Seriously cinematic: Outfest LA's choice flicks

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday August 10, 2021
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'Death and Bowling' at OutFest LA
'Death and Bowling' at OutFest LA

Outfest LA will be held August 13-22 with outdoor events, indoor screenings for vaccinated attendees, and streaming for those wishing to experience the festival from their own home. The nearly 200 hand-picked films represent every genre and include the voices and stories from the entire rainbow of the queer community, including a significant number of first-time directors. More than 50 international films in 15 languages will screen on the festival's 39th anniversary.

"We're thrilled to be coming back in-person carefully and with intention to celebrate this amazing community, its stories and its resiliency and spirit with so many incredible films," said Outfest Executive Director Damien S. Navarro. "I believe this slate of programming not only meets the moment but distinctly presents the work of some of the most talented contemporaries in queer cinema."

Charles Busch's (center) 'The Sixth Reel'  

The Sixth Reel will make its world premiere at Outfest LA, marking the screen return of Charles Busch, the author and star of such plays as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, as well as the film versions of his plays Psycho Beach Party and Die Mommie Die. The Sixth Reel is the story of obsessive, down-on-his-luck, somewhat disreputable movie collector Jimmy (Busch).

After his close friend dies, he discovers in his apartment a legendary lost silent mystery film (London After Midnight, starring Lon Chaney) and must decide whether to cash in or deliver it to the right hands before it is lost forever. Jim is surrounded by his social circle of ardent movie collectors, who want to sell the film to the highest bidder and get their cut, including Tim Daly (playing a shifty bisexual film historian), Margaret Cho (as a mean-spirited greedy go-between), and Julie Halston (the grief-stricken widow and sister of the deceased friend).

This screwball caper comedy set in contemporary Greenwich Village is old-school stereotypical drag camp we've seen many times before. It lacks the seedy sass of last year's Shit and Champagne, a wacky drag satire of 1970s sexploitation films. Busch's material has worked far better on stage than on film. In its favor, the improbable plot is well-paced.

The project celebrates movies and movie lovers with a plethora of Old Hollywood references that should keep any OCD film diva on Cloud Nine for a week. In these dark days, we can use whatever laughs we can get, even if they are delivered in a box full of clichéd bon-bons. Busch has populated his cast with seasoned playhouse veterans. Expect little and appreciate the occasional chuckle and cinematic witticism, knowing your price of admission may keep some theater actors from being evicted during the Broadway pandemic drought.

'Boulevard! A Hollywood Story'  

Another Hollywood-themed entry is Boulevard! A Hollywood Story, directed by the famed gay documentarian Jeffrey Schwartz; The Fabulous Allen Carr, Tab Hunter Confidential, Vito, I Am Divine, and Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, all stories about gay artists related to Tinseltown.

Boulevard tells the story of actress Gloria Swanson's attempt to make Sunset Boulevard into a musical with the help of Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley, two young songwriters and romantic partners. With her performance as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, former silent screen star Gloria Swanson made the greatest comeback in Hollywood history. Swanson hoped the film would usher into other leading roles, but she was over 50 and in the public's mind, the character of Norma and the actress Swanson were one and the same.

Disappointed, Swanson began to envision a musical stage adaptation of the film. Looking for their big break, two struggling songwriters agreed to her proposal and carted away to Swanson's Palm Springs mansion to create the musical together.

Swanson started falling in love with the handsome Richard Stapley, which created tension in his intimate relationship with Hughes. Stapley rejected Swanson's advances, the show failed to gain traction with any Broadway investors, and Paramount Pictures refused to give Swanson rights to Sunset Boulevard. The project was declared dead by Swanson.

The unemployed Stapley and Hughes split up, with Hughes continuing to compose while Stapley still sought stardom as an actor (he had supporting roles prior to Boulevard). He reinvented himself as Richard Wyler and emigrated to Europe to act in spaghetti westerns and James Bond rip-offs. He married a woman and denied ever having a relationship with Hughes, who has become a successful musical arranger for touring stage productions and dinner theaters.

After the success of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version of Sunset Boulevard, Hughes took the score he wrote with Stapley and refashioned it into a cabaret act called "Swanson on Sunset" which also tells the story of the failed production itself. Richard Stapley (reassuming his original name), now an aging out-of-work actor, hears about the production and dramatically reenters Hughes' life with seismic results.

Boulevard, while a valiant effort, isn't as captivating as previous Schwartz documentaries, though it retains their perky, effervescent style. Schwartz tells two tales here. The first more fascinating segment encapsulates the story of Gloria Swanson's career. The second half of what happened to Hughes and Stapley after the Boulevard disaster shows the negative impact of homophobic 1950 attitudes.

