Reel Queers

Personal documentaries dominate this year's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Film Festival.

Let's face it: This hasn't been much of a year for queer cinema. High Art and The Hanging Garden added some much-needed wit and style to the lesbian and gay film catalogs, respectively; and Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss was casual enough about its orientation to break ground as a self-described "trifle." Otherwise, contemporary queer film's familiar pair of horrors--the straight Hollywood minstrel show and the cheap, cheesy indie--manifested themselves once again with The Object of My Affection and I Think I Do, two movies whose aesthetic crimes against the screwball genre might be forgivable were it not for their '50s frame of mind.

Given the state of queer-movie fiction in '98, it's no wonder U Film Society's typically cutting-edge Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Film Festival has sought a more real roster for its ninth annual program. The preponderance of personal-is-political documentaries this year--the most powerful being Dear Jesse, Angel on My Shoulder, and The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (see reviews below)--bespeaks a movement turning inward while coming out and acting up. And the number of festival docs shot on video suggests that anyone with a camcorder and a compelling story--or, per The Silver Screen, two VCRs and a remote control--might have a shot at getting the work shown. If the point of a queer film festival is to inspire the spectator by giving voice to what's different, this one does the trick.

Dear Jesse
Kicking off the fest on an aptly upbeat and activist note, Tim Kirkman's first-person doc about himself and Jesse Helms--both of them "obsessed with homosexual men," the director claims--comes across as the Roger & Me of identity politics. As its title suggests, the film isn't an angry indictment of the homophobic senator so much as an earnest attempt to make contact with the man and convince him of his confusion. (U Film might consider saving a seat for Helms just in case he decides to show.) Returning to his hometown in North Carolina, Kirkman loosely sketches Helms's biography while interviewing friends, family, and numerous locals on the subject of why in God's name (literally) such a hateful politician could continue to be re-elected. In the process, the filmmaker finds cause for optimism in the articulate expressions of his left-leaning subjects, and the fact that his home state has evolved enough since the '80s to allow an openly gay mayor. Dear Jesse covers a lot of ground but remains impressively focused, filtered as it is through Kirkman's playful investigative sensibility and his vested interest in reiterating that the personal is political. The screening on Friday (sponsored by Borders Books in Uptown) will be followed by an opening-night festival party at Club Metro. Friday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7:15 p.m.

Out of the Past
"If I had known then that history was full of people just like me, things might have been different." Thus Kelli Peterson, a young lesbian who three years ago succeeded against all odds in forming The Gay-Straight Alliance at her ultraconservative Salt Lake City high school, explains the agenda of this sporadically compelling doc. Assembling a chorus of voices in the editing room, director Jeff Dupre cuts between Peterson's experience and those of five other queer people whose stories reveal a long legacy of acting out. Each tale provides a particular twist: The 17th-century Puritan minister Michael Wigglesworth expressed his desire through tormented journal entries; the 1890s author Sarah Orne Jewett penned poetic love letters to her secret partner; the 1920s postal clerk Henry Gerber founded the first known gay rights organization in America (before it succumbed to police and government pressure); black civil rights leader Bayard Rustin was turned into a "lost prophet" out of fear his sexuality would make the movement vulnerable; and Barbara Gittings won the 1960s fight to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental disorders, a triumph that gives a late lift to this somewhat somber doc. As Peterson's story remains the most vivid by far, Out of the Past's otherwise didactic bent makes it seem better suited to her own high-school meetings than a film fest. In other words: Bring the kids. Saturday and Sunday at 5:15 p.m.

The Sticky Fingers of Time
A rare work of woman-centered sci-fi, writer-director Hilary Brougher's debut feature is more queer in style than orientation, and not enough on either count. It's a high-concept/low-budget exercise in which an early-'50s pulp novelist named Tucker Harding (Terumi Matthews) finds herself transported four decades ahead to 1997 (her retro-geek cat-eye specs help her to fit right in), at which point she meets Drew (Nicole Zaray), a suicidal writer who happened to buy Harding's Sticky Fingers of Time at a flea market. On paper, this is a great idea: What would a '50s woman and author have to say about, say, Ally McBeal and e-mail? But Brougher mostly ignores the opportunity for conventional satire in favor of snail-paced plot development and sci-fi gobbledygook about how to transfer one's "code" to "another life-system." Late in the movie, the two writers share a joint in bed, whereupon we discover that the '50s woman uses the term "reefer" while the '90s one prefers "pot." So much for culture clash. Fans of heavily attitudinal cult concoctions such as Nadja or Conceiving Ada (or anything by Hal Hartley) might dig the goofy tone, but others are likely to feel that this Time could have been better spent. Saturday at 7:15 p.m.

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