Festivals: Newfest 2012
In an era of shrinking arts budgets, it wasn’t shocking to learn in March that Outfest—the Los Angeles–based LGBT nonprofit that runs the annual film festival of the same name—would be partnering with New York’s NewFest. This union means that Outfest has essentially taken over programming at NewFest, resulting in a much smaller, more streamlined version of the venerable NYC showcase. The 2012 festival numbers 19 features and 19 shorts, as opposed to the 58 features and 60 shorts screened last year.
What the festival lacks in size, however, it more than makes up for in eclecticism. As in years past, NewFest remains an essential source for LGBT cinema from around the world, with selections coming from the U.K., Chile, the Philippines, and Sweden, among others. And if none of the titles below embark in new directions on either aesthetic or political fronts, they offer visions that are occasionally electrifying, sometimes troublesome, and always plugged into the ever-shifting crosscurrents of contemporary queer experience. NewFest may have been slimmed down this year, but it continues to give us a lot to chew over.
Engrossing and contrived in equal measure, Four follows a quartet of individuals who attempt to connect across barriers of experience, deception, and difference on one fateful Fourth of July. Closeted teen June (Emory Cohen) sneaks out of his family barbecue for a rendezvous with Joe (Wendell Pierce), a married man whom he met in an Internet chat room. Joe takes an interest in the tormented June, pushing him to confront his own fears about coming out and self-acceptance, even as June pushes for a no-strings-attached sexual encounter. Across town, another odd coupling unfolds between buttoned-down teen Abigayle (Aja Naomi King) and unlikely suitor Dexter (E.J. Bonilla), a swaggering would-be basketball star turned drug dealer.
Linkages between the two couples quickly emerge, in a manner that is technically spoiler-y to reveal but will be fairly obvious to most viewers. Indeed, the primary issue with Four (which director Joshua Sanchez adapted from Christopher Shinn’s play) lies in the somewhat hermetic nature of its cross-cutting and thematic paralleling between the pairs. Sanchez serves up some spiky tête-à-têtes, brushing up against his characters’ racial assumptions, implicit class prejudices, and poignant emotional blind spots. These verbal skirmishes bring out the best in his small cast, with Pierce sketching a particularly memorable portrait of a man whose only escape from guilt and shame lies in trying to save another drowning soul. Four’s studied structural symmetries and secondhand (if sporadically arresting) visual design, though, constrain these stinging moments when they should be allowed to roam with a more dangerous spontaneity.
I Want Your Love
Another feature debut the same day was Travis Mathews’ I Want Your Love. It’s garnered festival buzz for its scenes of unsimulated queer sex (porn company NakedSword produced the film), and there’s a good reason why: they’re the most nervy and memorable parts of the film. This is not to denigrate the fully-clothed sections of Mathews’ film, so much as to applaud the way in which he views explicit sex as a means of shading in relationships. Several couplings eventually take center stage in I Want Your Love, which chronicles floundering performance artist Jesse’s (Jesse Metzger) final days in San Francisco before returning home to the Midwest. Each one features a generous helping of balls-out eroticism, and Mathews shoots them with an eye for how a given gyration, thrust, or moan reveals far more than just the pleasure of the moment.
Admittedly, I Want Your Love’s depiction of the urban creative class offers little in the way of fresh insights. Jesse’s artistic constipation and early-thirtysomething ennui owes a sizeable debt to the mumblecore school of verbose self-analysis, while Mathews’s shallow-focus investigations of urbane gay longing pales in comparison (unfair though it may be) to Andrew Haigh’s exquisite Weekend. When Mathews focuses his attention between the sheets, however, his film suggests that there’s some fresh creative soil to be tilled in the overlap between alt-porn and indie romance. Why choose between crotch-grabbing and navel-gazing?
At the risk of indulging in some “cultural relevance” dumpster-diving, I’d wager that there’s no documentary more essential for contextualizing the “new” phenomenon of prominent musicians outing themselves than Kieran Turner’s enveloping documentary portrait of the Seventies would-be singing sensation, Jobriath A.D. Jobriath rose to prominence as a member of the original Broadway cast of Hair, before turning his singular musical talents and flamboyant persona toward a solo career. Hyped to the heavens by music-biz impresario Jerry Brandt, Jobriath found his burgeoning career dashed on the rocks of overinflated expectations and a listening public queasy about embracing a singer who publicly relished his role as an out gay man.
Jobriath A.D. weaves this tale with a skillfully-employed mixture of talking-head interviews and archival footage, with a smattering of animated sequences providing some unexpected emotional shading. (An illustrated montage sketching the devastation of the AIDS crisis on the New York club and cabaret scene proves particularly haunting.) Turner’s film functions as a moving tribute to a performer whose talent became a victim of cultural squeamishness and industrial mishandling. In its expert use of present-day interviews with an aging Brandt, it simultaneously becomes a fascinating portrait of a man whose affection for his client has become irrevocably entangled with denial over how completely he abandoned Jobriath when the chips were down.
