By the time Frameline34's Closing Night film unspooled on Gay Pride Day, everyone seemed to agree it had been the organization's best festival in years. I'm not sure I concur, simply because imho the fest has been on a high for some time now. Or maybe I've just gotten good at sniffing out stuff I'll like, to the exclusion of what might work my last gay nerve. This year's films ranged from the frequently sublime to the occasionally unremarkable, but mileage varies and even those lesser works found receptive audiences. All told, I saw 34 programs—18 of them prior to the festival at press screenings, other festivals and on DVD screener. Here are some highlights of those I watched during Frameline34 proper.
We Were Here: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco—If you caught the sneak preview of David Weissman's powerful new documentary, the experience no doubt overshadowed whatever else you might have seen during the 11-day festival. It proved to be unbearably cathartic for some, and anguished sobs could be heard emanating from all parts of the nearly sold-out Castro Theater. The film reflects back to a time—can it really be almost 30 years ago—when a disease turned this city into a war zone and the LGBT community rallied to care for its own. Weissman wisely chose to tell this story from the POV of five who were on the front lines, rather than through a multitude of voices. It received perhaps the longest Castro Theater standing ovation I've witnessed in 35 years, and afterwards Weissman had the audience sit in meditative silence before beginning the Q&A. The version we saw is still being tweaked, which is perhaps why the Frameline34 screening was a "sneak preview" rather than a premiere. It seemed pretty damn near perfect to me.
The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls—My hat goes off to whoever programmed this documentary about yodeling lesbian twins from New Zealand immediately after We Were Here. It served as a counteractive tonic to the previous film's intensity, and was almost more fun than a festival screening has a right to be. Singer-comedian-activists Jools and Lynda Topp took to the Castro stage and kicked things off with a rousing, foot-stomping Maori welcoming song, and later returned to give the audience yodeling lessons. In between we were treated to Leanne Pooley's exceptionally well made and inspirational doc.
Sex, Leather Jackets and Cigarettes—I attended Yale film professor Ron Gregg's informative Frameline lecture, Gay Aesthetics and Iconography in the Films of Andy Warhol, which primed me for that same evening's program of two Warhol shorts and one near-feature, Vinyl. The latter is a tortured and rambling low-rent interpretation of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, but it features a sock-o mid-section in which Warhol Factory beauty Gerard Malanga dances a furious frug to Martha and the Vandellas' "Nowhere to Hide." The song ends and then immediately begins again, Malanga dancing with even wilder abandon in the second go-round. Meanwhile, too-cool-for-school Edie Sedgwick does a seductive, sit-down dance off to the side. I just loved seeing this on a big screen in 16mm. In the YouTube clip below, fast-forward to the 3:30 mark for the dance, or watch from the beginning to see how that segment radically contrasts with the rest of the movie.
I Killed My Mother—I was wowed by this film when I first saw it at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, and feared the disappointment a second viewing might bring. But nothing doing. Watching it again with a packed, queer audience at the Castro, in lush 35mm, only convinced me that this brutally hilarious and touching tale of an uber-dysfunctional mother-son relationship is the most auspicious debut by a teenage powerhouse writer/director/actor in like … forever. Bravo Monsieur Xavier Dolan! Regent Releasing has picked this up for U.S. distribution and if we're lucky it'll be in theaters soon.
The Consul of Sodom—For close to 25 years, my friend and fellow Frameline fanatic Carlo and I have used the euphemism "masterpiece" to describe any non-porn film that contains full-frontal male nudity. If we say it in a loud, emphatic voice, it means there was also at least one erect penis. We both agreed that The Consul of Sodom was a MASTERPIECE! Genitalia aside, the film is a smart and passionate portrayal of Catalan poet Jaime Gil de Biedma, a gay man of privilege who fought to live an uncompromised life during a time a great repression. Michael Guillén has written eloquently about the film previously on The Evening Class.
On These Shoulders We Stand; William S. Burroughs: A Man Within—Although they pretty much stick to a talking heads and archival materials template, I appreciated these docs for the information they imparted. Most people are familiar with the history of LGBT rights in New York and San Francisco—but Los Angeles? Now I know all about L.A.'s "masquerading" law that was used to persecute both male and female cross-dressers, as well as the infamous 1968 police raid on The Patch bar. The film features some amazing old photos, several of which tend to get overused. What struck me about the Burroughs doc was its emphasis on the man's influence on punk rock. We get interviews with Patti Smith, Jello Biafra, Iggy Pop and best of all, video footage of a Sonic Youth pilgrimage to Burroughs' Kansas home. The true topper, however, is an audio clip of Burroughs singing Marlene Dietrich's "Falling in Love Again," in German!
Howl—Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's new film about Allen Ginsberg was much better than expected, at least when compared to the tepid reviews it received from Sundance and Berlin. The film's three distinctive strands don't always mesh, but the animated poem is glorious, the obscenity trial is engaging and James Franco gives the Ginsberg portrayal his all. This was Frameline34's closing night film and it was really neat seeing Franco grace the Castro Theater stage for the second time in less than a year.
Spring Fever—This film from Chinese director Lou Ye got universally crummy reviews at Cannes 2009, before shocking the naysayers with a prize for Best Screenplay. I found myself completely caught up during its first third—a vibrant and sexy look at modern urban Chinese living modern lives, with a multi-sexual ménage à quatre at its core. Then it got bogged down in a bunch of strained, unconvincing melodramatics that made me fear, as did Lou's previous film Summer Palace, that the damn thing might never ever end. And maybe I'm misreading, but Spring Fever appears to say some disturbing things about the poisonous effect gays have on the lives of straights. I expected Lou Ye to be cooler than that. Still, I'm grateful to Frameline for showing it—especially in 35mm—and letting me judge for myself.
Cross-published on film-415 and Twitch.