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.

-- Gary Morris

Plays Saturday, June 20, 11:30 a.m. at the Castro.

Fun in Girls' Shorts
The middle-class dyke in crisis seems to be the subject of most of these short films, which like all shorts programs vary wildly in quality. In Paula Goldberg's cliche-compromised Traveling Companion (1998), lines like "What I miss most is grabbing her hand during a particularly brilliant sunset" are supposed to endear us to the dreary, widowed lead. On the other hand, Laurie Schmidt's Sleep Come Free Me (1998) is a witty, authoritative picture of a woman whose lurid sexual fantasies constantly impinge on her boring job. Best of all, it reclaims tearoom sex -- once considered the exclusive province of men -- for its red-hot lesbian couple. Isabel Hegner's Peppermills (1997), a slick tale of an obsessive-compulsive klepto, is a little too subtle for its own good, but Jamie Babbit's Sleeping Beauties (1998), starring High Art's Radha Mitchell, scores with its candy-coated fantasy of mortuaries, makeup, dead rock stars, and secret lesbian kisses.

-- Gary Morris

Plays Saturday, June 20, 2 p.m. at the Castro. Also Wednesday, June 24, 4 p.m. at the Castro.

High Art
The "art fag" of modern cinema is a familiar enough character (think Alexis Arquette), but rarely do we see his female counterpart, the "art dyke." In writer/director Lisa Cholodenko's impressive first feature, Ally Sheedy plays just such a character, a burned-out photographer in perpetual crisis who channels her nervous artistic energy into catering to her junkie ex-actress girlfriend Greta (Patricia Clarkson) and cultivating a wide-eyed magazine editor neighbor (Radha Mitchell). This well-written, beautifully photographed film is also an actor's dream -- lots of verbal and psychological violence, hot lesbian sex, coke and heroin overdoses -- and Cholodenko gives an almost verite feel to the events by letting her skilled actors' complex, thwarted emotions saturate the screen.

-- Gary Morris

Plays opening night Thursday, June 18, 8 p.m. at the Castro.

Looney Lezzies
This collection of comic shorts is short on comedy and fairly slow going, at least on the evidence of the preview tape, which included only half the films on the bill. There's a guffaw to be found in Beverly Seckinger's Mommie Queerest, as a woman whose mother sends her an ugly dress for her birthday fantasizes about having Mom sew her a Simplicity S/M outfit. Allyson Mitchell's Bad Brownies, a Canadian documentarylike short, began with a potentially hilarious premise -- adults recall their experiences in the girlie institution of Brownie-hood -- but the interviews are juxtaposed with clips of two child actresses portraying a good Brownie and a bad Brownie, which is painfully unfunny and not at all necessary. Better are the confessions of adult former Brownies cheating on their merit badges and giving classmates sadistic makeovers, but this 20-minute work is disappointingly stagnant overall. Lezzie highlights include I Love Mornings, Myriam Varela's warm and breezy short short of one couple's magical pancake breakfast, and Pom, Mocha Jean Herrup's very amusing video pseudo-doc of punk dyke Joanna Ingalls trying out for the University of Texas cheerleading squad. "I can rah-rah-rah the ass off those girls!" Ingalls exclaims in her living room, between swigs of JD and a hacking smoker's cough. Plays with local comic Maureen Brownsey's The Joke and Melissa Levin's Lisa Lisa, a collection of 22 interviews with women who have and have not dated women named Lisa. Also screening: Ewjenia Tsanan's Up High and In Color, Kazuko Uchida's Skip, Eliza Barrios and Reanne Estrada's Holiday, and Thirza Jean Cuthand's Bisexual Wannabe.

-- Heather Wisner

Plays Saturday, June 20, 5 p.m. at the Victoria.

