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)
A JIHAD FOR LOVE (USA) “Muhammad was a feminist,” says an unapologetic young dyke in AJihad for Love, Parvez Sharma’s documentary about the struggles of queer Muslims around the world. Worth noting is the woman’s unapologetic attitude about both her sexuality and her faith. Sharma spent almost six years traversing a dozen countries to capture the stories of Muslims struggling to reconcile queer sexuality with Islamic teachings. The rigor with which some of the film’s subjects have studied the Quran and can draw distinctions between bigoted cultural practices and religious text is impressive, though the presence of additional Islamic scholars with nuanced, progressive readings of the Quran would have bolstered their arguments. The film’s considerable power lies in its emotionalism: As we watch a quartet of gay Iranian men await verdicts on their asylum applications to Canada, or listen as a young Egyptian lesbian couple wrestle with their love for one another and for Islam, the urgency of their dilemmas is palpable. (DGA, Thurs., July 17, 7 p.m.) (EH)
THE NEW TWENTY (USA) In his sleek and accomplished debut film, writer-director Chris Mason Johnson tracks the lives and loves of a cadre of 29-year-old Manhattan college friends who betray themselves and each other by abusing the Big Three — sex, money, drugs. At the center is Andrew (Ryan Locke), a lean, blond alpha-dog investment banker whose beautiful Asian fiancé (Nicole Bilderback) may be his match in the world of business. Among those circling this golden couple are Ben (Colin Fickes), who’s gay, overweight and addicted to online sex sites (there’s a great moment when a trick comes over to Ben’s apartment and the two men reject each other on sight), as well as the drug-addicted Felix (Thomas Sadoski) and commitment-phobic Tony (Andrew Wei Lin). We have been here many times before (see 1966’s The Group), but Johnson and co-writer Ishmael Chawla have a light touch that keeps things from turning overly melodramatic — no vases get thrown. Supported by veteran New York actors such as Terry Serpico and Bill Sage, the strong ensemble of young actors create fully defined personas, thanks in large part to their director’s willingness to linger after a dramatic peak and observe the characters in private, take-a-breath moments. He’s got something, this guy, and although I’m surely overpraising The New Twenty, I’d hate to see a movie this ethnically and sexually diverse fade away on today’s dead-end gay release circuit. After all, for better or worse, every generation deserves its own St. Elmo’s Fire. (DGA, Sat., July 12, 9:30 p.m.; Monica 4-Plex, Tues., July 15, 7 p.m.) (Chuck Wilson)
A PLACE TO LIVE (USA) “It’s a perfect storm of high land value and low median income. We’re in the midst of one of the worst housing crises in modern history.” So says talking-head Councilman Eric Garcetti in this documentary about the struggle by queer senior citizens to find housing in Los Angeles. Director Carolyn Coal follows seven elderly gays and lesbians from the time they first hear about the building of a housing complex for senior LGBT folk in early 2006, through the excruciating wait a year later to hear if they’ve won the lottery for admittance. As the seniors share their stories of illness, poverty and homophobia, they prove themselves heroes and heroines whose humor and resilience are as inspiring as their hardships are heart piercing. (Fairfax, Sat., July 12, noon.) (EH)
READY? OK! (USA) Year-10 Catholic-school student Joshua Dowd (Lurie Poston, a real natural) believes in “picking people up, not knocking them down,” a philosophy that for Joshua has a literal interpretation — he’s desperate to be on the cheerleader squad. Neither his mom (Carrie Preston) nor the principal, Sister Vivian (Tara Karsian), will sign off, however, so Joshua is stuck on the wrestling team, where one day he can’t help but cheer a teammate on — complete with syncopated hand gestures. In these moments, writer-director James Vasquez displays a real flair for the comedy of eccentricity. He and Preston and her husband, Michael Emerson (Ben on TV’s Lost), who plays a gay neighbor, are longtime collaborators, and in the film’s broader moments there’s a sense of play and improvisation. As Joshua’s beleaguered mother, Preston is terrific, and has a moving confessional monologue. But in the home stretch, the pathos gets a bit thick. A prerelease re-edit might be in order, for which the wise and wonderful Joshua can surely provide a cheer. (Fairfax, Fri., July 11, 7 p.m. and Sat., July 12, 11 a.m.) (CW)
