Fifth Annual Seattle Gay and Lesbian Film Festival
Fri-Thurs Oct 20-26 at the Egyptian, Little Theatre, and Broadway Performance Hall.

IN ITS FIFTH incarnation, Seattle's popular Gay and Lesbian Film Fest offers a vibrant and ultimately graceful illustration of the successful advance and even more successful retreat of queer cinema. The festival has grown tremendously since its birth, in the process moving from the wee Top o' the (Harvard) Exit to the relatively massive Egyptian theater, picking up the Little Theatre and the Broadway Performance Hall as supplemental venues along the way. With triple the audience and quadruple the sponsors, this quintuple incarnation of the fest certainly seems to reinforce the notion of permanence.

And yet, the cultural absolute that the fest originally strove to expose--the overtly "gay" film--has found itself overwhelmed by its osmosis into the larger culture, to the point that the original mission of the fest threatens to slouch toward obsolescence. Of course, there is still a tremendous need to screen gay work, and a vast number of quality gay films out there begging for a venue, but in a larger sense, the battle has relaxed to mere tension. At this point, "gayness" is a public commodity in the culture markets: From highbrow examples such as Wong Kar-Wai's delirious casting of Hong Kong heartthrobs Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung as a gay couple in Happy Together to the most mainstream outings, as in the sweetly sketched gay cheerleader scene in Bring It On, homosexuality has, like noir lighting, casual violence, and the state of having a dead wife, become normalized as a tool of the filmmaker. Moreover, as gay culture has been increasingly assimilated into a larger collage of cosmopolitan urbanism, the once-viable film dealing almost exclusively with the mere state of gayness starts to seem terminally small-minded: The current high-profile debacle The Broken Hearts Club is perhaps more powerful a reminder of this fact than anyone ever needed.

We are fortunate, then, that Seattle's Gay and Lesbian Film Festival is overseen by two people as engaged and observant as Justine Barda and Kirsten Shaeffer. Fortunate, because they get it in a way that is informed by that rare commodity of an open mind, thus ensuring that the festival remains impassioned and vital into and beyond its fifth year. Under their tutelage, the festival has artfully sidestepped the politics of gay film to simply celebrate the growing breadth of the queer experience as refracted through the kaleidoscope of cinema. "It's as much a social festival as a showcase," explains Shaeffer. "I feel like it's different to see a film with a gay audience than a straight one. And while it may be hard to tell the difference on Capitol Hill, the fact is that a lot of people come from out of town to see our films. Plus, there's parties and special events."

Indeed, the signature event of the festival--the sing-along--is not necessarily a queer film at all. Last year, it was the Sound of Music; this year it is Grease (Egyptian, Sun Oct 22 at 2 pm), which will be hosted in person by director Randall Klieser. Other events of this year's festival include a remount of this paper's own David Schmader's perennially sold-out, live presentation of Showgirls--"The Most Misunderstood Work of Art of the 20th Century," as he puts it (Egyptian, Sat Oct 21 at 11 pm); a first-ever free kids screening of the Harvey Fierstein-scripted--and voiced--The Sissy Duckling (Little Theatre, Sat Oct 21, 12:30 pm); a live presentation of a compilation of vintage beefcake clips by MGM film archivist John Kirk (Egyptian, Sun Oct 22 at 2 pm); and a free work-in-progress screening of a new gay film, By Hook or by Crook, with the filmmakers in attendance to discuss the tricks of the trade (Little Theatre, Sat Oct 21 at 4:30 pm).

Of course, the bulk of the festival is still composed of plain old queer-themed films. Yet Barda and Shaeffer have taken a delicate tact with their programming this year--one which, on the evidence of some films available for preview, should bring a refreshing slant to the dialogue of queer film. In such festival films as the feature, King of the Jungle, which stars John Leguizamo as the basketball-loving retarded son of an activist lesbian couple; the documentary Live Nude Girls Unite!, which details the process of unionization at San Francisco's Lusty Lady strip club; and the closing-night feature What's Cooking?, which examines Thanksgiving at several households (including one lesbian home), the state of being gay informs, but is ultimately secondary to, the main stories and themes being examined. The effect is to remove the limited subject of homosexuality from the white glare of the spotlight, allowing it to be seen in more nuanced shades. "Gay films are becoming more sophisticated," notes Barda. She adds that, by selecting films that examine not what it is to simply "be gay," but rather what it is to "be gay in the world," this year's fest hopes to find fresh energy in the gay film. "I mean, what gay person is, 90 percent of their life, thinking about being gay? How exhausting would that be?"

Of course, there are still plenty of shorts, documentaries, and features that are, well, totally gay. Some standouts include the sure-to-sell-out Queer as Folk 2, a follow-up to last year's presentation of the hit British TV show; 101 Rent Boys, a titillating look at male prostitutes by the directors of The Eyes of Tammy Faye; and Eban and Charley, a finely wrought (if dull-looking) tale of a gay-style, May-September romance--he's 15, he's 29--with music by the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt. Lastly, don't miss the surreal porno-experiment I.K.U., an indescribable Japanese swirl of gender, sex, and oblique imagery.

So happy fifth! See you at the films (I hope) and at the parties (I would expect).