March 2–12, 2006
The 2006 Commonwealth Games’ wholesale usurpation of Melbourne events calendars impacted upon the scheduling of this year’s MQFF, bringing it forward a week and into a curious synchronicity with the 78th Academy Awards, broadcast here March 6th, five days into the festival. Lest anyone should have forgotten, this year’s Oscars accoladed the celebratedly queer character-foregrounded triumvirate of Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005), Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005) and Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 2005), drawing a great deal of mainstream attention to queer issues. This also inspired a great deal of Hollywood self-aggrandisement on Oscars night over its embrace of narrative matters pink, which in the larger sense of the word could also encompass other such Academy-feted small-l liberal flicks as Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005) and Syriana (Stephen Gaghan, 2005). All this lefty feelgood backslapping, and indeed the acclaim fairly due these particular films notwithstanding, the broadcast served well to illustrate that there is still very much a need for Queer Film Festivals.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
The likes of Brokeback Mountain may very well help to enlighten garden-variety straights into appreciating that the otherness of queer folk is not necessarily all that profound nor scary, and Brokeback and friends’ time in the spotlight may also have given the great unwashed pause to consider why those darned uppity queers get so indignant sometimes when their basic civic liberties come over all compromised. But here’s the rub: while these accomplishments are all well and laudable – and Brokeback Mountain, Capote and Transamerica have played well to queer audiences too, by simple dint of just being darned good, humanist films – these films were not made with niche queer audiences aforethought. They are not particularly queer films.
Really terrific movies both, graced by superb and affecting performances from their leads, Brokeback Mountain and Capote can nonetheless be filed together under ‘queer guys for the straight eye’. While it is abundantly clear what Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) get up to on their irregular fishing trips, there is no chance we’re going to be shown anything beyond but a suggestion of it. Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Jack Dunphy’s (Bruce Greenwood) relationship is even more chaste in its presentation. And while Transamerica does greater evince a queer sensibility at play behind the camera – most notably in a scene that outdoes the denouement of Boogie Nights (P. T. Anderson, 1997) in its use of a phalloplastic prosthesis, and indeed for the double-drag act at the very core of the film (a woman, Felicity Huffman, plays Bree, a man becoming a woman) – it too is not specifically addressing an audience in correspondence with its protagonists. This is evident when Bree, within the final week ahead of her sexual reassignment surgery, gets herself in a right old tizz over losing her hormones; as anyone passingly acquainted with the rigmaroles endured by those in that late phase in transitioning from male to female could tell you, there’s no way she should still be taking those pills with a major surgical procedure so imminent, for that is to run a considerable risk of a (fatal) thrombosis on the operating table!
But I’ve digressed
The call for a Queer Film Festival, and indeed for Melbourne’s estimable selfsame, comes down then to its programming addressing two key matters, one a little easier to elucidate than the other. The first is that of “audience”, a matter of the queer “who” that a film is pitched at or will, en masse at a festival screening, speak to. The other is “sensibility”, a matter of the “what” of a film, of the that which is appreciably queer whether through narrative trajectory, by explicit display of non-normative sexual activity, or through some quality intrinsic to the film overall, whether by accident or design – call it “camp”, “irony”, or what you will.
The Opening Night Party
The opening night MQFF party is a major queer Melbourne event and was hosted at St Kilda’s regal art deco Astor Theatre again this year, much as one would hope it will continue to be; no word, however, has been forthcoming on the Astor’s future since word first got out late in 2005 about a mooted change of ownership. Were it to be unavailable in future the festival would be hard-pressed to find a comparable replacement.
That said, it mightn’t be such a bad thing were the festival to have to find somewhere a little less accommodating. With so much emphasis on the party aspect of opening night, one wonders whether it doesn’t work a little at cross-purposes with its chief function as the inauguration of a screen cultural event (and a major one at that; MQFF nowadays is Victoria’s second largest film festival, after the behemoth that is MIFF). Which is to say that the party often comes perilously close to eclipsing the film; 50 Ways of Saying Fabulous (Stewart Main, 2005), this year’s opening night film, was as with most years, pretty slight fare and while enjoyable, it was a little underwhelming.
