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Love! Valour! Queer Cinema! 

A guide to the Lesbian and Gay Film Fest

Wednesday, Jun 18 1997

Britain's Channel 4 excels at engaging, literate gay dramas, and in this case also manages to avoid the maudlin air of most "AIDS movies." Tonio (Jason Flemyng from Hollow Reed), an ego-driven gay dancer, fights and makes up with his troupe, has a tortured affair with an overweight psychiatrist, and is just beginning to suffer from the disease. The dialogue is alternately snappy ("My face is leaving in five minutes -- be on it") and sober ("My body betrayed me"). One of the best scenes is a comic hetero flirtation between Tonio and a lesbian pal when both are sick of their mates. He suggests she go down on him. "Lick your willie? That's heinous!" she says. When he complains that her tits "get in the way," she rails at his lack of comprehension: "They're supposed to get in the way!"

-- Gary Morris
Plays Monday, June 23, 9:30 p.m. at the Castro

The black-and-white clip, circa 1960 or so, of a clueless but concerned interviewer asking a doctor "What do lesbians actually do?" is one of the funnier bits in A Bit of Scarlet, but as with all the other uncredited clips assembled here, where it came from is anyone's guess. American editor/director Andrea Weiss has spliced together moments from British cinema, grouped under themes like "A Family Affair," and silent movie-style text boxes delineate "rules" for cinematic treatment of gay characters, such as "Deviants should be confined to minor characters, like the husband's friend." Weiss evidently wanted to avoid cramming British film history down our throats, but this lackluster compilation of dramas and training films (coherent, it would seem, only to native Brits and film scholars) suffers from an exasperating lack of context, to the point that including some of these clips as gay-themed material seems like a stretch.

-- Heather Wisner
Plays Saturday, June 28, 2 p.m. at the Castro

The title refers to Singapore's legendary red-light district of the 1960s, a lost environment lovingly re-created by Hong Kong-based director Yon Fan. This coming-of-age story about a country girl who takes a job in a hotel for transvestite and transsexual hookers is a breakthrough -- Singapore's first gay feature. The sex is suitably discreet, but the operatic emotions of the queens are given full, florid range. Hiep Thi Le, from Oliver Stone's Heaven on Earth, brings the camp extravagances back to earth as the "real girl" whose path to womanhood is smoothed by the shrill but simpatico queens. A final shot cleanly captures the fleeting beauty of Bugis Street -- quaint, ramshackle buildings dwarfed by the impersonal skyscrapers of the modern city.

-- Gary Morris
Plays Sunday, June 22, 3 p.m. at the Castro

Stephen Winter's ragged, meandering tale of black, HIV-positive, drag queen junkie-terrorists tries hard to avoid the middlebrow cliches of To Wong Foo or The Birdcage. These screeching "babies" exist at the opposite end of those films' assimilationist bent. The characters spend their time assaulting congressmen and corporate executives, comparing addictions, performing bad lip-syncs, reading each other out, getting drunk and stoned, and lolling on a New York rooftop in fishnet dresses and no underwear. The endless self-dramatizing isn't surprising in a film about drag queens, but the level of insularity and self-absorption ultimately drains the drama of its impact. Winter took too great a gamble when he decided to make his characters "human" -- i.e., flawed. All we remember from this mostly aggravating group are the flaws.

-- Gary Morris
Plays Sunday, June 22, 8 p.m. at the Castro

Ira Sachs' first feature, shot in Memphis with a talented amateur cast, sketches the brief, troubled relationship between wealthy white boy Lincoln (Shayne Gray) and working-class mixed-race John (Thang Chan). Lincoln has a girlfriend but secretly cruises for gay sex. In a shrewd inversion of Huckleberry Finn, the two steal Lincoln's family boat for a leisurely river cruise. But this is no voyage of self-discovery, because Lincoln's repressions -- born of his class, as a strained family dinner makes clear -- render him incapable of self-analysis. John's attraction to Lincoln is erotically charged, almost groveling, and their interplay recalls master-slave relationships in the Old South. Sachs extrapolates a world of class and race inequities from this failed romance between two men.

-- Gary Morris
Plays Saturday, June 21, 7 p.m. at the Roxie

Kim (Steven Mackintosh) was once Karl, an effeminate, harassed Catholic boy whose only protector was straight Paul Prentice (Rupert Graves). The two accidentally reconnect years later; the film stolidly chronicles their complex relationship. This conventional story is lifted out of the pedestrian by several twists. Far from the shrieking, militant trannies of popular mythology, Kim is a prim, successful greeting-card writer who counsels her straight sister and brother-in-law on their marital problems. Prentice is a rowdy, post-punk motorcycle messenger who rejects the social strictures on his affair with Kim. Her tantalizing description of the physical effects of her sex change -- "my buttocks are rounder ... the nipples are darker ..." -- drives Prentice into a frenzy of lust. In one of the film's highlights, he runs into the street and delivers a monologue about "the penis," breaking mainstream cinema's last taboo by gleefully exposing himself, screaming: "Look everybody, there's a man with his penis out!"

