Frameline47: film faves & fails

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday June 6, 2023
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'Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed,' 'Cora Bora' and 'Hidden Master: The Legacy of George Platt Lynes'
'Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed,' 'Cora Bora' and 'Hidden Master: The Legacy of George Platt Lynes'

To celebrate the 47th annual San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Film Festival, Frameline47 will host 47 screenings at the Castro Theatre, currently in controversy as to what its future might bring. This will entail half of the nearly 90 film screenings during the June 14-24 runtime, including streaming encores June 24-July 2.

The big news is that the formal screening festival will end on Saturday June 24 instead of the traditional finale which used to occur on Pride Sunday night. In an email response to the Bay Area Reporter questioning this change, Director of Programming Allegra Madsen explained its rationale.

"We did adjust our schedule this year, moving the festival forward one day. Our reasoning behind this is that our city is very much in an era of recovery, and we have seen the trends and habits of our audience members shift. With Frameline47 we are scheduling our screenings at times that have shown to be the best for ticket sales."

Screenings will also occur at The Roxie, Balboa, 4-Star, and Vogue Theaters as well as Oakland's New Parkway Theater.

At the press launch of the Festival, Executive Director James Woolley was intent on addressing the tough times cinemas in the Bay Area —and all over the country— are undergoing, with closures of theaters, diminishing audiences, and smaller film festivals.

"There is nothing as special as seeing a film in a packed theater, especially if that venue is the Castro Theatre, sharing an experience in the same moment as friends and strangers alike," said Wooley. "If anything, queer art captures the spirit of resilience, and we are here to embody that spirit and fight against these challenging trends in movie-going."

Frameline47's theme is See & Be Scene. "It's about setting our focus on the unconventional and unexpected," said Wooley. "It's an opportunity to look through different lenses, see others in new lights, be seen for who we are, and celebrate the fact that we are all players in life's grand participate in the seeing and to be seen yourself."

Here are seven films, with more coverage in the next two weeks.

Emilia Jones and Scoot McNairy in 'Fairyland'  

The opening night film, "Fairyland," is bound to be a crowd-pleaser. Like Alysia Abbott's memoir of the same title on which it is based, "Fairyland" is as much about San Francisco's 1970s gay bohemian life as it is about her relationship with her gay father, poet Steve Abbott, who wrote for many queer publications, including the B.A.R., and died of AIDS in 1992.

Alysia is played wonderfully by two actresses, eight-year-old Nessa Dougherty and teen Emilia Jones. Kudos for the return of the marvelous Geena Davis as Alysia's grandmother. Scoot McNairy is fine as Abbott, but it's really Alysia's story and the relationship she had with Abbott.

'Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed'  

Nearly 40 years after his death, enough time has passed so we can get a more rounded incisive portrait of actor Rock Hudson's impact in the new HBO documentary, "Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed," rather than as just an AIDS martyr. Using archival footage and interviews with friends and colleagues, the film covers the breadth of Hudson's professional span from leading man romantic star (best known for his Oscar-nominated performance in "Giant") to character actor at the end.

Despite being gay, the doc is unequivocal that had Hudson come out, his career would have been destroyed. Hudson was a reluctant AIDS activist, only revealing he had the then terminal illness when the media circled their wagons around him, though he embraced the role in his final days, leading to enhanced public awareness about the disease.

From the beginning when he was mentored professionally and personally (via the male casting couch) by his gay Svengali agent/manager Henry Willson, Hudson really had little choice throughout his career and paid an emotional price for remaining in the closet.

The tabloid "Confidential" was ready to out him, when Willson helped arrange a marriage of convenience to his secretary Phyllis Gates, even though knowing about Hudson's homosexuality, she was still hoping they could have a "normal" relationship. It lasted two years.

Still, he was well liked in Hollywood and had a robust sex life with various lovers as long as they remained discreet (the doc exposes the urban myth that Hudson had an affair with Jim "Gomer Pyle" Nabors). This winning documentary also implies not much has changed in Hollywood for romantic leading actors, who to this day, are still too scared to come out as gay.

In their press release, Frameline mentions that one of the messages popping up in several films this year are messy queers behaving badly. Director of Programming Allegra Madsen notes, "As queer people we live full, robust lives that sometimes involves making bad choices — human choices."

'Cora Bora'  

Two films so far embody this paradox, one semi-successful, the other not. "Cora Bora" features a poly bisexual singer/musician whose life and career is in freefall, played by queer comedy personality Megan Stalter ("Hacks") in a bold bid for star status. A failure in Portland, she heads for LA in a bid to rejuvenate her fledgling club career.

She has an open long-distance relationship with Justine, which she suspects may be in danger of collapsing due to a new love interest. She returns to Portland in a surprise appearance at Justine's graduation party, which leads to chaos and the realization not only her romance but her whole life is in danger of collapse. She hooks up with men, all disastrously.

Like the latest videos on TikTok, Cora is cringeworthy and makes being insufferable into an art. However, director Hannah Pearl Utt and Stalter let the audience in on the joke (the pansexual orgy is both hilarious and horrifying) so they can accept the character's humor and pathos.

Observing Cora botch up her life is like watching a bad train wreck occurring in real time. You can't not look away even though you know disaster is on its way. Stalter has enough warmth so you can overlook her self-centered brusqueness and towards the end we discover the tragedy that really led her retreat to LA and the cause of what is likely PTSD.

