The Gay '90s

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

-- Heather Wisner

Plays Saturday, June 20, 4:30 p.m. at the Castro.

Queer Cartoons II
Blank-faced, open-mouthed dolls in distress are the thread that links many of the otherwise unrelated entries in this gay animation fest. In Corky Quackenbush's Switch Your Ride, a middle-class Barbie runs off with Biker Barbie while Ken and G.I. Joe duke it out. Hazel Grian's Baby-Cue creates whimsical and disturbing tableaux of M&M's houses, herds of crazed My Pretty Ponys, monstrous lumbering Betsy-Wetsys, and doll parts roasting on spits. The infamous Dirty Baby -- a standard cheap 1950s-style plastic baby doll -- stars in Todd Downing's Dirty Baby Does Fire Island, with the whirling little creature accidentally sniffing poppers, snorting coke, and careening terrified through a bedroom when she sees two naked queens going at it. A highlight of this program is J.J. Sedelmaier's dead-ringer sendup of mindless superhero cartoons in two episodes of Ambiguously Gay Duo. Sedelmaier's cheap, lurid imagery, grating theme song, and ominous laugh track masterfully exploit the homoerotic implications of Batman & Robin-type duos.

-- Gary Morris

Plays Wednesday, June 24, 7 p.m. at the Castro.

Relax ... It's Just Sex
So topical that it's damn near disposable, P.J. Castellaneta's heartfelt ensemble comedy is ideal programming for a gay cable network. A numbingly talky portrait of disparate L.A. types who've inexplicably bonded into a loose family, the fest's closing night film manages to locate several truths, a few laughs, and some genuine emotion. But Castellaneta lacks the inspiration to circumvent the budget constraints of independent filmmaking, and the movie is an endless procession of clever people yakking. Another miscalculation is the plethora of zingers handed to Jennifer Tilly (playing a heterosexual housefrau with a pathological urge to get pregnant); as Woody Allen made clear, her skills as a comedienne are limited to delivering the straight line. Given its different target audience, this is as much a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie as any of the summer special-effects flicks. The shelf life should be equally short; diverting while it lasts, I can't imagine anyone outside of L.A. watching this movie again even three years from now. Screens with Lane Janger's Just One Time.

-- Michael Fox

Plays Sunday, June 28, 8 p.m. at the Castro.

The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender
You'll never see Walter Brennan in the same light again after Mark Rappaport's witty and disarming excavation of gay subtexts buried in the studio era. Rappaport's selectively exhaustive examination of Hollywood movies from the 1930s through the '50s uses waves of clips to dissect the screen personas of Hope and Crosby, Clifton Webb, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, and Randolph Scott (taciturn hero of Anthony Mann westerns and roommate of Cary Grant). Aimed at movie fans rather than film buffs or gay activists, this documentary consciously avoids historical revisionism or grudge-settling. Dan Butler's self-deprecating delivery of the narration in direct address to the camera sets the conversational, accessible tone. Oh, and the grizzled Brennan? From Red River to Rio Bravo and beyond, Rappaport nails him as the whiny, subservient older man, perpetually jealous of the woman who inevitably comes along to steal his lover. It's a brilliant, convincing argument, but you know what the Duke would have said.

-- Michael Fox

Plays Friday, June 26, 8 p.m. at the Roxie.

The "descent" of a First Worlder into the Third World (it always seems to be a descent) is a common artistic motif, the idea being that such exposure can be dangerous but also restorative and liberating. In Steam (1997), bored Italian architect Francesco's liberation comes when he goes to Turkey to sell an old bathhouse he inherits from an aunt he barely knew. In the process, he gets involved with the family who act as caretakers for the place, and particularly with their handsome son Mehmet, with whom he initiates an affair. The unexpected arrival of Francesco's bitchy wife, his fatal refusal to sell the place, and a group of murderous developers who want the property at any cost bring the pleasure of Francesco's self-discovery to a tragic end. The fact that this film was pulled by Turkey's Ministry of Culture from Academy Award consideration -- allegedly because of its bisexual lead -- says more about the stupidity of the Ministry than about director Ferzan Ozpetek's integration of the gay element, which is too refined to invite reproach.

-- Gary Morris

Plays Friday, June 26, 7 p.m. at the Castro.

Together Alone
P.J. Castellaneta's feature-length yakfest is as risky in its way as its ostensible subject of unprotected sex. This black-and-white psychodrama is enclosed in every sense: a single setting, almost real time, and just two characters, a bisexual and a gay man who finish having sex as the film opens and spend the rest of the night arguing, reminiscing, questioning each other's HIV status, playing mind games, and making up. The premise is promising, but the two actors -- both playing characters named Brian (and Bryan) in an unnecessary conceit -- aren't quite up to the demand; their double monologuing eventually becomes wearisome, turning what could be an enlightening experience into a 90-minute hand-wringing PSA about safe sex.

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