Love Story
Celebrating a lesbian love affair in Nazi Germany sounds almost too improbable to imagine; when one of the women is a Nazi "supermom," honored nationally for her "production" of "four fine Aryan sons," and the other is a member of the Jewish underground working to defeat Hitler, the odds would seem to be narrow to nil. But Catrine Clay's 1997 documentary describes in complex, affecting detail the real-life relationship between supermom Lilly Wurst and activist Felice Schragenheim. Interviewees include friends and relatives of the couple and Wurst herself, whose passion for her lover continues to resonate half a century later. Among the surprises the film reveals is a charming wedding contract the two drew up, after Lilly ditched her husband, in which Felice says, "I promise not to look at another pretty girl." Screens with Joyce Warshow and Janet Bans' Some Ground to Stand On.

-- Gary Morris

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

Party Monster
As one scenester testifies, Michael Alig arrived on Manhattan's East Village party scene like "a baby Godzilla stomping through Clubland." It's a fitting description: Alig, a small-town Indiana kid with entrepreneurial ambitions and a fondness for schlocky horror films, became New York's most famous party promoter in the mid-'80s. He threw the first of his druggy, outrageously costumed debauches, "Disco 2000," at the Limelight after aligning himself with owner Peter Gatien, but when that thrill evaporated, he instigated a series of "outlaw parties" in unsanctioned places like doughnut shops and subway stations, where cop-baiting became part of the entertainment. In Alig's underground realm, ruled by what one partygoer describes as a "perverted sex clown aesthetic," social outcasts were welcome, and freakishness was celebrated ("If you have a hunchback, throw a little glitter on it!") rather than reviled. But it wasn't all glamour and kisses; the quest among this superficially inclusive social set for bigger thrills and higher highs led to heavy ketamine ("Special K") and heroin consumption, and a subsequently looser grip on reality. Party themes like "Bloodfeast" and "The Wheel of Hepatitis" got nastier, and Alig's behavior grew bizarre. Documentary filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato make effective use of interviews and party footage to set the stage for Alig's vicious murder of Angel Melendez, a drug dealer Alig dismissed disdainfully as a Club Kid wannabe. Three months before his arrest, and just after Melendez's legless torso washed up in a box on the beach, Alig actually went on camera to say, "He was a copycat. He was one of those kids we hated, so we killed him." Alig confessed his crime to friends and family at the time, but none of them called the police. Monster is a horrifying but fascinating portrait of a chemical, costumed fantasyland brought grimly to a halt. With David Ottenhouse's Close To, a short starring Alexis Arquette.

-- 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.

-- Gary Morris

Plays Friday, June 26, 4:30 p.m. at the Castro.

Totally Confused
Triple threats -- better make that quadruple threats-- Gary Rosen and Greg Pritikin wrote, produced, directed, and starred in this fresh, funny, endearing indie comedy that would make a dandy sitcom. Gay boy Wiley (Rosen) is a compulsive masturbator and Woody Allen-style kvetch who catalogs his porn collection as if it were the Vatican archive; he's in love with his straight best friend Johnny (Pritikin), a naive rock star wannabe and record store employee who can't pass a CD without checking out his reflection. When they have a falling out, Johnny tries to salvage the relationship by having an affair with Riley. His rationale? "I'm still normal ... bisexuality is very in." Endless plot twists, wildly delusional interior monologues, crazy neighbors, a virulent "vivisectionist girlfriend," and a Prozac-addled manager add plenty of comic spice.

-- Gary Morris

Plays Monday, June 22, 9:30 p.m. at the Victoria. Also Wednesday, June 24, 1 p.m. at the Castro.

We've got your tickets right here, pal
The 22nd annual San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival runs from June 18 through 28 at the following three venues:

The Castro, 429 Castro (at Market)
The Roxie, 3117 16th St. (at Valencia)
The Victoria, 2961 16th St. (at Mission)

Tickets can be purchased by fax (863-4267), snail mail (Frameline, 346 Ninth St., S.F., CA 94103), or calling 863-9802 between noon and 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

Admission is $7.50 for evening shows and $6 for matinees. Discounts available for members, students, the disabled, and senior citizens. Tickets for the opening night reception and film are $25 (gala is an extra $30). Tickets for the closing night film and party are $25 (screening only is $15). Festival passes are available for $100.

Day-of-show tickets can be purchased at the venue box office 30 minutes before show time.

The "hope line" will be available for sold-out screenings in which unclaimed reserve seats will be sold shortly before the movie starts.

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