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.

Angel on My Shoulder
"She was... the monkey on my back, the python around my neck, and the moth in my hand," says filmmaker Donna Deitch of her best friend, Gwen Welles, whose terminal case of anal cancer inspired the two to collaborate on this harrowing documentary of life near death. The free-spirited but emotionally troubled Welles is best known for her charmingly daffy turn as the singer/stripper Sueleen Gay in the 1975 Nashville. She met Deitch in 1984 and was cast in her pioneering lesbian indie Desert Hearts (which screens after Angel at 9:15 p.m.). But even (or especially) as her illness progresses, the actress recognizes Deitch's camera as affording her "the most important movie role of my life"--and, indeed, she acts her heart out. A self-diagnosed obsessive-compulsive even when in good health, Welles endures not just excruciating pain but the existential horror of having an acrobatic mind in a deteriorating body, as she constantly philosophizes her condition ("We're all dying, every one of us"). Eventually, she is faced each waking day with the decision of whether to let herself bleed to death. One of the things that seems to keep her going is the movie: There's always another (near-)death scene to play. Deitch's devotion to the work is equally remarkable as, watching her friend's struggle through the lens, she gives Welles free reign to dictate the terms of her demise. Monday at 7:15 p.m.

The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender
The stargazing couch potato behind such "fictitious autobiographies" as Rock Hudson's Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg, director Mark Rappaport here raids the lower rung of American Movie Classics for a hilarious mix-tape of semi-consciously gay in-jokes. By stripping insufferable material of either context or intent, Rappaport brilliantly obliterates the auteur theory while turning straight fluff into queer art. Suddenly those fussing and fidgeting waiters, butlers, and bellhops--most with limp wrists and lisps--become sassy critics of their hetero employers. Read only slightly against the grain, My Favorite Wife emerges as the story of Cary Grant's deep-seated desire for co-star Randolph Scott. Assembled end-to-end, the bevy of butt-jokes in the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby films begins to take on a much wider meaning. The "grizzled old prospector" sidekick from many an ancient Western appears a made-to-order role for Walter Brennan, an actor "whose toothlessness," Silver Screen's narrator (Dan Butler) licentiously suggests, "could also account for his charm"(!). Unlike the movie version of TheCelluloid Closet, The Silver Screen expands rather than limits the range of possible interpretations, empowering the viewer to act as private investigator, Freudian psychologist, and armchair film historian. Tuesday at 9:15 p.m.

Totally Confused
Taking a strategically open-ended view of orientation (and thus well-chosen for the LGBTFF's off-site, "mid-fest gala" screening at St. Anthony Main), this crossover-minded screwball comedy opens with some hot-and-heavy hetero sex; climaxes halfway through with a bracing clench between two male buddies; and ends on a note of highly suggestive indecision. The source of all this confusion is a love triangle involving a straight veterinary student (Jackie Katzman), her struggling-rocker beau (Greg Pritikin), and his sexually waffling best friend (Gary Rosen), a bookstore clerk who looks to gay bars, disreputable porn mags, and a bestiality video in an effort to figure out where he stands. Eventually, the two men decide to hook up, which, rather than resolving matters (or inspiring melodrama), only adds to the film's good-natured disregard for narrative tidiness. As co-written and -directed by its male leads (talk about playing the field!), Totally Confused is utterly assured in its vision of sexual identity as subject to change. And, as a Midwestern indie shot on the cheap in Chicago, it inspires hope that the next such Minneapolitan feature could turn out even half as accomplished. St. Anthony Main, Wednesday, October 7 at 7:15 p.m.

The Brandon Teena Story
This sad documentary about the queer-bashing rape and murder of a young, male-identifying Nebraskan woman (born Teena Brandon) spends at least a half-hour searching for its own identity. In the first scene, a country-western cover of "It's a Heartache" is used to establish a reductive connection between Hicksville, Neb., and the "heartache" (to put it mildly) of the 21-year-old Brandon Teena, who was brutally raped and, a week later, killed by two male homophobes. After a tedious round of talking-head interviews with former girlfriends who praise their partner's tender demeanor, inconspicuous strap-on, and gift-giving generosity (often with their money), the doc begs for a voice of reason and eventually gets one: Brandon Teena's, in fact, as the filmmakers present chilling excerpts from the rape testimony she gave to a cruel police officer. Unfortunately, during the murder trial reportage that constitutes its final third, the film seems to forget all about the victim, while the time spent profiling the accused proves insufficient to explain even hypothetically how their homophobia had been learned. One Nebraska sheriff says near the end, "How do you teach people not to kill each other? I don't know"--and the movie doesn't venture a guess, either. Friday at 7:15 p.m.

Uncut
Shrewdly mixing documentary and surreality, this latest head-scratcher from Canadian writer-director John Greyson (Lilies) is billed as a film that "explores thematic links between circumcision and censorship"--and so it does, believe it or not. As the movie opens (in 1979), a fussy young academic (Matthew Ferguson) begins dictating his paper on "The Psychosexual Meanings of Circumcision and the Foreskin" to a typist (Michael Achtman) who toils in an open-air office atop a skyscraper (i.e., a large phallus, in Uncut's metaphoric terms). From there, Greyson's mind wanders to musician John Oswald's copyright-infringing razor-blade job on Michael Jackson's "Bad"; the McDonald's authorized sex-change on "Mack the Knife"; and Canadian censorship laws that would keep depictions of tumescence to within 45 degrees. And that's just the first half-hour. Suffice it to say that some will have zero patience for Greyson's mental masturbation: His train of thought is relentlessly intellectual enough to leave even like-minded viewers exhausted. But in any case, the LGBTFF curators should be commended for daring to conclude the fest with such a dense and provocative piece of work--an imaginatively flamboyant counterpart to Craig Baldwin's Sonic Outlaws. The Sex World-sponsored screening will be followed by a party at the Saloon. Saturday, October 10 at 7:15 p.m. All screenings in the nine-day, 16-feature LGBTFF are at U Film's Bell Auditorium in Minneapolis (17th and University Ave. S.E.), with the exception of the "mid-fest gala" showing ofTotally Confused at St. Anthony Main.

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