Brief Encounters

Short subjects enliven the 19th Gay Film Fest

A recent right-wing fund-raising appeal warned of a monolithic "gay lobby" pursuing a "coordinated gay agenda" to destroy American values.

What a joke. If one impression emerges from the entries in the 19th San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, it's just how varied -- and often conflicting -- the "agendas" within queer communities can be. And how much most gay folk are striving to be just like everyone else, even as the iconoclasts -- angry activists, drag queens, lesbian sex workers -- capture the bulk of media attention.

The range of voices presented each year is always the gay fest's upside. Patrons in 1995 can eavesdrop on a Puerto Rican lesbian's joys and dilemmas (Brincando el Charco); ponder the ritual benefits of lighting oneself on fire (Women on Fire); learn about queer life in post-apartheid South Africa, where gay rights have been written into the country's constitution (Out in South Africa); share the "pain" of couples "suffering" from waning sexual desire (aka Lesbian Bed Death); and take in a drama about an interracial gay couple caring for a mutual friend of a third nationality who has AIDS (Preservation of the Song).

The downside to the festival's generous curatorial policy is that one frequently has to sit through some excruciating works to experience a moment of enlightenment. Many selections feel more like therapy than art, something RenŽ Broussard's The Fatboy Chronicles, a "reappropriation" of erotically tinged scenes from films like Lord of the Flies and The Lost Boys, is at least self-aware enough to recognize.

Fortunately, among the fest's 248 films and videos (down from a record 360 in 1994) there are some stellar pieces. More often than the features -- which with bigger budgets tend to wear their compromises, sexual and otherwise, on their sleeves -- short subjects stand out. There are quite a few whose creators not only have something to say but employ the "stuff of cinema" (as opposed to talking heads or haphazardly framed compositions) to express their ideas.

In Alkali, Iowa by Mark Christopher (his Dead Boys Club was a 1992 festival hit), a gay farm boy unearths evidence of his long-lost dad's similar orientation. The film, shot in rich but grainy color, plays on the mostly tedious "Bittersweet: Boys Shorts 3" program (Castro Theatre, 6/17, 11 a.m.). Alkali can also be seen before John G. Young's feature Parallel Sons (Castro, 6/14, 9 p.m.), an interesting if occasionally far-fetched drama about a white homeboy wannabe and a black prison escapee.

German director Matthias MYller's Alpsee (Castro, 6/12, 4:15 p.m.) is a calculated commentary on culture, media, and Oedipal attraction. MYller's sense of screen space is impeccable; even if the director didn't have an astute take on humanity, Alpsee would be a joy to watch on a purely abstract level. The film plays before Paul Ruven's kooky though ultimately too clever Paradise Framed. William Richert (The Client) stars as an artist who responds to AIDS by fabricating a bizarre environment that he can totally manipulate.

The participants in Inge Blackman's video BD Women (Victoria Theatre, 6/12, 9 p.m.) wish to reclaim a vibrant history of black lesbianism, but since their forebears kept a low profile, few tangible artifacts (especially cinematic ones) remain. Blackman re-creates scenes in nightclubs and bedrooms, then reflects on the present: Family, racism, the queer and black communities, and the continued pressure to stay invisible come up for discussion. BD Women shares a bill with Frances Negron-Muntaner's Brincando el Charco, which examines similar issues via an inventive format that blends a fictional narrative with experimental and documentary-style footage.

Local director Michael Wallin's Black Sheep Boy ("The Naked Look," Victoria, 6/10, 10:15 p.m.) ruminates on desire, specifically the lure of a particular type of young man -- "boyish, innocent, not too pretty ... not too tall, not too skinny, not too muscular ... all this with some character." The form here -- pulsing, layered imagery intercut with longer, more voyeuristic shots -- well suits the content, which includes a philosophical voice-over that analyzes the fantasy Wallin's camera describes.

Shani Mootoo brings the full videographic arsenal to bear on the subject of love's transience in Her Sweetness Lingers ("Tramps, Vamps, and Cramps," Victoria, 6/10, 4 p.m.). Superimpositions and slow-motion shots of women, often juxtaposed with water and flowers, predominate. In one effective shot, a solarized waterfall pours over two women faintly seen making love (it sounds like it shouldn't work, but it does). Late in the piece a voice implores, "Unless we can defy the natural order ... let us not begin."

One of the festival's most affecting works is Lisa "Kadet" Kuhne's Shot Through My Head, in which she reflects on losses in her life, including her brother to AIDS and a relationship gone sour. Kuhne's control of color, light, and texture is impressive, as is the flow of her images, which though always in motion at times have the feel of barely animated stills. Shot is part of the lively "Girls by the Bay" (Victoria, 6/13, 7 p.m.) lineup of locally produced women's video.

The award for low-tech audacity goes to Peter Fucking Wayne Fucking Peter ("Queer Orientalia," Victoria, 6/11, 6:30 p.m.), five minutes of sex uplit by flashlight. At first, Peter seems like the worst kind of video-as-personal-therapy, but director Wayne Yung's incantatory narration evolves toward a neat bit of self-revelation about his sexuality and the dynamics of his relationship with his white lover.

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