Wednesday, June 22, 2011

FRAMELINE35 2011—Michael Hawley's Documentary Capsule Reviews

As mentioned in my previous entry, the 35th anniversary edition of the Frameline SF International LGBT Film Festival launched Thursday, June 16 and runs right up through Gay Pride Day on Sunday, June 26. Along with the eight narrative features previously reviewed, in addition I've had the chance to preview six documentaries. All were seen on DVD screener and, where applicable, I've noted any special guests that are expected to attend the screenings.

Angel (France, dir. Sebastiano d'Ayala Valva)—A South American boxer turned Parisian transsexual prostitute makes a poignant journey home in this fascinating and affecting documentary that's among the best I've seen this year. We first meet the soft spoken, but physically imposing Angel in Paris, where he's lived and worked for five years. After receiving French residency papers that allow him to travel abroad, this strictly observational documentary follows Angel home to Guayaquil, Ecuador where he's anxious to see what's become of the hard-earned money he's been sending home.

Once the initial joy of the reunion wears off—his grateful family sings his praises and the women are fascinated by his breasts—a disillusioned Angel realizes that his largesse has largely been squandered. Only a brother he put through police academy has made good. He then travels to the seaside village of his father and is disappointed by another set of relatives he's supporting. The final straw comes when Angel inspects the house he's paying to have built for his retirement, only to find that construction has barely begun. Before returning to France, the film stops in the capital city of Quito, where Angel once lived and worked. Here we're shown another side of Angel: that of a courageous LGBT activist who was mightily feared by the police. A "one year later" epilogue finds him living in Marseilles, newly determined to consider his own wellbeing.

Hit So Hard (USA, dir. P. David Ebersole)—This fine doc about Patty Schemel is an absolute must-see for fans of Courtney Love's band Hole, and worthwhile for anyone with an interest in women rockers, queer rockers, grunge rockers or queer women grunge rockers. Schemel was one of the latter, playing drums during Hole's drug and alcohol-fueled heyday between 1992 and 1998. She famously came out to Rolling Stone in 1995. While this film doesn't emphasize her lesbianism, it doesn't soft-peddle it either.

Fortunately for us, Schemel was a prolific videographer and her footage documents an era. Most notable are delightful home movies of Love, Kurt Cobain and baby Frances Bean, with whom Schemel lived in 1992. We learn that she left a job at Microsoft to play rock and roll, prefers drumming while barefoot and her favorite movie is
The Man with the Golden Arm (starring Frank Sinatra as … a junkie drummer!). Hit So Hard's emotional highpoint is the heartbreaking story of how Schemel came not to play on Hole's 1998 album "Celebrity Skin," resulting in a tailspin she barely pulled herself out of. Schemel is fine today. She still plays music, owns a dog-walking business and will be at the Frameline screening with her partner Christina Soletti and director Ebersole.

Becoming Chaz (USA, dir. Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato)—After spending 10 unhappy years as a painkiller-addicted, video-gaming recluse, celebrity offspring Chastity Bono began a brave one-year FTM metamorphosis. This transformation has been chronicled by Bailey and Barbato, the dynamic duo of LGBT-flavored bio-docs (The Eyes of Tammy Faye). It's a year marked by "top-surgery" (i.e., breast removal), dealing with the media and daily testosterone injections. The latter brings about changes not welcomed by Bono's lesbian partner Jennifer Elia, a recovering alcoholic who receives nearly equal screen time. The ups and downs of their loving, but contentious relationship occasionally drag the film into TMI territory.

The film's real value lies in the education on transgender and FTM issues it provides. One noteworthy segment focuses on Bono's heart-rending involvement with Transforming Family. We follow him to a transgender convention and learn why most FTMs opt not to have "bottom surgery." There's also plenty about his parentage, particularly the guarded reactions of a megastar mom. In one inspired sequence, a vintage clip of Sonny performing his 1965 hit "Laugh at Me," is edited with cruel shock-jock reactions to Chaz' transition. The film's only real low is its cheesy, "inspirational" music score, which no doubt pleased Oprah Channel viewers (where the film had its small-screen premiere last month). Bono, Elia and co-director Barbato will be in the house for this screening.

Tales of the Waria (Indonesia, dir. Kathy Huang)—In this intriguing documentary we're presented with four portraits of transgenders living on Indonesia's Sulawesi island. Waria is a combination of the words wanita (woman) and pria (man), and in pre-Muslim times they were trusted caretakers of the king. None desire sex-change operations, believing they were created as men and must ultimately return to God as men. The most compelling story is that of Mama Ria, a waria in her fifties who has been a policeman's second wife for 18 years. One memorable scene shows her strolling arm in arm with the first wife during a family outing at a water park. Over the course of the film we sadly watch her marriage come to an end, despite recent plastic surgery to improve her looks. The other warias are Suharni, a hairdresser who leaves her boyfriend to earn money in Bali; Agus, a husband and father who struggles with the desire to return to the waria way of life; and Tiara, an exuberant showgirl and beauty pageant trainer. (Seen and reviewed for the SF International Asian American Film Festival.)

The Advocate for Fagdom (France, dir. Angélique Bosio)—I've been a fan of Canadian provocateur Bruce La Bruce ever since No Skin Off My Ass singed my brain at Frameline almost 20 years ago. This new doc gave me a much needed refresher course. It'll also work well as a primer for newcomers to Mr. La B's cinema of queer punk aesthetics, revolutionary politics, hardcore sex and boredom. Things kick off with etymologic musings on the La Bruce name (a 1930's gay arsonist?!), moving on to his early years as a 'zine-ster and cable TV talk show hostess. All of his films get touched upon with judicious clips and weigh-ins from the likes of Gus Van Sant, Harmony Korine and ever eloquent John Waters. (Is it truly a documentary these days if Waters doesn't appear in it?) We're given peeks into La Bruce's personal life; a visit to his family's farm, an interview with his Cuban refugee husband. The doc ends with a stimulating discussion of his filmic use of hardcore sex—he was one of the first and is still one of the few. While not officially listed as an expected guest for this screening, La Bruce is scheduled to appear the following night for his latest outrage, L.A. Zombie. I'd be surprised if he didn't show up for this as well.

Cho Dependent (USA, dir. Lorene Machado)—The appeal of this straight-up, no frills concert film— miscategorized by Frameline as a narrative feature—will depend entirely on whether you think Margaret Cho is funny. More often than not, I do. Filmed in Atlanta, our SF homegirl riffs on her Dancing with the Stars stint ("I had the most pronounced camel toe"), Steven Slater ("the Nelson Mandela of flight attendants") and the supremacy of gaydom ("If you're a gay man, you're probably near the end of your reincarnation cycle"). Some routines about bodily functions drone on and on. The title comes from Cho's Grammy-nominated album of comic songs, several of which she performs here. A C&W number reveals an impressive singing voice and a rap ("My Puss") delivered with her mother's unmistakable inflection is a scream. Due to a scheduling conflict, Cho will not be at the screening to receive the Frameline Award being bestowed upon her this year. Director Lorene Machado, however, will be on hand.

Cross-published on film-415 and Twitch.

No comments: