I was sitting at the bar of the Yarrow Hotel at Sundance, escaping, like many do, the inside of theaters and warming up with some sustenance of the alcoholic variety. The most low-key and unassuming spots always turn out to be where you meet the film industry power players, and this night it was a well-known distributor who was boozing alongside me. We ended up comparing notes about the festival's film selections.
I mentioned a queer film I really enjoyed called Keep the Lights On, a wonderful exploration of a relationship that came unhinged at the hands of meth addiction. My fellow imbiber heatedly agreed before adding, "And that's great, 'cause gay films usually really suck." I chose to not take the unintentional bait that was set up for me, but found myself half-nodding in agreement.
Gay films can really be bad. Not just run-of-the-mill bad or "got lost along the way" bad, but the kind of train wrecks where you hope there are no survivors, because life after that would probably be too impossible to bear. A former colleague of mine would describe this problem as "My girlfriend gave me a camera for Christmas, so I should make a movie" syndrome.
These aren't so-good-it's-bad films -- I am a big fan of schlock cinema,
but that's not what we're talking about here. We're talking bad ideas
that are badly made. Much like celebrities running amok without anyone
with the chutzpah to pull them aside and say, "What the fuck are you
doing," many queer filmmakers are working without a net or anyone to
tell them, "No, actually that's not a good idea." Maybe it's because fewer established filmmakers are willing to take a chance on a gay film. Maybe it's something else. Either way, guidance is tantamount
to success. So what inevitably happens is that each year there's a sea
of guidance-less cinematic shit, and among them a few treasures that are
floating along waiting to be saved.
That's where film festivals
come in. They rescue the good ones, and drag along some of the mediocre
ones for the ride. Whether they have a life going forward is up to the
rest of us as audiences.
Today, the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival
kicks off its 14th edition in South Beach with little fanfare. At one
point in its history it was one of the top ten LGBT festivals in the
country. Those days have long passed, though, as the last few
editions have seen declining attendance and little recognition for it
locally or abroad. While the organization is struggling to stay relevant
amidst other highly successful local LGBT events, this year's program
offers a gleam of hope for its future.
Films like Vito, Elliot Loves, and Mosquita & Mari are obvious choices for the festival, and strong ones with good buzz. Yet it's the inclusion of films like Jobriath AD, Speechless, and Angel that
are most encouraging, because they are films on subjects that don't
usually play well with traditional audiences: transgender identity, LGBT
Asia, and underground music, for example. Their inclusion shows the
festival is challenging Miami audiences to step up and out of their
comfort zone and tackle aspects of LGBT life they've historically chosen
to ignore at the cinema. While there are a number of films that look
promising (Unfit: Ward vs. Ward, Taboo Yardies, Taking a Chance on God and 30 Years From Here among them) my "don't miss" recommendation is the incredibly charming Codependent Lesbian Space Aliens Seeks Same,
a delightful ode to 1950s science fiction films that is exactly about
what the title implies, and is a sheer and simple delight.
While on the subject of queer cinema, here's one that needs to be added to your Netflix queue immediately. Pariah
is the stellar feature film debut from Dee Rees that premiered at the
2011 Sundance festival to universal acclaim. It is the coming out and
coming of age story of a young black lesbian in present day Brooklyn,
and arguably one of the greatest LGBT films of the last decade -- an
emotionally charged and unabashedly real look at a queer youth of color
finding herself. It's just been released on Blu-Ray, DVD, and OnDemand
from Focus Features, and I can't recommend it enough.
So go ahead and put the remote down (Drag Race will
be there when you return) and have a gay old time at the cinema. Will
all the movies be great? No -- no film festival can promise as much. But
much like a hookup on Grindr, you can't just judge it by the pictures.
Sometimes the biggest surprises are those that are unfurled in front of
--Kareem Tabsch, co-founder and co-director of O Cinema
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