-- Gary Morris
Plays closing party Sunday, June 29, 8:30 p.m. at the Castro

When Elton John tours, he hauls along more than a couple of suitcases. Besides drawers upon drawers of designer eyewear and racks of silk shirts, he also insists on bringing freezer packs of Marks and Spencer muffins, a bottle of HP steak sauce, and two tiaras -- as he points out, you never know when you'll be invited someplace formal. John's grueling 1996 world tour, in which he plays 108 shows to over a million people in 15 countries, underscores his yen for creature comforts, and the tour he leads through his lavish, well-loved English estate does much to explain his frequent bouts of homesickness. John's partner, David Furnish, directs what is in essence a home movie, and an entertaining one at that, despite its muddy sound and amateurish production. Some history, like John's relationship with songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, is neglected and some hits, like "Bennie and the Jets," go unsung. But Furnish compensates with an otherwise very personal portrait of someone who's remained a fairly successful star for 25 years, a regular guy who suffers through poor self-esteem days and foul moods, and who, hours before winning an Oscar for the Lion King soundtrack, was providing gleeful commentary on the show's parade of stars, just like the rest of us.

-- Heather Wisner
Plays Wednesday, June 25, 10:30 p.m. at the Victoria

This is a threadbare cinema bio, a speculative history of Alan Lambert, a gay porn star and self-styled "Marxist messiah" unknown outside the porn world. A soporific narration repeatedly emphasizes the difficulty director William E. Jones had in "constructing" this mystery man, a problem not helped by the lack of live footage from what should be an essential source: Lambert's many sex films. Instead we get endless shots of trees, ocean waves, cityscapes. Lengthy excerpts from Capra's Meet John Doe don't convince us the subject was an everyman. And the director's claim that Lambert was a virtual visionary is fatally undercut when we hear how worried the subject was about the damage a hemorrhoid might do to his career. End credits say an NEA grant partially funded Finished, and perhaps it shows the present price of NEA sponsorship: a flick about a porn star with no nudity.

-- Gary Morris
Plays Wednesday, June 25, 8 p.m. at the Roxie

Lesbianism as a powerful tonic to the suppressions of Indian culture is the subject of Deepak Mehta's contemporary melodrama. Radha (played by megastar Shabana Azmi) is the traditional "good wife" who never questions her husband, a sect-follower who tests his libido by forcing her to lie naked next to him every night, so that he can resist temptation. Sita (Nandita Das) is her younger, more modern-thinking sister-in-law, whose arrival coincides with Radha's increasing alienation. Sita is horrified by her own marriage to self-absorbed philanderer Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi): "This devotion thing is overrated," she says flatly. The film, a deft mix of pathos and humor, lovingly details their increasingly indiscreet trysts. A wizened, judgmental granny provides a wordless black-comic Greek chorus (she's mute from a stroke); the high point occurs when the house servant nervously masturbates to a video called The Joy Suck Club while granny watches in horror. Fire was shot in India at the same time Mira Nair's Kama Sutra was causing a scandal; Fire's upfront treatment of a lesbian amour, normally a taboo subject in the country, went happily unnoticed.

-- Gary Morris
Plays Friday, June 27, 7 p.m. at the Castro

The musical, at least the cinematic variety, has mostly been consigned to the same historical trash heap as the western as a genre hopelessly out of touch with modern viewers. But gay audiences may be more tolerant of the form than the mainstream; how else to explain the presence of two old-style musicals in this year's festival? (The other is Broadway Damage.) Franchesca Page stars drag-queen performance artist Varla Jean Merman as a Divine-like stage mother who makes a living from waitressing and singing racy numbers at an airport lounge. Her life's dream, and the movie's plot, is her attempt to push her sweet but talentless daughter into a promising new "disco musical." But the production is plagued with infighting and a series of mysterious assaults and deaths, a la Phantom. Writer/director Kelley Sane mines reliable sources -- Broadway, John Waters, Pedro Almodovar -- for this gaudy, entertaining, if ultimately forgettable exercise in drag shtick.

-- Gary Morris
Plays Saturday, June 28, 8:30 p.m. at the Castro

The "kids" of Full Speed are a group of French and Arab hipsters who listen to rap and write poetry and novels. They're political and polysexual romantics -- fighting against injustices of class and race but less adept at resolving their own increasingly out-of-control relationships. Director Gaël Morel convincingly frames their story against a backdrop of French racism and the ascendancy of the right wing. During a speech, white Quentin unnerves his bourgeois audience by forcing them to look at an Arab friend who's been assaulted: "Show your scar. Let them see the political promises of the far right." Typical of this complex, passionate work, though, Quentin puts his own class privileges to use by exploiting a love-struck young Arab named Samir. In a heartbreaking moment that distills the personal from the political, Samir lies naked next to the indifferent Quentin and says, "Turn toward me. I'll make do with your heart beating next to mine."

