Wednesday, July 25, 2012

According to Ben: Outfest 2012!

Outfest 2012
 It’s always so exciting to see the huge diversity of films and videos that pop up at any LGBTQ film festival, and the many lives and stories that they make visible. At this year’s Outfest, documentaries included How to Survive a Plague (2012, David France), which chronicles the AIDS crisis and the founding of ACT UP; Homeboy (2011, Dino Dinco), recounting the lives of gay Latino men who are former gang members; I Am a Woman Now (2011, Michiel Van Erp), about a group of 70-something year old transwomen; and Children of Srikandi (2012, Imelda Taurinamandala), in which eight women seek to answer the question: “What is life like for lesbians and transwomen in Indonesia?” Fictional features included Margarita (2012, Dominique Cardona and Laurie Colbert), about a Mexican woman working for a Canadian family whose full life threatens to become up-ended when she is fired because of financial hardships; Facing Mirrors (2011, Negar Azarbayjani), in which a tense relationship forms between an Iranian woman cab driver and a transgender man desperately awaiting a passport that will help him to escape to Germany and have gender reassignment surgery; and Cloudburst (2012, Thom Fitzgerald), a road movie starring Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker as a randy lesbian couple driving to Canada to get married. I, regrettably, was only able to see three Outfest films this year—but all were memorable.

Jeffrey Schwarz’s Vito
The festival opened with Jeffrey Schwarz’s Vito (2012), a new documentary about Vito Russo, the renowned activist and film historian. Perhaps best known for writing The Celluloid Closet, Vito was sort of a Zelig of post-war LGBTQ life: He watched the Stonewall riots from a nearby tree, started the first predominantly queer screenings of Hollywood films, and co-founded The Gay Activists Alliance, GLAAD, and ACT UP. Unlike Zelig, he was characterized by fierce individuality, which is wonderfully documented in Schwarz’s film. Archival footage of Vito, who died from AIDS complications in 1990, allows him to narrate his own groundbreaking story. Schwarz also uses a great deal of stunning archival material to document Vito’s life, and the ways in which he both shaped and was shaped by his tumultuous times. Schwarz has said that he made Vito partly because many people who grew up after the 1980s are not aware of him and his accomplishments. This wonderful film gave me the feeling that we need Vito more than ever, and I suspect many will agree once they see  film, which will air on HBO (and HBO On Demand) in the coming months. Vito adored popular narrative movies, and he continuously demonstrated that film spectatorship can be its own form of important authorship. Because of this, it feels immensely gratifying to watch Vito, which lets him star in a movie of his life that is as riveting and moving as a great Hollywood epic, and a hundred times smarter and more honest about queer life. I think that Vito would have loved it.

Earlier this year I think that I scandalized some of the students in my queer film class by saying that I think any depiction of LGBTQ sex on screen is great. In the town where I grew up, sex scenes in movies were not to be watched and discussed, and queer sex scenes in movies just didn’t exist in the collective consciousness. Even now, in these “more accepting times,” queer sex is still the aspect of queerness that homophobic America most fears and wants to repress. Images of queer couples at the altar, or having barbeques with their children, are infinitely more acceptable than naked queers in the throes of passion. This fact manifests itself in much of our popular culture: it took an online protest campaign to get Cameron and Mitchell, the current pinnacles of acceptable mainstream queerness, to share a chaste kiss on Modern Family. The sex scene between Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in The Kids are All Right (2010) had to be a slapstick farce, while the sex scene between Moore and Mark Ruffalo could be cathartic and “hot.” This cultural context gives me added appreciation for Travis Matthews’ I Want Your Love (2012) which, like John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006), makes a noble, welcome, and political effort to incorporate unsimulated sex with an engaging story and well-developed characters.  

Travis Matthews’ I Want Your Love
I Want Your Love presents a few days in the life of Jesse (Jesse Metzger), a struggling performance artist in San Francisco. He prepares to move back to his midwestern home town after finding that he can no longer afford to live in the city. The film chronicles his and his friends’ interactions as they prepare for and deal with his imminent departure (a plot structure that, although reminiscent of 1986’s Parting Glances and 2011’s Weekend, nonetheless yields limitless possibilities). I Want Your Love is likable and engaging, but uneven. Some of the film’s dialogue scenes ring true: as friends and roommates, Jesse and Wayne (Wayne Bumb) seem like they’ve been confidantes for a decade, as they discuss Jesse’s transition and Wayne’s fear that his boyfriend will make him clean up his mess when he moves in. Being used to pop culture’s favoring of rich, white, toned gay people, I thrilled at seeing a multi-racial cast of characters with different body types, some of whom struggle financially. Other scenes of dialogue seem hollow and underdeveloped, especially those between ex-lovers Jesse and Ben (the very charming Ben Jasper). However, the movie’s sex scenes consistently shocked me with the depths of intimacy that they convey. Messy, hot, and often sweet, they reveal some of the infinite number of ways in which people use sex to communicate and meet needs. The movie illustrates more about its characters and their relationships with moving bodies than words, which I found striking and wonderful to watch. A week after seeing it, I am more forgiving of what I perceived to be its weaknesses and grateful for its strengths. I find myself wanting to remember the time I spent with these characters. 

I anticipated the Los Angeles premiere of Jonathan Caouette’s new film Walk Away Renée (2011) like others anticipate summer blockbusters. His Tarnation (2003) is a favorite of mine, and I feel an unusual connection with his unique way of processing the world and his experiences. Walk Away Renée shifts focus from Jonathan’s own life journey to his relationship, as an adult, with his mother Renée, who has been diagnosed with acute bipolar and schizoaffective disorder. The film chronicles their journey from his mother’s home in Houston, TX to an assisted living facility in Rhinebeck, NY, closer to Jonathan’s house in Astoria, Queens. The film goes back and forth in time, presenting the layers of history that inevitably inform every moment of their trip. When Renée’s medications are misplaced, they both find themselves in a sort of purgatory, as both her Texas and New York doctors refuse to write prescriptions to a woman who is no longer the patient of one and not yet a patient of the other. As Renee’s condition worsens, the film becomes a devastating and sometimes frightening depiction of the effects of a mental health care system that prevents its practitioners from helping those that accidentally fall through the cracks of its policies.

Several critics called Tarnation exploitative of its subjects. I understand this argument, but I have never agreed with it, and I find it even harder to do so after Walk Away Renée. Caouette strikes me as an enormously compassionate person and filmmaker, and this film exudes love: the love that Jonathan, Renée, Jonathan’s partner David, his grandfather Adolph, and his son Joshua have for one another, and Jonathan’s love for the subjects and spaces he documents (ranging from a sparkling waterfall to the streets of New York to movie memorabilia in his house). The film is finally a deeply moving portrait of a group of peoples’ successful efforts to help themselves and each other live fundamentally good lives while rolling with some nasty punches.

Vito Russo happily titled his article about the 1987 San Francisco Gay Film Festival “Visions of Our Lives.” I’m so grateful that Outfest, and LGBTQ film festivals everywhere, continue to bring us such varied visions. I look forward to seeing what Outfest, and The Outfest Legacy Project (a collaboration with The UCLA Film & Television Archive devoted to preserving LGBTQ films), will bring us in the coming year.  
—Ben Sher

Ben Sher is a graduate student in the Cinema and Media Studies Program at UCLA and an editorial assistant and graduate student researcher at CSW.

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