For the queer cinephile, each installment of the Lesbian & Gay Film Festival often gives way to frustration and dashed hopes. Can today’s gay film fests offer more than a forum for the audience simply to applaud itself, united in the dark? With several of the films in this year’s lineup encumbered by bad acting, incoherent story lines, and no visual style, one might wonder if the enterprise is rendering itself obsolete.
The opening-night film, Lorene Machado’s Notorious C.H.O., features Margaret Cho doing stand-up in Seattle last fall. Cho’s stabs at raunchy humor—replete with tales of colonics and fisting—devolve into tiresome, decades-old G-spot and “What if men had periods?” shtick. All of her showy naughtiness is ultimately undermined by banal self-esteem boosting; comedy and feel-good uplift simply don’t match.
Insipid ostentation also marks Laura Nix’s The Politics of Fur, inspired by Fassbinder’s lesbian chamber drama, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Much like Lisa Cholodenko’s 1998 film, High Art, Fur uses its Fassbinder reference as a license for vacuous posturing. Where the German director deliriously heightened the artifice of melodrama, Nix offers only histrionics. The weepie is expertly reconfigured in two pieces from the shorts collection “RAW”: Todd Downing’s three-minute Eleanor, ripe with fey, Sirkian melodrama, and Barbara Malaran’s effervescent Sweet Vidalia, which, like recent work by Patty Chang, features the tear-soaked erotics of onion eating.
Other lachrymose offerings include Marilyn Freeman’s Group, a surprisingly compelling—if only for the pursed lips of Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein—six-screen narrative about nine women in group therapy. Desiree Lim’s Sugar Sweet, a funny look at lesbian porn, sex toys, and online dating, balances its sluggish moments with good-natured performances. Despite its fascinating premise, Roger Deutsch’s Sister Smile, a fictional account of the life of the real-life Singing Nun, Soeur Sourire, whose song “Dominique” topped the charts in 1963, quickly spirals out of control. (Kiki and Herb’s unhinged tribute to Soeur Sourire is much more affecting.)
This year’s crop of documentaries ranges from the gravely hagiographic—Eric Slade’s Hope Along the Wind, about Harry Hay, founder of the gay rights organization the Mattachine Society in 1948—to the gooey sweet, with John Scagliotti’s paean to sissies and tomboys, Oliver Button Is a STAR (its interview footage with the recently deceased makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin gives the film some gravity). Maria Clara’s short doc Life on Christopher Street sanguinely explores why the street has become “a home away from home” for many black and Latino youth in the life, but shies from the recent class and race conflicts between the kids and the predominantly white West Village residents. The most gripping documentary in the lineup, Arthur Dong’s Family Fundamentals, tackles another kind of seemingly irreconcilable situation: that between conservative Christian parents and their gay children. The latter never see themselves as victims, but struggle doggedly against the former’s intransigence. “Anything that they can’t refute is the Devil’s work,” Brett Matthews says of his Mormon parents. Dong’s film offers no solutions, but instead intelligently probes the fallout of raw emotion.