-- Gary Morris
Plays Saturday, June 21, 4:30 p.m. at the Castro

Some commentators have called Denis Langlois' new film a "Canadian Friends," but L'Escorte far surpasses the American TV show from its earliest scene -- a nerve-racking party where a tightknit group of pals of various genders and sexualities play out their fraying relationships. A simple practical joke -- hiring the title character, a call boy named Steve, for the brooding Jean-Marc -- strains all the film's major relationships to the breaking point as Steve sleeps his way through the group. This $200,000 production features first-rate, naturalistic acting; a story that constantly surprises; a complex mise en scene; and sure proof that bloated budgets do not a movie make.

-- Gary Morris
Plays Saturday, June 21, 8 p.m. at the Roxie; also plays Wednesday, June 25, 3 p.m. at the Roxie

The lesbian regional romance is now an identifiable genre. In Julia Dyer's film, shot in Dallas, a straight secretary trapped in a sexless marriage falls in love with a dyke geometry teacher and basketball coach. In the press notes, the filmmakers say their research showed that "women falling in love with each other in mid-life, after they'd had marriages and families, was nothing new." While the film suffers from some plot contrivances and occasional bathos, the relationship between Carly and Dinah indeed rings true. Images like the two women playing basketball in wedding gowns, or their furtive passing of toilet paper under the stalls of a school bathroom as a token of budding desire, bring freshness and feeling to the proceedings.

-- Gary Morris
Plays Saturday, June 21, 9:30 p.m. at the Roxie

Director David de Coteau tries to rediscover romance in gay life in the '90s in this black-and-white Bildungsroman set, like many a recent gay movie, in the bohemian enclave of L.A.'s Silverlake. Kyle is an 18-year-old blond naif whose attempts to write poetry fail because, as a Greek chorus of transvestites kindly inform him, he's never really lived. A hunky, promiscuous construction worker is only too happy to further his education in life and especially love, but things get complicated when Kyle falls for him after their first encounter. Sweet, unmannered performances by the two principals redeem the too-frequent moments of bathos, and the film's extensive nudity and sweaty, upfront sex seem downright revolutionary in these reactionary times. The ever-welcome Mink Stole has a brief bit as a poetry impresario.

-- Gary Morris
Plays Tuesday, June 24, 10 p.m. at the Victoria

Canada's long been written off as a cultural backwater by jingoistic American commentators, but Canadian John Greyson is producing films as challenging as any American director today. Lilies is the most Brechtian work yet by a director who specializes in visual trickery and distancing devices. The story is based on a play that's in turn based on a startling conceit -- in a prison, a group of convicts kidnap an old priest and force him to re-experience, through their own re-creations and Greyson's rich tableaux of the priest's memories, most particularly the events that led him to the priesthood and his long-ago male lover to the prison. Greyson here counters his past tendencies toward Peter Greenaway-like coldness with unexpected rushes of feeling in this baroque melodrama of love, betrayal, arson, and murder.

-- Gary Morris
Plays Thursday, June 26, 7 p.m. at the Castro

This hard-core doc about producing gay porn films is also an instruction manual with some fascinating little-known facts. Who knew there was a name for the jet of water spraying out of an ass after an enema? (It's called "ducktailing.") Straight actors abound in gay porn because it pays more than straight (they're called "gay for pay"). And of course, never use a couch for three-ways because, as drag queen director Chi-Chi La Rue warns, "the men will fall between the cushions!" Filmmakers like La Rue and Gino Colbert, shown on the set and in candid interviews, take their work as seriously as any Hollywood auteur, down to the smallest details. During a routine inspection, La Rue notices a "problem" on one of the players: "You have to shave your butthole!"

-- Gary Morris
Plays Friday, June 27, 11:30 p.m. at the Castro

More proof, after L'Escorte and Lilies, that Canada is producing first-rate gay celluloid. A group of men all named "Peter" play out a variety of personal obsessions -- the Jackson 5, Pierre Trudeau, circumcision, censorship -- in witty dramatizations, interviews, and documentary footage of everything from Trudeau's speeches to circumcision operations. Director John Greyson invokes another Peter -- Greenaway -- in his visual game-playing, which includes text superimposed on the screen. In a subtly comic scene, two men cruise each other by "typing" on imaginary typewriters, while their sexy messages appear like subtitles. Window-box inserts offer oblique commentary on the action occupying the rest of the frame. Greyson's bracing mix of documentary and dramatics makes Uncut refreshingly unclassifiable.

-- Gary Morris
Plays Saturday, June 28, 7 p.m. at the Roxie

The San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, now in its 21st year, is presented by Frameline, San Francisco's center for the distribution, promotion, funding, and exhibition of lesbian and gay film and video.

The fest runs June 20 through 29 at three venues:

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

The festival's 24-hour info number is 703-8663.

Admission is $7.50 for evening shows, $6 for afternoon screenings (up to 5 p.m.).

Advance tickets are available at the fest's ticket outlet, 2193 Market, from noon to

7 p.m. daily save Mondays. You can also charge by phone at 436-0086 from noon to 7 p.m. daily save Mondays as well.

Note that you can't buy tickets at the outlet for shows the same day.
Those are available only at the theaters a half-hour before show time.
Sold-out shows generally feature a "hope line" at which any unclaimed reserved tickets will be sold shortly before the movie starts.

About The Authors

Gary Morris


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