By now, everyone and their homophobic grandmother knows what to expect when they see a "gay film." Odds are very good that you'll encounter a bitchy round table of witticism-spouting guys sipping choco-tinis, a cabal of punky-haired girls strumming acoustic guitars, plenty of John Waters-esque ass jokes, and anywhere between two to 10 superfluous drag queens and/or shower scenes (even the most squeaky-clean queer films find a way to work the dirty bits in). And while there is no shortage of the above elements at this year's Reel Pride Michigan Film Festival, newly anointed Executive Director Chene Koppitz has made it her mission to exceed the timeworn expectations of local queer and queer-friendly audiences.
"For GLBT films to evolve, you have to tell new stories," Koppitz says. "There are people who are like, 'I kind of demand that I don't see Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss again.'" To that end, the 50-plus shorts, erotic dramas, campy comedies, international character studies, chest-thumping documentaries and defiantly uncategorizable features that unfold over the course of eight days at the Main Art Theatre make up one of the most eclectic lineups Reel Pride has ever presented.
Again, it's all in the name of evolution. "Gay film festivals sprung up because many people didn't have an opportunity to see challenging films," Koppitz says of the continued rise of festivals tailored to various community and minority groups. But now, just as sure as there are major holidays in each month, in any given week, there might be a niche-related festival near you. Add to that Detroit's already vibrant art-house circuit and the instant obscure-flick gratification of a rental service like Netflix, and the task of unearthing unseen celluloid gems becomes all the more ambitious. "You're going to have to offer everyone something challenging, exciting, fun better than what you offered last time," Koppitz says.
As such, the quality of the standard fare the romances, the comedies, the impassioned pleas for equality has been bumped up a notch, while the other films in the fest explore daring new territory. As for the familiar-but-better offerings, there's the gauzy, sun-dappled opening-night erotic drama Shelter, which through its surfing backdrop provides plenty of ocean-drenched, nylon-trunked male flesh. The grrl-power vibe of fest closer Itty Bitty Titty Committee hearkens back to the more satirical moments of a lesbian trailblazer like Go Fish and its followers, while The Curiosity of Chance is an '80s gay teen flick with an unconventional hero: a top-hat-wearing, bow-tied Oscar Wilde wannabe.
Meanwhile, this year's religious-right-vs.-homos doc might be the most definitive film on the subject yet: The Sundance favorite and early-2008 Detroit Film Theatre offering For the Bible Tells Me So. In interviews with religious families trying to reconcile their beliefs with their unconditional love for their gay children, director Daniel Karslake offers a pointed rebuke to fundamentalists' readings of the specific bible passages as anti-homosexual. Koppitz calls it "one of the best documentaries one of the best films we'll ever show."
Where Reel Pride starts coloring outside of the lines of the usual gay fest is in its more far-flung fare. The Man of My Life, Nina's Heavenly Delights, Shelter Me and Spider Lilies all prove that foreign cinema has once again outpaced the United States when it comes to presenting multifaced characters, in fascinatingly odd situations, who just happen to be queer. The Taiwanese Lilies, for example, uses a tentative May-December lesbian romance as the backbone for a noirish mystery involving Internet webcams, tattoo parlors and druggy, dreamy visuals.
In fact, if there's any one type of film that Koppitz and her assistants at the Triangle Foundation the Detroit queer advocacy and civil rights group that puts on the festival strived to avoid this year, it's the ponderous, doomy queer flicks that still tend to dominate the genre, even after the decline of the somber AIDS dramas popularized by the 1990 classic Longtime Companion. "I wanted to stay away from things that were super-fatalistic," Koppitz says, films where, whether through homicide, suicide or revenge, "everyone's dead at the end." For proof, look no further than one of her nonfiction picks, the hairy, lusty and boisterous Bears, a look at the gay-male subculture that goes by the same name. While it may include the usual tearful coming-out reminiscences, it ends on a classically American high-note: a bear beauty pageant. At once reassuringly familiar, pleasantly offbeat and universally emotional, it neatly sums up what Reel Pride is striving to accomplish. And, as Koppitz says, "going in, you know all the bears aren't going to get shot and die."
Below are a few highlights from the Reel Pride GLBT Film Festival lineup. All screenings take place the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
The Preacher and the Poet
Sunday, October 14, 1:30 p.m.
Made as part of the Q Waves project a collective that puts cameras in the hands of young queer filmmakers this righteously indignant short contrasts the rhetoric of D.C.'s Reverend Willie Wilson, a fiery, homophobic African-American preacher ("You can't make no connection with a screw and another screw ... It takes a screw and a nut!"), with the voices of an incensed veteran, an eloquent drag queen and a passionate spoken-word artist. In just 10 minutes, it provides more insight into the gay black experience in America than many full-length feature docs have.
Monday, October 15, 7 p.m.
Those of you who don't get out to the Detroit Eagle very often might classify a "bear" as a big fuzzy creature who steals all your food when you go camping, a description that would only be half-right. For the rest of the picture, look no further than Bears, a documentary that peers into the ever-growing (no pun intended) queer subculture of overweight, hairy men and the men who love them. Centered around the 2006 International Mr. Bear competition in San Francisco, Bears follows a half-dozen or so hopefuls from around the country as they try on their chaps, flannels, speedos and various raunchy personae in an attempt to put their best paw forward at the contest. Along the way, director Marc Klasfeld a bear outsider presents a variety of philosophies on how bear culture got to where it is today: Is it a reaction to the wasting-away of '90s-era AIDS victims? A defiant fuck-you to the body-Nazi attitudes of gay male culture at large? An easy excuse for hot hook-ups? Bears has built-in appeal for those with a taste for the hirsute, but straight women will no doubt also get a kick out of watching a beauty pageant where bellies, back hair and exaggerated masculinity are the most-prized qualities.
Suffering Man's Charity
Thursday, October 18, 9:30 p.m.
To say Alan Cumming's new movie is a little shrill is an understatement: In some scenes he's screaming so wildly, you can see him spew spittle on his co-stars. But when your goal is to make a campy, comic thriller the kind Joan Crawford favored in her trashy, late-career-freefall phase some rabid foaming at the mouth is required by law. Suffering Man's Charity gathers together a few of Cumming's friends Buffy's David Boreanaz, Men in Trees' Anne Heche, and E.T.'s Henry Thomas to tell the eminently quotable tale of an unhinged, prima-donna composer (Cumming) and the trick (Boreanaz, described as "a bankrupt manwhore with the IQ of a rat") he allows to walk all over him, free of charge. Tables are turned, humiliation is inflicted and every dog has his day so to speak all in a fabulously creepy, gothic mansion. Throw in a cameo by '70s camp icon Karen Black (growling that she'll "pour maple syrup on your cock and suck you dry"), and you have the kind of project that would've made even old Joan proud.
Red Without Blue
Friday, October 19, noon
The opening scenes of this arty, evocative documentary might make it seem like the usual trannie journey, with a twist: What happens when one identical twin decides he doesn't want to be quite so identical anymore? But gender reassignment ends up being just a small facet of a much larger family saga, one that stretches from Montana to both coasts to Prague and back, touching upon the twins' shared traumas: teenage cocaine addiction, incestuous leanings, horrifying sexual abuse. There are huge bombshells scattered throughout Red Without Blue, and it's a testament to filmmakers Brooke Sebold and Benita and Todd Sills that they handle them with sensitive, unexploitive grace, filming over long stretches of time (and unpredictable changes in facial hair). With subjects this emotionally open and unformed, it's hard not to empathize. At the center of the film are the college-aged Mark and Alex who now call themselves Oliver and Claire a pair of once-inseparable siblings whose history together makes it difficult, if not impossible, to relate to others. Throw in an embarrassingly frank Christian Scientist mom in a quasi-lesbian relationship with her best friend, a dad who's willing to bankroll his son's transformation into a daughter and a few soundtrack full of great Antony and the Johnsons tunes, and by the time the credits roll, the movie has accumulated a unique power.
Also from Q Waves, this rough-around-the-edges short drops in on two gay Pennsylvania teens who, fed up with the respective bullying at their schools, try to fight back legally. It sounds like the stuff of an after-school special, but We Belong provides no easy answers, and offers queasy, first-hand accounts of bullying from both typical jock jerks as well as unbelievably discriminating school officials. It's hard to watch these brave, self-possessed small town teens and their supportive parents and still think you have anything approaching courage.Michael Hastings is a Metro Times film critic. Send comments to [email protected]