As I can happily attest, much of what I saw at MQFF this year was in fact very strong, as the following survey will adumbrate. I’d hate to think however that anyone might miss out on the festival’s better films for having been hornswoggled on opening night into expecting the bar to have been set low.
But enough harping, especially as I don’t really wish to be too harsh on 50 Ways of Saying Fabulous. Based on Graeme Aitken’s semi-autobiographical novel, it’s a sweet if flawed film depicting a young boy, Billy (impressive debutante Andrew Paterson), the only and chubby son of a farmer in rugby-obsessed rural Otago, New Zealand, in 1975. Billy is given to flights of fancy in which, with the appendage of a cow’s tail to his person, he assumes the role of “Lana” in fantasy sequences he shares with his best friend, cousin and mastermind of the local rugby matches, tomboy Louise (Harriet Beattie).
New arrivals in town lead to a sexual awakening in Billy; not for him to be fated to be the only gay in the village. Roy, “The Freak” (the magnificently hangdog Jay Collins), is a new boy at school, who when not weathering the strident bullying that commences immediately upon his arrival, initiates Billy into a world of furtive sexual experiences. Billy then sets his sights rather higher, upon a ruggedly handsome farmhand (Michael Dorman), several years his elder, and disinclined to reciprocate.
Much of the film rings very true; the New Zealand accents are thick and its permeant Kiwi flavour will resonate especially with such as I who, herself, grew up a little different in the Shaky Isles. Were that some more time had been taken in colouring in a few characters; Billy’s parents especially are too thinly sketched. Alas, it also falls in something of a heap at the very end as implausibilities mount, with an unconvincing fire raging in the hills around them, and the kids left to fend for themselves at home while poor old Roy goes gun-crazy!
However, the film does possess some verve. Hilly, gravel-roaded Otago looks stunning in its autumnal splendour, and it is almost novel for a Kiwi coming-of-age film not to end in too Gothic a fashion.
Curiously, the two images in the festival guide featured Louise rather than Billy… (1)
Just before moving on, a quick plaudit is merited for the very amusing Layover (2004), Ashlee Page’s short that raised the curtain for 50 Ways, a cautionary tale warning of the dangers of admitting a grandparent into one’s love nest when one has company…
The festival proper
Adam & Steve (Craig Chester, 2005) should, for mine, have been the opening night film. Not, as some might assume from the title, a revisionist Book of Genesis, Adam & Steve is instead simply a mighty funny romantic comedy with a gay marriage its narrative ne plus ultra and the path along its inexorable way strewn with comical situations realistic and absurd in equal measure. Everything hinges on a humiliating 1980s episode that prefaces the film, where a sweetly nebbish young Goth (Adam, played by the director), with a little urging from fag hag friend Rhonda (Parker Posey in a fat suit), hooks up with buff, extravagantly mulletted dancer, Steve (Malcolm Gets), at a happening NYC club. Wouldn’t you know it, the coke they share that night had been tinctured with a strong laxative… and so a terrific gross-out comedy payload ends that evening a little prematurely.
Flash-forward to a post-September 11 NYC, where as luck should have it, the two now 30-somethings meet again, sans their naff ’80s subcultural accoutrements and utterly oblivious to their previous disastrous encounter, which, it will emerge, scarred them both in quite profound, classically New York ways. Perhaps it’ll prove to have scarred them enough to destroy their burgeoning relationship when, come the inevitable, they’ll twig to their ghastly shared experience many years previous…
The two leads have an uncontrived chemistry and terrific comic awareness, while Posey Posey equips herself as well as ever as a stand-up comedian who, never mind her dramatic weight loss, won’t change her repertoire, which consists solely of “I’m so fat” gags performed to an ever empty room. In an effective sub-plot, her Rhonda gets a taste of romance too, with obnoxious Michael (Saturday Night Live alumnus Chris Kattan), the one person who finds her funny.
