Frameline's finest & finales

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday June 20, 2023
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Taylor Mac's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,' 'Commitment to Life' and 'Bottoms' at Frameline47.
Taylor Mac's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,' 'Commitment to Life' and 'Bottoms' at Frameline47.

Frameline47 emphasizes the interplay between past and present, in particular queer cinema history and the collective history of the LGBTQ community at large. This seems vital at a time when the Human Rights Campaign officially declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ people in the U.S. for the first time in its over 40-year history, "following an unprecedented and dangerous spike in anti-LGBTQ+ legislative assaults sweeping state houses this year."

We can't plan for a future of equality without knowing the trials, struggles, and triumphs of the past, as told in many of this year's films, many of which are available streaming online through July 2.

"These bold efforts not only move the craft of cinema forward but underscore the pandemic of hateful violence devastating our communities today," comments Director of Programming Allegra Madsen.

The introductory onscreen quote from Black poet Audre Lorde, "My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect me," lays out the stark conundrum suggesting you can run but you can't hide in the bristling thriller, Milad Alami's "Opponent."

Champion wrestler Iman (Payman Maadi, "A Separation") has fled Iran, presumably because he was a critic of the regime. In Sweden with his pregnant wife Maryam (Marall Nasiri, slyly magnificent) and their two daughters, they barely survive in meager accommodations, as they are moved by authorities from one cramped apartment to another (in a country not as welcoming to refugees as you might think). While they apply for asylum, Iman delivers pizzas by snowmobile to survive.

An interpreter suggests his chances for approval might improve if Iman returned to wrestling and competed for Sweden, an idea nixed by the knowing, ever watchful Maryam. But in desperation, Iman does start to train with a Swedish wrestling team, where he strikes up a passionate connection with local teammate Thomas (Bjorn Elgerd) and slowly it will become apparent why the family had to escape Iran, leaving behind regret and bitterness.

The winter cinematography is stark, the white landscape acting as a blank slate metaphor for a new start but also unforeseen dangers for both Iman and Maryam. Maadi is thunderous and galvanizing, an erupting volcano that could descend into violence at a moment's notice.

There's no real happy ending here. Iman's fiercest opponent is not on a wrestling mat but within himself, as he's torn between his desires and his family ties. This is one of the top films at Frameline47 and essential viewing.

Viewers will be thrilled with the beautiful elegiac documentary "Casa Susanna," about a refuge in the rural Catskills region of New York for cross-dressing men and transgender women during the 1950s and 1960s. It was founded by Tito Valenti (who went by the name Susanna) and his wife, Maria (she owned a wig shop in Manhattan) as a safe place providing total freedom so its guests could dress however they wanted.

Grandson Gregory, the defacto narrator of the film, reminiscences about his grandparents. Katherine and Diana, now elderly, spent time at Casa in the 1960s and describe their lives both before, during, and after they visited as well as fond memories. At that time they saw themselves as cross-dressing men but have since transitioned.

They identified as heterosexual, not gay, as that label with its accompanying oppression would complicate their lives too much. Consequently their wives, mostly accepting, stayed at Casa Susanna as well. All the guests were able to talk and share in an honest way they could never do in any other context.

Through photographs and archival footage, we get a glimpse of a way of life, now vanished, that was a lifeline to its participants. This documentary is both thrilling and heartbreakingly sad but ultimately a celebration of courage.

There is much to admire in the gay Nigerian film "All the Colours of the World Are Between Black and White." In Nigeria, homosexuality is illegal, punishable for up to 14 years in prison, so any story that reveals the oppressive plight of LGBTQ people is by definition an achievement.

Bambino (Tope Tedela), a delivery driver in Lagos, during a photo competition, meets charismatic amateur photographer/betting shop owner, Bawa (Rivo David), striking up a friendship. Bawa asks Bambino to take him around the city so he can build up his photo portfolio.

Bawa wants a relationship, but Bambino is too afraid. He lives in a small apartment but makes more money than any of his neighbors who ask him for cash assistance. One younger woman, a student, ready to commit to an arranged marriage, has a crush on him, hoping for something more, even throwing herself at him, saying "she'll be his prostitute."

The film charts Bambino's journey of whether he can overcome his own repression and pursue an intimate connection with Bawa. The problem is the glacial pacing of the movie, complicated by spare, almost minimalist dialogue, so even a 90-minute runtime feels like two hours. What saves the film is the Method-like interior sensational performance of Tedela. You can literally see the whole struggle of queer Nigerian liberation projected on his face.

The situation is so grim there, just to admit that you are gay to oneself is an enormous victory. The ending is a huge triumph that will have audiences cheering, but you must endure much to arrive there. Ultimately worthwhile, but editing and a better script could have made "All the Colours" the cinematic juggernaut it could have been.

