With Outfest Los Angeles celebrating its 31st year, it’s hard to imagine that this, one most sophisticated and entertaining of all LGBT film festivals, began its life as a spare weekend in a UCLA classroom with a scratchy print Maedchen in Uniform and whatever pieces of avant-garde same-sex-oriented effluvia could be randomly rounded up in short order with scant finance. It was all tied together with a panel discussion about what gay and lesbian cinema might be. Today LGBT is everywhere–save a “mainstream” cinema so devoted to cartoon-like blockbusters that all serious work is pushed to the art house margins. But there’s no end of gayness on TV. And I’m not just talking Glee, Smash and Behind the Candelabra. There’s Ellen (no last name needed) cheering up bored housewives’ afternoons with her bubbly talk show, canny tele-journalists Thomas Roberts (MSNBC) and Don Lemon (CNN) and Award Show “Host with the Most” Neil Patrick Harris (the Tonys, the Emmys and, if they’re smart, probably the Oscars.)
Back in 1982 the star of How I Met Your Mother was nine years old, seven years away from his movie debut in Clara’s Heart and TV’s Doogie Houser and over a decade from his emergence as the most well-loved openly gay actor , complete with partner (David Burtka) and their (via surrogate) twins (Gideon and Harper). Today Harris is scarcely alone in his “outness.” See also Zachary Quinto of Star Trek , Matt Bomer of White Collar, Jane Lynch of Glee—the list goes on and on. In 1982 an actor electing to “come out of the closet” was seen as committing “career suicide.” Not anymore. And for those LGBTs outside of show business, “outness” is increasingly the rule rather than the exception as well.
The U.S. Supreme Court decisions defeating DOMA (“The Defense of Marriage Act” i.e., male-female only state-sanctioned coupling) and California’s anti same-sex marriage Proposition 8 now finds gay marriage legal in thirteen states plus the District of Columbia. Needless to say, the fight for LGBT rights is far from over, as the marriage push hasn’t been accompanied by a spike basic in civil rights protection. Today only twenty-one states plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and seventeen states plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico outlaw discrimination based on gender identity or expression. But times have certainly changed from the pre “Stonewall” era when gayness was illegal and verboten in polite conversation. And this is where Outfest comes into the play. For there’s nothing like a gay film festival to paint the picture, fill in the blanks and broaden the horizon of LGBT life and times in ways one won’t find anywhere else. Here’s a selection of this year’s offerings of note. Obviously they’re not equally successful. But they are equally sincere, and sometimes equally notable.
C.O.G. (Opening Night, Thursday, July 11, 8 p.m. Orpheum theater)
The most notable “crossover” gay writer of our time, David Sedaris has inherited the twin mantles of James Thurber and Jean Shepherd for his New Yorker pieces and “This American Life” radio appearances. So it was only a matter of time before his off-kilter view of humanity was headed for the big screen. But C.O.G. is destined to disappoint those expecting standard Sedaris chuckles. Written and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, this is tale of middle-class gay youth (Zachary Quinto’s boyfriend Jonathan Groff) who, for reasons that are never made clear, elects to take a job as an itinerant apple picker. There’s next to nothing in the way of comedy here. The downright dark tone is established immediately when our anti-hero meets the manager of an apple picking and sorting concern (Dean Stockwell), a decidedly depressed type. The co-workers are either non-English-speaking Mexicans or surly whites devoid of the milk of human kindness. A bit of brightness would appear to emerge when another worker (Corey Stoll) takes a shine to him. But that ends in attempted rape. Going from the frying pan into the fire, our postmodern pilgrim takes up with a religious nut (Dennis O’Hare) who declares him to be a “Child of God” (hence C.O.G.) and his attraction to him ends not in rape but attempted murder. Not exactly a bundle of opening night cheer—but it’s exceptionally well-acted.
