The notion of LGBT cinema’s continuing relevance has been swirling in the cultural air for some time now—albeit mostly amongst the upper-middle-class white gay men for whom such conversations have been de rigueur for years. (One can imagine the hand-wringing between cocktails at the latest Human Rights Campaign fundraiser.) For them, both the legislative gains of the past decade and the ever-broadening representation of gay characters across popular media have called into question the validity of films made specifically for queer audiences. It’s a fair enough inquiry, in the sense that said films have lost a bit of their economic—and, perhaps by extension, social—standing in the contemporary media market. Does this mean that we don't “need” or even “want” our own movies anymore?
I'm going to lay my cards on the table and say: hell yes, we still need queer film. If the offerings at this year’s NewFest—New York’s largest yearly sampling of LGBT cinema—are any indication, those ringing the death knell to gay-themed movies are missing out on some fantastic stuff. Almost all of the titles are worth checking out, but the five mentioned here most convincingly suggest to audiences of all sexual stripes that there is still some life left in that fabulous old queen known as queer cinema.
One of two films exploring gay existence outside of a queer metropolis, Yen Tan’s intimate character study Pit Stop, follows the gradually intertwining paths of Gabe (Bill Heck) and Ernesto (Marcus DeAnda), who lead lives of blue-collar normalcy and semi-closeted indecision in an unnamed Texas town. Gabe is a contractor who remains close to his ex-wife (Amy Seimetz) and young daughter, even as he struggles to move past a recently ended affair with a married man. Ernesto, too, is haunted by broken relationships, be it the youthful ex-boyfriend (Alfredo Maduro) still living in his apartment, or the comatose ex-long-term partner whom Ernesto visits in the hospital regularly.
Tan (who co-wrote the screenplay with David Lowery, director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) offers a nuanced take on the interstitial nature of his characters’ relationships to one another, emphasizing interpersonal ambiguity over we-are-here declarations of queer love in small-town America. The scenes between Heck and Seimetz possess an especially poignant charge. Here are two people with easy chemistry now navigating the uncharted waters of platonic friendship after years of physical intimacy. Pit Stop is full of relationships such as these, and Tan honors his characters’ (sometimes successful) attempts to forge their own romantic and emotional paths in a world with fewer road maps.
Who's Afraid of Vagina Wolf?
At its best, Who’s Afraid of Vagina Wolf’s tale of artistic and romantic maturation recalls the tossed-off wit and devil-may-care charm of Rose Troche’s Go Fish (94). We follow Anna (director Anna Margarita Albelo), a down-on-her-luck filmmaker in Los Angeles whose early-career successes on the festival circuit have withered after years of bad relationships and crises-of-conscience over retaining her creative integrity. Albelo pulls few punches here, portraying Anna as a well-intentioned but immature wreck who smokes and drinks her days away and (in a particularly inspired bit) makes what little money she has by appearing at museum screenings of her early shorts, dressed in a full-body vagina costume. It’s at one of these events that she meets Katia (Janina Gavankar), a twentysomething graduate student who spouts (misremembered) Godard quotes and encourages Anna to make a film of great artistic importance. Smitten, Anna complies. She cobbles together a script for an all-female remake of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and begins shooting at a friend’s house.
Who’s Afraid of Vagina Wolf? unapologetically hews to the well-worn contours of rom-com formulas: Anna’s crush on Katia that blinds her to the affection of director of photography Julia (Agnes Olech); best friend Penelope (Guinevere Turner, of Go Fish fame) offering caustic but good-hearted advice about Anna’s professional and personal woes. Albelo des not overturn these conventions so much as remind us why they are valuable to begin with, imbuing Anna’s journey of self-realization with just the right mixture of self-deprecation and genuine affection.
Initially, Kink, Christina Voros’s chronicle of fetish website Kink.com flirts with a particular brand of documentary portraiture that seemingly aims for even-handed reportage but veers uncomfortably toward deadpan condescension. The website’s easygoing creator, Peter Acworth, takes Voros and her camera on a behind-the-scenes tour of the site’s massive offices in the San Francisco Armory. At one point they stumble upon a series of paintings that have yet to be hung on the wall: his mother, his sister. And when Voros inquires what the third one leaning against the wall is, Acworth informs her (with a mixture of sheepishness and pride) that it’s him, looking particularly despondent at an orgy.