Adam & Steve is really good fun, and I’m quietly confident that gay connubials won’t be a feature of an Oscar-nominated picture for a few years to come…
Hellbent (Paul Etheredge-Ouzts, 2004) was also good fun, and a veritable “Queer as Folk” meets Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). Following a brief prelude in which two lads making out in a car in a park at night come a grisly cropper during sex, four young gay men set off to have themselves a fine time at the West Hollywood Halloween Carnival. However, the killer, with a nice line in Mephistophelean drag and a homo-focused modus operandi established, is never far behind them and has a terrific advantage in being able to blend in amidst all the revelry. A credit to the film, vérité footage from one actual such carnival is seamlessly incorporated into the film. There’s nice use made too of strobe lighting in the service of ‘fort/da’-style generation of suspense.
Now, as a stickler, I have to take issue with its claim to the title of “first ever gay slasher film” (2), a claim I feel can only superficially be made; what’s not gay about the slasher genre altogether in the first place? Granted, slasher films are not known for having gay ensemble casts, but is this not the very genre in which, at least since its appropriation by American mainstream cinema, pretty young things are routinely slaughtered subsequent to engaging in heterosexual sex…? Furthermore, as has long been well theorised, the standard slasher flick is already a queer thing indeed, transgendering (male, but becoming-female-identifying) audiences and (becoming-masculine female) lead protagonists alike as it goes about its business of picking off its cast one or two at a time, fucking them to death with lusty blows from daggers, axes, hooks, chainsaws and other nasty pointy things.
Quibbling aside, Hellbent is certainly ostensibly gayer than typical stalk ‘n slash fare, and a fair chunk of the action takes place in milieus quite alien to the genre, including “MeatLocker”, a gay SM club. (That said, the club looks positively fluffy when considered alongside Irreversible’s (Gaspar Noé, 2002) “Rectum”). And the closing ten minutes generate an effectively fraught atmosphere as it plays on the considerable vulnerability of its last remaining lead, handcuffed to a bed as the rough trade he picked up at the Carnival toys with him, while Death lurks elsewhere in the apartment, toying with them both…
Fucking Different (various, 2005) is a German anthology of 15 short films where the brief had been for lesbian and gay male filmmakers to each craft a short in some way representing the respective other’s desires and sexual proclivities. This year’s “selectors’ choice”, Fucking Different was even awarded an encore screening arranged for the day after the festival’s closing night; on seeing the film that night I was astonished more by the fact that a truly experimental film came to close a major film festival than I was by the film itself, which was, perhaps inevitably, only piecemeally successful. I fancy Fucking Different got the push it did because the concept behind the film is one that simply couldn’t not pique the interest of a great many queer folk, many of whom, I’d wager, had flocked to the screening to get themselves an education in just what it is other queers actually, honest-to-goodness do as much as to derive expected chuckles from viewing enacted and vérité misapprehensions of their own sexuality’s nitty-gritty, as represented by their same-sex-inclined opposite numbers.
Fucking Different is highly scattershot in its approach, to its credit and to its detriment in equal measure. Strong elements within it, such as the sixth film, Michael Brynntrup’s Blue Box Blues – a languorous account of a lesbian SM photo shoot with avant-garde trappings – suffer from expectations of more immediate and accessible gratification raised by such as the very amusing second film, Jörg Andreas Polzer’s The Other Planet, in which gay male talking heads, intercut around shots of mute, smiling lesbian couples, wax gormless about what it is they think lesbians do in bed, and to what end.
