You might think, with all the acclaim pouring in for Michael Douglas and Matt Damon’s performances in Behind the Candelabra, that the film industry’s “gay moment” has arrived. The proliferation of LGBT-themed movies achieving wide release now might seem to signal that the credits are rolling on what film historian Vito Russo called the celluloid closet and that the gay genre can now dissolve itself to join the rest of the movies as simply that — movies. But the state of things isn’t actually that far along. Neither Douglas nor Damon are themselves gay, nor are there comparable gay stars who could have led that movie. And even though Behind the Candelabra was directed by Steven Soderbergh and featured blockbuster movie stars, no distributor would buy the film. It had to air on HBO.
In reality, though there has been immense progress in the past few years, the LGBT community still has far to come in Hollywood. That’s why the Frameline International LGBT Film Festival is so significant. The oldest and largest film festival in the world devoted to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender programming, Frameline is a showcase for the best work that you still won’t see in the cinemaplex, an opportunity to reflect on the history of our community and its contribution to the movies, and just a gay old time. In its 37th year, the festival runs from June 20th to 30th, ending with Pride, and screens a panoply of fascinating films at the Castro, Roxie, Victoria and Elmwood theaters in San Francisco and Berkeley.
The “hippie fag” roots of the festival can still be seen, but like the gay community, Frameline has grown up since its founding in 1977. Being situated in San Francisco means that its rich history is entwined with that of the larger gay world that flourished in the Bay. Many of the directors that screened in the “Gay Film Festival of Super-8 film” took their celluloid to be developed at Harvey Milk’s photo shop. But not all of them: Rob Epstein, now a two-time Oscar winner and the filmmaker behind The Times of Harvey Milk had his short film rejected because it wasn’t gay enough.
Of course, not every single one of the films screening is going to be worth your time, but Frameline is still significant for its dedication to showcasing lesbian filmmakers — often unfairly overlooked, even within gay artistic communities. Young and Wild and Reaching for the Moon in particular stick out as rare, sensitive, and bold depictions of female sexuality and creativity. The international component of the programming is also strong: you’ll have your pick of films from Argentina to Vietnam. In addition to a world cinema program, there is also a devoted “Queer Asian Cinema” lineup. In short, you won’t be disappointed if you go.
But to optimize your time, consider the following must-sees. The Secret Disco Revolution is about what the title says — the untold and unrecognized subversive history of the gayest musical genre since show tunes. Writer-director Jamie Kastner highlights the political thrust of the disco beat, showing how it was used to make America dance to a tune finally hospitable to women, black people and gays. Interviews with DJ Nicky Siano, Gloria Gaynor and Kool from Kool and the Gang underscore the overlooked reality that Kastner’s film tries to resurrect: disco really was intended to be revolutionary. It’s an informative, enjoyable, and convincing documentary that will at least give you something to talk about at the next party when someone tries to turn off the Donna Summer or talk down about the Village People.
If you enjoyed the recent spate of intelligent gay relationship dramas (Weekend, Keep the Lights On) consider Beyond the Walls, a Belgian entry into this new genre. Screenwriter David Lambert’s debut features, like Keep the Lights On, a gay couple that begins with one partner in a heterosexual relationship, and sends him down an alley of depravity to explore the depths of the character’s misery. But Lambert’s attention to human complexity keeps Beyond the Walls from gratuitous pain in favor of a nuanced, stubbled look at two men in love.
A more self-consciously cinematic entry is The Go Doc Project, a faux-documentary about a film student (Doc) who uses the pretext of a documentary to seduce a go-go boy (Go). The rhymes and contrivances really work to create a charming exploration of film, artifice, bonding, friendship, and desire. It doesn’t hurt that leads Tanner Cohen and Matthew Camp have an easy chemistry and winning presence on screen. Director Corey James Krueckeberg financed this on Kickstarter, but it’s a sure fire hit at the festivals.
Enough of the men. Lesbians rioted at an early Frameline festival to express anger at the white and gay domination of the programming. This year’s festival shouldn’t be accused of the same, if for Reaching for the Moon alone. It is one of the breakout films of the festival and could even go far in wide release. A romance between the American poet Elizabeth Bishop and a Brazilian architect named Lota de Macedo Soares, the film takes us to balmy Rio where Lota worked as the designer of Flamengo Park. It being the 1950s, love doesn’t take its smooth course, but Miranda Otto and Gloria Pires deliver engaging performances with genuine chemistry and pathos.
