“Oh God,” sighs a jaded Jeremy Irons to a groupie in Callas Forever. “You’re not one of those ghastly Callas queens, are you?” Why, yes! Fellow CQs, take note: Franco Zeffirelli’s 2002 film maudit doesn’t open here until September, but you can catch this camp classic June 9 as part of NewFest 2004, the 16th annual New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Film Festival.
Having staged landmark productions for Callas, Zeffirelli is uniquely qualified to bring the ur-diva’s life story to the screen. Instead, he revisits La Divina’s reclusive final days—her voice in tatters, in mourning ever since Onassis dumped her for Jackie—and imagines a manager (Irons) coaxing her out of retirement for a film version of Carmen. The movie within a movie is vintage Zef excess, outdoing even his own kitschy spectacle at the Met. Dining on the decor is Fanny Ardant as the killa in the mantilla; her Callas makes a convincing Norma—Desmond, if not Bellini’s. Then again, the Callas legend doesn’t derive from her subtlety, a concept unknown to both opera and Zeffirelli.
There’s no shortage of divas elsewhere. In Ira Rosensweig’s revelatory doc One Man Show, the irrepressible John Falcon, a $45 million lottery winner, fulfills a lifelong dream and stages a musical revue titled A Short Puerto Rican Guy Sings Songs of Angst (no relation). Falcon seems born for fame and fortune (“Don’t you stop pointing that camera at me,” he admonishes), but interviews with jealous ex-friends and put-upon relatives reassure us that money can’t erase a lonely, painful past. And his mom, a Gorgonian battle-ax whose kindest words regarding him are “such a pain in the ass,” almost steals his moment in the limelight. Falcon gamely demurs, “I’ll drown my sorrows at Saks.”
Among this year’s 200 features and shorts—collected in programs with such titles as “Show Me Yours” and “Dykes With Tykes”—several sidebars share the spotlight. In “Focus on Israeli Cinema,” Shahar Rozen’s heartbreaking Round Trip follows a small-town bus driver as she leaves her husband, moves with her children to Tel Aviv, and falls in love with their nanny, an illegal Ghanaian immigrant. Jim DeSeve’s Tying the Knot, one of the “Focus on Same-Sex Marriage” documentaries, puts the timely topic in a fresh historical context, opening with footage of a protest at the New York City Clerk’s Office following a crackdown on churches performing gay unions—in 1971. The “Region” sidebar showcases documentaries about queer folk in flyover country; Farm Family profiles fourth-generation dairy farmers as well as urban escapees pursuing Green Acres fantasies, but director Tom Murray’s interviews with hermits who wax romantic about dropping “off the grid” won’t convince many to leave the gay ghetto.
On the Downlow, Tadeo Garcia’s taut tale of star-crossed lovers from rival Latin gangs, should be in “Focus on Sex & Violence,” but isn’t. (When the protag dreams of a better life far from Chicago’s South Side, I half expected Natalie Wood in brownface to come out lip-synching “Somewhere.”) Conversely, the historical drama Proteus is miscategorized under “Sex & Violence,” although it boasts plenty of both. Based on a real 18th-century interracial sodomy case in colonial South Africa, the film tracks the doomed affair between a Dutch sailor and a Hottentot herdsman, both imprisoned on Robben Island, the same penal colony that housed Mandela. Directors John Greyson and Jack Lewis’s anachronistic touches (tricornes and jabots commingle with beehive ‘dos and jeeps) underscore the timelessness of racism and homophobia.