Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Flare: Mood Swings

Broken Gardenias
Today's report concentrates on two films that combine comedy and drama, making for uneasy viewing.

In the Australian comic drama (?) Zoe. Misplaced, Zoe is attracted to her housemate Coal's ex, Nat, who reciprocates her feelings. And then Coal finds out.... What starts off as an amusing L Word episode progresses onto darker and darker territory, until it turns into a bit of a psychology lesson. I puzzled over the abrupt shifts in tone, wondering whether they worked or not. Then I pondered the characters' motivations and questioned whether I had missed some key hints. So, I guess it's a pretty effective piece of work, if duplicitous.

Broken Gardenias, an American road movie, looks great, with sweeping vistas of California, as its two loners, hunky butch Sam and forlorn Jenni, go to L.A., in search of the latter's father. A film that includes a suicide attempt early on that is played as one of a number of comic setbacks has an interesting notion of comedy. And I never quite warmed to it, despite Sam and Jenni's quirky budding friendship. It reminded me a little of By Hook Or By Crook, with Jenni's very mannered fragility setting my teeth on edge. Plus, the running joke of her ex-housemates shadowing the duo through L.A., arguing all the way, felt forced and gratuitous. Jenni is played by the film's screenwriter, so she must have felt highly invested in the story.

I believe both films were crowd-sourced, explaining their rough and ready feel, but getting the tone right is something that can really make or break a film, regardless of budget.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Flare: Marginal Communities

We Came to Sweat
Today's retrospective Flare viewing includes two shorts by Silas Howard and a documentary on the now-departed Starlite Lounge in Brooklyn.

Howard's two films focus on Bambi Lake, one-time Cockette and unlikely punk spoken word artist, whose song "The Golden Age of Hustlers" provides a narrative device linking the two, to explain her life, from her days as a hustler on Polk Street to today, when she admits she's not especially happy, as she sits glammed up outside a cafe. While I was not so taken with the recreation of the song with Justin Vivian Bond singing, I did find the short documentary, Sticks and Stones, fascinating and would like to know much, much more about this pioneering performer.

The Starlite Lounge was that rare thing: a black-owned bar providing a non-discriminatory space in pre-Stonewall New York. Kate Kunath's documentary, We Came to Sweat, picks up the story in 2010 as the bar is threatened with closure, a victim of the gentrification of its corner of Brooklyn. I would have liked to see more on the neighbourhood and the changes befalling it, but Kunath sticks close to the bar itself, which rather limits the scope of the story. I found the film overlong and repetitious, once the basic facts were established: the bar was established in 1962 and provided a safe space for its patrons. This point is repeated so often it becomes tedious. In the end, commerce wins out and the bar loses its leases and never reopens. What happens to the community is not pursued.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Flare: Sultry Summer Days

Teenaged girls. Rural towns. Unrelenting summer heat. What could possibly go wrong? Well, two films show what happens when girls looking for something to happen find what they're looking for.

The Argentine drama Atlantida is languid, understated and, well, a bit tedious. Swotty Lucia is left in charge of her younger sister Elena, who's broken her leg. Save for the occasional dawn swim, Lucia has not very much to look forward to, as she studies for her exams, hoping to move to Buenos Aires for uni. As the film unfolds over one extremely long day, Lucia finds herself attracted to Ana, a friend of her sister's, while Elena tags along with the family doctor. A storm is imminent, the signs are set..... but not much actually happens. Such a disappointment.

The Dutch drama Summer sets its stall out early, in another rural household, as Ms. Silent, later revealed to be actually called Anne, narrates the summer her life changed. This quirky and very stylish film captured my attention much more fully than did Atlantida, as Anne matter-of-factly describes the wife-beaters, rapists and child thugs who populate her town, all existing under the beady eye of the town business, the nuclear power plant that seems to have a hold, a force field, over everyone. When Lena, a mixed race biker, arrives in town, her presence seems to disturb the torpor in which everyone lives, including Anne. While the plot may lack orginality, the execution is spot on, and the soundtrack, of jauntily retro tunes, provides a kind of psychedelic haze through which the narrative unfolds. I actually have no idea in what decade the film is meant to be set. It could be anywhere from the 1960s-onward. Very impressive work from writer Marjolein Bierens and director Colette Bothof.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Flare: True Romance

Girltrash: All Night Long
Although the festival ended on Sunday, I shall continue reviewing films from Flare, courtesy of its new online preview service. Today's subject: romance.