Free Fall (Friday, July 12, 9:30 pm DGA 1, and Sunday July 21, 1 pm DGA 1)
You’ll find more directly involving drama in this German film directed by Stephan Lacant from a screenplay he co-wrote with Karstan Dahlem about a trainee police officer (Hanno Koffler) who, while the girlfriend he plans to marry (Katharina Schuttler), is going into the last stages of pregnancy with his child, finds himself drifting into an illicit affair with another trainee (Max Riemelt). Obviously everyone’s life is upended. But this cautionary tale of bisexual self-discovery ends on a sadder-but-wiser note while being thoroughly absorbing throughout its course.
San Diego Surf (Friday, July 12, 9:30 pm, REDCAT)
A sequel to Lonesome Cowboys (no I’m not making this up. At the end of that cracked classic the cast declares that they’re off to California to go surfing) San Diego Surf was the last Warhol film Andy had any direct involvement with. Being a firm believer in the mise en scene of laissez-faire outside of the silent portrait films Andy left most of the cinematic “heavy lifting” to the likes of Ronnie Tavel (Vinyl, Horse, The Life of Juanita Castro), Chuck Wein (Beauty #2, Poor Little Rich Girl, My Hustler) and Paul Morrissey (everything from The Chelsea Girls on). But after being shot by a psychotic would-be screenwriter named Valerie Solanis, he left the director’s chair entirely to Paul. For some reason this, his last semi-official directorial effort, was left in the vaults until last year when the Warhol Foundation asked Morrisey to dust it off. For Andy adepts it’s quite fun, as can be seen from this trailer. Being that the Warhol Foundation treats the films as if they were paintings, prospects for a wider theatrical or home video release are uncertain. So be there or be square.
Bridegroom (Saturday, July 13, 1:30 pm, DGA 1)
This deeply movie documentary by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (of Evening Shade fame) deals with a young mid-western gay couple, Shane Bitney Crone and Tom Bridegroom, whose happiness is upended by a freak accident that kills the latter. Never accepted by his lover’s family, Crone is barred from the funeral. Left to deal with his grief and loss alone, he has quite a hard time—until this film was engineered. As the pair had made numerous videos of themselves and their travels throughout the world, Bloodworth-Thomason had a lot to work with. The result is a film that brings one exceptionally close to two people you’ve never actually met.
Continental (Saturday, July 13, 9:30 pm, DGA 1)
Entertaining but incomplete, this documentary by Malcolm Ingram about the now-legendary Continental Baths centers on its owner and operator, Steve Ostrow. But as important as he is to telling the story of this gay bathhouse-turned-nightclub, his is only a partial view. For those of us still around to recall those days, the Everard Baths–which Ostrow says inspired his creation of the Continental–was never as dirty as he claims. It was merely dark and quiet as a church. The Continental was brightly lit and cheerfully noisy. It was a great place to have sex. But when Ostrow elected to add entertainment, it became unique. This was where a Broadway chorus singer named Bette Midler became a star with a song and comedy act of irresistible liveliness. While Bette capitalized on her bathhouse beginnings for a great many years it’s telling that while discussed at length and seen in video clips, she’s not heard singing or speaking in Continental at all. Bette-less and not as hip to Teh Ghey though it may be, the film is still very much worth seeing
Geography Club (Sunday, July 14 11 am, DGA 1)
An exceptionally nice adaptation by Gary and Edmund Entin of Brent Hardinger’s novel about high school kids surreptitiously establishing a “Gay/Straight Alliance” club at a school that initially doesn’t want one (hence the title) Geography Club is the gay Afterschool Special you always wanted. Cameron Deane Stewart is quite fetching as the lead with Justin Deely as the closeted jock he loves and loses when he won’t join the club. This avoidance of a “happy ending” is most becoming. It should be pointed out that the film was produced by Arianna Huffington’s ex-husband Michael Huffington. Thereby hangs a tale I hope we’ll see a movie of one day.
