The lowdown on LGBT-themed film festival, running through July 19 at theaters across town.
What, today, qualifies as gay cinema? The inclusion of Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam in QFest, TLA Entertainment’s 16th LGBT-themed film festival (the second under the new name), speaks volumes. If you ignore the one lesbian thrash band—playing in Pakistan, no less— Taqwacore is a film with minimal queer content (most of the subjects are straight men) in a queer festival. Is homosexuality now that mainstream, or are there no longer enough gay films to fill a gay film festival?
Actually, Taqwacore is a rarity in this year’s QFest (running through July 19), though its appearance enriches the festival in more ways than one. The energetic documentary hops on the tour bus with a group of groups, soaking up the contradictions: Devout Muslims, these bands criticize both Islam and mainstream America’s fear of it—they’re religious types who still provide the typical on-tour antics (well, most of them). Musically, they’re standard hardcore, only with titles like “Sharia Law in the U.S.A.” and “I Want to Fuck During Ramadan”; the filmmakers bottle up the essence of the scene before its inevitable asphyxiation.
QFest is missing the season’s most high-profile gay crossover maybe-hit The Kids Are All Right, starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a longtime couple (it opens here on July 23.) But (straight) stars grace Handsome Harry, with Steve Buscemi and Jamey Sheridan, and they definitely grace Howl, an experimental look at Allen Ginsberg’s epic breakthrough by documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk). A low-key (though shakey accented) James Franco plays the Beat poet in “interviews,” while an all-star cast (including Jon Hamm, on Don Draper autopilot) acts out the 1957 obscenity trial, which essentially turned into a annoying, collegiate literary discussion. “You can’t translate poetry into prose,” crows Ginsberg fan Treat Williams. But you can, evidently, translate it into painfully literal animations, including a fire-breathing robotic “Moloch.” More films should be this ambitious, but Howl’s remains shallow.
Howl is just one of several films in which lesser filmmakers get their mitts on fascinating subjects. The slackly conceived Dearest Mother fails to summon the life of a homosexual in Franco’s Spain, while the too-pleasant Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement is too busy being upbeat to truly convey the feeling of being a lesbian in decidedly less understanding times. And the disparity between topic and tone are fairly stunning in Beyond Gay: The Politics of Pride, about pride parades at home and abroad. Perhaps bouncy techno and cutesy graphics (including a “Freedometer”) are a bit much when certain mentioned countries punish homosexuality with beatings and/or capital punishment?
Then there’s Eyes Wide Open. Haim Tabakman’s drama isn’t the first film to look at homosexuality amongst Jerusalem’s Orthodox Jews (such as the doc Trembling Before G_d ), but it’s subdued, and therefore all the more affecting. A devout, married-with-kids butcher (Zohar Shtrauss) wrestles with feelings for his new twentysomething hired hand (Ran Danker). Though it goes to few unexpected places, the minimalist filmmaking (long takes, long shots, minimal score, punishingly bland colors) and terrific central performances provide the patient restraint the screenplay sometimes lacks.
Sundance fave Undertow also boasts a religious type cheating on his family with a strapping young lad, but it adds an unexpected element: ghosts! Borrowing from Truly Madly Deeply, Javier Fuentes-León’s film unfolds in a super-gossipy Peruvian fishing town, where an expecting father (Cristian Mercado) is visited by the specter of the drowned artist he’d been banging (Manolo Cardona). The rare ghost story that takes place in the bright, bright sun, Undertow winds up focusing on the least interesting element, but the midsection goes to some delightfully strange and even trenchant places.
Eyes and Undertow further underline the bullshit of Elena Undone, the fourth soggy romance from Nicole Conn, she of 1992’s lesbian breakthrough-cum-snickerfest Claire of the Moon. Conn is a shameless manipulator who uses titles like Passion’s Shadow, but her latest is boringly unawful. The wife of a homophobic pastor falls for a chick, and though there’s a record-breaking-long kiss and dialogue like “I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times: He is not your twin flame! ” it’s no different from any other coming-out film, just longer. Having set the template, Conn is now just one of the imitators.
Better that today’s queer cinema be more like A Marine Story, the big “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” bitchslap on the festival circuit, which gets the job done with minimal didacticism. Dreya Weber is a badass lesbian booted from the military; back in America, she plays home boot camp for a teen meth-head and beats the shit out of sexist, homophobic rednecks. Much better than it sounds, this crowdpleaser plays its politics cool, and even has a potentially pro-Iraq War hero—further proof that even a queer film festival can offer a broad spectrum of views.
Running concurrently, as a kind of mea culpa for the cancellation of this spring’s CineFest, is a sidebar devoted to Danger After Dark, TLA’s catch-all for anything genre or “edgy.” Even with only 11 films (one per night), returning ace programmer Travis Crawford mixes it up with gorefests, Straw Dogs riffs, classic grindhouse and two of the year’s most anticipated offerings. Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void hasn’t sickened people like his infamous (and brilliant) Irreversible, but everyone’s united on this: It’s technically jaw-dropping, with the camera taking the point of view of a just-offed drug dealer as his spirit gallivants through time and space.
Finally, the less said about the Greek Dogtooth—my vote for best film of the year so far—the better, as surprise and discombobulation are two of its chief pleasures. Let’s leave it at this: For an examination of willful ignorance and overprotection in the age of Glenn Beck, you won’t find a funnier, creepier or more relentlessly clever entry. Also, you’ll learn this: “Pussy means lamp.”