Schwartz makes the case that Swanson never escaped the ghost of Norma Desmond for the rest of her life. All three protagonists were victimized by the dark side of Hollywood. Hughes also didn't relinquish Boulevard. Even though he reimagined the show as a cabaret act, it couldn't find the backing to make it the success he always dreamed it could be.

Ultimately, Boulevard is a bit of a downer, as all three players couldn't escape the curse of aging in a youth-obsessed industry, as the film and subsequent musical defined the rest of their lives. Still, this is a riveting indictment of Hollywood values. Swanson, Stapley, and Hughes are poignant if not sad, casualties of a bygone era.

Long-gone trailblazers have captivated filmmakers for years. A recent entry in this genre is AIDS Diva: The Connie Norman Story, the self-described "post-operative transsexual, HIV-positive, ex-drag queen, ex-drug addict." Norman was a tireless advocate for PWAs, gay and trans rights, an intersectional pioneer who built bridges between a wide range of diverse communities. After leaving her Texas home at age 14 and living on the streets, she had gender reassignment surgery in 1976.

After becoming HIV+ in 1987 Norman became heavily involved with ACT UP LA. "We're in clear and present danger every moment that we do not fight back with everything we've got," says Norman in a film clip. "We must rise from the grief and denial to take back our lives."

Norman pioneered an innovative radio program, then co-hosted a weekly queer cable television show, and wrote a biweekly column, "Tribal Writes" in the San Diego LGBTQ newspaper Update, among other achievements. She had a happy ten-year marriage to a gay man. She died of AIDS in 1996.

With a rich use of archival footage, media interviews, home movies, photographs, and interviews with friends and colleagues, AIDS Diva strongly argues that Norman shouldn't be forgotten. Many of her comments seem as pertinent today as they did in the 1980s.

"Why is it heterosexual people have lives and gay and lesbians have lifestyles? Let no one allow you not to be yourself."

As current trans activist Valerie Spencer admits, "We are now kick-ass bitches because of Connie." Lesbian rights pioneer and friend Torrie Osborn notes, "Connie was the best kind of leader, as she would empower other people to discover their talents, convincing them they were the ones they had been waiting for."

Norman's justified rage never overtook her, depleted her empathy for others or her desire to fight for future generations, as she "became less and less gender and more and more her humanity." This feisty, charming portrait of a compassionate hero unafraid to speak truth to power shows why Connie Norman deserves a plaque on the Castro Rainbow Honor Walk.

Activist documentaries are alive and well as depicted in Gemmel and Tim, a wrenching look at two gay black men, Gemmel "Juelz" Moore, 26, and Timothy "Tim" Dean, 55, who in 2017 and 2019 respectively, died of a meth overdose at the West Hollywood apartment of white businessman and Democratic political donor/activist Ed Buck. Initially the police classified their deaths as accidental overdoses, though interviews with witnesses whom Buck also victimized, claimed Buck deliberately injected the meth into Moore and Dean, to force them sexually to do what he wanted.

'Gemmel and Tim'  

Gemmel was part of the gay Ballroom/Pose culture of LA. His mother and close friends protested at City Council meetings and outside Buck's home to get an investigation and pressure law enforcement to charge Buck with homicide. Some Council members seemed to protect Buck. After two years of demonstrating —and a third man's overdose in Buck's home— federal charges were leveled against Buck, with a resulting trial finding him guilty on all nine counts.

This investigative film allows the extended families to share their memories of Gemmel and Tim, to show who their friends were as they grieve their loss as well as follow their quest for justice.

Aside from the victim's supporters, no one comes out of this film looking good, especially the media who negatively portrayed Gemmel as an escort and Tim as a former gay porn star, implying that because of their past they almost deserved their fate.

What is most disturbing is that these heinous crimes occurred in the progressive, mostly queer community of West Hollywood, meaning queer folk of all races and classes everywhere are vulnerable to (white) men in power victimizing vulnerable LGBTQ+ people.

Gemmel and Tim ensures their deaths were not in vain and acts as a cautionary tale to perhaps help prevent these tragic events from recurring in the future. This documentary is both hard-hitting and inspirational, an unexpected gem.

Death and Bowling is an odd "meta-critique on trans representation" about X, a trans actor. Susan, the captain of the Lavender League (amateur-bowling lesbians) dies, and X is asked to speak at her funeral. Alex, Susan's estranged transgender son, appears unexpectedly at the service. Both X and Alex, attracted to each other, inherit Susan's hand-drawn map of the desert location to scatter her ashes. They are accompanied on their journey by Arnie (Susan's widow), Gio (Arnie's son and X's confidante, a queer Tamil-Sri Lankan-American butcher), and Joyce (Susan's best friend, a Black body-positive gym dominatrix).

