Saturday, June 1, 2019

Portraits of LGBT People Changing Their Self Image

One of the great blessings of living in San Francisco is the Bay area's hearty appetite for all kinds of cinema. In a city where more than 100 languages (including Tagalog, Portuguese, Yiddish, Arabic, and Swahili) are spoken, it's easy to find a film festival with strong appeal to a niche audience. Of course, if one wants to attend a festival of substantial size, breadth, or star power, there's the Mill Valley Film Festival and San Francisco International Film Festival.

However, if one has a specific genre (or less-widely known subgenre) in mind, one might check out the offerings from Noir City, the Disposable Film Festival, the International Ocean Film Festival, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the San Francisco Green Film Festival, the San Francisco Dance Film Festival, the San Francisco Frozen Film Festival, the California Independent Film Festival, the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, and the gorefest known as Another Hole in the Head Genre Film Festival.

If a person misses their country of origin (or wishes to find an armchair adventure located in a specific corner of the world), films one might not find in theatrical release will probably be screened during the Arab Film Festival, the Hong Kong Cinema minifestival, the New Italian Cinema minifestival, the French Cinema Now minifestival, the Mostly British Film Festival, the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival, the San Francisco Irish Film Festival, the San Francisco Greek Film Festival, the Japan Film Festival of San Francisco, and the Third I International South Asian Film Festival.

If, on the other hand, one seeks films with strong appeal to ethnic groups or specific minorities, a wealth of worthy films can be found at the Frameline Film Festival, CAAMFest, the American Indian Film Festival, the San Francisco Black Film Festival. the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the Queer Women of Color Film Festival, the Cinematografo International Film Festival, and the
Superfest: International Disability Film Festival.

Having so much cinema available throughout the year sometimes allows a person to find interesting connections between films seen at various festivals. Two shorts (featuring some excellent cinematography) from the 2019 CAAMFest were made by Asian American filmmakers focused on the insecurities of LGBT characters trying to navigate their way along an intensely personal path through societal change and self expression. By contrast, a lusty, shame-free feature that will be screened during the Frameline Film Festival showed just how much more enjoyable life can be when people's emotions are not ruled by fear, self-doubt, or shame.

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With so much attention showered on the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States, it should come as no surprise that, for some couples who have already been living together for quite a while, getting married quickly became an imperative or (for those less inclined) an afterthought. Written and directed by David Scala, Engaged focuses on a financially secure mixed-race couple in which one man is much more comfortable with himself than the other.

Elliott (Ryan Jamaal Swain) knows how to roll with the punches, whether that means a sudden change of plans because he forgot about his sister's engagement party or because his lover accidentally ate a nut and needs an urgent injection of epinephrine from an Epipen in order to avoid going into anaphylactic shock. Well aware of his partner's tendency to overthink every situation, he's proven remarkably adept at not sweating the small stuff in their relationship.

Daniel K. Isaac stars as Darren in Engaged

Darren (Daniel K. Isaac) has much greater trouble wrestling with his demons. Though he bought two wedding rings six month ago (and has been trying to find the perfect moment to pop the question), a strange combination of shyness, anger over perceived microaggressions by straight people who assume that he's heterosexual, and wanting everything to be perfect has prevented him from proposing to the man he loves.
  • Whenever the two men are dining in a restaurant and Darren is getting ready to propose, another couple steals his thunder with an ecstatic declaration of love that is loudly cheered by everyone present.
  • At the engagement party for Elliott's sister, Kayla (Candace Maxwell), a game show host impersonator (Maricelis Galanes) gathers everyone together for a mock session of The Nearly-Wed Game. Since the standard party supplies include a blue lei for the man and a pink lei for the woman in each couple, Darren is mortified to constantly be referred to as the woman. To make matters worse, when asked where the two men will spend their honeymoon, Darren replies "Upstate New York" while the started Elliott reveals his choice to be Punta Cana.
Darren (Daniel K. Isaac) and Elliott (Ryan Jamaal Swain)
are forced to play "The Nearly-Wed Game"
in a scene from Engaged

After Darren's close friend, Lara (Victoria Meade), delivers some tough love by pointing out that the only person who seems nervous about Darren and Elliott getting married is, in fact, Darren, she suggests that he might be able to stop being triggered so easily if, instead of resenting feeling like he's supposed to need approval from straight people, he simply came out and told strangers that he's gay.

Lara (Victoria Meade) gives Darren (Daniel K. Isaac)
some tough love in a scene from Engaged

On his way home, as an Uber driver from New Jersey keeps asking Darren for suggestions about places where he can meet women, Darren finally gets up the nerve to say "I wouldn't know. I'm gay." The psychological effect is almost like lancing a boil. The film ends on a happy note with Darren standing in the middle of a Manhattan crosswalk waiting for Elliott to step off the opposite curb and meet him halfway.

Elliott (Ryan Jamaal Swain) and Darren (Daniel K. Isaac)
arrive at Kayla's engagement party in a scene from Engaged

While Engaged is set in a heavily urban environment where someone like Darren can easily let his neuroses sabotage his future happiness, Speak Easy, B. focuses on a queer Asian American woman struggling with depression and heartache over the loss of her wife (Hanna Shantz), who has clearly moved on. As B (Becca Park) meets with a therapist, she begins to regurgitate undigested noodles and vegetables symptomatic of her distress.

