Monday, June 30, 2008

Frameline 32 -- Saturday, June 28, 2008

Documentaries fill up an important part of each year's Frameline festival and, on Saturday. I got to experience three gems. Two were from China, the third focused on a performing arts group near and dear to Bay area audiences.

With mainland China experiencing rapid industrial growth, the number of young Chinese who have left the family farm and moved to large cities keeps growing. Filmed by Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon, Tongzhi in Love interviews several young Chinese men who have carved out an urban gay lifestyle for themselves in Beijing. Still somewhat closeted, and unable to reveal their truths to their families, they discuss how they would feel about ruining the happiness of their parents' lives on the farm by revealing that they are gay. Their choices come under criticism from one gay man who feels that refusing to get married and have children who will carry on the family name is a slap in the face to Chinese culture and its tradition of "family piety."

Although some of their stories may seem very familiar to Westerners who have come out and left home to embrace a gay lifestyle in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, when set against the background of a massive nation struggling to reinvent itself and drag its citizens into the 21st century, this documentary takes on an added level of pathos.

Far more troubling, if not downright heartbreaking, is The Blood of Yingzhou District, which won the 2007 Academy Award for best short documentary. Focused on the challenges posed by orphans who were left behind after their parents died of AIDS, Ruby Yang's documentary explores the clash between age-old traditions of caring for one's neighbors and relatives in rural China and -- some 25 years after the onset of the AIDS epidemic -- the risk of being ostracized if news spreads that someone has touched a person with AIDS.

For those of us who survived the earliest years of the epidemic it is unbelievably sad to witness how innocent children are victimized by the fear of the disease among their fellow villagers. Occasionally, a child may end up in the care of a couple who both have AIDS, but hope is a slim and fleeting commodity.

Of much greater local interest was Ken Bielenberg's Almost Infamous: On The Road With The Kinsey Sicks. Those of us who have watched the Kinseys grow and thrive over the years often forget how much hard work has gone into their success. This new documentary does a better job than most behind-the-scenes show biz tales of exploring the frustrations, disappointments, and idiotic challenges faced by creative performers who try to remain true to their artistic vision.

Much of the film is devoted to the Kinseys' extended run at the Las Vegas Hilton, which turned out to be a very mixed blessing. One sees the hard work done in the background as the dragapella quartet focuses on intense rehearsals, voice lessons, learning how to accept criticism from other members of the group, and the general exhaustion of trying to make it all happen. What shines through is the fierce intelligence, dedication, musicality, talent and spiritual strength of Kinseys Ben Schatz, Irwin Keller, Chris Diller, and Greg Manabat.

Bielenberg's documentary offers a bit more introspection than one would expect as the Kinseys reflect on the sacrifices they have made in order to continue their careers as performers; the backstabbing they must tolerate from people who want to reshape their act so that drag queens can be reduced to mere clowns, and the petty financial insults suffered at the hands of giant corporations who have no intention of making life easy for them. The film also captures the difficulty of not letting outside forces try to define you in ways which are counter to the artistic truth you have struggled so long and hard to create.

While musicologist Joseph Kernan once described Puccini's Tosca as "that shabby little shocker" Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild! almost gives shabby a good name. It seems tragic that far more viewers will watch Todd Stephens' inane farce (and that it will make tons more money) than any of above-named documentaries. This execrable piece of drek -- which could make the worst Adam Sandler movie look like Lawrence of Arabia -- aims for the lowest possible common denominator and easily overshoots its goal.

The film has lots of frenetic action as four gay twits try to get some action for their gay twats while attemptng to find true love. One cannot say that the film lacks talent, for lead Jonah Blechman does get to demonstrate some solid ballet technique during a musical production number dedicated to the joys of discovering golden showers. (That song really should have been called "Singing In The Drain.")

Suffocating under the weight of its own shtick while navigating Fort Lauderdale during gay spring break, the film's sight gags are rife with giant plastic crabs, wet and wild dildos, horny teenagers, posturing drag queens, rimming accidents, and a gossip columnist who "gets religion." Pop personalities RuPaul, The Lady Bunny, Lypsinka, and Perez Hilton appear in critical roles.

While there are those who would bemoan the presence of a such a film in Frameline's festival lineup (just as some always rue the presence of drag queens, leathermen and "Dykes on Bikes" in Pride celebrations around the world), the audience for Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild! is definitely a part of the larger gay landscape and, as usual, money talks.

The next installment in the series (Gays In Space!) promises to be both witless and weightless. Trust me, I can wait.

Next: Sunday, June 29, 2008

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