Inconscientes (Unconscious) (Joaquín Oristrell, 2004) was a festival highlight. Set in the Barcelona of 1913 and boasting an assured rococo aesthetic and considerable wit and charm, it follows muttonchopped fuddy-duddy doctor, Salvador (Luis Tosar), as he bumbles his way ever deeper into the mystery of his sister-in-law Alma’s (Leonor Watling) psychiatrist husband’s sudden disappearance. The further Salvador investigates, at Alma’s energetic and alluring inveiglement, the more he finds those he has considered his nearest and dearest to be as strangers to him with desires and agendas hitherto unimaginable. In tandem with the mounting of these alarming discoveries, he has to overcome his staunch skepticism of modernism and its developments, most particularly those attached to the work and reception of one Sigmund Freud, soon to visit Barcelona, and a major influence on the missing man. Salvador’s sleuthing admits him eventually into Barcelona’s sexual underground, where the mores couldn’t contrast more starkly with his own; his blanket incomprehension of the goings-on at a transvestite ball, and the necessity thrust upon him to assume drag to blend in, is the stuff of but one of several passages in Unconscious that rate amongst the most fun I’ve had in film so far this year. Unconscious furthermore has a most satisfyingly perverse resolution, one subject to the emergence of a few revelations most appropriately Freudian!
It was either no accident, or highly serendipitous, that the sole retrospective screening this year was the classic German proto-lesbian boarding school flick, Mädchen in Uniform (Maidens in Uniform) (Leontine Sagan, 1931); the festival also proudly presented the Australian premiere of Katherine Brooks’ Loving Annabelle (2006), a film greatly indebted to that earlier tale of distaff pedagogic eros and its sadly insalutary consequences. (Were that a print of Géza von Radványi’s 1958 Mädchen in Uniform remake, starring Romy Schneider in the role of Manuela made famous in the original by Hertha Thiele, could have been sourced too, if only to humour completists like me.)
I greatly enjoyed seeing Mädchen in Uniform in a cinema, albeit murmurings I overheard suggested others didn’t quite so share my enthusiasm. I suppose many in attendance are more accustomed to less coy fare in their lesbian love story viewing, and might well have been wondering what the fuss was all about. However, for mine, the desire and ardour in the film runs strong, with the bond that develops between Thiele’s Manuela and Dorothea Wieck’s Fräulein von Bernburg genuinely affecting. That the film closes with von Bernburg admonishing the school’s tinpot tyrant Headmistress (Emilia Unda) for her draconian, suicide attempt-inducing punishment of poor, von Bernburg-smitten Manuela, gives the film a more progressive attitude than the latter day film it inspired; Mädchen ends on a note pointedly scornful of regimental authoritarianism, its denouement playing out in a very different register to that of Loving Annabelle…
The pupil/teacher relationship in Annabelle is taken much further than in Mädchen, with Annabelle, the new Manuela, increasingly forthright in demonstrating her affections and imposing them upon Simone, her teacher (Diane Gaidry). This being so, that the film should wind up punishing both its leads, and the elder especially – entailing a police escort from the school’s premises at the behest of her Headmistress mother, no less – for their carnal knowledge comes as no surprise by virtue of its present day U.S. setting, wherein we all well know what becomes of teachers who get involved with their (it is presumed, innocent) students. With the film’s ending a certainty appreciable long before its advance, the pleasure to be obtained from the film is one more gleaned from discrete scenes and less a function of a narrative trajectory. The strongest scenes unsurprisingly are those just featuring Annabelle and Simone, some of which carry a fair charge borne of the frissons generated by the impropriety of their conduct. I wasn’t however very taken by the film’s style; its cinematography seemed a little too ‘telemovie’ for my liking, the dialogue was perfunctory and some of the ancillary performances were merely so-so. That all said, the film did hold me through to its bitter end, and, if to my surprise, Loving Annabelle won the Audience Choice Award for Best Feature Film. Yet I had much preferred Mädchen in Uniform.
Sancharram (The Journey) (Ligy J. Pullappally, 2004) was a revelation, a naturalistic Malayalam melodrama with a hint of a queer Cyrano de Bergerac bent. The tale told is one of a slow-burning love between two teenage South Indian girls (Suhasini V. Nair and Shrruiti Menon), best friends since one, when young, moved with her family into its ancestral home in the other’s village.
Unfortunately for the girls, there is a major obstacle to a life of happiness together which will surely prove insurmountable; should a girl thereabouts tarnish her reputation – and it behooves me to mention that it’s made clear that this is perfectly achievable through a pre-marital heterosexual tryst too – then her entire family is shamed, with the taint such that all of a family’s remaining unwed will be considered poor prospects for any future marriage. In a society where wedlock is life’s very cornerstone, for a family member to be denied it is for that family to be rendered pariahs.