An offbeat low-key Danish lesbian rom-com, "The Venus Effect" is an unexpected total charmer. Liv seems to have the perfect life working in the family greengrocer business on a farm, with a cute boyfriend who wants to marry her. But her ordered life is upended when free-spirited Andrea knocks on the door asking for gas. Before long the intrigued Liv is accompanying Andrea to her ex-girlfriend's wedding.

Soon she breaks up with her boyfriend, shaking the family dynamics such that her mother now wants a divorce from her father. Unable to see herself in Andrea's rainbow fantasy, Liv isn't sure how to be gay or how to pick up the pieces of her suddenly messy life. And Andrea is still recovering from the split with her now married ex-girlfriend.

It sounds like melodrama but it's wittily and intelligently executed, aided by gorgeous nature cinematography tying Liv's fate to the natural world. Audiences should love this poignant queer awakening in what, so far, is my favorite lesbian narrative at Frameline47.

Once again we are challenged by how we define family in the uneven English/Dutch lesbian drama "Silver Haze," about a working class East London nurse Franky (Vicky Knight) who forms her first lesbian relationship with a female suicidal patient, Florence (Esme Creed-Miles) at her hospital. Initially they bond, but both have demons they are battling, with Franky still suffering the trauma of being burnt in a house fire as a child, fifteen years previously, that may or may not be caused by her father's second wife.

Franky resents her father leaving her mentally unstable addict mother with whom she has a tense, rocky relationship. When neighbors discover Franky has ended her relationship with her boyfriend to date Florence, she encounters hostility. Florence is assaulted by neighborhood friends.

Franky moves in with Florence's family which includes her nonjudgmental, kind grandmother Alice, dying of cancer and her autistic brother.

Besides suffering episodes of suicide ideation, Florence also copes with an eating disorder. Even in this brief description, there is so much going on, it overwhelms the romance that becomes secondary to both characters who are angry and deeply wounded.

It never quite gels together, but it is Knight's superlative performance (which won a Teddy Jury Prize) that brings a sliver of cohesion, as Franky attempts to bring some stability to her chaotic life, seeking some kind of reconciliation with her father. Good intentions abound here, but this scattershot effort misses more than it hits in this exceedingly bleak drama.

Seemingly a love letter to porn, archivist and film historian Elizabeth Purchell has cut scenes from 126 theatrical films spanning the years 1968-1986 in "Ask Any Buddy" to create a kaleidoscopic day in this snapshot of urban gay culture in that era. This rare footage was shot at real bathhouses, bars, adult theaters, pride parades, and hotspots like New York City's Meatpacking District along the West Side piers.

During this period there were few queer films, so for many gay people, especially those who didn't live in big cities, these movies were often the only venue they could see their lives at the all-male adult cinema, which incorporated not only pornography but coming out stories, romances, even camp comedy.

What these films also documented was a subculture that emerged following the Stonewall Riots. So they act as a kind of ultimate photo album of gay life during this period. These films also became an avenue for many men to come to terms with their sexuality and accept who they were, which involved not only sexual freedom, but finding support and love within the gay community.

Many of the places shown are long gone and sadly many of the iconic porn stars (Casey Donovan, Al Parker, Jack Wrangler) and the less well-known performers are dead, mostly due to AIDS. Also included are snippets of news related to major gay events to provide some context, such as the campaign to battle Anita Bryant's Save Our Children campaign, the Briggs Initiative, and the murder of Harvey Milk. Older gay men will be transported back to a now vanished bygone era, but if younger queer people want to know what gay life was like prior to AIDS, they should watch this extraordinary, eye-opening documentary.

In "Commitment to Life," director Jeffrey Schwarz ("Vito," "I Am Divine") has fashioned an affecting, emotional oral history of the AIDS pandemic through the lens of the AIDS Project Los Angeles, the equivalent of San Francisco's AIDS Foundation and New York's Gay Men's Health Crisis.

Founded partly through the auspices of straight woman Nancy Cole, it was born during a time when hospitals and mortuaries wouldn't take PWAs, leaving them isolated to die alone while people like Rev. Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority proclaimed that God was punishing them for their lifestyles.

One of the myriads of talking heads in this film is Rev. Steve Pieters, the first member of the clergy to get AIDS, the man who spoke in a famous interview with Tammy Faye Baker about his experiences with the disease, but also played a key role at APLA.

Because it's LA, a large focus is on Hollywood's response to AIDS, which was nonexistent, until actor Rock Hudson was diagnosed with the disease and raised public awareness, putting a face to AIDS as well pricking the guilty conscience of Tinseltown.