While Reaching for the Moon has appeal for women who respond to the romance of poetry and playas, Young & Wild is charged with the untapped sexual energy of youth. Co-written by Camilla Gutierrez, a young, erotically frank Chilean blogger who recounted her sexual awakening while living with her evangelical parents, Young & Wild hews loosely to her experience. A teenage Daniela is discovered to be unchaste, so her religious parents force her to work at an evangelical TV station where, no big surprise, she begins to sleep her way through the co-workers. The sex scenes are portrayed both explicitly and artistically, with animated genitalia interspersing shots of the young bodies. And the rhythm and dialogue express a realistic experience of teenage awakening.
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, a Taipei-set family drama/rom-com by the American-born writer-director Arvin Chen, deserves kudos for its knowing portrayal of the realities of homosexuality in a culture where the particular kinds of sexual repression found in the West were never precisely the same. Family man Weichung (Richie Jen) begins to act on the older gay urges he’d set aside for marriage, even though his wife of nine years, Feng (Mavis Fan) wants a second kid. Chen’s resolution — that marital bonds are as important as sexual satisfaction — may seem too eager to acquiesce to the closet, but his insight into Taiwanese family life shows that he knows a thing or two we don’t.
Another look at family and cultural divides is Out in the Dark, an Israeli film about a rich Israeli lawyer and his troubled relationship with a struggling Palestinian student. Director Michael Mayer balances the blame for the trouble, doling out equal shame to the IDF and homophobic fundamentalists. In its neutrality, it ends up positioning Israeli society as a safer, more enlightened alternative to the Palestinian families who reject their gay sons. But despite this unintended bias, Mayer’s depiction of people determined to live their lives no matter the political turmoil around them is aided greatly by a deft artistic eye, utilizing natural light and camera work to great effect.
The life of Paul Bowles, rich and fascinating on its own, is adorned and delivered a little haltingly in Paul Bowles: The Cage Door Is Always Open, a documentary by Daniel Young. Young tracks down Bowles’ surviving friends and contemporaries and spins the story of the author and composer as he travels through New York, Paris and Tangier with his lifelong companion Jane Bowles and house-boy-friend Mohammed Mrabet. Other luminaries pop up to recount Bowles’ tale, and even if you’ve heard it before, it’s a wonderful story. Watch and let yourself be transported to the sybarite’s sun-dappled life.
Another author’s life comes to the screen in C.O.G., the first adaptation of a David Sedaris story to be released. Kyle Patrick Alvarez cajoled the humorist to license the rights, even though he only had one other film under his belt. But Alvarez is a strong director and coaxes a winning performance out of Jonathan Groff in a character based on Sedaris. The plot is slight, but the Sedaris voice shines through, even though they decided against voice-overs.
Hometown director Travis Matthews’ collaboration with James Franco will be a buzz-maker, no matter your thoughts on Franco’s sexuality or appropriation thereof. But Interior. Leather Bar. stands on its own as a thoughtful, mature engagement with male celebrity and the homoeroticism of the cinematic gaze, as well as a rare opportunity to revisit one of the most charged gay films of the pre-AIDS era, Cruising. Catch this one, if only to talk it over afterwards with your friends.
Two more documentaries deserve mention: I Am Divine and Big Joy. Both explore the lives of iconic gay men who, despite acclaim in their lifetimes, never experienced the respect or attention for their artistry they would have wanted. I Am Divine plumbs the depths of Harris Glenn Milstead, known in his lifetime as the most beautiful woman in the world, and for eating steaming dog shit in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos. Milstead wanted to be taken seriously as a performer, but his greatest performance as the outrageous drag queen came to define him.
In Big Joy, the poet and filmmaker James Broughton seemed both deeply attuned and out of step with his time. He helmed a pre-Beats poetry scene in San Francisco, only to be eclipsed by the younger cohort. And he made a film, The Bed, which was released during the Summer of Love and played sold-out theaters all year long. Still, his artistic contributions were never appreciated in the way that he wished. Both films provide a retrospective respect which honor the men for their contributions to gay culture.
And ultimately, that’s why a festival like Frameline is so crucial. No space would be made at Sundance or Cannes to do the reparative community work that happens every year at the Castro in June. And none of the international gay filmmaking community-making could happen, either. Without it, film culture as well as gay culture would be impoverished. But luckily, it’s not just a crucial, healthy part of the LGBT community’s well-being. Frameline is also fun.
Frameline 37 runs from June 20th to June 30th. Check out the official Frameline site for tickets, schedules and more information.