When Rosie O'Donnell begins her tenure at The View, some gays may be anxious to see whether the actress-comedian will launch more than just a Koosh ball in Elisabeth Hasselbeck's direction. Until then, we'll have to settle for All Aboard! Rosie's Family Cruise, Shari Cookson's documentary about the first-ever cruise for gay and lesbian families. Rosie and life partner Kelli O'Donnell's chartered vessel suggests a fantasy come to life and serves as a freedom-affirming metaphor for this year's ambitious but spotty edition of the Flaming Film Festival, which kicks off Thursday at 7:00 p.m. with a screening of the HBO-sanctioned doc at the Suburban World Theatre. The fest's selection of films indicates that the war being waged today by queer independent filmmakers isn't about reclaiming words such as queer and flaming—our New Queer Cinema stalwarts took care of that already—but about queering familiar genres and envisioning how the political tide is slowly but surely beginning to turn our way.
The only downside to All Aboard! is its corny, rainbow-flagged soundtrack. Given the diversity of the gay community, we surely deserve a less mom-and-pop-style civil-rights anthem than "We Are Family"—something like, say, "Ask" or "Panic" by the Smiths, whose frontman Morrissey today commands an unlikely fan base in the young Latino population of Los Angeles. William E. Jones's Is It Really So Strange? (Sub World, Thursday at 10:00 p.m.) inspects this appeal through talking-head interviews with a cross section of fans. Albeit dryly filmed and narrated (by Jones himself), the movie still arrives at the essence of the communal experience of "modern dandies"—gay, straight, black, white, and brown—listening to Morrissey for spiritual comfort, and does so without skimping on the complex, often confusing relationship between singer and fan that has often veered toward betrayal.
Another difficult dialectic—one of resistance—is explored in Ellen Flanders's Zero Degrees of Separation (Sub World, Friday at 7:00 p.m.). One of the director's interviewees opines, "Society refuses to see the connection between things." The comment succinctly summarizes the lack of imagination and compassion that not only separates straights and gays, but also Israelis and Palestinians. The film's electro-piano score, set to home movies taken by Flanders's grandparents during the '50s, is a chilly, sometimes cloying presence throughout this documentary about two Israeli-Palestinian gay couples kept apart by the emotional baggage precipitated by their acrid political climate. But it, too, brings to mind an interesting confrontation, evoking the filmmaker's struggle to come to terms with the truth about the family that helped to set up the state of Israel.
Those looking for something lighter can do better than the cine-scavenging Bad Girls Behind Bars (Sub World, Sunday at 7:00 p.m.), which gives the impression that director Sharon Zurek hasn't learned a thing from Mark Rappaport (Rock Hudson's Home Movies)—or VH1's Pop Up Video, either. What could have been a fierce extrapolation of the not-so-latent lesbian subtexts hidden in our celluloid closet is but a monumentally lazy montage of four prison movies. All of those four are available on video, which means they can be enjoyed in the comfort of your home and in their entirety without Zurek's half-dozen annoyingly flip visual interruptions, including the digital plastering of Ellen Degeneres's "Yep, I'm Gay" Time cover onto the jail-cell wall of the Anne Heche character in the 1994 TV remake of Girls in Prison. Instead of Bad Girls Behind Bars, try Luke Woodward's Enough Man (Bedlam Theatre, Saturday at 9:00 p.m.): This is not your mother's Transamerica, but a forceful confrontation that doesn't belabor opinions about gender-opposite self-identification, focusing instead on the complex sexual desires and spiritual ups-and-downs of nine female-to-male transmen and their partners. At once heartbreaking and liberating, Enough Man is an eye-opening act of conscience-raising.
Fat Girls (Sub World, Tuesday at 7:00 p.m.) is another idle narrative, predicated as it is on a seemingly endless streak of catty belligerence. Don't be fooled by the title: Ash Christian's film doesn't share DNA with Fat Girl director Catherine Breillat, but with Napoleon Dynamite. A Broadway-bound gay boy and his obese fag hag struggle with self-identity shortly before their school dance. Sample embarrassments: He's tricked into drinking piss out of a beer bottle; she gets her ass stuck in a car while having sex with her refugee boyfriend, whose ostensibly large penis she naturally likens to a Cuban cigar. The philosophy behind Christian's title is funny and uniquely imaginative, but the film, overall, is slapdash and self-deprecating in all-too-familiar ways, with special appearances by Jonathan Caouette, not one but two All My Children actors, and, gulp, "We Are Family."
A sample of the shorts playing throughout the festival suggests tomorrow's queer filmmakers are drawing influence from unlikely places. "Wounded Winter," which accompanies Is It Really So Strange?, harks back to Bernard Rose's excellent video for Bronski Beat's "Smalltown Boy," but only provides an abbreviated emotional scan of its subjects: a brother and sister grappling with their difficult upbringing by visiting their many childhood homes. The film could have benefited by sucking a minute or two away from "The Driver & the Doe," a pretentious multimedia experiment (think Godard by way of The Blair Witch Project) about a car/deer accident, raw hamburgers, and an abusive relationship. That short will play as part of the "Love Is Blind" showcase on Saturday at the Sub World (7:00 p.m.), where it will be accompanied by Jake Yuzna's 22-minute "Better Left Alone," which is possibly the best narrative of the festival. Yuzna transcends the limitations of his muddy video image with eerie dramatic pauses and unnerving manipulations of height and space to sensationalize the crawlspace between youth and adulthood. "Better Left Alone" is a chilling fairy tale, and if Yuzna plays his giallo-affected cards right, he may become one of our future masters of horror.
The low point of the fest also belongs to a horror film: Thomas Jason Davis's hot-ticket Scab (Sub World, Monday at 9:00 p.m.), another tired attempt at milking an AIDS metaphor out of a vampire story. Barely watchable when the dialogue is being pitched at a porn-movie level (sorry, boys, no hot porno sex to pick up the slack), the story reaches uncharted depths of inanity when it attempts commentary on rejection within the gay community's caste system and the differences between gay guys and the ridiculously hot straight men in their lives. If there's one positive side effect to Davis's limp genre transfusion, it's the proof it offers that HellBent, the year's other queer slasher movie, was the real deal.