Lost, found: 'The Lost Coast' uses San Francisco's citywide locations to good effect. (Photo courtesy Frameline)

Critic's Notebook: Frameline32

Dennis Harvey June 24, 2008

Opening weekend at the SF International LGBT Film Festival was hot—particularly in that, if you didn’t notice, we had a heatwave goin’ on. Frameline’s current three venues for the annual event are all old movie palaces (OK, I’m not sure how old the Roxie is, but it sure ain’t palacial), none air-conditioned.

Of course it was hot in a good way, too, from the audience members (memo to self: Stop playing hooky from gym immediately) to what was onscreen. Starting with opening night’s selection—what could be hotter than repressed Victorians perspiring lust through their corsets?

But Thursday evening started out in less heavily draped fashion with a heartfelt tribute to the fest’s 28-year veteran and departing longtime executive director Michael Lumpkin—from surviving festival filmmaker-founders Marc Huestis and Danny Nicoletta as well as Mayor Gavin Newsom.

(Which latter however offered his happy-hands televisual speech via prerecorded video. Given the new stateside gay marriage triumph that Newsom had bravely anticipated locally, what on Earth prevented our mayor from actually delivering that message in person? Surely it wasn’t fear of public disapproval.)

But back to those itchy, chafing, loosening, stimulative corsets. Official opener Affinity was a BBC-style Brit telepic duly based on a literary "classic" —Sarah Waters’ superb 1999 mystery-meets-Sapphic-bodice-ripper.

Fest guest Anna Madely (looking much younger onstage than her tightly-wound screen character) played the wealthy London bachelorette vainly courted by a "suitable" male suitor while she falls for an underclass female prisoner and alleged psychic seer (Zoe Tapper) she charitably visits in prison.

While adaptor Andrew Davies and director Tim Fywell have to compromise the novel’s subtle psychological intrigue somewhat in compressing it to 90 minutes, there’s still considerable potency left. You could tell who’d read the book already and hadn’t by the select gasps that greeted its late narrative twist. The next day was a personal marathon, choices determined by reviewing needs of a trade publication yours truly writes for. (As a result, rather accidentally, I didn’t see much lesbian or transgender-themed work—it turned out a colleague in the East was covering several such titles which were also playing NYC’s concurrent Newfest. So, apologies if the coverage below seems a little man-heavy.)

It started out with writer-director Jesse Rosen’s debut feature The Art of Being Straight. He also plays the lead—a 23-year-old newly moved from New York to L.A. for a job, reconnecting with old college buds, but no longer comfortable with all their "That is so gay" joshing since he’s now in the process of redefining his own sexual identity. Funny, touching and accomplished, Art succeeds not just as a coming-out tale, but as a credible sketch of gay/straight friendships, fluid formative sexuality, and young wannabe L.A. lifestyles.

That success cast a shadow over localite Gabriel Fleming’s sophomore feature The Lost Coast later on Friday. Playing to a packed Victoria Theatre audience (whose hoots ‘n’ hollers during the opening credits suggested a lot of friends/family in the house), it likewise looked at twentysomethings gay and straight, involved platonically and otherwise. Three longtime friends hook up to party in S.F. on Halloween. But their current dynamics are uneasy: In high school magnetic Mark (Lucas Alifano) was boyfriend to Lily (Lindsay Benner) and fooled around with best friend Jasper (Ian Scott McGregor). Now he’s a brash gay youth taking full advantage of the available sexual talent pool, sharing an apartment with mopey straight ex Lily; Jasper has a long-distance fiancee and is highly ambivalent about the lingering emotional/erotic vibes between them. This premise intrigues, and Lost Coast uses citywide locations to good effect in Nils Kenaston’s fine cinematography. But the characters and their conflicts remain frustratingly underdeveloped, despite good performances; short on incident, the movie seems to get ever-slower as it proceeds toward an underwhelming fade. Still, one can sense Fleming’s evolving talent, if not necessarily appreciate its current instincts.