Written and directed by Park, the film benefits from some magnificent cinematography as well as the freedom to defy both logic and gravity. Just when it seems as if B's efforts to follow her dog across a rocky desert landscape are going nowhere, she encounters a "spirit boy" (Reyn Doi) shooting hoops, whose total lack of concern for gender roles boosts B's spirit and helps her break free from feeling sorry for herself. Because this is not, by any means, a film with a linear plot line, I'd suggest watching the following trailer for a sample of its strong visual appeal.

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Whenever I browse through a film festival's program guide, it's easy to eliminate films that do not appeal to me. I usually build two lists of titles: one for those I'd like to watch and the other for those with somewhat lesser appeal. Considering how film descriptions are written, it's extremely rare for a single paragraph to grab my attention and make me put a film on my "must see" list. But that's exactly what happened with Camp Chaos. The film's promotional blurb reads as follows:
"Pushing the boundaries of fantasy and reality even further and in decidedly explicit fashion, the team behind Getting Go: The Go Doc Project unveils their latest erotic endeavor, an XXX-rated episodic journey with angel-faced go-go boy Matthew Camp. Attempting to recreate several of his formative sexual encounters with boys he meets online, Camp enlists a San Francisco stud on the first stop on his intimate and carnal adventure."
Matthew Camp is the hunky protagonist of Camp Chaos

What sparked my interest was not the appealing photo of Camp (more on him later), but the fact that the creative team for Camp Chaos was the same team that wowed Frameline's 2008 festival audience with the enchanting Were The World Mine and included the following kissing montage in Getting Go: The Go Doc Project.

As a result, I responded to this film's listing the same way I would to the announcement of a new movie by Pedro Almodóvar. The fact that Matthew Camp set more than his audience's hearts a-throbbing with his 2013 appearance as a go-go dancer (who dreams of becoming a fashion designer and perfumer) didn't hurt, either.

In February, The New York Times published a fascinating article by Jacob Bernstein entitled "How OnlyFans Changed Sex Work Forever." Not surprisingly, Camp (who has an Instagram following of more than half a million fans) was one of the self-made entrepreneurs interviewed for the article. Having left Manhattan after purchasing a home in Hudson, New York, he described how Tumblr's recent ban on nudity and his decision to try the OnlyFans business model vastly improved his finances.
“Tumblr was filled with the most extreme sexual experiences you could see, and I think a lot of people were turned off by that. It’s not what they’re looking for. They want more intimate experiences. They want a boyfriend experience. They want to fantasize about someone that they want to have sex with and not feel disgusted by it. I feel like it’s important as gay men that we exercise our right to want to have sex, to make content with it, and to profit off it. It’s sort of a revolutionary act.”
Matthew Camp stars in Camp Chaos

According to Bernstein's article, Camp often spent several weeks without posting a single picture or video. Nor did he show "a penetrative sex clip" for his first nine months on the OnlyFans platform. Nevertheless, he persisted and managed to bring in more than $10,000 per month.

The 55-minute film being screened by Frameline is the first in a series which explores gay sexuality with an artistic sensibility that proved successful for the producers at CockyBoys. The story integrates "arthouse erotica" with real life and delivers it with a totally sex-positive attitude. Camp Chaos opens with shots of a naked Matthew watering the plants in one of the rooms of a house. His voiceover is an erotic monologue which describes a formative experience in the development of his sexuality. In this case, it was an affair with a slightly older man with whom he shared a passion for anal sex.

Matthew Camp stars in Camp Chaos

Once he finishes watering the plants, Camp reclines on a couch and slowly  masturbates until both he and the monologue have reached a satisfying climax. The film's focus then shifts to Camp's efforts to interview gay men via video chat to discuss their thoughts about sexual desire, share memories of their own formative sexual experiences, and show each other some of the hairier parts of their bodies. The banter is casual, free-flowing, and includes enthusiastic discussions about rimming, armpits, and other sexual fetishes. After developing a solid rapport with a man from San Francisco, Camp invites him to fly to New York for a visit where (assuming their sexual chemistry proves real), they can try to recreate the memory Matthew has been sharing throughout the film.

Matthew Camp stars in Camp Chaos

There's no denying that the sex scenes in Camp Chaos are intensely erotic and artfully captured on film (watching them play out on a large screen like the one in the 1,400-seat Castro Theatre will be an extra treat for Frameline's audience). But what struck me while watching Camp and his friend make love is how the film's sophisticated use of multimedia -- combined with its excellent cinematography -- catapults Camp Chaos far beyond what gay male porn and early hallucinatory fantasy sequences were able to create using much more primitive technology. If subsequent episodes of Camp Chaos come close to the artistry of this first installment, I'm sure that between his presence on Instagram, OnlyFans, and the film festival circuit, Mr. Camp is destined to attract much larger audiences than he ever imagined.

A scene from Camp Chaos

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