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SXSW - Damned Good Festival For LGBT Films

by Kevin Langson
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Friday Mar 8, 2013
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Blessed be the LGBT film festivals that are proliferating and maturing everywhere, bringing us together to socialize and celebrate the best of our cinema achievements every year. But it’s also meaningful, of course, to have a presence in the larger, non-niche festivals that help launch quality independent films. SXSW, like its host city, is a damn good place to be queer, as it proves again this year.

Memorably, Andrew Haigh’s "Weekend", one of the most accomplished gay narrative films of recent years, had its World Premiere here in Austin in 2011. Before it went on to be beloved in gay festivals and art house cinemas, it was applauded by a primarily hetero audience at SXSW. This year, the festival is premiering four queer documentaries, all of which reflect on the past in various ways, conjuring both the moments of struggle and of splendor that make up gay history in the 20th century.

Also in the mix are an acutely acted and directed Texas drama about coping with isolation and a lesbian-directed short that takes an incisive look at the cruelty behind the scenes of reality TV.


Big Joy

Part of the Documentary Feature Competition, Big Joy: the Adventures of James Broughton does its subject justice by eliciting the pure joy that unfettered artistic creation and sexuality can be at their best. Steven Silha and Eric Slade’s portrait of an artist joins the ranks of top notch documentaries about pivotal artists from were around for the sexual revolution. Lawrence Ferlinghetti and George Kuchar, both of whom appear in the film (Kuchar as an interview subject reflecting on a colleague), have had their doc-treatment. It’s time we were reminded of Broughton, the prolific poet, experimental filmmaker, and lover who aptly nicknamed himself ’Big Joy’.

"I believe in ecstasy for everyone," Broughton asserts at one point; and at a reading he jokes, "When in doubt, twirl." These lines seem to encapsulate the vibrant personality that the filmmakers bring to life through very articulate commentary from friends of Broughton (seriously, an entire article could be drafted out of interviewee quotes), archival footage that endears him to us, and generous clips from his Bay Area experimental films.

But there is also a paradox at play because, though Broughton’s art was an outpouring of love, indeed a shameless exaltation of love and joyfulness, he himself had eyes that often betrayed sadness to his associates. His intimates recognized a darkness in him that never ceased, perhaps partially stemming from a disapproving mother who docked 25 cents from his allowance every time he acted effeminately. As a contemporary performance artist and admirer puts it, he was "so pioneering at being playful". It’s an apt reminder that gay men have a long history of using humor to detract from the difficulty of being gay in hostile times.


Broughton had a lot to be cheerful about. His poetry brought him incredible acclaim, and his Chaplin-influenced celluloid experiments played all over. At one point, a film he made while living in England, "The Pleasure Garden", played at Cannes and could have catapulted his career to another level if he hadn’t "decided to go the poet route". He was a pivotal figure in the San Francisco Renaissance, which was the predecessor to the Beats (with which he integrated himself). He was alive and active in an invigorating time and place - San Francisco in the ’50s and ’60s, come on! As one friend commented, it was kind of hard not to be a radical then and there.

Back then, the illusive allure of the conventional lifestyle was strong enough that it captured even staunch revolutionaries. Marrying and fathering three children is quite an entanglement for a free-loving poet; and he paid a heavy price, as did his wife Susanna, whose candid interview reveals that she is still not over being abandoned by her true love (the refusal of his offspring to be interviewed also suggests bitterness). The film features back to back interviews with Susanna and Joel, the young lover who replaced her, creating a moral tension that lingers. As one friend put it, choosing Joel made Broughton "re-energized by leaving the inauthentic life". It meant shrugging off the stigmas of being openly gay and partnered with someone thirty-some years your junior.

A certain beauty resounds in Broughton’s words, "My house is falling down, but let it fall. I go to another," yet it seems that in applauding his bliss, we are also complicit in a mass betrayal. This is a wonderful moment that summarizes a quagmire that is all too common when homosexuality is pushed underground. Women and children are betrayed, hurt, even traumatized. It is not the primary subject of this film but perhaps one of its most potent.


Before You Know It

The impact of suppressing homosexual desire in order to lead a conventional life emerges in other films in the fest, as well. One of the elder men in Austinite PJ Raval’s Before You Know It denied his sexual longings and his urge to dress up in women’s clothing as long as his wife was alive. Since the passing of his wife, he has taken the liberty to thrift for nightgowns and high heels and to cruise for gay sex online.

Raval is a diverse local talent with a long list of accolades, and this documentary is an effortlessly endearing and touching exploration of what it is like to be a gay senior. The three men he focuses on are all average American men but also lead quite different lives from one another.

Dennis is a fascinating subject because the prevailing impression he leaves is one of kindness and generosity of spirit. He has a habit of complimenting drag queens on their appearance when he is out at gay bars or on a gay cruise. These are simple exchanges, with the drag queens receiving his praise graciously. Yet, just as he is a bit impenetrable, evoking a sense that there is a reserve of pain behind the simplicity of his words and actions, so too the positivity of these exchanges brings to mind an inevitable dark counterpart.


The darker truth is that gay men go through a process of becoming invisible when they reach a certain age. In some ways, this is an inevitable process common to all humans, yet as a minority group it’s especially important for us to be mindful of varied vulnerabilities within our own group. One wonders what dismissals the camera doesn’t catch. Interestingly, Dennis describes the "wham bam thank you m’am" nature of his sexual encounters with casual acceptance, saying at his age you "take what you can get." Again, this is a simple moment that brings up a whole other line of inquiry - how gay seniors are treated in the sexual arena versus the social arena.
Returning to the idea of being a conscientious member of a minority, one memorable scene is one in which Ty, a Harlem native, reaches out to his fellow residents on Harlem Day. SAGE, a neighborhood advocacy group for gay seniors, is met with mixed reactions by passersby, and the confident and resilient Ty concedes that it is a challenge. Not only is he giving visibility to being a gay senior; he is challenging members of another minority group to which he belongs.

