A Gay Old Time

S.F.'s gay film fest — it's not just for queers anymore

The S.F. International LGBT Film Festival (6/14-6/24), at 31 the world's oldest and biggest queer film fest, has always been as much about community and identity as anything else, offering visibility and validation in a culture that hasn't been exactly generous with either. That's changed dramatically as homosexuality's now practically de rigueur in pop culture if not the popular mindset. That means we can afford to be pickier than in the past, demanding artistry along with affirmation, and perhaps the occasional moment of shock or transgression.

Transgression, alas, appears in short supply this year; the one film that might have struck a nerve wasn't allowed to. That would be The Gendercator, a satire reviled as “transphobic” by S.F.'s transsexual community and hastily pulled by the fest's jittery organizers. And in fact, the two most shocking moments I noticed in viewing a couple of dozen films were heterosexual, both in the engaging Australian coming-of-age drama Tan Lines (6/23). One scene features an almost unheard-of tableau: two elderly straight couples doing a drunken striptease at a midnight lawn bowling party. Another shows a John Waters-ish dowager tutoring a gay boy on how to go down on her niece.

So, absent taboos we look for strong narratives, enchanting heroes, subculture sojourns, and fresh takes on familiar themes. Some highlights follow:

Disaffected youth appear throughout the fest. These emo boyz spend most of their time taking showers, doing drugs, screwing their pals of both sexes, fussing with their iPods, beating up their teachers — you know, all the privileges of youth. One of the best such entries is Argentina's Glue (6/20, 22). Forget what you've heard about the wonders of Patagonia: The version seen here is a desert hellhole that 15-year-old Lucas is dying to escape, even if it's only through long sessions of huffing and sex play with his best friend. Saturated colors and a Violent Femmes soundtrack add to this evocative look at budding gay sexuality. Continuing our globetrot, we find the atmospheric class romance No Regret (6/22), from Korea. Here a gorgeous, self-centered hustler gets messy with a rich young businessman, with dire results. Those who miss the fractured subtitles in '80s Hong Kong action flicks will find much to love here: “Your coarse look screams that you should end up living in the sauna!” At 31, Swiss director-actor Lionel Baier is a bit long in the tooth to qualify as youth, disaffected or otherwise, but his comic search for a Polish identity in Stealth (6/17, 21) gives him a pass. Stealth is especially worthy as an ambitious blend of the picaresque and the self-referential (director Baier plays “Lionel Baier”), punctuated with whimsical humor. In a typically zany moment, Baier impulsively beds a Polish au pair he feels sorry for, leaving his gay-supportive family and lover scratching their heads.

In more reality-based realms, the fest contains some fine documentaries. Red Without Blue (6/17) profiles Mark and Alex (who's transitioning to Clair), gay identical twins dealing with the damage of a joint childhood marked by drugs, rape, and suicide attempts. The film's lyrical, collage-style visuals perfectly capture the alternating chaos and calm of its subjects' lives. It doesn't hurt that the twins are beautiful and smart. On a lighter note, Kate Clinton's 25th Anniversary Tour (6/17) mixes concert footage and interviews to honor the comedian whose adoption of a mock-prim persona to deliver blistering political and cultural insights has made her a queer icon. She hilariously torpedoes notions of PC, claiming she and her partner plan to become parents by “adopting a fertilized egg.”

Some of the best docs this year (including Red Without Blue) showcase Bay Area people and phenomena. Bears (6/17) endearingly reinvents the Miss America Pageant for hairy, overweight men in tighty-whities, while JAM (6/18) deep-sea dives into the queer-inflected world of roller derby and one queen's valiant attempts to revive it. A fest standout, Trained in the Ways of Men (6/16), thoroughly airs the case of Newark's Gwen Araujo, the 17-year-old transsexual murdered by four “straight” men who discovered they had been having sex with a biological male. One of the film's unusual touches is an interviewer who asks various people: “What is your sex?” and “How do you know?” Their surprising difficulty in answering this seemingly simple question speaks volumes about gender preconceptions. Trained in the Ways of Men expertly probes both the death of Araujo and the larger questions that surround it. This kind of double vision is apparent in a number of this year's films, and a welcome sign of a maturing queer community.

For details on the films, screening times, and locations, go to www.frameline.org/festival/

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