One of the struggles faced by Outfest (a.k.a. the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival) in recent years has been to clarify its purpose in a post–Will & Grace/Queer Eye for the Straight Guy world in which studies on cultural homophobia show Americans (notably younger generations) becoming more tolerant of LGBT folk even as the political right reliably deploys homophobic tactics to bolster support among its faithful. How to negotiate the two-steps-forward-one-step-back realities of queer power and visibility on a morphing cultural landscape? How to juggle the often conflicting perceptions of film festivals as bazaars for distributors and studios, rarefied outposts for cinephiles and (particularly in the case of Outfest) forums for activist art? Those questions have been complicated by a lot of queer filmmakers evolving — or devolving, depending on your point of view — away from the more politically charged, often experimental fare of the New Queer Cinema of the 1980s and early ’90s to create films as bland and formulaic as anything coming out of mainstream Hollywood.
A sense of Purpose was more easily defined when Outfest began, 26 years ago, in response to the dearth of venues for LGBT films to be shown. Then, the thrill of simply hearing conversations and seeing images that sprang from both queer realities and queer fantasies was enough. What makes this year’s Outfest notable is that, beneath the glitzy premieres, star-studded galas, assorted panels, envelope-pushing theater pieces, musical performances, tributes and advertiser-sponsored after-parties, there is a renewed emphasis on conversations about and around queerness that you’re not likely to hear anywhere else. Taiwanese director Zero Chou’s lovely Drifting Flowers retrieves lesbian desire from the realm of hetero frat-boy fantasies and straight-girl dalliance, and uses it to fuel her examination of the dynamics at play in butch/femme relationships. Jeffrey Schwarz’s Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon tells the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story of Jack Wrangler, ’70s gay-porn icon turned Broadway actor — a trajectory from margin to mainstream that mirrors the path of the queer community during the same time frame. And strung throughout Sex Positive, Daryl Wein’s exemplary documentary on forgotten AIDS activist Richard Berkowitz, are Berkowitz’s trenchant, painfully truthful insider observations on the gay community before, during and immediately after AIDS detonated.
There is still a lot of formulaic and pandering fare in the program, films that speak more to the careerist drive of their creators than to anything substantive. But this year, there’s also enough high-quality, challenging work to remind us why Outfest remains necessary and relevant. Our critics’ picks for the best of the fest follow.
BEFORE I FORGET (France) If you haven’t seen the four preceding installments of Jacques Nolot’s diary of a gay gigolo, it might be tough to follow the multiple threads of the fifth, in which the aging Pierre, played by the director with an impassivity bordering on catatonia, contemplates the disasters that plague him and longs for a little affection to go with his dwindling sex life. He comes, he goes, he writes, he visits his analyst, he waits to service and be serviced by muscled young men, he mourns a lost love, he faces facts. Nolot imprisons us with such efficient repetitiveness inside this narcissist’s encroaching despair, all we can do is put our heads in our hands and weep. Or sleep. (DGA, Sun., July 13, 2 p.m.) (Ella Taylor)
CHOOSE CONNOR (USA) Twenty-two-year-old writer-director Luke Eberl takes clichés and stereotypes from gay culture and from homophobic notions of said culture (the obsession with hustler youth and pedophilia; the notion of a gay cabal wielding behind-the-scenes power) and uses them to create a bleak but engrossing cautionary tale on the machinations of the modern political machine. When precocious, idealistic teenager Owen snares a position on the team of his political hero, Congressman Lawrence Connor (Steven Weber), he soon finds himself submerged in duplicity on every level and forced to consider grave consequences if he dares rock the boat. Visually, the film is low-budget sparse and nonshowy, but its bracingly cynical worldview is so well drawn and acted that the aesthetic flatness is forgiven. (Fairfax, Thurs., July 17, 9:30 p.m. and Sat., July 19, noon.) (EH)
DRIFTING FLOWERS (Taiwan) Director Zero Chou’s trio of interlocked tales (which she also co-wrote) explores the dynamic of butch/femme lesbian relationships with great insight and sympathy not only to both parties, but also to everyday life issues (illness, economic stress) that impact everyone’s identity. All three stories are well told, but the first, “Meigo,” about a blind nightclub singer caring for her much younger sister while building a relationship with an accordion player named Chalkie, is so very fine that it dwarfs its companion pieces. It’s hard to imagine too many other characters in this year’s festival more captivating than swaggeringly sexy Chalkie, a vision in jeans, men’s shirts and casually puffed cigarettes. (DGA , Sat., July 19, 1:30 p.m.) (EH)
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes