It’s been a summer of great strides and attendant ambivalences for New York queers. On the one hand: gay marriage! That felt good. (Just ask legendary drag queen, Maggie Gallagher.) On the other hand: gay marriage…will that feel good? Not to sound like a sophomore Sexuality Studies major, but might the normative institution of marriage overshadow all those other romantic/sexual/social arrangements that we’ve created in its stead? Bigotry and legally-mandated discrimination have united gays in a classic civil rights movement, but take away the external opposition and the internal schisms between assimilationists and separatists become all the clearer–and all the more heated.
If you’ve already exhausted the complex political subtext of the latest X-Men film, do yourself a favor and check out NewFest 2011. An essential annual festival of LGBTQ(etc) films, this year’s line-up spins the debates over fideility and normality into a program that’s unpretentiously personal, artistically accomplished and largely entertaining. The way most of these movies dramatize queer desire overwhelms every reductive caricature of self-hating, mainstreaming monogamists and compulsively promiscuous radicals (it’s all, fuck your binaries, in a totally friendly way). This year’s line-up features back-to-nature polyamory and clandestine teenage canoodling, the nervous sparks of new relationships and the rekindled passions of old flames. Then there’s the couple who solidified their love through gender-bending plastic surgery, and did we mention the sad-sack store clerk who takes up with a space alien?
Gay culture is on a slippery slope to somewhere, and if the contagious energy on display at NewFest 2011 is any indicator, it’s only gaining momentum. Enjoy the ride, bitches.
Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2011) is playing Sun July 24th at 4pm
Madeleine Olnek’s debut feature has some of the deadpan delivery, single-take timing and wry visual humor of early Kevin Smith—that is, if Jay and Silent Bob wandered into an East Village gay bar screening an Ed Wood double feature. Early scenes shuttle back-and-forth between present-day Manhattan, where lovelorn Jane (Lisa Haas) waits for Ms. Right while working in a stationary store; and Zots, a faraway planet whose ozone is being punctured by the intensity of its inhabitants’ feelings. In need of emotional adjustment, Zots-inhabitant Zoinx (Susan Ziegler) is sent to Earth to have her heart broken by a human being. The two women meet cute when the no-nonsense Zoinx offers Jane one of her own cards at the stationary store. Jane accepts demurely and begins a tentative romance with this mysterious stranger. So what if Zoinx has a head as smooth as a cue ball, wears a high-collared cape, and seems to possess second-hand knowledge (at best) of basic social mores? We’re all human, sort of.
Olnek has fun magnifying the small absurdities of contemporary courtship within the New York lesbian scene. In addition to Zoinx, two other visitors from Zots roam the streets of Manhattan looking for love. Zylar (the hysterical Jackie Monahan) is a more-the-merrier horn dog, launching pick-up lines at startled (and not always unwilling) women in classic extraterrestrial flatness. Her exploits eventually begin to fluster Barr (Cynthia Kaplan), who felt mutually-reciprocal sparks between herself and Zylar while gazing at some diner cheesecake. (You have to see it.)
The film pays cheerful homage to cheapo sci-fi B-movies of yore, but remains surprisingly grounded when chronicling its characters’ romantic exploits. Olnek inserts a baseline recognition of her script’s absurdity while playing the individual scenes largely straight. In this way, Jane and Zoinx’s low-key romance feels at once comically distanced and charmingly accessible: a knowing celebration of accepting your partner’s idiosyncrasies with a wink and a smile. Olnek’s good nature extends beyond her characters to the larger milieu. She and DP Nat Bouman take time to leisurely track through the streets of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, capturing bodegas and apartment buildings in fleeting black-and-white glimpses. For a film concerned literal and figurative alienation, it’s a pleasing irony that Codependent Lesbian Space Alien has the loose, warm vibes of a day hanging out on your own beloved turf.