Actress Elizabeth Taylor was key in prompting the movie industry to rally around PWAs and petition the federal government to obtain more aid and research as well as finally getting President Reagan to publicly say the word AIDS. Once Hollywood responded, it raised millions in fundraisers under the tagline Commitment to Life, with celebrities using their clout to raise awareness.

One major corrective of the film is its stress that AIDS was not and is not just a white disease with 40% of Blacks and Latinos diagnosed. That is why when basketball legend Magic Johnson revealed he was HIV+, it was as much a turning point in the perception of the illness as Hudson.

Another significant factor was African-American lesbian Jewel Thais William's gay discotheque Catch One, which was at the forefront of fighting the epidemic. This film is only slightly marred by the last ten minutes which is primarily an infomercial for the continued work of APLA, as important as that mission is. The documentary is valuable as a crash course in AIDS 101. Parallels with COVID-19 are both striking and alarming, proving the dictum, 'Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.' The film is ideal for sex education and LGBTQ history classes.

Quirky and bold are the best modifiers pertaining to Japanese writer/director Tsuyoshi Shoii's drama "Old Narcissus," an honest depiction of the final days of a 74-year-old author of children's books, the narcissistic Yamazaki (Tajiro Tamura). He's diagnosed with cancer and there's treatment but he refuses it. He's more concerned about his creative block that prevents his completion of an overdue book for his publisher.

He's lonely and hires 25-year-old sex worker Leo (Atomu Mizuishi), who's willing to cater to Yamazaki's S&M fetish to be tied up and spanked. Yamazaki pines for the lost beauty of his youth. In a sense he's reliving that time through the younger Leo. But Leo has his own issues, namely committing to his two-year boyfriend, who wants them to sign a civil partnership (like our former domestic partnership).

Yamazaki and Leo take a journey to see Yamazaki's first boyfriend whom he treated poorly and now wants to apologize. This is a beautiful intergenerational story in which each character helps the other discern who they are and what they want. Tamura has the role of a lifetime, and embraces this eccentric man as he unselfconsciously throws away the many cultural taboos of being gay in Japan. The ending, which involves hearing the "children's" story he eventually writes, is enthralling. This small gem should not be overlooked.

For anyone expecting a similar follow up to Emma Seligman's thrilling debut feature "Shiva Baby" (a fresh psychological comedy about Danielle, a directionless bisexual Jewish woman attending a shiva where she meets her ex-girlfriend and current married male sugar daddy FWB) will be disappointed. "Bottoms" couldn't be more different, trafficking in a send-up of high school comedies, though like "Shiva" it's subversive, but also hilarious.

PJ (Rachel Sennott, "Shiva'"s Danielle) and Josie (Ayo Edebin, "The Bear") are unpopular high school seniors who, in a quest to hook up with cheerleaders, decide to form a women's self-defense/empowerment class, actually a fight club for high-school girls. The film is a satire on high school from a queer perspective, like a lesbian revenge comedy on having to put up with all those years of abuse, similar to '90s parodies, like "Clueless" and the "American Pie" series. This means the film is chock full of often politically incorrect gags.

So 'Bottoms" is rollicking, raunchy, goofy, slapstick, irreverent, badass, violent, lacerating, and over the top. With the exception of the leads, the side characters are all caricatures (i.e. the nelly quarterback). Similar to the late Joan Rivers comedy style, there are rapid-fire jokes, where maybe two in ten hit the bulls-eye, though planting bombs on campus even in jest seems in poor taste during these times of school shootings.

Edebin get to shine while Sennott is also the co-writer along with Seligman. The Castro Theater audience loved the film, which will be released in theaters later next month and then screened on Showtime. This ideal summer movie seems destined for cult status and it will be fascinating to see if it succeeds with mainstream audiences. 90 minutes of gags provide a brief respite and barbed reply to the anti-LGBTQ backlash currently sweeping the country.

It seemed inevitable that once the Supreme Court okayed marriage equality in 2015, there would be divorces as well, which is the subject of the bland, restrained "Our Sons." It's the story of stay-at-home dad Gabriel (Billy Porter, sans drag) and wealthy publisher Nicky (Luke Evans), married for 13 years, and parents of 7-year-old son Owen.

Gabriel's affair, which ends quickly, is a betrayal for Nicky, but leads Gabriel to seek a divorce, fed up with workaholic Nicky. The question becomes who will get custody of Owen. Yes, this is the gay version of "Kramer vs. Kramer," a far superior movie. Even though we loved Porter in "Pose," he's so subdued, he's not well cast here.

