Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Truth is stranger than fiction


Highlights in Frameline documentaries, week 2

Pansy Division, circa 1995. Photo: Courtesy Frameline
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Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band "I'm getting older, I'm getting bolder./ Yeah I'm aging, but I'm still raging./ I'm getting grayer, but I'm feeling gayer./ I'm not ailing, but I might use a railing./ I've had 20 years of cock — I'm never going to stop!" — Pansy Division.

Filmmaker Michael Carmona performs a singular service in this astute examination of a successful queer beachhead gained in the commercially and erotically challenging precincts of punk rock, by a plucky and still vastly underrated San Francisco band. Combining intimate, witty interviews with band members past and present, Carmona gets a unique 15-year perspective on a moment when queer musicians were able to engage the rock establishment on their terms, producing a singular body of work that stands up to comparison with earlier straight-boy punkers like The Ramones.

Carmona's access to the band's archives demonstrates how, as their lyrics got saucier and bolder, the band managed to make an evolution in their musicianship and stage showmanship that allowed them to be one of the few queer music groups that made the leap from underground audacity to acceptance within the ranks of punk rock's upper echelon. As Carmona demonstrates, Pansy Division's great breakthrough occurred when they were selected to open on a mid-90s tour for the legendary Green Day. As band founder Jon Ginoli and longtime bassist Chris Freeman tell it, Green Day proved their own faithfulness to the punk credo by refusing to bump Pansy Division from their tour, even after pressure from uptight, macho promoters. A highlight of the film comes in excerpts from fabled shows where the lanky Freeman takes on some of the band's straight male hecklers.

Carmona describes the irony of how Pansy Division's increasing visibility in the rock world, including MTV airplay for their videos, led to a slight downtick in the band's queer fan-base. A marvelous and very funny subplot charts the search for that elusive gay or gay-friendly competent drummer. This film combines edgy, defiant music, a perceptive look behind the corporate music machine, and a penetrating examination of the long journey to mainstream acceptance by the homocore generation. (Victoria, 6/26)

Chris & Don: A Love Story Every literate queer filmgoer has probably at least heard of this pioneering couple: in 1953, an aging expatriate British novelist encountered a slender 18-year-old aspiring visual artist on a sexually active Southern California beach. Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy would spend the next 34 years living out a love story that surpasses most fairy tales in its improbability and sheer romantic luster. Guido Santi and Tina Mascara's tale pivots between the surviving and now elderly Bachardy's precisely recalled memories of life with the man whose short fiction created the basis for the hit musical/film Cabaret, and luscious Super 8 color film of the couple's courtship and subsequent life among the movie starlets and glitterati of the last days of the Hollywood studio era.

The filmmakers provide a concise summary of the restless Isherwood's journey from a posh upbringing in a series of English boarding schools to the raw excitement of pre-Hitler Berlin gay bars, to life on the lam with a young German lover. The film provides insight into how the savvy Isherwood not only courted the younger Bachardy, but also how their relationship mixed domesticity, mentorship and the older man's shrewd insight into how to fend off romantic rivals by giving his younger lover the maximum freedom, including lengthy periods of separation as Bachardy pursued his art studies abroad. This is a haunting, candid portrait of a May/December love affair for the ages. (Victoria, 6/27)

A Jihad for Love Out Muslim gay filmmaker Parvez Sharma provides an almost unbearably candid view inside the lives of queer Muslims in a dozen countries. From the brave activist father who quizzes his daughters about whether they would come to his rescue if he were to be executed for being queer, to a group of Iranian exiles seeking asylum and an uncertain future in the West, to one-half of a lesbian couple who prays that Islamic sacred texts will give them courage to avoid further "wicked" carnal acts, to the fiery condemnation of all queer acts by a bearded cleric, this film will both inspire and anger as Sharma and his Jewish collaborator Sandi DuBowski (creator of Trembling Before G-d, a pioneering look at homosexuality among Orthodox lesbians and gays) emphasize the awesome divide between out Muslims and a largely intolerant, politically-inflamed Islamic world community.