Born This Way (Sunday, July 14, 7:30 pm, Harmony Gold)
Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (aka. “Lady Gaga”) thankfully plays no role in this incredibly intense documentary by Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullman about Cameroon–where gays and lesbians can be imprisoned for up to five years or more if their sexual orientation is made known. While celebrating the strides the LGBT communities have made stateside it’s important to remember that all is not nearly so well elsewhere in the world—particularly in Africa.
I Am Divine (Sunday, July 14 9:30 pm, DGA 1)
Jeffrey Schwarz’s terrific documentary of the life and times of the legendary “Male Actress” has been hailed on Keyframe before. This is merely to note another opportunity to see this exceptionally lively work.
Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton (Monday, July 15, 5pm, DGA2)
Directed by Dawn Logsdon, Stephen Silha and Eric Slade this well-organized documentary allows access to the spectacularly messy yet fascinating life of the part time avant-garde filmmaker (The Pleasure Garden, The Bed), part-time poet and full-time bisexual troublemaker who, after a life ranging all over the Kinsey scale (poet Kermit Sheets, critic Pauline Kael and a marriage to one Susanna Hart), happily ended up with a man over thirty years his junior, Joel Singer. As the film shows, that happiness wasn’t shared by his ex-wife (who speaks of her understandable bitterness) and two daughters (who declined to go before the cameras at all). His son merely notes that his father while amiable wasn’t around very much. Featuring ample excerpts from Broughton’s films and several recorded comments by Kael inserted at appropriate points, Big Joy manages to be as enjoyable and unsettling as its subject.
Pit Stop (Monday, July 15, 7 pm, DGA 1)
Gay life and love in the Southwest is uncharted territory in every sense of the term and this film by Yen Tan, co-scripted by David Lowery, fills in the blanks nicely. Bill Heck stars as a gay man who continues to live with his ex-wife and daughter, who finally finds love with Marcus DeAnda–a gay man pulling himself together as his ex, on life-support, is put in nursing home. While this situation may sound depressing, the film is not. It’s sensitive and extremely well-observed.
Southern Baptist Sissies (Monday, July 15, 9:30 pm, DGA 1)
The latest from one-man gay-liberation band Del Shores, this piece of filmed theater (there’s no effort made to disguise the fact that we’re looking at a stage play featuring spirited performances by Emerson Collins, Luke Stratte-McClure and Matthew Scott Montgomery as the title characters. They speak both ruefully and comically of their sexual self-discovery and social estrangement, occasionally interrupted by the irrepressible Leslie Jordan as a sweetly cynical gay barfly. Cinematically this isn’t much different than The Great Train Robbery but if you’re a fan of Shores’ special brand of dark gay humor (e.g., Daddy’s Dyin–Who’s Got The Will?, Sordid Lives) you’re bound to enjoy it.
In The Name Of (Wednesday, July 17, 9:45 pm, DGA 1 and Saturday, July 20, & pm, Redcat)
Direct by Malgorzata Szunowska from a screenplay co-written with Michael Englert, this Polish drama about a priest (Andrzej Chyra) who finds himself falling in love with one of the troubled youths put in his care (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz) is every bit as sensitive touch and un-sensational as one would hope.
Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (Saturday, July 20, 11 am, DGA 1)
While there have been several feature-length documentaries about Eugene Luther Vidal this latest (I dare not say last as I wouldn’t put it past him to come back from the grave and make another) directed by Nicholas D. Wrathall is delightful. Covering any number of aspects of the great iconoclast’s literary career, far-from-private “private life,” Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia profits from a subject who never said or did anything remotely dull. After the “scandal” of his novel The City and The Pillar, which because it dealt with same-sex love as a simple matter of fact rather than a crime or “neurosis,” banished his name from “The Newspaper of Record,” Vidal went on to success in “The Golden Age of Television,” the Broadway stage (The Best Man, Visit To A Small Planet) novels both historical (Burr, Julian) and fantastic (Myra Breckinridge, The Smithsonian Institution) and personal appearances too numerous to mention. “Never turn down an opportunity to have sex or appear on television” the proud bisexual wisely declared. There’s plenty of the latter here, especially his contretemps with William F. Buckley, Jr. (“The Marie Antoinette of American Politics” according to Gore) at the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in 1968. As for sex, the eagle-eyed will spot former Rock Hudson paramour Mark Christian squiring Vidal around during a political campaign in his later years. This detail the film fails to examine. But it’s one of the few bits of Vidaliana that isn’t. In short, this is required viewing.
