In the past 15 years, gay cinema has moved from rambunctious frontier to New Queer utopia to today’s tony but bland suburb. If much of this season’s Lesbian & Gay Film Festival is relatively well funded and moderately entertaining but largely unadventurous, this merely reflects the greater culture.
Nevertheless, the NewFest succeeds in producing a quality event with the materials at hand, targeting mainstream moviegoers rather than hardcore cinephiles. Cases in point are 2003’s opener and closer (neither available for preview), Emile Gaudreault’s Mambo Italiano, a same-sex My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Andrew Litvack’s Merchant Ivory production Merci Docteur Rey. In 1988, either films would have been landmark border-busters. Today, they merely underscore the established currency of lighthearted gay entertainment built around young white men (counterpointed, in this case, by festival centerpiece Madame Sata, Karim Aïnouz’s Afro-Brazilian biopic).
A random sampling uncovers fun but likewise fluffy fare. London-set Britcom 9 Dead Gay Guys is a not quite funny enough Guy Ritchie knockoff about two Irish hustlers seeking cash within a gaggle of aging Benny Hill-style poofters. Hong Konger Johnnie To’s twisty Wu Yen goofs on magical martial-arts epics with a transgender love triangle (as in old gay-fest standbys The East Is Red and Swordsman II, all parts—male, female, and other—are played by lithe ladies). The German Beloved Sister remakes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, playing not for laughs but over-the-top teledrama.
As with most fests, the real meat appears in the nonfiction lineup. The honorable Rise Above: The Tribe 8 Documentary profiles the seminal all-dyke punk band through a standard combo of member interviews and show footage, but Tribe 8’s intra-feminist shock-rock controversies don’t receive the analysis they deserve. Fly-on-the-wall Flag Wars chronicles the gay gentrification of a mostly black, working-class Cleveland neighborhood; the tape becomes a fascinating case study in market forces and culture clash.
The undoubted hot ticket is Louise Holgarth’s The Gift, a look at the Internet-driven phenomenon of “bug chasers,” gay men who seek out “the gift” of intentional HIV infections. Already controversial thanks to a January Rolling Stone exposé, Holgarth’s doc pulls no punches in its unflattering portrayal of a gay-male culture rife with uncontrolled, quasi-mystical sex worship, willful ignorance, and death-wish, escapist thrill-seeking. Not easily forgotten, The Gift is a much needed challenge to gay culture’s all-too-cheery, market-friendly facade.