New York’s most prominent LGBT film festival turns 26 this year—a milestone that occurs against a background of shifting politics, fortunes, and ideological fault lines within broader queer discourse. While legal restrictions against gay marriage continue to crumble in several states and trans leaders have achieved new levels of mainstream-media attention, heated debates over linguistic appropriation, levels of social privilege, and the messy complexities of the LGBT community’s coalitional nature have lit up social media, print publications, and public gatherings throughout 2014. (Though by no means encompassing the range of issues and opinions expressed within these debates, two good primers are Parker Marie Molloy’s Advocate op-ed against the use of the term “tranny” and Zack Ford’s piece at Think Progress on the complex overlaps between trans and drag communities.) Such deliberations have a long lineage within LGBT history and have already produced some vital insights, but they can also leave those on all sides a bit battle-weary and suspicious of finding common ground.
While it would be foolhardy (even counterproductive) to expect a LGBT film festival to manufacture a sense of we’re-all-in-this-together harmony, the stand-out films at this year’s NewFest nevertheless showcase what art can bring to a disparate-yet-connected group of people: the complication of set assumptions; the expansion of intellectual and emotional possibilities; the richness of experience as filtered through the camera’s gaze. These movies do not offer a solution to the hard questions of contemporary queer existence so much as encourage those within it to approach said issues with revitalized eyes and an empathetic heart.
We Came to Sweat: The Legend of Starlite
Both I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole and We Came to Sweat: The Legend of Starlite continue the long tradition of LGBT documentaries that preserve individuals and institutions vital to queer history that might otherwise be blown away by the winds of time. As the title implies, I Always Said Yes chronicles the multitude of professional and personal parts played by the eponymous filmmaker, whose most famous works are the Seventies erotic classics Boys in the Sand (71) and Bijou (72). We Came to Sweat, meanwhile, details the history of a pre-Stonewall LGBT establishment—the Starlite Lounge in Brooklyn, a haven for the borough’s black gay community since its opening in 1959 that became threatened with eviction in 2010. Neither film offers a particularly striking departure from the documentary traditions within which they operate. We Came to Sweat chiefly relies upon fly-on-the-wall footage of community meetings and barroom conversations to chart the efforts to negotiate for the Starlite’s continued existence, while I Always Said Yes operates safely within the template of talking-head interviews and archival footage. Their value comes from the simple fact that someone decided to point a camera at people and places that matter and will not be around forever. The aging Poole proves a feisty and unabashedly emotional guide to his own creative highs and private lows, acknowledging the wayward nature of his career path without a trace of self-pity. Denizens of the Starlite also get their moments in the cinematic sun, sharing their memories and savoring the ineffable pleasures of their beloved gathering place as the possibility of its erasure looms perilously close. This is cinema as archive—an impulse that remains essential even in the era where sophisticated documentary/fiction hybrids and self-reflective non-fiction practice gains much of the spotlight.
An unapologetic piece of genre red meat, Lyle offers a queer spin on the Rosemary’s Baby school of maternal horror. Gaby Hoffmann plays Leah, a homemaker with a young daughter and another child on the way. The film opens with her and partner June (Ingrid Jungermann) moving into a spacious old apartment that has a foreboding history of child deaths. It would be unfair to give much away regarding Lyle’s plot, though part of the pleasure comes from writer-director Stewart Thorndike’s bald-faced engagement with the conventions and clichés of the domestic freakout out film (from Repulsion and The Exorcist to Joshua and Grace). They’re all here—shadowy hallways and creaky doors; unnerving neighbors; an increasingly suspicious spouse—and Thorndike works them with the gleeful proficiency of a true horror aficionado. What elevates Lyle above giddy pastiche, though, is its unnerving refusal to tip its hand regarding whether Leah’s increasing fears for the safety of herself and her unborn child reflect the delusions of a lonely and grief-struck individual or a sinister conspiracy touched by the paranormal. Hoffman walks the line between embattled and unhinged with unwavering commitment. If it’s perhaps open to question whether Lyle engages as provocatively as it could have with the intrinsically queer elements of its narrative (the question of whether the film would be different with a heterosexual couple crossed my mind once or twice), Hoffman’s ferocity grounds you in the specificity of Leah’s terrors enough that such hypotheticals cannot negate the chill that Lyle’s feverish climax leaves in your heart.
