The Objects of Our Affection
If there are noticeably fewer gay-themed films on the market these days than there have been in past years, that's because the residual damage of the prefab gay romantic comedies of the mid- to late '90s (e.g., The Object of My Affection, In & Out) is now being felt on television. With the popularity of shows like Will and Grace, Queer as Folk, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, television execs would have us believe that there's no such thing as "don't ask, don't tell." But what kind of progress is this? GLAAD has inexplicably lauded the makers of Queer as Folk for essentially promoting the worst elements of gay culture, while the utopian Queer Eye for the Straight Guy coddles gay stereotypes and encourages objectification. Bravo's dated Boy Meets Boy claimed to attack these very circus acts, but any social consequence was lost as soon as the show's star bachelor was made the butt of the producers' final joke. For the sake of entertainment, gay romance was dutifully trivialized.
Television isn't ahead of the times; it's actually several light years behind the more innovative works of the early New Queer Cinema. Which is bad for the gay community, but good for movie lovers. Now that the minstrel show has moved to television, gay filmmakers have been able to get down to the nitty-gritty. Today there's still a market for inconsequential trifles such as Fluffer and Km.0, but gay filmmakers are producing more subtle, cutting-edge works, everything from O Fantasma to Head On. Homosexuality is more implicit (behold the mystical allegory of Gus Van Sant's Gerry), and sometimes an area of serious critical study (as in Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven). If this year's refreshing Minneapolis/St. Paul LGBT Film Festival (November 13 through 20 at Oak Street Cinema) is any indication, the best in socially conscious gay cinema is still being imported from abroad, which may say less about gay filmmakers today than it probably says about America's insular society. From The Politics of Fur to Put the Camera on Me, the films and docs at this year's fest celebrate and subvert the sexual codes currently being exploited on network airwaves for big ratings.
Dee Mosbacher's documentary Radical Harmonies (screening Monday at 7:30 p.m.) pays homage to the lesbians who transplanted all sorts of sociopolitical frustrations into the underground "women's music" of the '70s. Their stories are candid, but this PBS-style documentary is nowhere near as radical as Karim Ainouz's Madame Satä (Thursday at 7:30 p.m.), an underplotted but sweltering portrait of the famous, paradoxical Brazilian queer Joao Francisco dos Santos (played in the film by Lázaro Ramos), whose many melodramas speak to the gay community's universal struggle to fight the power. Ainouz, who worked in various capacities on three of the most important films of the New Queer Cinema (Haynes's Poison, Tom Kalin's Swoon, and Steve McLean's Postcards from America), fascinatingly equates Santos's struggle for acceptance to performance art.
The shorts are a mixed bag. Andrew Hull's gorgeously shot "That Thing We Do" (Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.) is your typical coming-out soap opera, except that it looks like Abercrombie & Fitch: The Movie. Emily Atef's lovely "XX to XY: Fighting to Be Jake" (Saturday at 5:30 p.m.) is fraught with one too many sight gags and animated flights of fancy, though its evocation of the transgender Jake's fight to fit into the world speaks to our need for acceptance. And Stefan J. Nadelman's "Terminal Bar" (Tuesday at 9:30 p.m.), a wee paean to a now-defunct bar in New York's Hell's Kitchen, is often compromised by its zippy, multimedia madness, but its curiosity about unearthing lost chapters in gay NYC history is humbling.
The features and docs are noticeably short on laughs: There's a nasty mean streak that runs throughout Gay Block's "Bertha Alyce" (Saturday at 3:30 p.m.), the famous photographer's overly scrutinizing jab at her deceased mother; and the feature that follows "Alyce," Joan E. Biren's educational No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, is a competent but stale homage to '50s lesbian activists. (Hey--at least it's better than The Hours.)
For the best of the fest, check out these four below.
Kiki + Tiger
(Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3:45 p.m.)