Evans, however, is excellent in the presumably less showy, semi-bad-guy role. The issue here is that we get to know almost nothing about Gabriel, Nicky, or their relationship, which never seems believable, so what's supposed to be heartbreaking really has little emotional impact. It's all perfunctory and somber, giving ammunition to queer anti-marriage advocates. It's not a failure, but a dull and hackneyed missed opportunity, we've seen many times previously.

22-year-old Moritz (Lorenz Hochhuth) moves to Berlin to live with his photographer boyfriend Jonas (Gustav Schmidt). But after a while, Jonas loses interests and asks a heartbroken Moritz to leave, in the German film "Drifter." Thus begins a journey of self-discovery as he drifts alone passively in the city into queer hedonism, exploring his repressed desires, testing his own boundaries.

He cuts his hair, changes his clothes, starts to exercise, gets tattoos, goes clubbing, uses drugs, engages in new sexual acts, such as hooking up with a bisexual couple and becomes a temporary sex worker performing BDSM humiliation acts on a client.

There's no real storyline here, which is frustrating. At times the film feels more like a cinema verité documentary. He eventually fits into this bohemian lifestyle, but you never get the sense he's content doing so, even though he again peaks the interest of Jonas, who's intrigued by the new Moritz.

Hochhuth conveys the vulnerability and fleeting nature of someone trying to find their true self to break free of cultural expectations. However, you're never quite sure if Moritz knows who he is or what he wants, so it all feels vague, hollow and fleeting, with no real sense of closure. Audacious, almost experimental, it's still unsatisfying on a deeper level.

The sensitive Canadian drama "This Place" features two lonely queer college students in Toronto who meet and fall love, but must confront family difficulties rooted in immigration and cultural struggles.

Kawenniiohstha (Devery Jacobs) leaves behind her notebook in a laundromat which Malai (Priya Guns) finds. They meet for coffee so she can return the book. They become friends and then something more, but their romance is complicated by the fact they each have Daddy issues.

Malai is a math prodigy with her professor pressuring her to apply to grad school, but she finds out her alcoholic, absentee father is dying. He was unhappily married to her mother, when they escaped Sri Lanka (they are Tamils) during their civil war.

Meanwhile, Kawenniiohstha, an aspiring poet, locates her long-lost Iranian father in Toronto who didn't even know she existed. Her mother, a half-Mohawk, wanted to return to their reservation during the 1990 Oka crisis, left her Iranian refugee boyfriend (who escaped after the Muslim takeover) behind, never telling him she was pregnant.

The lesbian connection here seems peripheral and isn't as arresting as the family dynamics of each woman. The film is adept at revealing how the intersection of family, ethnicity, and identity can lead not only to displacement but be passed onto future generations.

The notion of forgiveness not only to parents but countries of origins is central here. What's also refreshing is we get to hear about queer Mohawks or Tamils whom we almost never encounter. There's a tenderness in this feature that is appealing. Had the lesbian romance been more integrated into this complex stew, this could have been an excellent film.

"Taylor Mac's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music" is unlike any concert film you will ever see. It was literally performed in a 24-hour marathon by Taylor Mac where he never leaves the stage and sings 246 songs from 1776 to 2016, with the audience undergoing a panoply of emotions, not just as spectators but participants in certain exercises along the way, staying there the entire time at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, October 2016.

It's a musical oral history with lots of narration by Mac, so it's much more than a drag queen doing cabaret, as we go from "Yankee Doodle Dandy" to Pansy Division, including nods to Stephen Foster's minstrel songs, sailors' ditties, disco, Ted Nugent's "Snakeskin Cowboy," about gay bashing, and David Bowie's "Heroes." Not surprisingly, such an overwhelming enterprise was five years in the making.

"Maybe you notice, this is my subjective take on history," says Mac. "I am not interested in this show being about history as much as I am interested in it being about all of us in this room have a lot of history on our backs and we're trying to figure out what to do with it."

It's a queer tutorial on American history, what he calls a Radical Fairie Realtime Ritual, deconstructing American myths in the hope of recreating a new national rebirth. Mac makes constant surreal, innovative, outrageous, campy costume changes throughout the 24-hours, masterminded by the astounding drag queen/designer Machine Dazzle. After each hour, a musician leaves the stage, symbolizing someone who died from AIDS.

Filmed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman ("The Times of Harvey Milk," "The Celluloid Closet") they had the unenviable task of cutting this revue down to two hours while conveying the full range of this cathartic, psychedelic experience. Mac is a queer theater artist treasure who received a MacArthur Genius Grant and his play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. With plenty of humor and tears, words cannot do this artistic masterpiece justice. A fitting closing film for Frameline47, it will be shown on HBO at the end of this month.

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