Whether you are interested in hard-hitting documentaries dealing with the lives of LGBT individuals around the world, want to experience (or revisit) some of the masterpieces of queer art cinema, or are interested in exploring the work of some LGBT cinema legends, two festivals this summer may sate the appetite: Frameline’s San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, the largest and longest running of its kind, opening today, and Los Angeles’s venerable Outfest, which takes place in July. If you can’t make it to the Golden State (or even if you can), take a look at the programs of streaming LGBT-related movies I’ve assembled below, in double bills and thematic pairings of short and feature films, all accompanied by “program notes” to provide context and a quick preview. Feel free to submit your own suggestions, fantasy double bills, and recommendations in the comment sections.
1. Closet Spaces: Coming Out in Pre-Stonewall Cinema
Short Film: The Secret of Wendel Samson (1966, Mike Kuchar): The colorful, delightfully over-the-top films directed by the Kuchar Brothers have become synonymous with camp hijinks and melodramatic excess (see, for example, Sins of the Fleshapoids and The Craven Sluck). But The Secret of Wendel Samson presents something a bit different: an introverted, closeted young gay man (played by Pop artist Red Grooms) can’t find a way to tell his female friend that it’s not possible for him to return her affection or sexual desire. Such a situation is ripe for histrionic drama, of course, but director Mike Kuchar takes a different tack, and Secret becomes an unexpectedly poignant and introspective film. Indeed, Kuchar seems to draw from the spare physical and emotional spaces of 1960’s European art cinema as much as the lush Hollywood melodramas and fantastical sci-fi flicks typically associated with the brothers’ signature style. The pathos of the coming-out process is punctuated by several dream/fantasy interludes that are, typical of the Kuchars, sometimes humorous, sometimes horrific, and often both at the same time. It all culminates in a nightmarish sequence where a crowd (presided over by a sadistic hitman played by George Kuchar) attempts to scare Wendel straight. Literally.
Feature Film: A Serious Charge (1961, Britain, Terence Young): Nobody is actually gay in A Serious Charge, but the mere charge of homosexuality is enough to ruin the reputation of a socially active-minded young vicar (Anthony Quayle) and transform a quiet British village into a seething beehive of intolerance and bigotry. Directed by Terence Young, who would soon go on to direct the first James Bond films, Charge anticipates by several years Basil Dearden’s Victim, the sympathetic and groundbreaking depiction of the plight of of homosexuals under Britain’s draconian Section 11. The plot is a variation on The Children’s Hour, only this time it is an angry young man confronted with a series of petty crimes, and Cliff Richard shows up as the head of a group of teenage delinquents enraptured by all things rock and roll and American youth culture, leading to several swinging—and rather incongruous—song and dance sequences. All of Richard’s musical asides can’t detract from the chilling realities delineated by the film’s narrative: Everything is cleared up tidily for the characters by the film’s conclusion, but it’s impossible to shake the knowledge that in “real life” things didn’t turn out so nicely for countless others.
2. Fictions and Realities: Spotlight on Queer China
Narrative Feature: Happy Together (1997, Hong Kong, Wong Kar-Wai): Acclaimed filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai is most known internationally for his depictions of memorable heterosexual romances, from the quirky Chungking Express to the lushly melancholy In the Mood for Love. In 1997, the same year Britain transferred control of Hong Kong over to China, Wong directed Happy Together, a visually stunning depiction of a tumultuous gay romance between Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung, two of Hong Kong’s biggest stars and frequent figures in Wong’s own films. Attempting to revive their flailing relationship, the two men travel to Buenos Aires, but find that their problems manage to follow them across half the globe. Weaving together abstract political commentary (many find subtle references to the Hong Kong holdover embedded within the film) with an almost painfully intense love story, Happy Together stands as Wong’s sole contribution to queer cinema, and over a decade after its release it remains one of its artistic high points.
Documentary Feature: Queer China, ‘Comrade’ China (2008, China, Cui Zi’en): For his documentary on the state of LGBT rights in contemporary China, filmmaker, novelist, theorist, and gay rights activist Cui Zi’en has amassed a large and diverse cross-section of individuals to provide testimony and insight into how gay rights in the world’s most populous country have evolved over the last eighty or so years. It features commentary from renowned scholars, activists, artists, and other prominent figures, and it also includes rarely seen footage of a talk show credited as the first appearance of openly gay individuals (including Cui Zi’en himself) on state-run television. Serving as a primer on a variety of queer issues in China, Queer China, ‘Comrade’ China played at a number of international LGBT film festivals, and, was selected as the opening night film for Shanghai PRIDE in 2009.
3. Cross-Cultural LGBT / International Documentary
Aravani Girl (2009, India, Peter Spenceley): Peter Spenceley’s documentary is an eye-opening and often heartbreaking look into the lives of East Indian aravanis. Roughly translated as “ladyboys,” joining an aravani dancing troupe has traditionally been regarded as a somewhat acceptable, or at least socially tolerated, option for boys and young men who identify as gay or identify as female in a society that reviles both homosexuality and transsexuality. “Ladyboys always stick together,” declares one aravani, inevitably bringing to mind the “houses” captured in the celebrated documentary Paris is Burning, and indeed, the various aravani troupes function as families for young men who are often kicked out of their homes, or who find their family and school lives so miserable that there is no option but to run away. Following several aspiring aravanis, the film details their hardships—including abject poverty, physical attacks, prostitution, and HIV/AIDs—and remains unflinching even as many of their paths take tragic turns that are, sadly, not wholly unexpected.
