With each passing year, despite good intentions, the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival doesn’t so much celebrate queer innovation as illustrate the deepening crisis in gay filmmaking. The 12th annual edition, though noticeably streamlined (down to about 150 features and shorts from 200-plus last year), remains rife with the platitudinous complacency that has become the hallmark of gaysploitation—the breed of gay film (predominantly American) that favors postures over ideas, titillation over eroticism, anodyne affirmation over thoughtful provocation. After the idiosyncratic, pioneering queer films of the late ’80s and early ’90s (Poison, Swoon, Mala Noche, The Living End), the gaysploitation outbreak seems to have engendered a regression so pronounced that—whether fashioning softcore romantic comedies or earnest pro-tolerance testimonials—many gay filmmakers (as the direst entries in this year’s festival suggest) now think nothing of employing homosexuality as an ultimate theme, a defining factor as opposed to a starting point. (It’s worth noting that the most moving gay film of recent years, Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, takes its characters’ sexual preferences as a given.)
The most problematic films in the festival are traditionally the American fiction features, and sure enough, a random perusal reveals the persistent use of sexual confusion and/ormisunderstanding as a motor for romantic-comedy pratfalls. In Brian Schepp’s boldly plotless Gypsy Boys, an ensemble of indistinguishable San Francisco disco bunnies choose between domesticity and promiscuity, to no discernible effect. In the irritating Advice From a Caterpillar, adapted from Douglas Carter Beane’s play, a Soho multimedia artist inconveniently falls for the bisexual charmer her gay best friend is dating. And in Lane Janger’s Just One Time, an East Village fireman (played by the director) and his fiancée consider threesomes with members of both sexes (as an exploration of sexual identity, very Three’s Company; as an actor-writer-director wank, very Barbra Streisand). Nick Katsapetses’s infidelity screed, The Joys of Smoking, is distinguished mainly by its pessimism—or rather, by the arch, reflexive whininess that it tries to pass off as pessimism. The closing-night film, The Broken Hearts League, was unavailable for preview, but it’s been variously described as a gay Big Chill and a millennial Boys in the Band, so consider yourself warned.
Only marginally less susceptible to shameless formula addiction than their male counterparts, the lesbian entries are similarly uninspired this year. Though there’s satiric potential in packing a teenage dyke-in-the-making off to rehab camp, But I’m a Cheerleader (opening night) is undone by a monotonously broad screenplay; Jamie Babbit’s direction doesn’t extend much beyond cutely iconic casting (Mink Stole, Bud Cort, RuPaul) and a garish palette of retina-bruising colors. The agonizingly worthy Chutney Popcorn has its Indian American lesbian henna-artist heroine (cowriter-director Nisha Ganatra) pondering motherhood; stiffly written and acted, overly enamored of its own perceived social relevance, the film amounts to a checklist of manufactured conflicts and preordained resolutions. A decorous, sober tale of a lesbian affair in a maximum-security prison, Johnnie Greyeyes (part of a focus on Native American sexuality) is most useful as a surreally uncampy counterpoint to the likes of Caged.
In this company, the only two American films that could be termed competent and interesting seem like masterworks. Though its Southern gothic murmurs fade into inconsequence, Tag Purvis’s Red Dirt is evocatively photographed and high on seductive, sleepy atmosphere; Karen Black, in full voluptuous-horror mode, plays the unhinged aunt of a repressed hick. Jon Shear’s Urbania, by far the most ambitious of the American films, tackles bereavement within a shifty framework of reconstructed urban myths. The formal ideas never quite cohere (and the vicious gay bashing that safety-pins the ragged narrative together is cheap and manipulative), but their very existence is, under the circumstances, reason enough to be thankful.
The nonfiction section, usually staid, seems to have been usurped by first-person camera hogs. Deep Inside Clint Star, about Native American identity and sexuality, features some memorable interviewees, but director Clint Alberta overshadows them with his smugly flamboyant presence. In The Bradfords Tour America, directors UB Morgan and Jann Nunn disguise themselves as Christian fundamentalists in what’s ostensibly an attempt to infiltrate the religious right—a promisingly subversive project, but the filmmakers, evidently tickled by the opportunity to play dress-up, don’t bother much with journalism or activism. Zachary Stratis cast his Greek American family as themselves in the curiously thick-skinned scripted-documenary/coming-out musical Could Be Worse!, a fascinating pomo exercise with an unhealthily high capacity for embarrassment; by the time it ends, it’s gone some way to refuting its title.
The foreign films, though weaker than in previous years, are still safer bets. In the defiantly silly allegory The Wolves of Kromer, pretty, fur-coated British wolf-boys are banished from their village and hunted down by an evil priest. The well-acted Aimée and Jaguar, a local favorite at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, recounts a true-life wartime lesbian love affair, reverting to the usual outsize gestures and ploys of middlebrow Holocaust tear-jerking. The Canadian downer rollercoaster is generic teen-despair grunge. Though compromised by amateurish filmmaking, Man Man Woman Woman offers a convincing look at the Beijing gay subculture. Japan’s cartoonish Story of Pu-Pu twists the lesbian-killer road-movie template into a pretzel, then eats it.
The festival’s obvious standout, Francois Ozon’s Water Drops on Burning Rocks (opening at Film Forum next month), is the French director’s adaptation of a play Fassbinder wrote when he was 19 (it was never produced). This delirious, beautifully performed chamber piece is filmed in an impeccable, minimally glossy style evocative of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. In Ozon’s capable hands, Fassbinder’s comically hyperbolized psychosexual mind games still achieve a giddy resonance. Transcending homage and postmodern experiment, Water Drops is also more direct and honest about sexuality and desire than most films in the program would ever think or dare to be.