One might ask “what chance love anyway?”, in a society where arranged marriage is the prevailing norm. It is clear from about half way into the film that The Journey can only end one of two ways; either romantically and tragically (and perhaps moralistically), as might be expected, or, as it should in fact transpire, pragmatically and ambivalently, with a wedding for one girl, freedom for the other, but togetherness for neither.
It’s extraordinary that this film was even made, and a greater thing of wonder still that it’s so good, replete with fine and brave performances from its leads and supports. It reminded me of a similarly impressive queer South Asian kitchen sinker unspooled at a previous MQFF, the Sri Lankan film Flying with One Wing (Asoka Handagama, 2002), about the travails of a transgender mechanic. May that many more such films might shower down upon us from this region.
The most fun I had at the festival was with the gloriously unhinged Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims (2005), scriptwriter Kankurô Kudô’s absurdist feature directorial debut. A hilarious delight, who knows just how much was lost (gained?) in the translation and, harder to tell still, how great the liberties taken in its adaptation of Kotobuki Shiriagari’s manga serial, itself an adaptation of a classic 19th century picaresque novel by Jippensha Ikku.
Yaji and Kita is easily as hallucinogenic as any film I can think of, well above and beyond the need to externalise any of Kita’s (Shichinosuke Nakamura) struggles with his addiction to little blue pills and his bewildered grasping at various fugitive realities. It also achieves something quite extraordinary; notwithstanding its relentless litany of anachronisms, narrative non-sequitirs, musical numbers, satirical pokes at celebrity (including the stars’ own) and divers postmodernist preposterousnesses, Tomoya Nagase and Nakamura manage to wreak thoroughly convincing and improbably affecting characterisations in their roles as the two eponymous gay samurai. There is a rare, real pathos to their haphazard quest to rid themselves of their demons, never mind how ludicrous the obstacles they encounter as they negotiate a path out of the Edo era through to Ise, where it is trusted a cure exists for all Kita’s pharmaceutical ails.
I put it to MIFF that, never mind that someone else screened it first, they must reprise this demented and gorgeous film this winter! A cult following across the full sexuality spectrum certainly awaits it.
Thom Fitzgerald’s 3 Needles (2005) is a beautiful and provocative film comprising three coming-of-AIDS stories in widely divergent parts of the world: grossly impoverished rural China, in and around the porn industry in Montreal, Canada, and in a remote littoral area of South Africa.
Boasting an extraordinary cast (including such luminaries as Lucy Liu, Stockard Channing, Olympia Dukakis and Chloë Sevigny) for such an uncommercial project, Fitzgerald’s film explores a variety of ways humans manage to impose the profound miseries associated with the AIDS pandemic upon other humans through actions bespeaking gross ignorance, neglect, malice or even sometimes the very best of intentions. In its elision of much of what we Westerners already know so well about the transmission of AIDS – that it has of course been such a dreadful scourge upon, in particular, Occidental gay communities – 3 Needles is a deeply moving wake-up call for those who (choose to) forget that the disease affects a very great many more than just those upon whom its focus in our society has heretofore been the strongest, and that to this very day, and indefinitely beyond, it is continuing to devastate vast populations the third world over.
3 Needles is absolutely exquisitely shot, even when portraying some very confronting material. For example, at the film’s outset, we encounter several young male South African tribesfolk about to be ceremonially inducted into manhood via a circumcision ritual, standing anxiously in line, awaiting their turn. Were as much as what is then shown not hard enough to stomach already for squeamish types and hardened “Mondo” aficionados alike, that which is implicit is the tougher to palate and its significance harder to shrug, for but the one knife is used for all of the several bloody circumcisions performed in quick succession…
Apparently 3 Needles was first edited with the three stories intertwined around one another rather than arranged in the portmanteau fashion as was screened here. A good thing we got to see this “director’s cut”, methinks; each of the three parts stands up exceedingly well discretely and I can’t see how scrambling them all together could have ever worked to this terrific and telling film’s benefit.