However, one flaw is that the side characters are not developed, especially Justine and her new squeeze, or Tom the handsome guy who keeps pursuing her even as she rudely rejects his advances. Ultimately though we care about Cora's aimless lost journey, hoping she will get her life back on track, largely due to Stalter's shining performance. Far from perfect and it won't appeal to all tastes, but it's a standout centerpiece film and a rare good movie about bisexuals.

The same cannot be said for another messy bisexual Jess (Abby Miller) in the semi-awful "Jess Plus None," who travels to a remote California campsite to serve as maid of honor at her best friend Melanie's wedding. Jess is in the process of calling off her relationship with a guy (we never see him) as she's still reeling from her horrendous breakup with the groom's sister Sam.

The truth is that Jess spends most of her time with a vibrator recreating fantasy sex scenes with Sam that might actually give this sex toy a bad name. All the friends assembled for the wedding are emotionally immature, which is rather alarming because they're in their mid-30s.

The gay friend Pete is an amusing embarrassment embodying every stereotype about a fem man. The whole movie has the smell of a botched Hollywood rom-com with insipid dialog and you can hear the producer saying, 'Let's make a comedy about a bisexual woman who hasn't a clue what she wants in life.'

By the time Jess has her totally implausible enlightenment moment, she seems as annoying post revelation as she did "pre-conversion." The film's only virtue is that no one bats an eye or comments on Jess's bisexuality. Since most audience members will only be able to deal with one screwed-up bisexual, skip Jess and go with Cora.

'Hidden Master: The Legacy of George Platt Lynes'  

In a weak year for queer documentaries, one film, "Hidden Master: The Legacy of George Platt Lynes" stands above all the rest, about the famous mid-century celebrity and fashion photographer, the Richard Avedon of his era, the 1930s and '40s. Sent to Paris in 1925 to prepare him for college, Lynes became intertwined with the expatriate culture in between the wars, making friends with Gertrude Stein and Jean Cocteau, living a privileged openly gay life among wealthy artists.

When he returned to the US in 1926 to attend Yale, he left after a year to pursue a literary career but instead discovered his gift for photography. He became part of the most famous gay throuple of the 20th century, living for more than a decade with novelist Glenway Westcott and his lover, Museum of Modern Art's curator/publisher Monroe Wheeler.

Lynes was primarily infatuated with Wheeler (their letters are red-hot), but they all had sexual partners outside their configuration. Sadly, Lynes' career declined in the 1950s and he died at age 48 of lung cancer in 1955. However, he has been rediscovered because of his private collection of nude and homoerotic male photographs (richly displayed throughout the movie), forty years before Robert Mapplethorpe.

He bequeathed this work to the Kinsey Institute, which has released these stunning photos to the public through the years to the point that Lynes is finally being given his due nearly 70 years after his death. This doc is our favorite of Frameline47.

Another doc we were expecting to love, but which is instead a disappointment, is "Coming Around," concerning 28-year-old scholar Eman, a second-generation Egyptian woman living in Brooklyn, who's active in her queer Muslim community, but can't quite come out to her traditional Muslim mother. The film focuses on her disastrous decision to marry her current boyfriend to fulfill her mother's expectations. It uses a cinema verité style as she prepares for the wedding and then must deal with its inevitable aftermath, all the while navigating a complex relationship with her mother.

This is one of those docs that never comes alive, perhaps because the mother seems more noteworthy (and isn't a villain) than Eman, who seems both fearful and wishy-washy. However, the film does convey effectively the pitfalls of a female POC coming to terms with her queer identity in a hostile subculture. While Eman comes into her own at the conclusion, "Coming Around," should have been a better more absorbing film than it is, with too many lethargic intervals to sustain audience interest.

Everything you always wanted to know about sapphic literature is provided for you in the documentary "In Her Words: 20th Century Lesbian Fiction." Our tour guide is the great historian Lillian Faderman, who not only documents its history from the 1920s, opening with Radclyffe Hall's iconic "The Well of Loneliness" which provided the foundation, through the 1990s, ending with bestselling author Sarah Waters.

She also recounts the impact key world events had on queer history throughout the decades. But the heart of the film are the interviews, mostly current but a few archival ones (about deceased writers) of these trailblazing authors, as we learn how these world events helped shape their stories and to what extent the stories were reflections of the author's own lives as they looked for affirmation and their place in the world.

Every genre from pulp (Ann Bannon) to horror (SF's Jewelle Gomez and her Vampire stories) to children's literature (Leslea Newman's "Heather Has Two Mommies") is represented, with shares from Dorothy Allison ("Bastard Out of Carolina"), Katherine V. Forrest ("Curious Wine"), Ellen Hart (the Jane Lawless mysteries), Rita Mae Brown ("Rubyfruit Jungle"), Pat/Patrick Califa (S & M sexuality), to the trials and successes of Naiad Press, among many others.

This is the perfect film for a classroom, as it feels like a Zoom seminar. Still, despite a steady stream of talking heads, it's not boring and we can thank directors Marianne Martin and Lisa Marie Evans for interviewing many of these older authors, preserving a brief record of their accomplishments and memories before they leave us.

The film can be watched at home in an encore screening, but wherever you view it, you will leave with an appreciation of these women willing to risk everything to tell the truth about their lives and help craft a contemporary lesbian identity in an often hostile world.

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