Lightweight but also charmingly light-fingered, Stud Life centers on the unlikely friendship between black butch lesbian JJ (T’Nia Miller) and white twink Seb (Kyle Treslove). The two spend their days taking wedding photographs of (predictably) dysfunctional couples, while cruising the urban London gay scene by night. Writer/director Campbell X has a laid-back command over this milieu, with across-the-bar flirtations and dance-floor pick-ups unfurling casually. This confidence extends to the wider working-class world in which JJ and Seb tread. Stud Life doesn’t try to hit sociological buttons too hard, and it doesn’t need to. As viewers, we intuit the ways in which their rough-and-tumble neighborhood inflects JJ and Seb’s personalities and relationships without having them underlined for us.
Tensions inevitably arise between the friends when JJ becomes enamored with Elle (Robyn Kerr), whose unorthodox professional life challenges JJ’s own perceptions about sexual fluidity and fidelity. These plot twists speak to the rom-com contrivances at the heart of X’s script, which don’t always sit easily with Stud Life’s sporadic forays into the actual dangers of queer urban life (gay bashing, online hookups gone violently sour, etc.). Such tonal disjunctures make the film less than cohesive in its overall impact. Fortunately, its cast saves Stud Life from sliding too far off the rails. Miller possesses a grounded, magnetic screen presence, with eyes that flash effortlessly from swaggering confidence to wounded vulnerability. Her scenes with Treslove have a particularly lovely, lived-in chemistry. Whether sharing the screen or musing in one of JJ’s YouTube-ish confessional videos, though, she carries Stud Life effortlessly.
I Am a Woman Now
Michiel van Erp’s documentary, I Am a Woman Now, about the initial cohort of European trans women as they approach their twilight years is a keeper: tender, clear-eyed, and illuminating. While touching upon the larger history of sex-change operations in Europe (most notably the pioneering work of gynecologist Georges Burou, who performed the operation for all of the film’s principal subjects), I Am a Woman Now focuses mostly on the lives of four women across the continent. There’s April Ashley, a grande dame with a bouffant of slightly bluish hair who recounts her years of familial abuse while calmly sipping from a flute of champagne. Or take Corinne van Tongerloo, whose post-surgery career led her to exotic dancing and whose graveside reminiscence at Burou’s tombstone encompasses the feelings of gratitude and freedom expressed by all of the women van Erp interviews.
I Am a Woman Now possesses an empathy for its subjects that does not preclude it from investigating the more shadowy corners of their liberated existence. This sometimes comes in the poignant juxtapositions of their past and present selves, courtesy of personal photographs and Super 8 footage. Elsewhere, it’s the ever-shifting status of gender identity that’s explored. Though she had her surgery decades ago, for instance, Jean Lessenich returned to male clothes and affect to satisfy her Japanese girlfriend, and continues to struggle with the vicissitudes of self-presentation when out and about in her provincial town. I Am a Woman Now explores these and other topics with beguiling warmth, as well an eye for elegant, revealing composition too often disregarded by documentarians. Like his subjects, van Erp remains acutely aware of how important aesthetics can be in the exploration of complex internal experience.
Young & Wild
Young & Wild, the feature debut by Marialy Rivas may offer a familiar tale of teenage sexual rebellion in the face of familial and religious repression, but its winking wit and self-consciously excessive visual style makes one forgive its more pedestrian passages. We follow Daniela (the vivid Alicia Rodríguez), a 17-year-old who chronicles both her experimental escapades and steamy musings online. Kicked out of her private school after a male student revealed their shared sexual history, Daniela is forced to work at a locally-produced religious television show by her pious, emotionally frigid mother (Aline Küppenheim). She soon falls for two co-workers simultaneously: Tomás (Felipe Pinto), as hunky as he is devout; and Antonia (María Gracia Omegna), who makes little secret of her lesbianism or her impatience with girls looking to experiment and little else.
Daniela works through her erotic and emotional confusion via a rapid-fire voiceover, which Rivas complements with a playful barrage of sexual imagery that runs the gamut from porno clips to anatomy-textbook illustrations. This sense of caffeinated adolescent tumult finds its most clever iteration in the comments section of Daniela’s blog, with close-ups of various individuals as their responses—ranging from you-go-girl affirmations to lascivious propositions—appear typed out on the screen. One wishes that such formal ingenuity might have gone toward the service of a more innovative take on such perennial LGBT-cinema chestnuts as the hostility of religious parents or the short-lived bliss of a summer fling. Given how entrenched such stories remain in the queer film canon, though, it’s at least comforting to know that filmmakers like Rivas can still give them a naughty, flirty charge.