In Ferzan Ozpetek's weepy His Secret Life, an Italian woman discovers that the husband she has just lost to a car accident has been involved in an affair with a tragically smooth-chested Italian dude for more than seven years. Have you ever squirmed your way through a gay Italian melodrama just dying to ask, "When was it ever safe to assume that an impeccably groomed Italian guy is straight?" Okay, okay, if you've been to one of the previous 12 Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Transgender Film Festivals presented by the University Film Society, you may have done a lot of squirming over the years--in addition to getting first peeks at some pioneering works of queer cinema. After a few less-than-fabulous editions, U Film's weeklong LGBT Festival at the Bell Auditorium is once again packing some rich pictures and transgressive pleasures, under the guest curatorship of the Walker's Dean Otto.
We wanted to preview some of the festival's offerings, but man, I mean, the woman didn't even suspect anything? For seven years? Knowing the challenge of maintaining the appropriate gravitas in the face of such mysteries of the human heart, we gathered a few of the funniest queer folks we could find for a festival pre-screening at my apartment. Specifically, we drafted Kevin McLaughlin and R. Charle Rollings, who produce tasteless sketches with the Twin Cities gay comedy troupe Hot Dish, and Janelle Ronek, a queer actor and comedian in a leather jacket. (That fey Mystery Science Theater robot was unavailable.) To my chagrin, they show up just after kickoff on a Vikings Sunday (me: "Do you guys mind if we watch a few plays before we start?" Kevin, Charle, and Janelle: "Well..."), but to my delight my cocktail weenies (Mom's recipe) are fresh out of the oven.
The first movie we sample is American Mullet (9:30 Sunday, November 17) a documentary by British filmmaker Jennifer Arnold that attempts to wring another joke out of Billy Ray and Amy Ray's favorite coiffure. It succeeds in spots: The weathered dignity of Billy Ray Cyrus's number-one fan is hilariously poignant. But the film gets a fit of the nervous giggles when trying to actually examine the connection between the dyke community and the hairstyle. Janelle lances the film's cruel ridicule, warning, "You have to be careful with making assumptions about those women. Sometimes they're just from small towns and they have a husband...with a mullet too."
Next up: opening-night film Ruthie & Connie: Every Room in the House (7:45 Friday, November 15). The story follows two loving lesbians/gay activists ("Omigod, Ruthie has a full-on mullet," Janelle laughs) who met as young wives and mothers in 1959 Israel. Having left their husbands, the women have bravely pursued their relationship for 25 years. "Should we lay bets on how many cats they have?" Charle wonders. "I say three."
Unfortunately, we spend much of the rest of the film looking for cats, missing Ruthie and Connie's groundbreaking lawsuit against New York City's Board of Education for refusing domestic partner benefits in the '70s. Even more unfortunate, for Charle, the wallpaper in Ruthie and Connie's retirement home is too distracting--or "fascinating," as he wryly puts it--to continue the film altogether.
When I tell Kevin the title of the next feature, The Cockettes (7:30 Friday, November 15 at the Oak Street Cinema), he seems confused. "Oh, I thought that's what you were calling your hors d'oeuvres," he says. Nope, The Cockettes is Bill Weber and David Weissman's documentary about San Francisco's 1960s flopping-dicks-acid-freakout drag troupe of the same name. At times, the movie fascinates: A sequence where Divine Brown meets the Cockettes proves especially thrilling to my guests. In fact, John Waters--whose earliest films were shown at the aggressively avant-garde "Nocturnal Dream Theater" in between sets by the Cockettes--credits the performers with eradicating whatever was left of Glen Milstead in Divine. In the end, though, much of the movie tests the credulity of both Charle and Kevin.
"Girl, I wouldn't leave my house on acid," Charle testifies.
"And they were in drag!" Kevin remarks.
"Half in drag," Charle says.
Although it takes awhile for everybody to settle down after reading the credits for Family Fundamentals (7:30 Monday, November 18)--it's an "Arthur Dong" movie for "Deep Focus Productions"--this film has a funny effect on all of us. The stories about families that actively oppose homosexuality despite having gay kids themselves are chock full of the kind of intolerant morons who normally would beg to be lampooned. Yet Dong's movie abstains from patronization and moral hectoring to take a personal look at how devastating this divide can be to all parties. All of us are moved to silence. Well, except for Charle, who shouts the occasional "Good for you, honey!" at the screen.
In desperate need of one last pick-me-up, we're saved by that Italian picture (7:30 Sunday, November 17), His Secret Life or Le Fati Ignoranti, which translates into the "Ignorant Fairy." That's according to Kevin, who--whaddya know--speaks a little Italian.
As for the movie, well, what starts with the "What were they thinking?" premise of a wife discovering her husband's secret gay lover devolves into soft-focus sentimental dreck that proves practically toxic to a gay comedy troupe. "For a while," Kevin muses as he reaches for another, ahem, cockette, "I thought that maybe the Italians could pull this off."
So, Kevin, we have to know: Aren't all Italians gay?
"Uh, yeah," comes the reply.