The description alone betrays the innovative, avant-garde nature of the film with a non-linear, fragmented narrative style, which some will find off-putting. The movie features an almost entirely transgender cast (some non-actors) in both trans and non-trans roles, made by a majority trans crew. It's also one of the few films to depict queer desire between trans men.

Lyle Kash (writer/director/editor) led the actors "to deliver staged and artificial performances to reject the current obsession with realism in trans cinema, following the same narrative paradigm that heterosexual (and queer normative) films repeat ad nauseum, with the empty substitution of cisgender actors with their TG counterparts."

Viewers often will question what's happening in sections of the film. Trans-ness as a performance is disorienting and challenging to the notion of binary and fixed gender. Kash seeks cinematically "to provide more freedom of fictional space for queer performance and storytelling."

The theory behind the film seems more successful than its experimental execution, though its theme is well-represented in one line: "People are complicated. Sometimes you get to know a few versions and other times you are stuck with one." Bewildering, disturbing, and clearly not for every taste, enter Death and Bowling with caution.

Joan Jett Blakk in 'The Beauty President'  

A documentary short with a local angle presents a thrilling ride in The Beauty President, which bears similarity to the "Brief But Spectacular" segments on the PBS News Hour that profiles new perspectives and passionate first-person narratives.

Beauty begins with the bellowing declaration, "If a bad actor can be elected president," (referring to Reagan) "why not a good drag queen," soon identified as Joan Jett Blakk (a blend of Divine, David Bowie, and Grace Jones), who in 1992 became the first drag queen write-in candidate for President.

The still charismatic Terence Smith tells the story of his drag persona campaign, the highlight being Blakk's stealth appearance at the New York Democratic National Convention in full drag, "bringing queer issues to the campaign right here right now in a dress." Many thought it was a publicity stunt, but Smith proclaims rightly, "at some point I realized I made a little dent in history."

Blakk's presidential run was motivated by the US government's negligence of the AIDS crisis. When Blakk is interviewed and asked about people shaking their heads at her, she replies, "They don't know beauty when they see it. They should be shaking their heads at George Bush being President and not doing a damn thing about AIDS or healthcare."

Blakk ran on a platform of abolishing the police and transferring funds for the military budget to that of education, but the real goal was to bring visibility to queer issues to the campaign. "I'm the beauty president and once elected everything will become beautiful."

Smith then moved to San Francisco in 1993 and ran against Willie Brown for mayor in 1999. Beauty President is an enchanting, humorous nine minutes (and could easily be expanded into a full feature film). Facing another bitter partisan election and the hideous possibility of Trump running again for President in 2024, it might be time to resurrect Blakk's candidacy based on her premise that "We've got to get rid of all the hate and anger, which is founded on who's better than whom. Once we're all equal, then no one will take advantage of anyone." This is a message of which we can never hear enough.

Some films not available for press screening that look promising include All Boys Aren't Blue, a U.S. narrative that brings to life the words of Black non-binary author George Matthew Johnson's sparkling memoir.

A Distant Place tells the story of a Korean rancher raising his niece Seol like his own daughter with his same-sex partner, until one day his twin sister (who is Seol's birth mother) turns up and insists on taking Seol with her.

Leading Ladies, from Colombia, concerns five women who reunite for a dinner party where desires are unearthed, secrets are revealed, and all is not what it seems.

Lady Buds, featuring six plucky women who turn the cannabis industry into a community after its California legalization in 2016.

'Pool Boy'  

Pool Boy, a ten-minute short, is a pearl among oysters. Austin, a privileged white straight-identifying male and college jock home for the summer, much to his surprise has feelings for Star, his parents' non-binary pool cleaner. Star had earlier identified as Paul, a gay guy. Austin's straight friends want him to attend a beach party, especially Jake who's encouraging him to pursue a romance with hot girl Madison. Austin must decide with whom he wants to spend the summer.

Writer/director Luke Willis brings a fine-drawn, non-preachy story; people shouldn't be afraid to love openly whomever they love without guilt, shame, or peer pressure. Will Austin accept or reject the heteronormative values society has imposed on him? What works beautifully here is Star doesn't have to change or campaign to get Austin, but is worthy in their own right for affection and love. With Willis in development for his first feature film and based on Pool Boy, his cinematic future looks bright indeed.

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