Which brings me to… a Happy Ending?
I’ll lastly report on two films together, Loggerheads (Tim Kirkman, 2005) and Happy Endings (Don Roos, 2005), the latter and less successful of which was chosen for Closing Night. I’ve thought to bundle them together here as both films deal with some similar subject matter and both exploit an Altmanian narrative tendency common to much recent American cinema that is to classical Hollywood narrative as Einstein’s theory of general relativity was unto Euclidean geometry… This is something that struck me when watching Happy Endings; clearly Don Roos’ (Bounce ; The Opposite of Sex ) latest wasn’t grabbing me half as much as it ought to have if my mind was wandering sufficiently to hatch this kooky analogy, which I’ll now expand upon, lest it seem I’m gibbering, though the following paragraph might only serve to reinforce that impression.
In these films, with their wide ensemble casts and multiple story strands running in parallel, in vogue ever since a resurgent Robert Altman’s own Short Cuts (1993) begat Happiness (Todd Solondz, 1998), Magnolia (P. T. Anderson, 1999), Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000), et al, each strand is presented piecemeal intercut around each of however many other strands, with no one strand clearly related to the others until such time as sufficient gravity is applied to it, i.e. a character within any given strand finds his- or herself in some sort of a pickle, a grave situation, if you will. The more the gravity of each of x number of these situations increases – as they all most assuredly will – the nearer and nearer each of these ‘parallel’ stories will come inexorably to intersect until ultimately all of these films’ several strands and umpteen characters are brought together in an almighty orgy of non-Euclidean narrative confluence. Cue closing credits.
I didn’t find my mind entertaining any such distracted theorisings while viewing Loggerheads, which added an elegant remove to the formula; while Loggerheads keeps its number of strands down to as few as three, it runs them each in different times, with one year separating each from the next. Loggerheads is less concerned with contriving situations whereby the characters from the different strands will by degrees meet and impact upon one another’s lives (though by the film’s close, this has necessarily happened, to a modest extent), than it is with the slow unfurling of each strand’s narrative and that narrative’s, rather than its characters’, impact upon the other narratives as they too unfold. This laudable approach serves to illuminate how the various characters have already affected one another’s lives, chiefly to their detriment and for the viewer, to quite devastating effect.
Rather than delve into the intricacies of the plotting of these two films (and I especially wouldn’t wish to spoil Loggerheads for anyone), let it be known that both concern themselves with the time-honoured matters of birth, nature vs nurture, abandonment, betrayal, love, sex and death. Loggerheads works this mélange beautifully and plays it in a minor key throughout, whereas Happy Endings just gave me the irrits, its chief offense being an irregular smarmy sidelong irruption of titles that comment upon the fates that might yet befall or have already befallen its numerous protagonists. I think this was meant to be played for laughs; I also think it a serious miscalculation as it only serves to distance the viewer from what might otherwise have been quite an engaging feature.
My other grievance with Happy Endings is that for a film with several queer characters (Steve Coogan and David Sutcliffe play one gay couple, Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke another, while the late John Ritter’s son Jason plays a gay drummer, more patsy than pansy), it’s just not a queer film, which so saying neatly brings me back much to where this article started, which in turn echoes Happy Endings’ structure, and its tagline too: “It all comes together in the end”.
To close, I’ll add that I believe a capital-q Queer film festival really should close with a capital-q queer film rather than a please-everyone/no-one would-be crossover trifle. On the other hand, the 16th Melbourne Queer Film Festival did, as mentioned, schedule encore screenings, so thems as weren’t too queer film-fatigued could follow up Happy Endings with a properly queer chaser of Adam & Steve and Fucking Different.
- And The Age got their captioning the wrong way around altogether in their article on the festival and its opening night, here: http://www.theage.com.au/news/film/absolutely-fabulous/2006/03/01/1141191730035.html.
- See the official Hellbent site at www.hellbent-movie.com.