Newfest Turns 20


Newfest, now in its 20th year of celebrating LGBT film, is geared to our motley gay community with painstaking regard, and one of its prevailing impressions this year is that Michael Musto has become as ubiquitous as the rainbow flag. The Voice columnist appears in no less than three festival pop docs, shooting the shit about bisexuality in America in Bi the Way, gabbing about porn legend Jack Wrangler in Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, and reminiscing with John Waters and Debbie Harry about one of my favorite old haunts in SqueezeBox! Will someone—anyone—please give this man a film to call his own?

Incidentally, Bi the Way is better than its title or somnambulant narration initially suggest. Directors Brittany Blockman and Josephine Decker wonder if our country is gripped by a “bisexual chic moment” or if a label-averse generation (including Tarnation director Jonathan Caouette’s 11-year-old son Josh, who can bang out a mean up-tempo rendition of the Halloween theme on the piano) is actively engaged in sexual revolution. This hippy-dippy doc doesn’t reveal anything new about the nature of bisexuality and its ostensible proliferation in recent years, but maybe it doesn’t have to if you believe cultural critic Mike Szymanski’s assertion that liking girls and boys is no different than wanting to eat lasagna one week, Thai the next.

Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, perhaps fittingly, is about as single-minded as an excited phallus. Scored predictably to Moroderesque disco, this puff piece traces Jack Wrangler’s rise from a no-name thesp in rat-infested Manhattan to one of the first superstars of gay porn, ending with Wrangler phewing that he dodged AIDS. Wrangler’s need to be lusted after connects with the similar wants of other old-school queer sex symbols like Peter Berlin, but fuck if the film cares about assessing this narcissism or seriously rationalizing Wrangler’s nutty marriage to singer Margaret Whiting. Wrangler’s schlong, though, gets major play via skuzzy film clips, and for some, this nostalgia kick—or, rather, swing—will be its own reward.

Another gay man to survive the AIDS slaughter of the early 1980s is noted portrait artist Don Bachardy, whose 30-year-plus May-December romance with blue-blooded author Christopher Isherwood, creator of Sally Bowles, is the subject of the moving Chris & Don. Directors Guido Santi and Tina Mascara brave discussion about Bachardy’s class-mongering and Isherwood’s chicken-hawkery, but they understand and happily regard the couple’s love affair as the real deal and one for the ages, shaping the film almost intuitively around filmmaker John Boorman’s suggestion that Bachardy allowed himself to be warped to Isherwood’s mold, picking up on his lover’s habits and drawing inspiration from his fine work. Isherwood’s rise to fame informs the first half of the film just as Bachardy’s own determines the second, their love for each other so staunch and profound that they were able to turn even Isherwood’s death into a collaborative effort.

Drama is never in short supply at Newfest, but which ones are worth risking? Drama itself is the subject of the mockumentary Karl Rove, I Love You, which begins as a profile of famously out character actor Dan Butler before turning into a weird love letter to the most evil political figure of our time. Shrill improv chokes this sitcom-ish affair, but Butler and co-director Phil Leirness still manage to lob a cherry bomb at the insularity of Hollywood liberals. Emanating from a nervier fugue state is Gabriel Fleming’s The Lost Coast, the story of two friends—one gay, one straight—dancing around their feelings for each other on Halloween night. Fleming has a stunning eye and gives such shrewd and palpable expression to internal landscapes that he can be forgiven for oft-trapping his characters in a pretentious, zombie-like lockstep.

Something of a diary of the dead, Before I Forget is Jacques Nolot’s droll portrait of a man as a series of businesslike emotional and sexual transactions. Nolot stars as Pierre, an ex-gigolo who’s been HIV-positive for 24 years, going through the usual sexual motions (like blowing an Algerian dude sitting in a barber’s chair) even as his deteriorating body says no. But this isn’t some cheap solicitation of audience sympathy. Purposefully drab, this death march finds humor in the embarrassment of disease, as in Pierre getting out of a ticket by informing a traffic cop that he’s shat his pants. The living and the dying can learn from his laid-back defiance—a product of youthful rebellion that endures in spite of his growing sickness—and his teachings about what to do with the extra lube on our hands. Advice that lasagna and Thai lovers alike can appreciate.