Between that pair were two good documentaries. Another local effort, Carl Brown’s 2nd Verse: The Rebirth of Poetry casts a Bay Area-centric look at the 8th annual Brave New Voices International Poetry Slam competition, in which teenaged spoken-word crews from around the nation speak their artful, inventive, personal and political minds. This rousing movie (which also played SF Indiefest) has no notable gay content until the very end, but that end is quite powerful. So was Emiliano Bourgois-Chacon, the San Jose gay teen who appeared after the Roxie screening to recite a more recent gay-pride/oppression-themed poem called For Colored Boys Who Speak Softly. He brought down the house. More intellectual but no less provocative were the pronouncements on myriad subjects by a beloved African American sci-fi author (among many other pursuits) in Fred Barney Taylor’s semi-experimental portrait The Polymath, or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delaney, Gentleman.

My Friday ended with Castro midnight special The Gay Bed & Breakfast of Terror, a strenuously camp sendup of slasher-movie cliches populated by various gay/lesbian stereotypes and inbred Bible-thumping "straight" ones. It had its yoks, but was as subtle as a feather-boa chokehold. For genre fans, Saturday’s late show was a distinct improvement: Dan Gildark’s Cthulhu offered nuanced if not entirely satisfying update of a classic H.P. Lovecraft horror-fantasy story, making a gay man’s conflict with his religious-cult background essential to the suspense.

Saturday also saw a roof-raising reception for "Showcase" presentation Tru Loved. If Stewart Wade’s feature felt a bit like an After School Special, that might well be to the greater public good: Its clear intent is to sensitize teens (and their parents) around gay issues. Which it does in engaging, crowdpleasing fashion, if sometimes a tad heavy-handedly.

Moved for job reasons by her "two moms" from freethinking San Francisco (where her "two dads" still reside) to a So-Cal ‘burb where conformity rules, Tru (Najarra Townsend) hates her new high school. Until, that is, she is asked out by star quarterback Lodell (Matthew Thompson)—but it turns out he’s a closet case who only wants to use her as "beard." She reluctantly complies. But starting a Gay-Straight Alliance with a picked-on fellow student and starting to actually date another gay-tolerant, artsy one is interpreted by Lodell as threats to his cover.

If Tru Loved represents the future of inculcating positive gay imagery, my remaining weekend Frameline views cast insightful lights backward. Daryl Wein’s Sex Positive profiles Richard Berkowitz, a college radical turned NYC S&M-top hustler who played a huge role in the original creation of safer sex guidelines—but at the time was denounced as being "sex negative," even an example of "internalized gay self-loathing." He’s a fascinating figure whose drastically underappreciated heroism remains so partially because of his own foibles.

Another man who enjoyed the carnival excesses of the Gay 1970s but lived to tell the tale is subject of Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon. Jack Wrangler aka Stillman was a "Hollywood brat" who went from marginal mainstream stage/screen industry work to hugeness (ahem) as a gay porn star. Chiseled, well-endowed and a better actor than most, Wrangler flourished—even in straight porn, which he "crossed over" to eventually. Far more shocking to fans was his longterm companionship and eventual marriage with twenty-years-older musical theatre/cabaret superstar Margaret Whiting. Wrangler is a delightful, self-deprecating subject, and Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary follows suit.

It’s always important to remember that while gay history, affirmation and power exists in most of the developed world, there are places where homosexuality is still hounded, punished, outright denied. Thus Sunday’s world premiere of Maher Sabry’s All My Life was a significant event even when the film itself (which director and lead actor emphasized beforehand was low-to-no-budget) grew clumsy. This lengthy fiction inspired by Egypt’s ongoing persecution of gays addresses not only that but the nation’s fundamentalist shift toward oppression of women, as well as anti-Arab prejudice experienced by those who venture abroad (if only via Internet).

All My Life
carried on a Frameline tradition of movies dealing for the first time (at least in any positive, substantial way) with gay issues, from a particular nation. You mightn’t think there are many left who haven’t crossed that bridge already. But trust me, there are good-and-plenty still.