Film

The Past Is Present at the 29th NewFest, New York’s LGBTQ Film Festival

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With the unexpectedly deep and moving Professor Marston and the Wonder Women in theaters and the excellent and uncannily accurate BPM (Beats Per Minute) opening this week, audiences no longer have to go to queer film festivals to see good films about queer people created by queer filmmakers. But NewFest, the New York LGBTQ film festival that begins its 29th annual run this week (and includes a screening of Marston), continues to provide, in films from the past and current ones that delve into it, a perspective of the community’s history that still never makes its way to the multiplex — or Netflix.

The premise of the documentary 100 Men is simple: Over the course of forty years, filmmaker Paul Oremland has had sex (much of it semi-anonymous) with about a hundred men. Using Facebook and other forms of social media, Oremland tracks down as many of his former partners as he can and interviews them about their own lives. From his recollections we get, in bits and pieces, the story of Oremland’s life, too, from a closeted teenager in New Zealand to a porn film editor in London to, eventually, a maker of narrative films (some about queer life) for Britain’s Channel 4. He uses clips of these films to show a London (and a queer subculture) that no longer exists. But 100 Men makes sure we know what the community has gained in that time, too. We see Margaret Thatcher (when her government pushed legislation to forbid any mention of LGBTQ issues in classrooms) inveigh against minors “being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay.”

Although Oremland’s film touches on the AIDS crisis and the flood of drug-infused partying in gay clubs and events that followed, as well as the suicide of a close friend who was an on-again, off-again sex partner, what’s most striking in 100 Men is the camaraderie of the survivors (including a few Oremland hasn’t had sex with). These men’s connection disproves the notion that some have put forth, that casual, queer, sexual encounters are by definition cold and alienating. The film does have some disturbing elements. We see hardly any men of color (a Maori man who, after spending some time in gangs and prison, now plays for a gay rugby team is the most memorable of Oremland’s interviews), but the filmmaker does confess that some of the men he had sex with in the late Seventies and early Eighties (when the National Front was prominent) were white-supremacist skinheads (whom we see fetishized in a clip). Still, Oremland can surprise us with accounts of how later encounters changed his views, as when he admits he had a lot of fun finding out (in midlife) that sexual fluidity is real.

Jeffrey Schwarz’s The Fabulous Allan Carr also sheds light on a past era, when a theater-obsessed newbie to Hollywood could rise to mega-producer and ultimately become the kitsch-meister behind the infamous 1989 Academy Awards broadcast with Rob Lowe serenading Snow White. We can marvel at Carr’s ingenuity. When he saw that the exploitation movie based on a true story about cannibal survivors of an Andes plane crash attracted long lines in Mexico, he bought the rights for U.S. distribution and made a fortune. But we can also see his cluelessness when he released Can’t Stop the Music, a disco movie starring a heterosexual version (!) of the Village People (and a pre-transition Caitlyn Jenner) in 1980, after popular (white, straight, male) media had declared disco dead. Queer people sometimes idealize the 1970s, as Carr himself seems to in interviews from that time, in which he says, “These are the good old days,” but very few in show business were out at that time. That meant that someone like Carr, with his caftans and late-night, all-male parties, didn’t have to say he was gay for most people to know, so he was an object of ridicule, even to those who made money from his work. Schwarz shows that Carr’s sensibility was so overwhelming that his queer aesthetic shines through even in the films he produced that were ostensibly about straight people, movies like Grease and Can’t Stop the Music, with their shots of wrestlers and good-looking young men in revealing clothing. Carr, whom Paul Rudnick points out was more self-aware than most gave him credit for, might have realized that he should put his money into a project actually about gay men: the original Broadway version of the musical La Cage aux Folles, also created by gay men (Harvey Fierstein wrote the book and Jerry Herman wrote the score). It was one of Carr’s last great successes (winning six Tonys) and was groundbreaking: a mainstream hit musical about a gay couple — in 1983.

Beautiful Thing from 1996 (directed by Hettie MacDonald and written by Jonathan Harvey, from his autobiographical play) plays NewFest as this year’s Legacy feature. The film was part of the mass of queer films that invaded art houses in the 1990s and proves, like many of the others, both annoying and engaging. Ste (Scott Neal) and Jamie (Glen Berry) are teen neighbors in a housing project who fall in love as Ste deals with his physically abusive father and brother, and Jamie argues with his barmaid single mother, Sandra (Linda Henry). As in about a million other queer films, we see the butch, athletic, closeted gay guy, Ste, angrily reject and verbally abuse his sensitive, bullied boyfriend, Jamie, in public to keep from being outed, though, to be fair, fewer of those films were around when Thing made its debut. MacDonald shot on location in the housing project where the story takes place, but its staginess has become a lot more apparent two decades after its release. Still, Beautiful Thing is worth seeing for the scenes that delight, as when Ste and Jamie have sex for the first time with The Sound of Musics “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” as the backdrop.

NewFest runs October 19 through October 24.

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