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Frameline31 ended this past weekend with my having watched a total of 14 features during the festival proper. Of the six World Cinema selections I saw, my favorite was easily Stealth, the latest from French/Swiss filmmaker Lionel Baier, who makes good on the formidable talents that were hinted at in his first feature, Garçon Stupide. I also caught three documentaries, the best being the widely acclaimed Red Without Blue. I also managed to see five films from the US Features section, a category at this festival I've largely ignored in recent years. Here's a closer look at them.
As expected, the most outrageous of the bunch was Mike Ruiz's Starrbooty, showcasing RuPaul. Commanding the Castro stage on Pink Saturday in a slinky silver gown and a snow-white 'fro to rival Dietrich's 'do in Blonde Venus, the self-proclaimed "America's Drag Queen Sweetheart" warned us that "this movie is more like who I really am." The plot in a nutshell: Ferocious SuperModel turned SuperSecretAgent Starrbooty goes undercover as a prostitute in order to rescue her kidnapped niece from arch-nemesis Annaka Manners, who's become a billionairesse by turning human body parts into cosmetics. So remember, if anyone ever tries to hand you a gift certificate to the International House of Pancake Makeup, run for your life . . . unless you want to become a key ingredient in someone's Labial Rejuvenation Cream. The film itself is a stylistic mish-mash of blaxploitation, kung-fu, music videos and TV soaps, with nods to everything from Showgirls to Chinatown, and manages to entertain much more often than not. Those whose main cultural reference to RuPaul is her 1997 Xmas CD, "Ho Ho Ho", will certainly be shocked to see her participating in graphic scenes of CBT and eproctophilia. I know I was! The film also features a nifty, ghettotech-influenced score, entirely written or co-written by RuPaul, which will soon be available for on-line download only (CDs being "so 2000"). And the icing on the cake?—the film is "Dedicated in loving memory of Jerry Falwell."
Providing an apropos lift-off to Starrbooty was Frameline alum Bruce LaBruce's latest short, Give Piece of Ass a Chance, in which a group of lesbian guerrillas kidnap a munitions heiress and initiate her in the ways of womyn. The film is essentially silent, with the on-screen action accompanied by some choice soulster sides by the likes of Etta, Nina, Aretha and others. The cunnilingus close-ups on the giant Castro screen had half the nearly all-gay male audience roaring its approval, and the other half shrieking with terror. Nevertheless, everyone seemed to appreciate the film's revolutionary message.
Taking the level of outrageousness down just a notch or two, we arrive at Alan Cumming's solo directorial debut, Suffering Men's Charity. Part grand guignol gothic comedy and part Tennessee Williams tragedy, Cumming directs himself in the role of Jonathan, a pathetic music teacher/composer who has finally had enough of his sponging houseguest Sebastian, a "bankrupt man-whore with an IQ of a rat." The film's comically intense centerpiece is a lengthy torture sequence in which Sebastian (played by TV hunk David Boreanaz), outfitted in bra and panties and bound-up with Xmas lights, must answer a series of multiple choice questions. A correct answer results in a particular debt being forgiven—a long-distance phone bill for instance—whereas, an incorrect answer … well … why should I spoil it for you? Cumming ravenously chews the scenery here, channeling everyone from Baby Jane Hudson to Pee Wee Herman to Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein. The film's energy flags from time to time; but, when it's going full-force—as it certainly does in an extended scene with Karen Black as a drunken old slut—look out! Cumming graciously appeared on-stage before and after the Castro screening and shared a number of hilarious anecdotes about the film, many of which appear in Michael Guillén's interview conducted earlier that day.
The other three US Features I saw during the festival could all be lumped into that hoariest of gay movie categories, the coming out film. Outing Riley, written, directed and starring Pete Jones, is an earnest comedy about a young architect's extreme reluctance to come out to his Irish Catholic siblings after their father dies. At times I felt like I was watching a TV pilot, but the film's combination of a unique Chicago setting, Jones' winning lead performance and a few genuinely original comic moments made it all relatively easy going down. The audience at the Castro seemed to enjoy itself, that's for sure. The same things can be said for Russell P. Marleau's The Curiosity of Chance, except its unique setting is an "international" high school in Belgium during the 1980's, "the decade that fashion forgot." Originally scripted to take place in California, writer-director Marleau moved the story to Belgium when it became a requirement of the film's Belgian financiers. The lead roles are played by Americans, and the amalgam of accents is disconcerting, even comic at times. The story concerns a flamboyant new student and his attempts to find self-acceptance at school and at home, with the help of two other misfit students and the cutie football player next door. Again, not an outstanding film, but one that's easy enough to enjoy when you're in a packed theater of enthusiastic well-wishers.
I'm a bit more keen on the third coming out film, Shelter, which had its world premiere at Frameline31 and is the first feature to be produced by the here! gay cable network. It's a step up from the other two films in terms of almost everything—acting, direction, story—and should prove to be very popular when it's released theatrically this fall. Set in the working class SoCal seaside town of San Pedro, our hero Zach is a young fry cook who gave up a shot at art school to care for his ill father, his cluelessly selfish older sister and her 5-year-old son. He also loves to surf, and when his best friend's gay older brother, also a surfer, comes home for an extended stay, it sets off a chain of events that will offer him the possibility of a brighter future. This is a very sweet movie, but not one without believable conflict and drama. It has a genuineness unique to the genre, with a generous share of humor and surprises as well. A huge part of its success lies in the casting of its two charismatic lead actors, Trevor Wright and Brad Rowe. Both are avowedly straight, yet their on-screen intimacy has a believable warmth and naturalness to it. During the Q&A, I'm sure many audience members would have liked to eat them both alive. Finally, I was pretty amused to read this thank you in the film's end credits: "Additional funding provided by Frameline and The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence."