Films of any conspicuous social or political merit have an unfortunate tendency to invoke a dreaded designation: Important. This is perhaps criticism’s most damning compliment, connoting the toast-dry didacticism of the vaguely educational and an all but guaranteed absence of aesthetic appeal.
NewFest, New York’s premiere LGBT film festival, this year celebrates its 25th anniversary, and its slate is loaded with Important Films. Its curatorial sensibility follows top-down from its mandate, which is, in the words of its press release, to promote “a wide range of expressions and representations of the LGBT experience.” In practice, this means deferring to subject rather than talent. Though NewFest’s efforts to champion LGBT films and filmmakers remain valuable, even commendable, their programming suffers from a distinct lack of quality control. They seem less interested in good than in Important.
How else to account for the inclusion of such irredeemable sitcom-grade dreck as Geography Club, a teen-angst coming-of-age story so amateurish and jejune that it makes Glee look like Hamlet? If this film were about straight teenagers, then of course I wouldn’t be writing about it—and it would have doubtless skipped the festival circuit altogether and headed straight to VOD. Are we so starved for expressions of queer teen experience that this catalog of teen-movie clichés passes for festival-worthy? It’s pretty depressing to think so. The NewFest programming guide describes the picture as a “big step forward in the gay-teen comedy genre,” which raises the alarming question of where the genre was standing before. Home movies? Public-access TV?
But if feature films like this seem embarrassing, they are at least earnest. Far more insufferable, and indeed far more worthy of active contempt, is Travis Matthews and James Franco’s deeply solipsistic pseudo-documentary Interior. Leather Bar., making the latest in its long line of queer festival appearances despite being both basically straight and practically unwatchable. Billed as a provocative reimagining of 40 minutes of lost, X-rated gay bar footage from William Friedkin’s 1980 thriller Cruising, the film is in fact an hour-long talking head exegesis of its own purpose and meaning, which makes it the rare film whose (not especially interesting) critical commentary is the actual content.
A rather aloof Franco—meandering through the set, smartphone in hand—is permitted to pontificate at length about his intentions to challenge the straight status quo, apparently believing himself some kind of queer folk hero. Not much as cinema and unbearable as entertainment, what emerges is a fascinating portrait of pretension.
The remainder of NewFest’s programming follows a similarly predictable trajectory, tracing the year in queer cinema through requisite issue documentaries (Valentine Road), buzzed-about comedies on loan from Sundance (Concussion), and token French imports promising some much-needed foreign titillation (You and the Night). The schedule splits its 18 feature films between 15 narrative fictions and just three docs—one of which is Franco’s. Meanwhile, only three of the narrative features concern women, which suggests the difficulties of organizing a truly inclusive festival.
There is a period drama about the early days of the AIDS crisis called Test, which, by virtue of being shot cheaply on digital, looks less like a product of the mid-1980s than a modern look at Williamsburg hipsters sporting throwback hairdos and nostalgia for Walkmans and cassettes.
An obvious highlight, Yen Tan’s Pit Stop, takes a decidedly casual attitude about its subject matter, which is to say that it is not so much a self-styled Queer Film as a good film that happens to be queer. Co-written by recent indie darling David Lowery, director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the film has a similarly subdued charm and intrigue, its mysteries unfurling patiently and its action restrained to an appealing slow burn. In it, a jilted construction worker (Bill Heck) finds himself caught between a life newly out of the closet and the familiar hetero world he left behind, where his ex-wife (Amy Seimetz) and young daughter (Bailey Bass) remain conflicting sources of comfort and stagnation. Though the struggle it depicts is uniquely gay—and though the novelty of the situation does not go unremarked on—Tan seems too focused on crafting authentic drama and realizing a lived-in world to have much time or energy left over for factors like Importance. Is it too much to ask of NewFest to consider adopting the same approach?