SEEDS OF SUMMER (Israel) The brutality of the Israeli Defense Forces training program for female troops pales in comparison to the brutality of emotional upheaval as lesbian identity flowers and wide-eyed crushes turn serious. Documentary filmmaker Hen Lasker’s camera is allowed extraordinary access both on the training grounds and into the hearts and heads of the fresh-faced young women who are clad in military gear, wielding massive firepower. Though various Hollywood-ready subplots fill the screen (one woman’s escalating and debilitating anxiety attacks; a pretty-girl fuckup evolves into a team leader), it’s the flirtation between Lasker and one of her subjects, commander Smadar, that crackles, particularly when Smadar is so overcome by emotion that she forces Lasker to jettison what little is left of her professional distance. (DGA, Sun., July 13, 8 p.m.; Fairfax, Tues., July 15, 7:30 p.m.) (EH)
SEX POSITIVE (USA) In America, we want squeaky-clean heroes, humans sans flaws, especially if the hero in question is already the member of a minority group. So it’s no surprise that Richard Berkowitz — a gay reporter turned S&M hustler/crackhead — has been lost to queer history despite being one of the architects of the notion of safe sex. Daryl Wein’s densely packed documentary on Berkowitz’s rise, fall and recovery is a time capsule of a bygone era but also speaks powerfully to a host of relevant issues, from the ways history is shaped and shapes us to the deeply ingrained homophobia that lives in the psyches of so many gay men and affects how their sexuality manifests. It’s a rich, provocative portrait of Berkowitz that also tackles huge questions surrounding queer identity, illness and culpability. (DGA, Tues., July 15, 9:30 p.m.) (EH)
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SUGAR RUSH (U.K.) At a generous estimate, you probably need to be under 30 to groove to the first three episodes of this Channel 4 television series about a teenage lesbian Brighton virgin who lusts after her more worldly — and seemingly heterosexual — classmate while fielding her own falling-apart family. Among the brash charms of the show, which is directed at breakneck speed by Sean Grundy and based on the novel by England’s sharpest journalist tongue, Julie Burchill, are spirited performances from its two leads and a production design so colorful, it looks like somebody’s pet parakeet. I could do without the reflexive mother-bashing, though. (DGA, Fri., July 18, 9:45 p.m.) (ET)
WERE THE WORLD MINE (USA) Tom Gustafson’s flawed take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream veers back and forth between groan-inducing banality and inspiration. When high school homo and jock punching bag Timothy is cast as Puck in his all-boys school’s production of Midsummer, he stumbles upon a love potion that causes life to imitate art, creating a queer upheaval in his small town. Beneath a trite, simple-minded imagining of what would happen if homophobes were turned gay (most, apparently, would become mincing gay stereotypes), the film struggles to articulate truths about bigotry, justice and longing. When it narrows its focus from big questions addressed through broad strokes to the one-on-one interactions of actual human beings, it taps into a winning sweetness and poignancy. (John Anson Ford Amphitheatre; Sun., July 20, 7:30 p.m.) (EH)
WILD COMBINATION: A PORTRAIT OF ARTHUR RUSSELL (USA) The queer avant-garde isn’t dead — but ironically, thanks to assimilation and rampant commodification, it may be more marginalized than ever. The late musician Arthur Russell, who sought to fuse the worlds of experimental and pop music, embodied the tensions between margin and center, avant-garde and Top 40. In his diverse musical interests — cerebral folk, pioneering disco (Loose Joints’ “Is It All Over My Face”), nascent electronica — the consistent thread was a searching intelligence, an impatience with easy formula. Director Matt Wolf’s documentary is filled with interviews with Russell’s lover and his loving parents, home movies, stock footage and testimonials from folks like Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg. What arises is the portrait of an almost scarily talented man who, even after death, is still ahead of his time. (DGA 1, Tues., July 15, 7 p.m.) (EH)
WRANGLER: ANATOMY OF AN ICON (USA) To scan the gay hookup sites these days is to discover an apparent obsession with appearing “masculine” and “str8-acting,” a throwback sensibility that makes this an ideal time to consider the life and influence of 1970s porn superstar Jack Wrangler, the manliest man of his time. In this entertaining — if overly reverent — documentary, veteran producer turned director Jeffrey Schwarz lets the Beverly Hills–born Wrangler tell for himself how he used his gym-pumped body (a novelty then), construction-worker attitude and unapologetic love of man-on-man action to become the first brand-name gay-porn star, one who eventually crossed over into straight porn, and mainstream fame. Schwarz has assembled an array of witnesses to Wrangler’s life, some of whom appear to still be smitten with this goodhearted superstud and his brand of hypermasculinity. If he were hooking up today, Wrangler’s in-box would be full all day, every day. (Fairfax, Thurs., July 17, 7:15 p.m. and Fri., July 18, 9:30 p.m.) (CW)