Once the purveyor of immigrant dreams, Stephen Frears allowed cheap melodrama to reduce the plight of the lower classes holed up in the dingy London underground of Dirty Pretty Things. Perhaps that's why this first feature from Alain Gsponer is so refreshing: The film's raw, sensual realism and social consciousness brings to mind Frears's My Beautiful Laundrette. Based on a true story, Kiki + Tiger observes the bittersweet relationship between the Albanian Kiki (the striking Stipe Erceg) and the Serbian Tiger (Lenn Kudrjawizki), both living in Germany shortly before the war in Kosovo. Tiger's feelings for his friend are more than platonic and they go completely unconsummated, which ennobles the film but may frustrate those expecting to see some skin. Tiger is driven to madness by war and the demands of his nationalistic father after he lashes out against a fellow Serb and offers Kiki a place to sleep in his attic. If Gsponer seems to oversimplify the conflict between displaced Serbians and Albanians and the effect this has on the closeted Kiki, it's because he's more concerned with summoning the chaos in the stolen glances and tender exchanges between the film's characters. Kiki + Tiger is a film of deceptive surfaces and bitter, lovelorn betrayals. In repeatedly frustrating Tiger's love for the oblivious Kiki, Gsponer evokes a collective community terrorized by the threat of warfare. When Tiger stares at an attractive man in a lonely alley, the implication is that they're going to get together. But when a truck pulls up, we realize that both men are waiting for refugee friends. This inability to distinguish love from war infuses the entire film.
The Politics of Fur
(Saturday at 5:30 p.m. and Sunday at 9:15 p.m.)
Directed by Laura Nix, this is a CliffsNotes remake of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Sapphic haute couture bitchfest The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Nix transplants the story from a West German apartment to the streets of Los Angeles and replaces the models and fashionistas with would-be singers and music managers. The lovely Eames-era decor of the film befits the fussy Una (Katy Selverstone), whose taste in music is as unconventional as her taste in women. Brynn Horrocks stars as the seemingly bipolar B, a crass tomboy who quickly moves into Una's empty-shell apartment but leaves the nitpicky businesswoman to her bitter tears after a series of embarrassments. Nix is clearly fixated on gay clichés (Una owns a pet tiger) and sexual codes (B's fantasies are straight out of Querelle), but is unable to successfully follow through on much of anything. Far more tantalizing than the repeatedly referenced power dynamic between Una and B are the themes of dominance and entitlement implicit in the mother-like Una's curious treatment of her houseboy. The film's antiseptic boy-on-boy sex scenes are superfluous to the central war between Una and B, but are nonetheless juicily satiric of the typical self-indulgence that motivates Queer as Folk.
Put the Camera on Me
(Tuesday at 9:30 p.m.)
Ever been to a family function and tried to pick out the future gay boys of America by cataloging the strange behaviors of your young cousins and their friends? If so, this film from Darren Stein (Jawbreaker) and Adam Shell is for you. As a child, Stein recruited the kids who lived on his cul-de-sac and, over the course of their young lives, filmed a series of schlock horror films, Holocaust melodramas, and performance pieces using their parents' camcorders. These perverse home movies are hysterical, but they also remind us of how easily our adult sexual identities are encoded in our seemingly innocent childhood behaviors. At six, young Darren was already a raging queen with highly developed gaydar, mounting elaborate, sadomasochistic fantasies for the camera that are startlingly aware of prevailing sexual mores. (There are adult gay filmmakers who will never make anything as funny or subversive as the kids' strange video "Gay as a Whistle.") In the present, Stein continues to perform for his camera. The playful, almost subconscious means by which he offers a psychological contextualization for his childhood obsession with gore is revealing. (Finally I know why I'm so fixated on horror films!) Put the Camera on Me isn't exactly pretty (it could have been edited using two VCRs, and, at 65 minutes, it actually runs a little long), but it proves rather definitively that a queer's propensity for melodrama is in the genes.
Yossi & Jagger
(Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.)
Set in the ranks of the macho Israeli Defense Force, this beautiful, deceptively simple coming-out story martyrs one of its titular characters in order to free the other from his closet. Service in the Israeli military is mandatory for all men, a point that director Eytan Fox doesn't address, but which is essential to know to fully appreciate his film. The tender make-out session between Yossi (Ohad Knoller) and Jagger (Yehuda Levi) on a snowy hillside plays out like an "initiation practice." Is Yossi, the commanding officer, taking advantage of his bored and horny recruit, or is he really in love? Fox evokes a ravishing rebirth in Yossi after the commander finally admits his love for Jagger. In queering an authority figure that the film's gorgeous army recruits can look up to, Fox perpetuates a certain normalizing practice when Yossi owns up to his secret desires before a heterosexual recruit. The film ends on a sentimental high note, but it's Fox's subtle message that we're all equal in matters of love and war that truly resonates.
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