With gay-themed films increasingly accepted by mainstream audiences, what's the point of a specifically LGBT film festival? The year's buzziest gay film, Andrew Haigh's indie drama Weekend, has already played SIFF and Sundance and will have a wide theatrical release soon after the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival closes. The same goes for the festival's opening-night film, Dirty Girl.
But a close look at this year's SLGFF offerings answers the question conclusively—the point is to highlight the world of gay cinema en masse, including those components that might escape the appreciation of even the most empathetic heterosexual programmer. Some of the most rewarding moments of this year's fest are the smallest—intimate, idiosyncratic films that will have queer viewers smiling and squirming with recognition and pleasure. Alongside these gems, plenty of explosively campy extravaganzas will make you scream at the screen. Here's a sampling of what's on offer:
Jeffrey Schwarz's Vito commemorates the amazing Vito Russo, the gay activist and historian who is best known for The Celluloid Closet, his landmark study of homosexual imagery in 20th-century cinema. This HBO production gives Closet its rightful due, but the main focus is the life behind that work. A truly titanic personality, Russo was one of those miracle humans who seemingly popped from the womb equipped with a lifetime supply of self-love, gay pride, and chutzpah. Even if he'd never breathed a word about the queer image in film, he'd have a major place in gay history. In addition to helping found ACT UP and quelling a near-riot of queer infighting at New York's 1972 Pride rally by pulling a young Bette Midler out of a hat to perform her rendition of "Friends," dude staged a huge, public engagement party to protest marriage inequality—in 1971.
Leave It on the Floor
Sheldon Larry's sprawling musical extravaganza sets a twisty boy-meets-boy love story against the gritty, glamorous backdrop of Los Angeles's underground drag-ball scene. Comparisons to the classic Paris Is Burning are inevitable, but Leave It on the Floor quickly establishes its own identity, thanks primarily to its accomplished musical numbers set to a genre-hopping score by Kim Burse (who moonlights as Beyoncé's creative director) with choreography by Frank Gatson Jr. (the man behind the "Single Ladies" video). Floor's drama is clunky, though appealingly life-size, and the whole thing bloats to feel much longer than its 100-minute running time. But it leads up to a drag-ball finale that will dazzle you into submission.
The Lulu Sessions
Dr. Louise "Lulu" Nutter is the internationally renowned research scientist who made her name with the discovery of a major new anticancer drug. As Casper S. Wong's lovingly point-blank documentary The Lulu Sessions reveals, Nutter was also a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking drunk who responded to her own end-stage breast-cancer diagnosis by lighting up another cigarette and agreeing to live her final 15 months in front of Wong's camera. The result is a portrait of an unapologetic American original, made doubly rich by the subject's relationship to the filmmaker. As Wong informs us in voice-over, she and Lulu were the love of each other's lives, enjoying a bond for the majority of their adulthoods that confounded even them (sometimes lovers, forever friends). Camcorder documentaries always run the risk of feeling claustrophobic and/or invasive, but the intimacy of The Lulu Sessions feels like a privilege. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll learn something new about humans.
Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together
A low-key lesbian love story in which a shlumpy young woman with a beautiful smile pines for her best friend and roommate, a cutie-pie Don Juanita who feels no compunction about showing up late for hang-out plans with pussy on her breath. Throughout the film, Shlumpina Dazzlesmile tries to work up the courage to profess her love for Don Juanita, and scenes stroll by with an appealing casualness. Unfortunately, Jamie and Jessie is also a musical and, unlike Leave It on the Floor, the musical numbers aren't good, landing randomly in the plot and boasting a skill and polish typically seen in coworkers performing at a departing peer's going-away party. Even the admirably complex plot resolution can't resuscitate the film from its sluggish pacing and DOA musical aspirations.
Wish Me Away
Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf's documentary maps the public coming out of country music star Chely Wright—and it's riveting. Go in expecting a self-serving spin on the E! True Hollywood Story and you'll be knocked sideways by an unprecedentedly intimate dissection of The Closet. Raised in a deeply religious small town, Wright assiduously buried her unacceptable natural desires and set about chasing the consolation prize of country music stardom. Amazingly, she got it and found herself on top of the world while living a soul-crushing lie. Wish Me Away shows us what Wright's closet life looked like from both inside and outside (watch as a clueless Dick Clark grills her about her "mysterious love life"!) and lets us in on the machinations behind the Public Coming Out (watch media coach Howard Bragman school Chely on how one never "admits" homosexuality, one acknowledges it). Bonus: footage of an Oak Ridge Boy processing the concept of out-and-proud lesbianism.
Heart Breaks Open
Seattle filmmaker Billie Rain's first feature has an almost documentary feel, following a young queer man as he struggles with infidelity, desperation, and a positive diagnosis for HIV. Help arrives in the form of a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, voice-over poetry, and Seattle's queer community at large. All of these potentially outsize plot components (scary diagnosis! Heroic drag queen!) are presented in a seductively vérité fashion. Heart Breaks Open is filled with lovely, understated performances, but the takeaway star is director Rain, whose confident style gives the film its idiosyncratic soul and an entrancing rhythm: Key scenes expand naturally, connecting stretches are elegantly condensed. The whole thing culminates with a queer processing scene you'll be talking (and perhaps arguing) about days later. Go see it.
We Were Here
For years, documentaries about the AIDS epidemic landed so close to the trauma of that time that they couldn't be seen properly. Fifteen years after protease inhibitors stopped the merciless death march of AIDS in America, the horror and heroism of the early years can finally be commemorated in full. David Weissman's documentary We Were Here tracks the "gay plague" as it ravaged San Francisco in the early 1980s, striking down a generation of men and drawing forth exceptional tenacity and bravery from those lucky enough to be survivors. (Perennially unsung heroes: lesbians, who raced in to help when gay men proved too sick to care for each other.) It's an awesome thing to behold. You'll bawl your eyes out and be grateful for the opportunity.
Abe Sylvia's Dirty Girl is set in 1980s Oklahoma, where the high-school slut befriends the high-school fag and character-building mayhem ensues. Veering between angsty grit and poppy shenanigans (and finding a way to make each of the three main characters perform plot-forwarding strip teases), Dirty Girl is the type of movie that wears the description "wildly uneven" like a badge of honor. Parts of it are ridiculously fun—which makes it a perfect opening-night selection for SLGFF. (Screening to be followed by a party at Fred Wildlife Refuge, featuring Trouble Dicso and—THIS IS NOT A LIE—Melissa Manchester appearing live to perform the Dirty Girl soundtrack-enhancing "Don't Cry Out Loud"!!!!!!)
These are but a few of the 160 films screening in SLGFF. For a full schedule, see www.threedollarbillcinema.org.