Portrait of a Serial Monogamist is a Canadian comedy offering Elsie, a lead character whose first action is to dump her long-term partner, Robyn, and exit the premises, claiming it was for the woman's own good. I immediately didn't like her and her subsequent behaviour did nothing to endear her to me. A problem when the character seems to be the one the audience is meant to identify with. In fact, of the five or six characters who had most screen time, none was particularly engaging. I did rather like the bi-curious character Elsie tried to to seduce but then drove away. Quite frankly, by the end of the film I really didn't care whether Elsie and Robyn got back together or not, they were so cloying and annoying. The bi-curious woman had a lucky escape.

Girltrash: All Night Long is a musical set in Los Angeles featuring a band. A very promising start and I enjoyed its cheesiness immensely. Particularly good is Michelle Lombardo as the heartbreaking bassist everyone wants to bed. The character names are ridiculous: Colby, Tyler and Misty sound as if they are '80s soap opera characters. But, the film revels in its own ridiculousness and I found it entertaining, if a bit light-weight. Any film that sets its big shoot 'em up in a sorority house has something going for it.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Flare: Of Girls and Horses

Of Girls and Horses
As I said, I have seen few films at the festival, but I am quite glad I saw this one on the big screen, because it is a visual delight and deserves to have its sweeping shots seen in their full glory. An unexpectedly sweet film from the formidable Monika Treut, Of Girls and Horses is a coming of age tale involving two girls on a horse farm in northern Germany. While that may not scream must-see, it turned out to be both visually and emotionally engaging.

My companions and I talked over the film afterward, admitting we had expected disaster to strike, given the set-up of troubled Alex arriving in the middle of nowhere, attempting to kiss her supervisor Nina and then stealing Nina's pills. But, these transgressions did not end in disaster or melodrama, merely serving as bumps in the road of Alex's growing up. When posh girl Kathy arrives with her horse Carmina, again one might anticipate jealous Alex to take some kind of revenge on the girl or her horse, but she merely befriends both.

"There's no conflict," said B, and we agreed our expectations were not met, but in a good and surprising way. Intererestingly, in the accompanying notes, a reviewer notes that "the conflict of Of Girls and Horses is purely emotional". I might have reworded that as "the conflict is internal". It's not a drama played out between people, so much as what is happening in Alex, Kathy and also Nina, who is torn between her spiritually enriching life on the farm and her girlfriend in the metropolis of Hamburg.

And the horses look amazing. Such impressive creatures, rendered as curious but mute characters by Treut and her DOP. Whether turning to regard the camera with suspicion or galloping across the shore, the horses in the film command respect and affection. Not so different from human beings then.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Flare: Where Are the Lesbians?

Yesterday I saw no films at Flare, but did engage in stimulating discourse, courtesy of a panel, a networking lunch and extended social time.

The panel was the provocatively titled Where Are the Lesbians?, bringing together programmers, filmmakers and journalists. I took copious notes, but what emerged were several strands of debate, namely: why are there so few lesbian characters on mainstream TV; who authors these characters; why is it so difficult to get funding for films with lesbian characters. Not much was decided, though much frustration was expressed, and I was left feeling rather deflated by the prevailing gloom. There was a view expressed that things were better in the old days, when Channel 4 used to commission LGBT programming. And I do well recall seeing a lot of UK films in the early 1990s make their way across the pond, to be eagerly set upon by queer audiences in San Francisco. We were amazed a television station had funded them. That situation no longer exists, but was there ever a golden age of lesbian programming, really? It may be misplaced nostalgia. Are programmers more conservative now, asking lesbian filmmakers to tone down the queerness of their female characters? Or is it that the whole system has always been heteronormative and patriarchal? I smiled wryly when a young filmmaker who had self-funded her feature expressed the optimistic view that things will get better in years to come. Will they?