Thankfully the film’s would-be Christopher Guest–style juxtapositions of mild-mannered subjects describing their not-so-mild industry give way to a refreshingly open-minded and layered exploration of the site’s filming practices, consent rules, and philosophies on the physical and ideological implications of their work. Voros captures the production of the website’s videos—many of which feature extreme scenes of whipping, flogging, and other forms of BDSM play—in extended sequences, exploring the moments when the abused actors move into that tantalizing mixture of pleasure and pain referred to several times as “sub space.” While productively complicating the site employee’s somewhat-utopian vision of BDSM, Kink ultimately respects their work simply by focusing on it with such single-minded intensity.
Mark Thiedeman’s debut feature, Last Summer, refracts the final weeks of a serious romance between two recent high-school graduates through a lens of dreamy, nature-heavy impressionism. As the sweet, underachieving Luke (Samuel Pettit) faces the prospect of brainy boyfriend Jonah (Sean Rose) leaving their rural Southern hometown and heading off to college, the two spend those fleeting weeks as they seemingly have for years: walking through the woods, loitering in the local café, making out in their respective bedrooms. It gives little away to say that neither officially ends the relationship because neither has to. Both silently understand that Jonah’s intellectual gifts and frustration with small-town provincialism will most likely never take him back to his hometown, or to Luke.
Thiedeman and DP David Goodman fill the screen with insects crawling slowly over fallen tree branches, late-afternoon light filtering in through living-room windows, and dozens of other picturesque images that (truth be told) can sometimes float above the narrative more than complement it, rendering certain scenes more as exercises in hushed atmospherics than evocations of the young men’s quietly roiling emotions. Just as often, however, the film aligns image, voiceover, and narrative in moments of understated wit and hushed poignancy. (A particularly evocative moment finds Luke asking Jonah if his parents are home, followed by a cut to an extreme close-up of faded curtains wafting gently in the breeze—a cliché of off-screen sexuality given unexpected expressive texture through an emphasis upon the mise en scène’s specificity and tactility.) Most strikingly, Thiedeman understands the oft-ignored push-pull that comes when one first leaves not only one’s hometown but the person with whom one made it bearable: a would-be see-you-later that (heartbreakingly, inevitably) you know is really a fond farewell.
A film of rare electricity and intelligence, Chris Mason Johnson’s Test, a chronicle of the AIDS crisis in 1985 San Francisco, eschews both radical-chic hagiography and after-the-fact moralizing in its richly stylized take on the era’s physical and emotional dislocation. Test follows Frankie (the superb Scott Marlowe), a member of a contemporary dance company whose professional aspirations and erotic appetites intersect with ever-present reports from the front lines of the AIDS epidemic. Frankie refuses to forego sex, but every encounter becomes increasingly fraught with fear, suspicion, and an almost-existential anxiety about just how one contracts the virus, how long does it take to show signs, and who has it amongst his social circle.
The male body—beautiful, graceful, and stalked by an invisible monster—is front and center here. Johnson and DP Daniel Marks film the dance performances (brilliantly choreographed by Sidra Bell) with a thrilling combination of cinematic vivacity and restraint. They know when the camera should be the dancer’s partner, and when it should be a rapturous spectator. This dichotomy of acute observation and expressionistic abandon shapes the entirety of Test, in which existing every day with the possibility of randomly assigned death transforms the world into an unstable and occasionally exhilarating space.
Politics rarely come to the foreground in Test, but they are never far from it either. A late-film conversation between Frankie and Todd (Matthew Risch)—a cocksure fellow dancer with whom Frankie shares a tempestuous chemistry—offers one of the film’s only direct comments upon the AIDS crisis in a larger sense, as Frankie considers how such widespread sickness will affect the levels of monogamy and sexual freedom within the gay world. This exchange might have been a little too on the nose if such questions weren’t already explored with such elegance throughout the film, and it might have felt a touch dated if such discussions didn’t still happen within the LGBT community, even as the AIDS crisis changes and other cultural factors come to the fore. In short, Test manages to illuminate our shared past even as it poses thorny questions for our future. If there was ever a contemporary film that illuminates why queer cinema still matters, this is it.