Obscure Objects of Desire

San Francisco--
Like the intoxicatingly queer Castro neighborhood where it's based, the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival has a high-spirited aura. By day, the sidewalks are filled with gym-sculpted men scoping out tourist boys with shopping bags; by night, the Castro Theatre's neon marquee puts the entire block in bloom. I've come out (pardon the double entendre) for this 22nd SFILGFF, and so has the community at large, which queues up in droves for screenings at the Castro (the grand dame of movie palaces) and two smaller venues with less splendor but equal ambiance in the nearby Mission. The lines for the movies are longer than those for the clubs (last year's festival attendance hit 74,000), with many filmgoers hugging and kissing friends they haven't seen since last summer.

Although this biggest gay/lesbian film fest in the world has been dubbed the "Queer Cannes" by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the abundance of fledgling auteurs schlepping their indie wares in hopes of distribution (or at least future festival gigs) makes the SFILGFF more closely resemble Sundance. Still, cell phones remain pretty rare here--which is to say that scouting agents from Miramax and Sony Classics are nowhere to be found and, as a result, many of the SFILGFF movies may be hard pressed to find a screen outside the festival circuit.

Take Donna Deitch's Angel on My Shoulder, for example: Though it's one of the most powerful works in the festival, as well as Deitch's first feature since her 1985 hit Desert Hearts, the film appears unlikely to earn a wide release. Shot on video, it's a documentary profile of Deitch's late friend, Gwen Welles, and her bout with anal cancer. Welles, who was immortalized as the stripper in Nashville, abused heroin and struggled with bulimia for years prior to discovering her tumor. Then, convinced she wasn't really human, she refused most traditional medical treatment and ultimately succumbed to a form of cancer that has a high survival rate. "The only surgery she believed in was plastic surgery," Deitch explains in voiceover.

Three other film bios offer portraits of rare intensity by current commercial standards. Ten years in the making, Gerald L'Eculyer's brilliantly autobiographical The Grace of God recounts the director's attempts at love and cinema with self-deprecating wit and great poignancy. Sixth Happiness is the somewhat fictionalized version of star Fidaus Kanga's autobiography, telling of a Bombay man whose childhood bone disease stunted his growth and confined him to a wheelchair. Although narrated by Kanga in a smugly triumphant manner, Sixth Happiness does offer a brazen alternative to the image of gay India in last year's Fire. The Brandon Teena Story investigates the rape and murder of a male-identifying Nebraskan woman, ultimately raising more questions than it answers. Maybe the rumored Teena bio-pic with Drew Barrymore will tell the whole story--but probably not.

Of course, not all the SFILGFF films deal with disease and loss. The Sticky Fingers of Time stands out as a rare example of indie sci-fi--something like The Twilight Zone meets Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon. Smartly written and directed by Hilary Brougher, the film unites two female writers--one from the '50s, one from the '90s--who've become unstuck in time as a result of radiation exposure and sheer willpower. The time warping causes the characters to develop a gooey fluid under their eyes, which isn't a copious metaphor so much as a running gag. "It's a matter of waking up sticky--and where were you?" Brougher explains during a post-screening Q&A, adding that this sticky subject only comes up at gay and lesbian fests. (Strand Releasing has picked up the movie for national release later this year.)

While the festival's feature-length films enjoy high profiles, the buzz around the many shorts programs is just as big. In the brief-but-punchy "Just One Time," a man asks his girlfriend to fulfill one of his fantasies by making love to another woman while he watches--a straight cliché rendered with a twist. "Dirty Baby Does Fire Island," "Baby-Cue," and "Vanilla Lament" reconfirms what Todd Haynes's Superstar demonstrated more than a decade ago: Movies made with dolls are always brilliant. More serious in tone, former Twin Citian Jenni Olson's "Blue Diary" deftly captures the disappointment of an affair without a future. But the biggest crowdpleaser is "Two Couples," the festival's own trailer, which precedes each film: In it, four seemingly straight moviegoers explore some hot and heavy same-sex handplay that builds to the toppling of a popcorn bucket and the climactic crushing of a soda cup.

The Minneapolitan Homo Heights reaches a climax of its own at the SFILGFF. "This is the audience I've been waiting for since page one," director Sara Moore tells the sold-out crowd for the first of two screenings. "I'm so fucking thrilled to be in San Francisco." (Moore must have been relieved as well that the print had arrived safely after a shipping snafu in Norway.) Despite the filmmaker's excitement and the audience's enthusiasm, reaction to the comic-bookish gay mafia flick appears mixed: Sitting in the balcony, I witness about 15 to 20 walkouts, although those who stay to the end give the film a hearty round of applause.

One of the most antagonistic audience responses is prompted by Hard, the explicit tale of a gay serial killer and the closeted homicide rookie assigned to the case. After the screening, an older man in a leather jacket leans over to me and says, "I just wonder what the difference is between this and Cruising--except 20 years." Another viewer asks director John Huckert if his film had a point. "The inability to love creates perversion," Huckert says, "and we took it to the max." Indeed, this "inability to love" extends to the relationship between Hard and its audience. But in spite of the film's graphic, questionably eroticized violence, I overhear programmers from other cities say that they'll probably book Hard for their own fests--because it would likely sell out.

Speaking of packing the house, the SFILGFF's continued success with bold documentaries and unconventional features demonstrates once again that there's a sizable audience for groundbreaking queer cinema. But since much of this work has to compete for screens with well-publicized gems such as Ma vie en rose (My Life in Pink) and out-and-out pap like It's My Party, we in the Twin Cities will need to keep our fingers crossed--and our eyes peeled.

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