After the panel, I chatted to a few attendees, including Lisa Gornick, who had raised the vexed question of capitalism ever so briefly in the panel. In her experience, filmmakers see few financial returns, even if their work is distributed. She asked the question, not addressed in the panel: what is a lesbian film? Something made by a lesbian or something with lesbians in it? So many questions to consider. The only concrete plan that emerged is that Diva magazine has arranged a meeting with the BBC to ask why they keep killing off their lesbian characters. Other plans to increase distribution opportunities for queer films, via a UK festival network, may also be in the offing.

Then it was on to the extended social time, which culminated in a giant long table of dykes eating, drinking and chatting, with a bit of film talk thrown in. From small beginnings do revolutions grow.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Flare: Community Entanglements

Dressed As a Girl
I have spent the past few days alternating between watching films online and visiting the festival on-site, making for a strange parallel universe effect.

As it happened, I was watching Colin Rothbart's Dressed As a Girl online as it premiered at the festival on Sunday. I do wish I could have been there to see the participants in-person. Given what I watched onscreen, they have wonderfully complex and tangled lives. Starting as a recap of Jonny Woo's Gay Bingo club and East London's drag scene, the film tracks the lives of several associates of Woo, and he offers some arch commentary from his position as arch provocateur and master of ceremonies. In truth, I found Woo's narrative arc less interesting than the others, as he played up his drug and booze antics early on and then became clean and sober by the end of the film. His co-stars Pia and Amber proved more compelling to me, both quite vulnerable in their own ways, with the former wandering off in a haze of conspiracy theories and the latter attempting to transition to female while also reaching out to her biological family. Her encounters with her Dad were painfully awkward, as he attempted to be supportive while also tripping up on the correct pronouns to use. I imagine it was the type of documentary of most interest to those who already know the scene under examination.

As a companion piece, Ben Walters offered up the latest instalment of Burn, his "platform" for alternative performance and moving image. I still don't get how this platform works, but he showed nine short films made by some of the same people seen in Dressed As a Girl, plus a documentary on the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, site of its own alternative scene in south London. Standout shorts included Woo's vision of multiple Margaret Thatchers lip-synching to "Hold On", plus Figs in Wigs' hilarious food-and-names electro music video. Tim Brunsden's Save the Tavern proved to be an oddly restricted look at the glorious queer history of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, as it seemed to be entirely Duckie-centred, with no mention of any of the other clubs that currently call the RVT home. Where it was quite good was in giving some of the backstory to the current situation of the club and its place in queer history, offering some great archive footage of Adrella and Lily Savage, as well as explaining how the club offered a gathering place for a community under siege during the AIDS crisis.

Where I often come unstuck in situations like this is in hearing the testimonies of people who say they found a home at such places. "It's so welcoming and friendly," they say, and I wonder to whom? I saw next to no people of colour in any of these films, for example. And for every boozer that people call home there are those who don't feel welcome. What if you don't drink? I am all for saving the RVT, but I do wonder whether the community has moved on from always assigning the highest status to a place that is focused on consuming alcohol. As one commentator says in Save the Tavern, they only got the cabaret in to sell more drinks, after all.

And speaking of precarious forms of community, last night I finally saw Girlhood, Celine Sciamma's third feature, still exploring the lives of girls, but this time focused on black girls living on the edge of Paris. What. An. Amazing. Film. It went on a bit too long and had a few false endings, but I was gripped and full of concern as downtrodden Merieme transforms herself into fierce girl gang member Vic, before falling in with a drugs operation and then having to decide what her path in life really is. It was easy to see how she could make so many "mistakes", given her circumstances, from her abusive brother lording it over her at home, to her tentative relationship with sensitive Ismael having to be a secret. The girls who took her up built up her self-esteem but at the cost of having to commit acts of brutality against other girls. And I think this is the film's strength: it makes a case for female solidarity by showing how often girls end up fighting each other rather than the dominant males who oppress them. If I see anything better than Girlhood at the festival, I shall be very pleased indeed.