The Happy Sad (Saturday, July 20, 1:30 pm DGA 1)
Writer-director Rodney Evans made a considerable splash in 2006 with Brother to Brother, a film about the decidedly queer Harlem Renaissance that launched the acting career of Anthony Mackie. Now with The Happy Sad , adapted from a play by Ken Urban, he goes even further. Betraying none of its theatrical origins, this drama about two couples, one black and gay (Leroy McClain and Charlie Barnett), the other white, straight and very “bi-curious” (Sorel Carradine and Cameron Scoggins) is quite simply one of the best pictures of the year. When the gay couple elect to have an “open relationship” and meet the “straight” couple whose alliance has been upset by a lesbian flirtation (Maria Dizia giving this quartet a “fifth wheel”) all manner of love trouble ensues. What makes the film unique is the way Evans and his superlative cast make these flawed but likeable characters human and therefore relatable. You don’t have to have fallen into the romantic traps they stumble into without recognizing a “there but for the grace of” to their well-meaning if misguided sexcapades. This is not to be missed.
B. Ruby Rich presents The Witnesses (Saturday, July 20, 1:30 pm, DGA 2)
Having said that, I sincerely hope there’s a second screening of The Happy Sad as this one conflicts with critic B. Ruby Rich’s presentation of André Téchiné’s 2007 masterpiece, The Witnesses. Starring Michel Blanc, Sami Bouajila, Emanuelle Beart and Johan Libereau this drama of the early days of the AIDS epidemic and its effect on a group of gay, straight and bisexual friends is incredibly compelling. And she who invented the term “New Queer Cinema” will doubtless have a lot to say about it.
Interior. Leather Bar. (Saturday, July 20, 7 pm, DGA 1)
As anyone who follows so much as the slightest tidbit about showbiz knows the nominally straight James Franco has been fascinated by “the gay world” ever since he appeared in Gus Van Sant’s Milk. This is his misguided attempt at “pushing the envelope.” Inspired by the myth of the forty missing minutes William Friedkin had to cut from Cruising to win it an R Rating (four minutes is more like it) this sixty-minute cinematic sortie by Franco and filmmaker Travis Matthews supposedly replaces what Friedkin was forced to eliminate. But while supplying a scant few seconds of penile tumescence, this is a film devoted almost entirely to actor Val Lauren waiting around a set and speaking ruefully of what he might be asked to do before the camera, and the effect it might have on him. In short, it’s much ado about next to nothing. One would be advised to look instead to an “old-fashioned” porno like Jerry Douglas’ More Than A Man (1991) in which the late and much-missed Joey Stefano has full-on sex with several men in a crowded well-lit gay bar. Now that’s “pushing the envelope.”
G.B.F. (Closing Night, Sunday, July 21, 8 pm, John Anson Ford Theater)
Closing on the lightest of notes, this comedy by Darren Stein and George Northy tells of a high school youth (well-played by Michael J. Willett) whose “coming out” is traumatic in a most unexpected way. For rather than being rejected by his peers our hero finds himself the center of attention as the three leading teen queens (we’re talking actual women here) compete to make him their G.B.F.–the social accessory to hip young thing can do without. The complications, including the estrangement of his gay best friend (the hilarious Paul Iacono) who is actually in love with him, are delightfully well-observed and very funny. Bring your own G.B.F.