When the catalog for this year's Frameline festival arrived in the mail, I could hardly believe my good fortune. Out of the eight interesting-sounding LGBT-themed foreign language features that had crossed my radar over the past year, the festival had programmed seven of them. Was someone at Frameline reading my mind? (Just for the record, the missing film is Takashi Miike's gay prison movie, Big Bang Love: Juvenile A, which was passed over by SF IndieFest, the SF International Asian American Film Festival, the SF International Film Festival and now Frameline. Can it really be that awful?)
Inevitably, the catalog also revealed plenty of intriguing titles with which I'd had no prior acquaintance, creating a blend of the known and unknown—the perfect mix for film festival bliss. A look at the festival schedule, however, signaled trouble. Why did they have to program the Argentine teen indie Glue on a night I work? And how am I supposed to see the gay roller derby documentary at the Victoria at 7:00 and still make it to Israeli director Eytan Fox's new film, The Bubble, at 9:00 at the Castro? In the end you always wish you could simply take 10 days off and see everything.
This year, however, I'm fortunate enough to be attending the festival with press credentials for the first time. So between the screener DVDs and the festival screenings, I'll pretty much be seeing everything I desire . . . also a first in the 25+ years I've been a Frameline attendee. As usual, my festival focus leans heavily towards the Docs and World Cinema sections. Experience has shown that this is where, for me personally, the greatest rewards usually lie. This is not to broadly disparage the Shorts and U.S. Features sections. No one loves a great short more than me, but life itself is too short to sit through a 90-minute program of clunkers in hopes of catching that one potential gem. And having sat through more than my fair share of groan-worthy U.S. Features over the years, I've come to have faith that the best of the bunch will see an eventual theatrical or DVD release. So here's a quick look at what I've seen pre-festival, all on screener DVDs unless otherwise noted.
Frameline 31 gets off to a sublime start with its opening night film, the US premiere of Andé Téchiné's Les Témoins (The Witnesses), which I caught at a festival press screening. I'm a huge fan of Téchiné's, and I think this is his best film since 2001's Far Away, or perhaps even Wild Reeds, his 1994 classic. Heart-breaking, yet exhilaratingly life-affirming, this is the director's take on the AIDS pandemic as experienced by a diverse group of friends, family and lovers in 1984 Paris. The film is neatly divided into two acts—les beaux jours of summer when love blooms, followed by la guerre of winter, each with its own appropriate color palette. The acting is excellent all around, particularly that of relative newcomer Johan Libéreau as Manu, the gay boy who comes to Paris from the provinces. Emmanuelle Béart, terrific as always, plays a children's book writer who doesn't particularly like children, including her own newborn. And personal favorite Sami Bouajila—whom Frameline audiences will remember from 2000's The Adventures of Felix—portrays her husband Mehdi, a vice-squad cop who unexpectedly falls in love with Manu. I was also taken by elements of the film's production design, particularly a framed jigsaw puzzle of a tropical sunset hanging in Manu's campground trailer.
I suppose it's fitting that my favorite and least favorite films in the festival so far would be French. In the latter case I'd be referring to Jean-Marc Barr and Pascale Arnold's Chacun sa nuit (One to Another), a pretentious piece of Euro-something I saw earlier this year at the Palm Springs Film Festival. It has some nice naked bodies to recommend it and little else. I wrote about it in greater detail here. Scroll down to the (rock) bottom.
I've also seen two films from Spain, again, one of which is also considerably better than the other. AzulOscuroCasiNegro (DarkBlueAlmostBlack), an auspicious debut feature from writer-director Daniel Sánchez Arévalo, has garnered much praise on the festival circuit in the past year. Jorge, a young janitor who gave up a business career to care for his elderly father, is still in love with his neighbor/ex-girlfriend. His good-for-nothing brother, however, wants him to impregnate his own girlfriend, who happens to be in prison. Meanwhile, Jorge's best friend Israel discovers that his father frequents a male masseur and attempts to find out if being gay is hereditary. This amusing story of people trapped in lives not of their choosing is a bit too taken with its own cleverness for my taste, but is nonetheless quite enjoyable.
Los dos lados de la cama (Two Sides of the Bed) is director Emilio Martítez Lázaro's sequel to his 2002 sex-romp musical The Other Side of the Bed. The original cast returns for this dire farce of 30-something Spanish urbanites and their tiresome romantic intrigues, jealousies and machinations, albeit this time with an LGBT-lite twist. The musical production numbers—a small saving grace of the original—are even less inspired this time out. Fans of middlebrow titillation may find this to their liking, but everyone else needs to check out Frameline 30's superb, edgy Spanish musical 20 Centimeters (whose stars, incidentally, grace the cover of this year's catalog).
From Italy comes Marco Simon Puccioni's Riparo—Anis tra di noi (Shelter Me), a very interesting film about a lesbian couple who return from a vacation in Tunisia with an Arab teen hidden away in their car. He becomes a part of their little family at the insistence of Ana, a rich girl whose family owns a shoe factory and in whose home they live. Her lower-class girlfriend Mara, who works in the factory and initially resents the boy's intrusion, comes to see how she might actually have more in common with him than with her lover. When the factory decides to save money and move a large part of its operations to Romania, globalization is thrown into an already heady mix of contemporary issues ranging from immigration, class conflict and sexual politics. Some questionable actions taken by the film's characters occasionally throw things off kilter, but fortunately the other elements at work are strong enough to keep it all in focus. All three lead performances are particularly strong, especially Maria de Medeiros as Ana. While watching the film I went crazy trying to figure out where I'd seen her before, subsequently learning that she portrayed Anaïs Nin in Philip Kaufman's Henry and June, as well as Bruce Willis's French girlfriend in Pulp Fiction.