The Foxy Merkins
The specificity of lesbian desire comes explicitly to the fore in The Foxy Merkins, even as it’s reflected through the funhouse mirror of observational farce. A NewFest alum whose delightful debut feature, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, was screened in 2011, Madeleine Olnek directed and co-wrote (with stars Lisa Haas and Jackie Monahan) this comic buddy movie about New York lesbian prostitutes Jo (Monahan), a seasoned pro who insists upon her own fundamental heterosexuality, and Margaret (Haas), a newcomer in search of her long-lost mother. Olnek tracks the pair through a series of comic set-pieces at once deadpan and slightly surreal, from a client’s insistence on paying Margaret with a Talbot department-store gift card (whose status as an unlikely pick-up spot becomes a running gag) to the appearance of a motor-mouthed merchant (Alex Karpovsky) in an outer-borough cemetery hawking the titular hair pieces. Unlike Codependent’s breezy spoofing of 1950s B-grade sci-fi, The Foxy Merkins mines humor from the experiences of what are essentially homeless sex workers—a balancing act between wry satire and empathy that Olnek occasionally fails to maintain. (Her decision to include to-the-camera “interviews” with other prostitutes adds to the sporadic queasiness of whether the film glosses over some less-than-amusing realities for the sake of dry visual gags.) But Olnek has an ace up her sleeve. Just as Codependent’s true subject was not cinematic satire but the compromises of romantic love, The Foxy Merkins ends up being a sharp-eyed study in the vicissitudes of female friendship, particularly between lesbians and straight women. The transient nature of Margaret and Jo’s adventures together leads to a poignant conclusion regarding the possibilities and limits of their bond, affectingly underscored by perhaps the best film-ending music cue I’ve seen of any NewFest movie this year.
Melodrama forms the heart of Patrik-Ian Polk’s Blackbird, and I mean that in the best way possible. This chronicle of Randy (Julian Walker), a black gay teenager coming of age in a small Southern Baptist town, is practically bursting with plot points, including (but not limited to) missing children, broken families, secret romances, surprise pregnancies, tragic deaths, a last-minute reunion, and tearful confessions. It’s not exactly the rhythms of life that are captured by Blackbird’s narrative plentitude. Even at its best, you can feel the plot gears turning. What it offers instead are the pleasures of big-hearted and fearless investment in expressing as many emotions, experiences, and events as one can fit within a 102-minute running time. Polk’s sense of generosity and willingness to expand his universe evermore pushes the viewer through rough patches of clunky exposition and overly pat character arcs—never more so than in an audacious climatic dream sequence that outlines the varied fates of Randy and his close-knit coterie of high-school friends and college-aged boyfriend. That such gambits pay off reflects not only Polk’s own adventurousness but the trust he puts in his cast (which includes Mo’Nique and Isaiah Washington as Randy’s separated parents), who all deliver nuanced and fiercely empathetic performances.
The Third One
Finally, two films tackle the complexities of queer male sexual and emotional bonds with equal degrees of erotic frankness, but in the service of quite distinct visions. The Third One offers a beguilingly straightforward take on an online threesome, in which a thirty-something couple (Carlos Echevarría and Nicolás Armengol) chat up the fresh-faced Fede (Emiliano Dionisi) and eventually invite him over for dinner and to spend the night. Though writer-director Rodrigo Guerrero begins the film with an extended series of webcam images and floating text-message boxes, he shoots the majority of the film with well-modulated long takes and fills the soundtrack with reams of flowing naturalistic dialogue. And when the film (ahem) climaxes with the long-awaited three-way, he frames it as a spontaneous and joyful union of bodies. The Third One acknowledges the emotional vulnerabilities and interpersonal frictions that allow all three to agree to their evening together, but the film’s ultimate vision of polyamorous connection is an unabashedly optimistic one. Julián Hernández’s I Am Happiness on Earth shares The Third One’s interest in the explicit depiction of queer sex in various configurations, including a lengthy mid-film-within-a-film segment chronicling a bisexual threesome that’s as much dance as it is copulation. That sequence is framed as part of the larger erotic opus of Emiliano, a smoldering filmmaker whose idealized visions of sensual union form a counterpoint to the cavalier way in which he treats his young lovers: first, a love-struck dancer; and later, a smitten rent boy. Hernández critiques Emiliano’s fetishization of erotic imagery via the camera while simultaneously capturing the film’s copious sex scenes with gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting schemes and sensuous tracking shots. (A knowing bit of self-awareness has Hernández opening the film with a luxuriant circular track around a dancer, followed a few scenes later with Emiliano using exactly the same camera move to film another dancer.) I Am Happiness on Earth finds beauty in the queer erotic image even as it remains suspicious of how said imagery can provide a fleeting substitute for the realities of sexual connection—a paradox that Hernández’s deceptively simple narrative leaves for the viewer to untangle.
NewFest runs July 24 to 29 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.