Sunday, June 22, 2008

Frameline 32 - Saturday, June 21, 2008

Now accepted as an archetype of queer cinema, the triumphant drag queen's role as a catalytic hero(ine) first achieved acceptance with the masses in 1959 when Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis joined Marilyn Monroe in an all-girl jazz band in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, Since then, audiences have been challenged by a series of drag protagonists who, in little more than 30 seconds, telegraph a strict message to moviegoers: "Whether or not you like drag, you are going to love ME!"

Noted drag queen Craig Russell starred in 1977's Outrageous, to be followed a year later by the thunderous success of La Cage aux Folles. In 1988, Harvey Fierstein brought his Tony-award winning performance as Arnold Beckhoff to the silver screen in Torch Song Trilogy. I still cherish the memory of attending the American premiere of 1994 dragspectacular The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert at the Castro Theater, where audiences kept stomping and cheering for 20 minutes to show their approval of Stephan Elliott's groundbreaking film as well as the over-the-top performances by Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce. The following year witnessed Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo embarking on a drag road trip inspired by Douglas Carter Beane's script for To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. Then, in 1996, Nathan Lane squared off against Robin Williams in The Birdcage (an Americanized version of La Cage aux Folles) directed by the legendary Mike Nichols.

This year's Frameline festival introduced a new and truly fierce display by a drag queen whose tidal wave of a personality (complete with issues and sequins) is a life force to be reckoned with. Humberto Busto's star turn as the protagonist in Manuela y Manuel anchors a tightly crafted farce directed by Raul Marchand Sanchez, whose film is populated with outrageous stereotypes that include:

  • The meddling, Bible-thumping landlady,

  • The hysterical drag queen and her bitchy rival,

  • the conservative family whose homophobic patriarch likes to frequent drag shows...

I'm sure you get the picture.

The film's plot device is simple: in order to help his best friend, Coca, (who has gotten knocked up after a one-night stand), Manuel must butch it up and marry Coca to prevent her family from ostracizing her. If you thought Nathan Lane trying to learn how to act masculine was a great comic film turn, try to imagine all that and soooo much more done at hyperspeed, in a military uniform, backwards, upside down, and accompanied by hysterical outbursts from a confused and angry Puerto Rican drag queen who can't refuse a friend's plea for help. Busto's bravura performance endears him to the audience while amazing viewers with the actor's lightning dexterity.

Strong supporting performances came from Marian Pabon as Manuela's rival drag queen, Faraona, Luz Maria Rondon as the meddling Dona Rosa, and Elena Iguina as the pregnant Coca. Jose Ignacio Valenzuela's script is handled with meticulous care under Sanchez's direction with lush cinematography by Sonel Valezquez, great drag costumes by Rafi Mercado, and superb art direction by Mailara Santana. This is one drag experience you won't want to miss -- and one which is best shared with friends.

The cult of personality received quite a different treatment in a new documentary from Jeffrey Schwartz entitled Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon. Devoted to the life of legendary porn star, Jack Wrangler, the film offers one of the few opportunities (other than the recent documentary about Peter Berlin) to see a legend of erotic film in his 60s who is alive, happy, healthy, and still living a productive life. Wrangler, who was noted for always being able to perform/deliver a money shot on cue during his career in gay and straight skinflicks, proves to have a charming personality and is someone who can easily laugh at himself and the path his life has taken.

Wrangler was one of the first porn stars to embrace the concept of "branding" by pushing such products as the Accu-Jac, Jac-Cream, and making public appearances before gay audiences (who were surprised to see him do stand-up comedy instead of stripping). More entertaining than most documentaries, the film does a solid job of showing how someone who thought he was quite untalented and nothing special (much like Gypsy Rose Lee) found a market niche for himself as a performer, developed it, and went on to greater, previously unimagined exploits and international fame. Needless to say, many very familiar images burned into the brains of gay men during the 1970s flash by throughout the documentary.

Gay celebrities such as Bruce Vilanch, Marc Shaiman and Chi Chi La Rue offer some very funny insights into how important Wrangler's image was to them as younger gay men and explain how his work helped to shape the direction of the adult gay film industry. The documentary also explores Wrangler's additional careers as a legitimate theater director, mentor to young actors, and tabloid sensation following his courtship and marriage to pop singer Margaret Whiting. Of particular interest is the story of how Wrangler finally made peace with Whiting's overly-protective daughter.

A program of gay Asian shorts entitled From Singapore to Seoul and L.A. had three standouts. In X'Ho's Allen Ginsberg Gives Great Head, a rebellious and very sexy gay man in Singapore uses Ginsberg's poetry (combined with his own very personal act of masturbation) to make a strong political point against oppressive governments which rob people of their identity. In Edward Gunawan's Laundromat, two young lovers who can't stop bickering learn an interesting lesson from an older gay man who has recently lost his partner of 20 years. Finally, Josh Kim's The Postcard proved to be an hilarious crowd pleaser in which a female Korean postal clerk misinterprets the actions of a male customer who is trying to catch the attention of his male mail carrier by sending postcards with flirtatious messages to himself. It's a 15-minute gem which had the audience howling with laughter.

Next: Sunday, June 22, 2008

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