The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (2011) is playing Sun July 24th at 10:30pm
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge can be described as many things: controversial performance artist; singer-songwriter with over 200 releases to her credit; member of famed industrial music groups Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. In Marie Losier’s loving documentary sketch, however, P-Orridge is (self-)defined most deeply as one half of an epic romance. Narrating a collage of intimate footage shot over seven years, P-Orridge recounts her life with Lady Jaye, a fellow performance artist and professional dominatrix who became P-Orridge’s collaborator in life and love. The couple literalized their emotional bonds through plastic surgeries that made them physically resemble one another. They gave this experiment in gender flexibility and persona blurring a name: pandrogyny.
There are times when Losier’s film feels more affectionate than interesting. She touches on pandrogyny but leaves its psychic and physical complexities largely unexplored. Similarly, one never hears of any storm clouds that may have gathered over the couple’s fourteen year marriage. (Jaye passed away in 2007.) Such elisions seem to come less from skittishness than serene disinterest in her material’s bumpier passages. There’s a reason the movie’s a ballad and not a dirge. The point is to celebrate Genesis and Jaye, and Losier selects touching moments of the couple at work and in repose. Losier compliments their vérité passages with surreal tableaux of Genesis intently gazing into the camera or striking statuesque poses as a wind machine billows her gauzy white dress and a disembodied deer head bobs in the left foreground.
The P-Orridge of these staged interludes remains remarkably consistent with the self-proclaimed “pandrogynous being” we see in everyday life. Playful, provocative, and alive to the moment, she’s a joy to watch and listen to. (A piano solo that Genesis performs with her ass cheeks, for instance, becomes a brief, gleeful lesson in the spontaneous nature of artistic inspiration.) The melancholy reality of Jaye’s death means that we naturally get a less-sharp sense of her personality. She remains at a remove within the footage, a being whose beguiling nature cannot be easily parsed. But Genesis got her. To hear her speak of Jaye is to glimpse a full and satisfied love: not quite cinematic pandrogyny, but a moment of empathy that’s quietly affecting.
Three (2011) is playing Tue July 26th at 7:00pm
There’s little quiet or affecting about the opening scenes of Tom Tykwer’s latest, a prime example of the director’s dubious information-overload aesthetic that has been offering diminishing returns since Run, Lola, Run thirteen years ago. Three introduces longtime couple Hanna (Sophie Rois) and Simon (Sebastian Schipper) during a moment of introspective pillow talk. They appear comfortable yet somewhat ambivalent with one another as they whisper in the dark. But why reveal their free-floating disenchantment in a few intimate close-ups when you can chart their chaotic existence via four split screen panels? And, wait, what if the frames begin to move around the screen? Wait, and did I mention the movie ends up being about a three-way relationship? So, what if we followed that hot split-screen action with a sequence showing three dancers circling and falling into one another? Because it, like, represents the relationships, man!
This assault of Tyk-y tics extends throughout Three’s first half, as Sophie and Simon separately meet and begin an affair with devil-may-care scientist Adam (Devid Striesow). It’s a situation straight out of a screwball farce, but Tykwer keeps vaguely gesturing at zeitgeist-y connections between the trio’s multiple affairs and overcaffeinated sense of disconnection. (It’s the modern condition, after all.)
Once the plot mechanics are put into place, however, Three ratchets back some of its stylistic and thematic pretensions. There’s a predictable yet nevertheless terrific moment when Simon and Hanna both spot Adam while out about town. The simultaneous looks of barely-repressed panic on both of their faces finally unearth the comic anxiety in the film’s web of sexual shenanigans. Tykwer’s take on Simon and Hanna’s infidelities ultimately becomes about the acceptance of human desire and fallibility. Hanna, Simon, and Adam’s quest for emotional and physical equilibrium ends on a notably peaceful beat, and Tykwer’s bestows his blessings upon them with a final shot that’s both stylistically obvious and disarmingly sincere.
August (2011) is playing Fri July 22nd at 5:00pm & Sat Jul 23 at 7:00pm
Like Three without the eventual self-awareness, August slathers a flimsy tale of infidelity and betrayal with unearned portentousness. Hunky perennial bachelor Troy (Murray Bartlett) returns to his hometown of Los Angeles after a multi-year stint in Spain. He looks up ex-boyfriend Jonathan (Daniel Dugan), who’s still bristling from Troy’s abrupt departure years earlier. There’s also the matter of Jonathan’s current boyfriend Raul (Adrian Gonzalez), a part-time bartender stuck in immigration limbo after marrying Jonathan’s co-worker Nina (Hillary Banks) in order to remain in the country. Needless to say, the ties that bound Troy and Jonathan remain strong, and the two begin a guilt-laced affair.
