding good, old fashioned, over-the-top, urinal-scented comedy, anchored in the warm humanity of its under-endowed protagonist (adorable, rubber-faced teddy bear José Villareal). It’s a film that goes way too far, again and again, but does it with a disarming sweetness that could bring peace to the Middle East. A lingering image from the Tampa segment is a white-trash trannie sodomizing Hitler; the she-male in question is Christeene, the current reigning queen of underground drag—a character created by Paul Soileau, who returns to star in the San Francisco segment (HTN review), playing Aliya, a strong, sensitive high-end prostitute. She’s hired by the wife of an elderly, paralyzed man, who can only communicate by blinking his eyes. Aliya takes on the challenge of giving the man a hot and loving sexual experience, throwing her entire being into the task, and finding a surprising solution to the matter at hand.
— Paul Sbrizzi