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Frameline, Week One Picks 

Wednesday, Jun 17 2015
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Turning 39 this year, the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival has started to reach that awkward age where it can't help but wonder if it still has that old spark. Are those cute twenty-somethings down the bar at the Lexington (RIP) checking you out because you're cute, or do they just think it's hilarious that you're still trying to make the scene? And after that great run you had in your mid-30s, how come none of the women you've gone out with lately are returning your calls after the first date?

Some of the most interesting films showing at Frameline over this first week look back over the past several decades, collectively taking stock of how queer culture got mainstreamed to the extent that Festival's big Pride Sunday screening is of a summer blockbuster that will open in multiplexes later that week, Magic Mike XXL.

Michael Stabile's documentary Seed Money: The Chuck Holmes Story is no less beefcake-happy than XXL, following Falcon Studios founder Holmes as he arrives in San Francisco in the 1970s and builds a pr0n empire as well as the Human Rights Campaign (which is problematic in its own right, but that's for another documentary). His philanthropy results in his name being on the somehow-still-standing LGBT Center, even as the more conservative elements of the community tried to ignore the creamy provenance of his money.

Then there's the San Francisco premiere of the new Yes Men film, The Yes Men Are Revolting, which takes a closer look at the personal lives of the half-gay, prankster-activist duo Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (the not-gay half). Where their previous film was called The Yes Men Fix the World, The Yes Men Are Revolting considers whether or not their work really is helping to change the world for the better.

Meanwhile, I Am Divine director Jeffrey Schwarz returns with his latest documentary, Tab Hunter Confidential, a charming look at the most famously closeted 1950s screen hunk this side of Rock Hudson. Unlike Hudson, however, Hunter is still with us to tell his story, and to cautiously embrace being able to not have to hide in the closet to protect his career and his life.

We San Franciscans love watching home movies of how we once were, and director Stu Maddox's Reel in the Closet brings together not only amateur films of gay life from 1930s through the 1980s, but also television footage of high-profile 1970s events such as Anita Bryant's anti-gay crusades and the White Night riots that followed the assassination of Harvey Milk.

But this week's highlight is not a documentary, but rather a narrative feature about a documentary: Stephen Winter's Jason and Shirley, a fictitious found-footage account of the filming of Shirley Clarke's landmark 1967 Portrait of Jason.

If you've never seen Portrait of Jason, you should just on general principles: In New York's iconic Chelsea Hotel, a bespectacled and aggressively jolly gay black man by the name of Jason Holliday talks for 105 minutes (whittled down from a 12-hour interview) about his life as a hustler and frustrated nightclub performer, and spins many probably-mostly-true anecdotes of hustling, police harassment, and gay bathhouses. He also becomes more emotionally raw and distraught as the evening progresses, eventually revealing both tears and pains as the off-screen interviewers push him into lowering his defenses.

Being a fictionalization, some liberties are taken in Jason and Shirley — the real-life shoot began at 9 p.m., as opposed to the early afternoon as seen here, and Clarke's signature bowler hat is noticeably replaced with a Scumbag Steve-style cap. You make your film with the budget and resources you have, which might explain why the cameraman couldn't look less like he's in 1960s New York.

But those tangible details are less important than Jack Waters' phenomenal performance as Jason, and the movie often follows him into his fantasies and memories. Winters has stated that his first time seeing Portrait of Jason, it "left me with the angry, terrified, firm conviction to never, ever end up like Jason Holliday."

But Winter's Jason and Shirley regards Holliday not as a tragic figure to be pitied and poked at with a stick as so many straight/white viewers of Portrait have over the years, but instead representing a certain kind of marginalization, and the life-force needed to overcome that marginalization — the sort which queer people still experience, particularly down on the nonwhite and/or BTQ end of the spectrum these days.

As director Winter puts it, "I now love Jason because he tries. Whether you live or lose, it only matters that you try, and the struggle to exist is universal."

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Sherilyn Connelly

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