Perhaps no film I've viewed contains more examples of individuals whose faces were digitally erased to avoid possibly lethal exposure for themselves or relatives. In a moment of technical whimsy, even the head of a non-offending penguin was shrouded in video fog. Should inspire a lively discu

Scene from Chris & Don: A Love Story. Photo: Jack Shear
ssion. (Victoria, 6/28)

Call Me Troy Scott Bloom's powerful first-person account of Troy Perry's journey from suicidal Christian teen to founder of the first worldwide ministry to the queer community reveals the strengths and history-making impact of perhaps the most charismatic figure arising from the LGBT world, besides the late Harvey Milk. Perry, maybe the best example of a heroic Christian personality this side of Jimmy Carter, describes being a witness to queer history: from pre-Stonewall attempts to establish the first MCC congregation in Los Angles in the face of vicious police attacks, to the first Christopher Street West parade, to the fight against Anita Bryant and the gay teacher-bashing Briggs Initiative, to the ongoing struggle against the ravages of AIDS. The film's coda takes us right up to today's marriage festivities. (Victoria, 6/28)

Word Is Out This landmark doc made instant celebrities out of some of its more memorable subjects: activist/journalist George Mendenhall, tearing up as he recalled an early performance by the "Emperor Jose" at the Black Cat Caf in North Beach; playwright Pat Bond, remembering the standard attire for lesbian butches in the WWII-era Women's Army Corps: Old Spice and Jockey shorts; and pioneering supervisory candidate Rick Stokes, describing a harrowing gauntlet of electro-shock treatments. In many ways, this pioneering film produced by a collective (including Peter Adair and Rob Epstein) is the prototype for virtually every nonfiction film seen at Frameline. (In a newly restored print: Castro, 6/26)

Bi the Way "I suppose I'm bisexual, according to everybody else, because I do like guys and I like girls — but I don't really define myself as anything. I guess I don't like the labels. I'm just me. Girls are catty bitches and guys are pigs, you can't get along with any of them, but you can't get along without them, either. It sucks!" — Pam, former Catholic schoolgirl expelled for "pairing off" with a female student.

Back when I was doing a queer call-in show for KGO Radio, I scheduled a number of bi segments, naively expecting to tap into the great happy-hunting ground of mega audience ratings. Watching Brittany Blockman and Josephine Decker's funny, smart movie about this emerging majority of the queer world, I realize I was on the right track, just 25 years too soon. Bisexuals (or mega-sexuals) have traditionally made everybody else on the Kinsey Scale nervous because their very existence disproves virtually all pet theories on why humans are so maddeningly quirky in bed. From a defrocked Catholic schoolgirl to her pissed-off straight boyfriend, to an 11-year-old bi-identifying future performance artist, to a handsome couple navigating the swingers circuit, to a skinny African-American dancer wondering how to ejaculate with a guy, to a plethora of bi-friendly and bi-phobic experts, the filmmakers prepare us for a near-future where Kinsey 3's rule. (Victoria, 6/27)

The Kinsey Sicks: Almost Infamous What happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas in Ken Bielenberg's backstage record of the drag-a-pella group's bid for an open-ended run at the Las Vegas Hilton. For those who have somehow missed the Kinseys' meteoric rise from a Castro Street corner to sold-out engagements Off-Broadway and in Vegas, these boys in dresses and beehives specialize in dead-on song parodies. Devotees of queer song spoofs and outlandish comedy may spot influences of the late Michael Callen and his beloved Flirtations, or the brief run of the Jew Meat trio at Jose's Cabaret and Juice Joint. Like the latter groups, the members of The Kinsey Sicks manage the tricky feat of being both drop-dead funny and sexy, in and out of drag. (Castro, 6/28)

Scene from The Kinsey Sicks: Almost Infamous. Photo: Courtesy Frameline

Derek The all-too-short career of Britain's minimalist screen genius Derek Jarman is remembered in Isaac Julien's film, narrated by close friend and collaborator Tilda Swinton. Jarman delighted in staging saucy reinterpretations of historical giants (Caravaggio, Edward II) using starkly dressed sets, sexually nimble, youthful casts, and an array of creative anachronisms. Highlights include Jarman's recollection of how difficult it was to achieve a closed set for a realistic sex scene during his first faux epic, Sebastiane. (Castro, 6/29)

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