This film is very much about personal struggle - three men dealing with loss and transition, finding their own sort of consolation amidst the trials of old age, but it is helpful that in Ty’s thread we get a dose of politics. Whereas Dennis is a soft spoken and a bit of a loner, Ty is an organizer who makes his living by communicating with and representing others. We also see him anticipating New York’s ruling on its gay marriage bill.

Equally interesting is Robert, a jokingly mordant bar owner in Galveston, Texas. His neighborhood gay bar, Robert’s Lafitte, is a staple, a safe place for misfits that boasts having the longest running drag show in Texas. The magic of Raval’s film is that it is unsentimental yet immensely sympathetic in its depiction of ordinary lives, lives at a point in which the joyfulness of current company and of fond memories is necessarily fused with the sadness of love and friendship lost.


Pit Stop

This interplay of joy and loss also informs fellow Austinite Yen Tan’s narrative feature, Pit Stop, which played Sundance this year. Like his 2008 festival hit, "Ciao", his new one possesses a mellow profundity, a creeping emotionality belied by its hushed ambiance and its simple mise-en-scene and scenarios.

Filmed on location in three Texas locals, this is a story about coping with the isolation of ending or transmuting relationships. It follows two gay men in a small Texas town who are working to clean up the mess of recent entanglements while clinging on to a remote hope for redemption. Gabe is a bearded contractor with a masculine composure who awkwardly shares parenting duties with his ex-wife, Shannon. They are friends and loving parents of their daughter, but Gabe’s taunting of Shannon’s new date is an early sign that their emotional dynamic is complicated.


Tan does well to tantalize us with details about the characters’ pasts. In a rousing scene in which Shannon fumbles in a misbegotten attempt to recovery some intimacy with Gabe, we learn a bit about their past and the current disparity between their feelings, as later we learn that Gabe was abruptly dropped by a married man (not everyone has the brazenness to take the leaps that radical West Coast poets take). But we are given just enough to get a sense of where these men have been. A remarkable amount of this film’s emotional resonance arises out of dialogue, simple moments between characters. It’s like a film about the aftermath of a hurricane; we swell with empathy for the survivors without having seen the tragedy itself.

Ernesto is the other survivor protagonist of the film. Like Gabe, he has an unpretentious, masculine charisma and has been wounded deeply by former lovers. Endearingly, he reads from trashy women’s magazines to his ex who is in a coma. It’s clear that Martin treated him poorly, yet Ermesto still visits him and reads aloud the ridiculous sex and romance advice that he appreciated.

Like the real life men of "Before You Know It", Tan’s characters are the ordinary sorts of guys who happen to be gay and who fill this country, away from the coastal epicenters of gay culture.

During a laid back farewell to a first date, Gabe intimates that he feels older than 35, that he is un-hip. It is moments like this, with its flicker of vulnerability, that lend an air of authenticity to the film. Both the writing and the well-calibrated performances make this a sort of cinematic
comfort food whose provenance we trust.


Sequin Raze

Lesbian director Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s short, Sequin Raze takes us directly to the grimy heart of a coastal epicenter, Los Angeles, and has a completely different relationship to authenticity. Anna Camp ("True Blood") stars in this psychological battle of sorts, based on Shapiro’s own experience working on a reality TV set. Camp plays Jessica, the gorgeous but immensely unstable and bulimic loser of a reality show in which women compete to win the hand in marriage of some stud. Following the results, she is still a stunning sight in her sequin gown but is simmering with despair, to the point that merciless producer, Rebecca has to be crafty and duplicitous, in order to keep her from storming off the set and shirking her obligation for a final interview.

There is eeriness about the set: low lighting and quietude and emotions poised to combust. This is a perturbing power struggle to behold and a smartly feminist look at the industry’s toll on women’s psychological relationships to men and to their own bodies.

The two remaining queer documentaries of the bunch have not been screen by this critic yet, but, as they come to us from directors with a proven track record for making insightful and pleasing docs, they are highly anticipated.


Continental and I Am Divine

The two remaining queer documentaries of the bunch have not been screen by this critic yet, but, as they come to us from directors with a proven track record for making insightful and pleasing docs, they are highly anticipated.

Both "Continental" and "I Am Divine" deal with exciting moment in history that was the 1970’s in America. Malcolm Ingram’s ("Small Town Gay Bar") Continental preserves the history of an integral meeting point of the era - the prestigious and salacious Continental Baths in New York City. Like the 1960’s San Francisco glimpsed in "Big Joy: the Adventures of James Broughton", 1970’s New York was, for gay men, a time for radical sexuality. The Baths, of course, functioned as a convenient site for a pre-AIDS feeding frenzy, a celebration of gay men’s liberation, though of course there was a dark side to it, as well.

Likewise, I Am Divine tells a thrilling story - that of Divine (born Harris Glenn Milstead), infamous shit-eater and star of John Waters films, that also had a dark side. Jeffrey Schwarz’s film includes the estrangement of Divine from his family. John Waters figures heavily as an interviewer, and we’re sure to learn a thing or two about the raucous icon from his candid accounts.


The SXSW Festival continues through March 17, 2013 at various locations throughout Austin, TX. For more information, visit the site’s website.

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