A distasteful obsession with the Other runs throughout August. Raul’s ethnicity and attendant legal battles remains largely an afterthought. One gets the sense that director and co-writer Eldar Rapaport and company liked the idea of the smoldering, jealous Latino lover, and added a dash of vague topicality to cover their tracks. Then there’s the risible sequence where Troy, Jonathan, Raul, and other head to a hookah bar to celebrate Jonathan’s birthday. As the camera ogles a scantily-clad Middle Eastern dancer and the group takes generous puffs, the overheated foreignness of the milieu serves to prime the pump for a subsequent erotic encounter between the three men. The Orient, y’all: so sexy and forbidden!
Troy and Jonathan’s whiny tiffs and ambivalent reconciliations quickly become insufferable. Bartlett and Dugan shoulder a bit of the blame, but fault ultimately lies with Rapaport. Barely a scene goes by that’s not larded with overly studied shallow-focus close-ups or flooded by Yuval Ron’s oppressive, vaguely exoticized score. I’m as reliable a lover of movies about navel-gazing narcissists as anyone, but doesn’t Rapaport know that the problems of two privileged white gay guys from LA don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world? Or, rather, they can, if you bother to probe their indecision rather than swaddle it in the tattered shroud of aesthetic pretensions? August comments obsessively on the heat wave gripping Los Angeles as the film plays out: an unintentionally prescient comment on the film’s own stylistic claustrophobia and emotional stagnancy.
Circumstance is playing Sat July 23rd & Mon Jul 25th at 3:00pm
The title’s a bit on the nose, but Maryam Keshavarz’s debut feature justifies its thematic foregrounding with a forceful look at blooming sexual identity in the face of oppression both overt and subtle. We’re in present-day Iran. Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri), the rebellious daughter of a liberal-leaning, upper-class family, shares an intimate friendship with Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), the daughter of dissidents taken by the government.
The pair moves through the underground world of Tehran nightclubs and parties, and part of the thrill of Circumstance lies in examining how teenagers co-opt tropes of Western culture for both personal pleasure and political protest. Keshavarz’s camera is alive to the pleasures of making out, getting drunk, roaming through the dance floor. She occasionally offers a glimpse into Atafeh and Shireen’s fantasy life. Perhaps not surprisingly, its visions of swanky, all-female bars and immaculate ocean-side villas recall music videos and magazine spreads: escapism as a true means of escape. Circumstance doesn’t probe the potential complexities of these identifications as much as it might have, though Keshavarz does throw in an intriguing subplot that finds Atafeh, Shireen, and others dubbing American films for Iranian audiences. They dutifully redub Gus Van Sant’s Milk, but the movie that really gives Shireen a taste of sexual liberation is Sex and the City. Naturally, she provides the voice (and sound effects) for Samantha.
Keshavarz juxtaposes these moments of liberation with the ever-tightening net of governmental control over the women’s bodies and actions. These forces become personified in Atafeh’s brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), a former drug addict who paired his physical recovery with an adoption of hard line religious beliefs. He sometimes veers toward caricature, particularly when the film’s intriguing visual motif of surveillance cameras becomes tied to him in a dispiritingly literal manner. Still, Keshavarz elegantly charts the accumulation of humiliations and casual misogyny that press upon Atafeh and Shireen’s blooming romance: a sleazy cab driver’s aggressive propositioning of Shireen; or Atafeh’s arrest for driving at night with loud music blaring. Most poignantly, we discover along with Atafeh the limits of her family’s own open-mindedness. In these moments, Circumstance reveals how imperceptibly the small concessions one makes when pressed by the wider world can hollow you out, one day at a time.
