The Gay '90s

From closet cases to party monsters: A critical guide to the 22nd International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival

The Brandon Teena Story
Falls River, Neb., is introduced by a roadway sign drenched in irony: "Good People, Churches, Schools." None of these supposedly civilizing influences could save the subject of Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir's wrenching 1997 documentary. Brandon Teena was an anomaly by any standards -- a handsome, charismatic, popular guy eventually unmasked as Teena Brandon, female. Once this revelation occurred, according to the logic of the heartland, of course she was beaten, publicly exposed, raped, and brutally murdered. Just as Brandon did in real life, the film attempts to construct a confused, fragmented identity, interviewing everyone from simpatico girlfriends who ultimately didn't care what Brandon was, to the two ex-con killers for whom "the big concern was Brandon's gender," to various relatives and a smug homophobic sheriff. In a pathetic deposition after her rape, a terrified, numbed Brandon speaks for herself, but equally telling are the casually dismissive comments of a grinning redneck, on the subject of a pro-Brandon demonstration: "I think it's a bunch of shit."

-- Gary Morris

Plays Tuesday, June 23, 7 p.m. at the Castro.

Broken Goddess & Trash:
A Tribute to Holly Woodlawn
The legion of fans of Joe Dallesandro's pimply, muscular butt and other immortal endowments will enjoy reacquainting themselves with Paul Morrissey's 1970 verite masterpiece Trash, but it's billed as part of a Holly Woodlawn show and ultimately, this is indeed her show. Holly plays a drug-addled drag queen who keeps busy sifting through other people's garbage, screaming and carrying on over every little thing, and trying to get her impotent boyfriend Joe to fuck her. Her noisy extended encounter with Joe's substitute -- a hapless beer bottle -- reaches the heights of camp pathos, and Morrissey gets in some good digs at the welfare state when Holly pretends to be pregnant in order to get her benefits. Also playing is Peter Dallas' legendary 1972 Broken Goddess, where Holly spends 26 amusing minutes impersonating a tragic silent movie star.

-- Gary Morris

Plays Saturday, June 27, 9 p.m. at the Castro.

Mohamed Camara's 1997 feature has significance beyond its aesthetic achievement, which is considerable: It's the first West African feature about homosexuality. Sori and Manga are two middle-class teen-age boys whose undisguised romance evokes ridicule from their classmates, violence from their upwardly mobile parents, and in Manga's case the intervention of a native healer. What's most startling about this film are the scenes that show the intensity of the lovers' feelings, their refusal to hide them, and their confusion and anger at society's swift reprisal. Director Camara uses the dicey strategy of allowing the camera to linger overlong on simple images like the two of them staring intently at each other, but this tactic pays off in creating a spiraling atmosphere of love, lust, and almost palpable longing. The steamy opening scene -- Sori and Manga furiously making out in a car -- shows why Dakan had to be shot in secret in a country (Guinea) that, like the film's puzzled parents, insists that gay people don't exist.

-- Gary Morris

Plays Saturday, June 20, 6:30 p.m. at the Castro.

Dear Jesse
In this intermittently effective 1997 documentary, New York filmmaker Tim Kirkman returned to his home state of North Carolina to try to uncover what links him -- a gay man -- to the loathsome Jesse Helms. This is of course an impossible task, since Helms occupies a lower rung on the evolutionary ladder than Homo sapiens, but along the way we get an intriguing glimpse of how thinking people survive in Helms country. We meet a wide range of highly articulate artists, writers, preachers, black and gay activists, and a fascinating group of older women, ex-Republican mothers of AIDS victims, working diligently against Helms. The film works best when it sticks to Helms and his critics; when Kirkman shifts to the personal, interviewing friends who say things like "You were so innocent!," Dear Jesse gets a little too self-congratulatory for comfort.

-- Gary Morris

Plays Saturday, June 27, 3 p.m. at the Castro.

East Palace, West Palace
Director Zhang Yuan's fifth feature (1996) is a superbly erotic, unapologetic paean to the pleasures of living authentically -- which in the case of married bisexual A-Lan means masochistic submission to the straight hunky cop who interrogates and abuses him all night after catching him at a gay cruising spot. The erotic arsenal A-Lan employs to seduce his captor is fascinating in its complexity, and it becomes a question of which of the two men is really in charge as the handcuffed writer spins a series of strikingly visualized sexual memories and poetic fantasies that thrill and terrorize the cop. The film recalls Genet in its presentation of two men trapped in an intoxicating closed space where repression is the ultimate turn-on, but the careful pacing and achingly beautiful imagery are all Yuan's.

-- Gary Morris

Plays Thursday, June 25, 7 p.m. at the Castro.

Fun in Boys' Shorts
The ever-problematic format of the short film yields a few stinkers, a resume for a Hollywood feature, and at least one treasure in this queer-boy extravaganza. The resume short is Harry Victor's slick and effective Lycanthrophobia (1998), which adds a monstrous twist to a prosaic story of two gay-bashers. Tight editing and a genuinely scary atmosphere mark Victor as someone to watch. The stinkers include Gerry White's Toilet Tango (1997), which is no more than what the title says, and John McCabe's Sink or Swim (1997), a lame 25-minute disco drama briefly enlivened by a fight between two ugly, behemoth drag queens. The real find here is Dean Slotar's The Absolution of Anthony (1998), a fresh, sexy, well-acted mini-melodrama about phone sex, Catholic guilt, and a hunky young Puerto Rican who's obsessed with both.

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