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Unplanned Obsolescence 

Can Outfest remain proactive in a post-gay world?

Wednesday, Jul 10 2002
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Around the time that Outfest was celebrating its 10th anniversary (give or take a year), gay-and-lesbian cinema was briefly, powerfully re-configured into New Queer Cinema. The phrase, coined by lesbian-feminist culture critic B. Ruby Rich, mapped the crossroad where experimentation with form, representation and desire coalesced into a movement that was both political and artful. It marked the point at which the margin boldly shoved itself to the center, on self-created terms that owed more to art-house, underground and foreign movies than to standard Hollywood fare. Independent film itself -- not yet simply a casting-couch whore for Miramax, not yet merely a cut-rate version of the same-ol‘-same-ol’ -- was given a jolt by the infusion of audacious artists and their work, including Todd Haynes‘ Poison (1991), Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), Christopher Munch‘s The Hours and Times (1991) and Gregg Araki’s The Living End (1992).

The critical acclaim and media hype that greeted these films were also validation for the decadelong battles that ”Gay and Lesbian Media Festival and Conference“ founder Larry Horne -- along with Claire Aguilar, Chris Berry and John Ramirez -- had waged in order to secure funding, acquire a home base and find an audience. (The festival name was changed to Outfest in 1994.) Now, with the promise of New Queer Cinema having largely been diluted and absorbed into a Kiss Me, GuidoBilly‘s Hollywood Screen Kiss world of banal faggotry, the role of the festival itself -- one of Los Angeles’ largest and most successful -- has been radically transformed and is still evolving.

Outfest has morphed into a combination glittery marketplace, gay-and-lesbian town hall, and crucial outlet for riskier, non-mainstream queer fare. With hit television shows like the brilliant Six Feet Under, the appallingly bad Will & Grace and the abysmal Queer as Aryan Folk being beamed into millions of American homes on a weekly basis (along with the decidedly queer Sex and the City), one mark of the success of this country‘s network of G&L film festivals has been the influence they’ve had on popular culture, acting both as a laboratory to foster queer talent and as a conduit to channel some of that talent -- and various queer sensibilities -- into mainstream consciousness.

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It‘s tempting to say that the ultimate measure of the success of such festivals will be when they are obsolete or redundant, when queer film is an organic element and a consistent presence on the big-ticket, mainstream festival circuit. To some degree, that’s already the case. This year alone, Karmen Gei (Senegal), a les-bi-onic adaptation of Bizet‘s Carmen, plays at Outfest after already wowing audiences at this year’s Sundance, Pan African and San Francisco International film festivals; Thomas Allen Harris‘ experimental, autobiographical That’s My Face (USA) has played both Sundance and the recent Los Angeles Film Festival. Still, the sheer volume of queer film being produced around the world will ensure that Outfest has a relevant and necessary role to play for years to come. And sometimes that role will be not only to absorb and showcase the works that can‘t be handled by non-queer-specific festivals, but also to help foster and participate in dialogue about trends in world cinema. To wit, with Asian films of all genres as a dominant presence at both queer and non-queer festivals this year, the fact of queerness being so strong an element in the cinematic mix both deepens and widens discussion around the cultures and politics of the countries that are producing the movies. Without festivals like Outfest, the extent of that presence might not be known outside the countries of origin, and the critical conversation would be considerably less informed, and less vital.

Outfest, and queer festivals in general, have still other functions that are just as pressing, if not more so. They act as a place where, through art, the dialectics of modern faggotry can be presented and debated: homocons vs. anarchists, assimilationists vs. radical faeries. (Even the terminology of ”queer“ vs. ”gay and lesbian“ is far from a settled issue.) They provide a forum where the aestheticpolitical question can be raised and debated: What is a queergaylesbian movie? Is it determined by subject matter, by some sort of vaguely defined ”sensibility“ or by the sexuality of the filmmaker? And is blue-movie king William Higgins as crucial an influence as Douglas Sirk or Cocteau?

The festivals also serve as important archives in which classic or groundbreaking films like Parting Glances, Making Love, Lianna and An Early Frost, as well as retrospectives of artists like the late director Marlon Riggs, can be taken off the shelf, dusted off and brought to the big screen -- as all the aforementioned are this year. We’re then reminded that history lives, that issues and themes (AIDS and its metaphors, the closet and thwarted lives, violence and discrimination) that have been wrestled with in the past are still painfully relevant today, despite what Log Cabin queens may have to say.

Perhaps the most important role Outfest serves, though, is in giving voice to those who don‘t fall asleep at night with visions of barely legal Bel Ami pretty boys dancing in their heads. That cliched yet potent model of fantasy and desire often suffocates other expressions and options in queer culture, and it’s more than represented every year at the festival. But Outfest is also one of the few places where a ”Yellow Belly“ night of experimental Asian short films can be not only programmed but also prominently featured. It‘s one of the only spots where Daughters of the Sun (Iran), about a Muslim girl who passes as a boy in order to earn money to support her family (and subsequently finds herself the object of a love-struck female co-worker’s desire), and Man of Ashes (Tunisia), billed as the first Arab film to deal openly with homosexuality, can rub shoulders with a documentary called American Mullet (USA, no explanation required).

This year‘s Outfest is, in fact, stunningly diverse, in skin tones projected onscreen and in subject matter grappled with. It’s easily one of the strongest programs they‘ve yet put on in that it defies ”wisdom“ that is becoming depressingly conventional. As gays -- not so much the lesbians -- dig their Prada heels in deeper to secure their position as eunuch best friendcourt jester on prime-time television (no lame network sitcom is complete without one such token), nuance and range are diminished. The victory of visibility often comes at the expense of depth, and with a hackneyed refurbishing of stereotypes. That’s true for all minorities struggling for a place at the table of media representation, of course. (American Family, anyone?) Outfest‘s great strength, as it has progressed from the little ragtag outfit that could to a local powerhouse, has been to deftly balance its bread-and-butter big-ticket items with more challenging and far-reaching works -- works that push the envelope and offer the return of complex stories, complicated characters, and dreams not yet mediated by Madison Avenue.

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