Chris Kraus's Vier Minuten (Four Minutes) from Germany initially showed in San Francisco at this year's Berlin & Beyond festival. Overwrought and bombastic, but rarely boring, it's the story of an ex-Nazi nurse turned women's prison piano teacher and her tumultuous relationship with a former child prodigy serving time for cutting off her boyfriend's head and tossing it in a dumpster. Variety's Leslie Felperin jokingly called it "Prisoner: Cell Block H crossed with Shine," to which I might add: "as directed by a Paul Verhoeven wanna-be." This is another film with especially strong lead performances, with Monica Bleibtreu (Moritz's mom!!!) as the dour spinster Mrs. Krüger and Hannah Herzsprung as the keyboard hellion she hopes to take all the way to a youth piano competition in Berlin. The film's lesbian element—such as it is—is completely incidental and feels tacked on in an effort to get the film into festivals such as this one.
The two Asian films I've seen were a mixed bag. The first is Twilight Dancers by Mel Chianglo, who has created a whole subgenre/franchise of Filipino go-go boy melodramas inspired by gay auteur Lino Brocka's 1988 hit Macho Dancer. This latest installation has a country boy named Dwight gyrating away in a Manila strip bar where he's swept up by Madame Loca, a dangerous and powerful businesswoman. When they have sex for the first time she screams out, "The inventor of cock is a genius," and at the moment of orgasm pulls a gun out of her purse and fires it in the air. The story feebly tries to touch on issues of import such as government corruption and globalization, but it's impossible to take seriously when every five minutes we're back in the club watching the boys bump and grind, regardless of whether it connects in any way to the preceding scene. This film does have a target audience, however, and you know who you are.
The other Asian film was Zero Chou's Ci-Qing (Spider Lilies) from Taiwan, which won the Teddy Award for Best Queer Feature at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Golden spider lilies, we come to learn, are the flowers that grow on both sides of the path to Hell. Sad and serious tattoo artist Takeko has a bunch of them imprinted on her arm, and cutesy cyber-slut Jade wants to get inked with them, too, as erotic fodder for her bedroom web-casts. Jade has a crush on Takeko, which may date back to an incident that took place between them when she was nine. Since one of the film's themes seems to be the unreliability of memory, I was never quite sure about that and many other aspects of the film's story, nor was I especially made to care.
Finally—following close on the heels of The Witnesses as my pre-festival favorite—is Glue—historia adolescente en medio de la nada (Glue), a small wonder of a film from Argentine director Alexis Dos Santos. The film's full Spanish title roughly translates as Glue: A Teenage Story From the Middle of Nowhere. That nowhere is a small town in Patagonia where awkward 15-year-old Lucas lives with his fractious, but loving family. He hangs out with his self-assured best friend Nacho, whom he almost unknowingly lusts after, and the two of them befriend nerdishly pretty Andrea. The boys play together in a punk rock band, ride bikes, listen to music, talk about girls and suffer life's little humiliations. The adults do the best they can. That pretty much describes the film's storyline, which was improvised entirely from a 17-page script. Dos Santos and his actors perfectly capture the confused uneasiness and exhilarating urgency of being an adolescent. And amazingly, nothing that happens or is said in the film feels forced or inorganic. Gays who had a crush on their best friend as teenagers will certainly feel a kinship with Lucas as he fixates on Nacho's hairy armpits and wonders if he ever dreams about him at night. My favorite scene in the film is one where Lucas dons a cat mask as a pretext to purr and snuggle up against Nacho. At a drunken party with Andrea they finally have their Y tu mamá también moment, but unlike that film it doesn't signal the end of a friendship. I certainly can't recommend this film to everybody. Anyone who gets bored during films where little or nothing happens, or gets nauseous from an occasional, shaky hand-held camera, will be running for the exits. For everyone else, however, it's further evidence that Argentina continues to produce some of the most exciting and original films in the world.
I've seen three documentaries and all of them are worth catching. My favorite was JAM, winner of the jury prize at last year's SXSW, which details the efforts of some very seasoned roller derby stars (some of them lesbian and gay) to revive the sport. I was particularly intrigued by Alfonso Reyes, the rugged, chain-smoking, Seagrams-swilling all-time derby league penalty record holder who shares a home with his alcoholic boyfriend and tranny housekeeper/maid. Speaking of trannies, Alexis Arquette: She's My Brother is an very entertaining look at one man's MTF transition while in the celebrity spotlight. Arquette certainly has the gift of gab, wondering aloud if, "my ego is as big as the universe" and it's a pleasure to listen and watch as she makes this journey. There are some fun Arquette family home movie clips, including one of her unwrapping Christmas gifts in 1987 with siblings David and Patricia. Finally, on a more serious note we have Dos Patrias Cuba y la noche (Two Homelands: Cuba and the Night), an earnest, intimate portrait of six distinctive gay men and the marginal lives they're forced to lead. All of them are articulate and self-reflective, and it's a pleasure spending time with them. Of particular interest to me was the film's examination of the santeria religion and how accepting it is towards the LGBT community.
So those are the films I've had a chance to preview prior to the festival, and I expect to see just as many during the festival proper. Some of the World Cinema selections I'm most looking forward to are Stealth (from the director of Garçon Stupide), No Regret from South Korea, Eternal Summer from Taiwan, the aforementioned The Bubble, and two more French films, Another Woman and The Man of My Life. I also plan on seeing the documentaries The Godfather of Disco, Love Man Love Woman and Red Without Blue. And I'm even taking a chance on a handful of U.S. features, namely Shelter, The Curiosity of Chance, and the Ru Paul-starring rev-up to Pink Saturday, Starbooty. Have a great festival!!