Wish Me Away (2010) is playing Fri July 22nd at 7:00pm
Beverly Kopf and Bobbie Birleffi’s documentary portrait of country singer Chely Wright as she prepared to publically come out last year lacks some of the formal dexterity of Losier’s The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye. Tracking Wright from her early years in Kansas City, Missouri through her coming-out media blitz in May 2010, Wish Me Away offers a standard-issue compendium of talking-head interviews, archival footage and public appearances, and second-unit atmospheric filler (shots of Midwestern fields and church steeples abound). Like its effortlessly photogenic, inwardly angst-ridden subject, however, the film’s easy-on-the-eyes surface cannot help but reveal the cracks and contradictions roiling beneath.
Wright displays a notable willingness to lay bare her own hypocrisy and inner turmoil throughout the film, which includes interviews with her spiritual advisor Welton Gaddy and tearful monologues to her webcam. She candidly admits how she delayed acknowledging her lesbianism in favor of a long-sought career in the Nashville music scene. She got it: singles like “Jezebel” and “Single White Female” made her a household name amongst country fans. The years of compacted fear and shame, though, almost lead her to kill herself.
With its emphasis on public reaction and media massaging, one cannot help to observe that Wright’s coming out process became a kind of performance in its own right. It denigrates Wright’s choice not one bit to see the carefully-crafted bits of persona building at work here, even in Kopf and Birleffi don’t push at the idea much. What they do emphasize—with heartrending insistence—is the loss of community that came part and parcel with Wright’s choice to come out. The film persuasively positions Wright as a down-home girl through and through. One particularly memorable webcam moment finds Wright raging at her book editor for dismissing her 90s-era bikini photo spreads, forcefully denying that her conventionally feminine style implies some deeper sense of self-loathing. No matter how much Wright loves the country scene, though, it’s clear that the affection has not been reciprocated. Though her father and sister have publically embraced her decision, Wright has not been invited to perform at a single country music event since coming out. That Wish Me Away foregrounds these sacrifices makes her an even more inspiring figure: a woman who lost her world to save her soul.
Weekend (2011) is playing Sun July 24th at 8:00pm
Andrew Haigh’s two-hander is about a pair of British twentysomethings (Tom Cullen and Chris New) who meet, hook up, hang out, talk about life and love, smoke weed, have sex, and quietly work their way into one another’s hearts before one of them leaves town at weekend’s end. It arrives at NewFest riding a wave of good buzz from this year’s South by Southwest (where it won the Emerging Visions audience award). Most recently, it opened BAMcinemaFest.
Believe the hype: Weekend is some kind of masterpiece, the kind of movie you can fall crazy in love with. Our very own Paul Brunick (an early admirer of Weekend) offered an appraisal of the film last month, and those looking for an insightful, nuanced appreciation should head on over. My own thoughts remain scattered and half-formed, the way one feels when you watch a movie that you adore and are trying to figure out how it’s worked its magic on you. One thing I know is that the film’s deceptively simple, Before Sunrise-ish structure and seemingly unadorned visual style contain multitudes.
Profoundly and unapologetically, it is about being gay in our present moment: what it looks like to maneuver through a world that’s expanding in its acceptance yet often unthinking (if not malicious) in its assumptions; how it feels to wander alone through a dance hall, eyeing guys and swaying to the music; what it means to be “gay” or “queer” when the terms keep shifting and the stakes remain high. But it’s also about the nameless fears that begin to gnaw at you in your mid-twenties. It’s about loving (and hating, and loving) your friends. It’s about the unassuming beauty of a perfectly sustained long take. It’s about the joys and fears of unearthing the depths buried within a fleeting encounter.
Perhaps most of all, it’s about the seismic impact of small gestures. Russell (Cullen) and Glen (New) seem to spend the entirety of the film giving one another totems and offerings, beginning with the physical, continuing on to the material, and culminating (stunningly) with the emotional. To reveal more would be to deny the immense pleasure of discovering these moments for yourself, unveiled in scenes at once masterfully constructed and seemingly blossoming before our eyes. So, let me just say this: it’s beautifully fitting that a movie so attuned to acts of unexpected generosity would itself feel so much like a gift.
Matthew Connolly is a Contributing Editor to Alt Screen.
NewFest 2011 is playing at select Manhattan venues through July 28th.