Attending a film festival is often a bit like selecting random treats in a tapas bar. What one person chooses to savor may differ from another’s choices. Sometimes the specific order in which one experiences certain selections can bring new insights to the ongoing queer cinema experience. With certain "gay classics" being screened in tribute to Frameline's outgoing Executive Director, Michael Lumpkin, one could not overlook the dramatic changes in queer filmmaking as a result of (a) technological advances, (b) the mass affordability of the basic tools of today's digital media, and (c) the results of nearly 30 years of Communications Departments at colleges, universities and art schools around the world producing out and aspiring filmmakers with new frames of reference and LGBT stories to tell.
On this first Friday of the festival it was fascinating to contrast the strengths and weaknesses of two first feature films. Originally screened by Frameline in 1986, Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche serves as an interesting marker in one's awareness of how much gay cinema has evolved in the past quarter century. Filmed in black and white with the kind of shaky technique which can easily induce a disturbingly uncomfortable narcolepsy in filmgoers, Van Sant's film captures the eager, almost giddy infatuation of a gay man attracted to rough street trade in the body of 16-year-old illegal alien from Mexico who possesses a winning smile and brooding, sometimes impish personality.
Alas, hindsight can change what once seemed like a groundbreaking film experience into something a whole lot less magical (to quote the legendary Googie Gomez: "Camelot? That show was a piece of chit!") What Mala Noche offered this viewer was a stark reminder of the days when gay men were desperately fixated on unobtainable "trade," street hustlers -- and the lack of self esteem that often accompanied their unrequited passions. One need only scan Van Sant's filmography to trace his evolution as a filmmaker (he is currently working on
Milk, some of which was filmed in the Castro District earlier this year with Sean Penn starring as the late Harvey Milk) to see how much he has grown since this first feature film.
Contrast Van Sant's shaky first feature with the slickness of Jesse Rosen's The Art of Being Straight and you can see the polished work of someone who cut his chops as a television production assistant on Jake In Progress and other series where he could learn his craft on top-of-the-line equipment surrounded by working professionals. Rosen's likeable film features an appealing young cast inhabiting a group of well-defined characters trying to gain control of their lives in Los Angeles. Rosen also stars as the lead character, John (an aspiring amateur photographer who is not quite sure of his sexual identity but eventually learns that the best way to avoid having to label himself is to just keep his mouth shut and let his friends hog the spotlight for themselves).
Rosen's script and character development are tightly crafted and the film is beautifully shot. The only qualm I had was the abruptness of the film's ending -- which was startling and could certainly have been crafted with more grace. Otherwise, this is an impressive triple-threat debut for Rosen, whose strengths shine through as a convincing actor, gifted scriptwriter and skilled director.
Later that evening, Saturn In Opposition proved to be a film of great tenderness and depth, very European in its depiction of the intimate relationships between a group of friends who suddenly lose one of the driving personalities in their tightly-knit gang. Ferzan Ozpetek's poignant film takes its dramatic time where others might rush for sharper contrasts, more frequent confrontations, and more action. Yet its relaxed pace serves to highlight the complex emotions of its inhabitants.
I particularly liked Pierfrancesco Favino's Davide (who reminded me of a very introspective Javier Bardem) and Serra Yilmaz as the meddling Neval. Compared to the characters in Mala Noche and The Art of Being Straight, Ozpetek's cluster of friends is older, richer, wiser, sadder, and certainly more world weary (with the exception of one alarmingly precocious and manipulative little girl). This film is more of an acquired taste for people who like to take their time exploring the delicate strands which unite old friends and the fragility of the mesh that has been built up between them over the years -- only to be shattered by one person's unexpected death.
A program of shorts entitled The Young and Evil proved to be a mixed bag. As with many short films, there was a decided lack of artistic vision. I particularly liked Randy Casperson's Dolls (winner of a film competition at Columbia College) and the innocence of Benedict Campbell's Lloyd Neck. Rikki Beadle-Blair's Souljah and Julian Breece's powerful depiction of an angry black teen's attempt to seduce an older HIV+ man into giving him the virus (The Young and the Evil) were strong, well defined efforts.
While Nick Oceano's The Cousin and Maxime Desmons's Baggage were sincere attempts with sparks of humor, they failed to hit their mark. Two other shorts, Mario Galarreta's Alonso's Deadline, and Jim Martin's Mars were rather pointless films which, at best, served to add 14 minutes of filler to the program.