Gays of our lives
Highlights from the last weekend of Frameline 36
by David Lamble
The 36th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival's final four days at the Castro, Roxie, and Victoria Theatres are strewn with minor gems, with a special emphasis on misunderstood queer icons.
Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean Director Matthew Mishory takes some chances, the bulk of which pay off, in a mythic B&W take on the "lost" year when 20-year-old James Byron Dean bummed around Hollywood, circa 1951, exchanging blowjobs for professional grooming, flirting with young women on the make, but really getting down and dirty with guys: his introvert roommate, a casual beach pickup, and a cynical radio producer with a big pool and a curious infatuation with The Little Prince. This rough-and-tumble life is the basis for a bitterly funny desert chat between Dean (on the eve of his explosive debut on Broadway and TV's Golden Age of live dramas) and a frustrated would-be starlet, Violet (Dalilah Rain), now reduced to grooming hot boys for Tinseltown's brutal powerbrokers.
"Shouldn't let guys hit you."
"It hasn't stopped you, has it? Don't you think you're pushing the tough-guy angle a bit hard?"
"Guy's got to be able to take a punch in this town. Beatings, boots, bondage, I've done it all – all the experiences that life has to offer."
"Movie stars don't hang around with the dregs of the earth."
"I'd take the dregs over the powers-that-be any day. I've had to get my cock sucked by every big name in Hollywood."
"That's how the game is played."
There are missteps – linking Dean's rebel myth to that of French boy poet Rimbaud fails partly because only the French can pull off what, in English, can read as pretentious twaddle – but there are also wonderful pit-stops: hypnotic demonstrations of how method acting can tap into an actor's sense memories to allow the emotional underpinnings of a scene to come alive for an audience; an extended sexual rondo between Dean and a sensitive boy who shares Jimmy's fascination with bull-fighting. There's a funny through-line from Dean's wanting the "gory" details of a matador's death into his initiating the boy into the joys of anal intercourse.
Half-a-century after his chief rivals for greatest American film actor have lost their luster – Brando by abusing his body and talent, and Newman by turning into an iconic salad dressing – James Dean remains forever young, forever gay, his patented ability to just be on screen now the signature of Sundance-era rebels Dano, Franco and Gordon-Levitt. (Castro, 6/21)
Me @ The Zoo If James Dean had stayed back home in Indiana, his mischievous charms would be lost to us. Thanks to his trusty webcam, an inexhaustible supply of peroxide, and a penchant for cross-gender musings while clinging to a skinny-boy physique, Chris Crocker's stab at stardom has remained grounded in his oh-so-patient Grandma's rural Tennessee ranch house. Harassed all through middle school by hillbilly thugs, Crocker opts to be home-schooled while launching a YouTube show that goes viral with his Internet primal scream, "Leave Britney alone!"
In their HBO documentary (executive produced by Jim McKay and REM's Michael Stipe), Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch plunge into the weird, perilous world of digital celebrity vs. cyberbullying. A kissing cousin to Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette's incendiary cocktail of a prodigy queer boy who keeps his Southern roots to save his mom, Me @ The Zoo is an entertaining guide to streaming an unfiltered queer gender-rebel identity, but also a disturbing glimpse at how much the old rules of the Hollywood game persist as Crocker's bid for his own TV reality show crashes and burns. Crocker is a survivor, and the film's postscript provides a moving peek at a mature queer boy effectively parenting his distraught Iraqi war vet Mom. (Castro, 6/23)
Two Guys in a Backyard While on the subject of viral YouTube hits, the boy boxing movement (inspired by that great "queer" classic, Fight Club) is represented in a sassy Aussie short. Tez Frost merely dips his toe in the pool with this buddy backyard wrestling tussle that slaps a political correct ending on an underground phenomenon that is as pervasive and perplexing as the much bigger cash cow Mixed Martial Arts. If you want to glimpse the potential for short film mischief in this ambiguous male grappling, check out YouTube classics Rabbit's Revenge and Jacob vs. Max (KO). (With:)
Alone with Mr. Carter Quebec filmmaker Jean-Pierre Bergeron is successful in invoking the confounding ironies of intergenerational love in this sweet, witty homage to a young teen's crush on his ex-cop older neighbor. John's budding lust merges with a surprising empathy for the older man's problem: moving to the States with a mood-swinging girlfriend. (With:)
7 Deadly Kisses My fascination with boys kissing boys gets a vivid workout in Indonesian director Sammaria Simanjunrak's farcical montage on bad kisses. This is one time where the warning "don't try this at home" definitely does not apply. (With:)
33 Teeth Canadian Evan Roberts gives a comic demonstration on the virtues of stalking your hunky next-door neighbor. You may want to take notes as our adolescent hero Eddie fools his love object's mom into giving him an all-access pass to their bathroom and a prized fetish object. (all: Fun in Boy Shorts program, Castro, 6/24)
Boy Cheerleaders James Newton's emotionally engaging doc explores the Billy Elliot movement in the struggle of a gaggle of working-class middle-school lads to snatch a prize in a traditionally girl-dominated competition: the UK Cheerleading Championships. Only one of the lads, pint-sized Harvey, shows the promise of turning pom-pom jiggling into an adult career path. His dodgy pals are merely trying to quit their bad habits long enough to please their single mums. Caution: this doc's pleasures can best be appreciated by accessing your Midlands English slang translation app. (Roxie, 6/23)
Revealing Mr. Maugham My curiosity about both the notoriety of and critical dismissal of the still popular British author W. Somerset Maugham was completely satisfied by Michael House's amazing exploration of the life of a misunderstood queer literary hero. Raised in the first decade of his life as a French boy before the death of his parents forced a rude repatriation to a less-than-jolly-old England, Maugham was a very unhappy English school lad who compensated by developing what would become a lifelong stammer. Escaping to Germany for his college years, Maugham exercised his penchant for boys and financed his life by becoming the most successful novelist/playwright/short story writer of his age. Balancing a notorious hetero marriage, which produced a daughter, with a peripatetic queer literary life – he would eventually take up with native San Franciscan Gerald Haxton – Maugham forged a global fan club by distilling the nuances of taboo sexual liaisons in such still-popular classics as Of Human Bondage and The Razor's Edge. Clips from Hollywood's take on Maugham provide revealing glimpses of then-struggling ingenues Joan Crawford and Betty Davis. (Castro, 6/21)
Taking a Chance on God Those of us 1970s queer activist survivors get a rejuvenating boost from the reemergence of one of our heroes, Catholic priest rebel Father John McNeill. In these sorry times when the word priest conjures up rude jokes, it's instructive to follow this working-class WWII vet's journey to composing a theological version of the popular slogan "Gay is good," laying the philosophical basis for the gay Catholic group Dignity. McNeill's teachings, distilled in the revelatory The Church and the Homosexual, would cause him to be first silenced, then expelled by Vatican blue meanies. It's refreshing to see McNeill's humane teaching attacked by precisely the old-boy bishops whose leadership is literally on trial. Branden Fay's engaging doc also reveals the hand of the current Pope in Vatican dogma encouraging violence against queer people. (Victoria, 6/23)
Cloudburst In Act I of this rudely funny, linguistically profane road comedy of lesbians on the run from Canada's Thom Fitzgerald, Stella, a pickup-driving, heavy-drinking lesbian who swears like a sailor, sneaks into the rest home to which her 30-year squeeze Dot has been committed.
"Hey, you know you're not supposed to be up there after 9:30."
"I feel like I'm nine years old again!"
"You know the rules."
"That's what Joseph Goebbels said."
If you're allergic to film festival opening- or closing-night movies because they're often too much like big-screen Masterpiece Theatre, or worse, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Cloudburst may be for you. In addition to a rip-roaring tale of two old gals who still fuss, fight and fuck, the movie levels all the anal-retentive FCC rules that have all but destroyed over-the-air American TV. In a telling moment, Stella has hitched a ride with a gentlemen who's not all that fond of the "C word."
"So Stella, what takes you to Canada?"
"I'm going to meet up with Dottie, and get away from her cunt-faced daughter."
"I wish you wouldn't use the 'C word.'"
"What, are you crazy? Cunt is for punctuation. I love cunt. Cunt is a temple, cunt is fast foods: cunt, pussy, snatch – just saying the words makes me drool."
Cloudburst will render some nostalgic, not for the never-was Michael Dukakis Administration, but for the brief reign of Olympia and her Oscar-winning performance in John Patrick Shanley's Moonstruck. Dukakis' Stella forms a tempestuous coupling with Brenda Fricker's more demure Dot, but both women make you root for folks who have the spunk to run away from home at 70, particularly from the sort of old-age home that, as Dot notes, puts ornery residents to sleep with a nightly shot of horse tranquilizer.
The son of a British sea cook, I've never fully trusted folks who don't swear. In Stella and Dot I trust – plus their young boychik hitchhiker companion isn't so bad, either. (Castro, 6/24, closing night)
Do You Have a Cat? The one time my good friend Howard stayed with my petaholic Mom, Mom's oldest cat took a swipe at his balls in the bathroom. Director Jason Sax's bisexual, extremely feline-allergic heroine feels she's entered into some kind of cat-ruled Twilight Zone when every move she makes on the speed-dating circuit puts her deeper into litter-box country. (Fun in Girl Shorts program, Castro, 6/24)
Chloe Likes Olivia Mette Kjaergaard introduces a couple: bartender Olivia and her soon-to-be-legal wife Andrea. The women enjoy spiking their relationship with casual, one-time-only menages. Olivia returns late one night with 19-year-old newbie Chloe; things begin to go awry when the youngster picks an inappropriate costume from the play closet: a horny bear suit. Things get edgy as Andrea directs Olivia to spank the naughty bear, hard. In 19 minutes, we view a lifetime of tricky game-playing by a possibly not-permanent couple; a fascinating reply to the S/M rule about stopping when your bottom requests you to. (Worldly Women program, Castro, 6/23)