4. Explicit Views, Subversive Pleasures: A ‘Midnight Screening’
The “midnight screening,” the film festival equivalent to the “midnight movie,” is a time slot traditionally allotted to horror, non-mainstream, B-films, and other types and genres of movies not considered appropriate for minors and/or intended to foster an engaged and enthusiastic niche audience. Of course you don’t need to stay up until midnight to watch this pairing—that’s the beauty of watching films from home!
Short Film: The Color of Love (1994, Peggy Ahwesh): Dedicated to Doris Wishman (see below), The Color of Love is an experimental short constructed out of footage from a pornographic film its director Peggy Ahwesh discovered in a stack of film canisters given to her by a friend. The films had been abandoned and left outdoors, and exposure to the elements severally damaged the image. But the kaleidoscope of rainbow colors and intricate textures that emerged fascinated Ahwesh, inspiring her to reassemble fragments of the 8mm film stock and set it all to elegant tango music. The original footage involves a rather passionless sexual encounter between two women and a sleeping (or is he unconscious?) man, which Ahwesh then speeds up or slows down. Her reconstruction of the material ends up shifting all emphasis to a long kiss between the two women, and she discovers a moment of charged erotic intimacy in what otherwise would be a mundane moment between more explicit and titillating sex acts. What emerges is a space for an alternative, autonomous existence for these two women beyond the confines of a tired fantasy originally intended for the heterosexual male gaze.
Feature Film: Let Me Die a Woman (1978, USA, Doris Wishman): This film has been called “stunningly sordid,” but although exploitation and B-movie auteur Doris Wishman’s pseudo-documentary on transsexuals in the 1970s begins with an exploitative impulse (lots and lots of naked bodies and pornographic interludes), it quickly gives way to a more complex and nuanced examination of the topic. Much like Tod Browning’s seminal Freaks (1932) which sets up expectations for a literal freak show and then upends those assumptions by crafting a haunting—and humanizing—portrait of marginalized individuals, Wishman gives generous space for a number of FTM and MTF individuals in various stages of transition to talk extensively about not only their lives and personal experiences, but the physical and psychic trauma they have endured, as well as their hopes and dreams for a better future. Appearing as himself, Dr. Leo Wolman, M.D., serves as guide to what he describes as the vast reaches of “inner space,” and while his utter ineptitude in reading his lines off of cards is often unintentionally funny, he does manage to navigate the viewer through a rather bizarre mash-up of documentary, pornographic, and melodramatic conventions, all filtered through a parody of the deadpan seriousness characteristic of a PSA from the 1950s. Wishman’s camera does not hesitate to gaze at bodies with unflinching medical precision, including bloody footage of an actual sex change operation, as well as demonstration of how a vagina is dilated, a frank discussion of dildo use, and a close-up examination of a post-operative genitalia, as well as multiple demonstrations of explicit sexual activity. And while the images can be startling, it is the compelling sense of compassion and sympathetic concern that lingers. Not for the faint of heart, but not for those without a heart either.
5. Saluting Queer Icons, #1: Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1925)
Feature: Accattone (1961, Italy, Pier Paolo Pasolini): Italian filmmaker, writer, poet, painter, and activist Pier Paolo Pasolini was defiantly open about his sexuality in both his personal life and in regards to his aesthetic and political philosophy in an era when it was still difficult and potentially even dangerous to do so (he was brutally murdered at the age of 53, and the case has yet to be conclusively resolved). His first film, Accattone, portrays the life of a male pimp as well as a wide swath of lower class and/or socially marginalized characters in Rome, and is stylistically indebted to Italian neorealism, which had revolutionized post-War cinema throughout the 1950s. And while he incorporated overtly queer elements into his films only intermittently—only his 1968 masterpiece Teorema (Theorem) prominently contains gay characters, storylines, and expressions of queer desire—from the very beginning it was impossible for discerning audiences to not notice that a queer sensibility is at work behind the camera. While there is nothing explicitly queer about Accattone, Pasolini uses the film as a showcase for male beauty, and his camera particularly revels in casual glances of men in various states of undress as they swim riverside and enjoy the warm Italian sun.
6. Saluting Queer Icons #2: Judith Anderson (1897-1992)
Feature: And Then There Were None (1945, USA, René Clair): “She lent herself, during her Hollywood period, to the professional-tomboy act… she did not get into drag for the lead in Lady Scarface, but who, with a voice and profilelike that, needs drag?” noted Parker Tyler in the book Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies. While the nature of Anderson’s sexual orientation isn’t necessarily known—she married twice, but is recorded as declaring that “neither experience was a jolly holiday”—many of her performances have been hailed as pioneering depictions of lesbianism in Hollywood cinema. Her shrieking Southern matriarch in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof stands as a rather atypical performance in her memorable, decades-spanning film career; she is most remembered instead for her malevolent and villainous housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, obsessing over the underwear of her deceased mistress in Rebecca, or as the ruthless and masculine Ann Treadwell in Laura. In And Then There Were None, Clair’s elegant adaptation of the Agatha Christie mystery novel, what Parker Tyler calls Anderson’s “professional-tomboy act” is channeled into an austere spinsterishness, but after being accused of inadvertently killing her nephew by a tremulous June Duprez, Anderson’s Emily Brent imperiously dismisses the charge and stalks out the door, in the process revealing a complex steely dimension to this grand old dame.