Friday, March 30, 2012

LLGFF: Glam and Swagger

Still from Stud LifeLast night was glam night, with the European premiere of Jobriath A.D., followed by a party, which I missed, because I opted for the Alice Walker premiere.

Anyway, glam has never been of particular interest to me. Too many ridiculous guitar solos, tight trousers, and boys playing at being transgressive. So there's the disclaimer. To my mind, Jobriath's story is far more interesting than his music, which is liberally sprinkled throughout the doc. Starting out as a cast member of Hair, he moves to New York, meets manager Jerry Brandt and gets signed to Elektra. So far, so good, but Brandt hyped his client to the skies, made all kinds of promises of epic greatness Jobriath could not meet and used the singer's sexuality as a selling point. Calling himself "the true fairy of rock", Jobriath was openly gay at a time when many of his contemporaries were hinting at bisexuality to seem daring. But it backfired spectacularly on him. One of the questions the doc doesn't address is why the gay community was so indifferent to him.

But, things didn't go well for the singer, and after being dropped by Elektra and Brandt, he never regained his standing as the next big thing. Interestingly, he reinvented himself as a piano bar singer called Cole Berlin, and there is a piece of intriguing footage showing him in this guise, winking at the camera, nattily dressed in suit and tie with a 'tache. It seemed he had found his calling before he fell ill and died of AIDS in 1983. Jobriath barely speaks in the doc, so dominated was he by Brandt's plotting and scheming. A shame, as he did appear to have a talent for performance, strutting about on The Midnight Special in a Bowie-cum-Pierrot get-up. Director Kieran Turner asked after the screening for a show of hands as to who thought Brandt was good or bad and the vote was pretty evenly divided.

There is a fair amount of strutting in Stud Life, Campbell X's fiction debut and, apparently, the only British feature on show. A love triangle of sorts, the conflict pits butch JJ's best friend Seb against her new lover Elle in what the director-writer calls "mates before muff". I immediately had a problem with this: 1) I don't like the term "muff" to refer to a human being and 2) why can't one be friends with one's lover? Ah, maybe it's a butch-femme thing. Anyway, Seb and Elle don't get along, and JJ is not the most tactful of souls, all swagger and bragging until the shit hits the fan and she needs to reach out to Seb and Elle to reach some kind of compromise. There is a good supporting cast of familiar faces on the queer scene and some funny moments, but it feels a bit self-consciously hipster.

LLGFF: Alarm Bells

production photo from Alice Walker: Beauty in TruthThe world premiere work-in-progress screening of Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth must have hit the audience just right. So mellow was everyone taking in the good vibes of Walker's presence on screen, accompanied by conversation between director Pratibha Parmar and programmer Naz Jamal that when a fire alarm went off during the first audience question, there was scattered laughter, applause and then a very jovial exit from the cinema. Kind of a bummer to end on, but all good things must come to an end. The seven clips screened included readings by Walker, reflective interivews with the writer and comments from the great and good, including Jewelle Gomez, Quincy Jones and her ex-husband. Parmar hopes to complete work on the doc in the autumn.

The previous evening the same director hosted a programme comprising her 1991 doc A Place of Rage, accompanied by two new shorts made for a deluxe DVD. Not having seen this film since its original release, I was curious to see how it would stand up and found that the interviews with Walker, Angela Davis and the late June Jordan still hit home, explaining their activist work and writings as black women. The two new shorts find Davis reflecting on her life and one of Jordan's poems collected into one reading.

The day started with me finally finishing my aborted viewing of Yes Or No, having wrestled with the unreliable DVD players all week. This Thai film is unexpectedly sweet and a tad twee, almost an Asian 90210, what with its bratty teens, disapproving Moms, and budding young love. Kim, a tom, and Pie, a girly girl, are thrown together as college roomies, Pie having escaped from lipstick lesbian Jane, who turns her attentions to Kim. Surely Pie, who can't stand toms, won't mind? But she does.... No points for guessing the ending, but it was surprisingly sturdy as a comedy, despite the terrible pop interludes meant to illustrate our heroines' inner turmoil.

Now if I could just manage to finish Vito... I got almost to the end before time ran out. But the first 80 minutes or so of this doc flew by. Having known of Vito Russo as the author of The Celluloid Closet (which I picked up at a used bookstore in San Francisco in 1991, and which disappeared from my collection a few years later), I wasn't aware of his history as an activist prominent in post-Stonewall NYC and a founder of GLAAD and ACT UP. The archive footage shows him to be a thoughtful critic and powerful speaker lost, like so many others, before his time to AIDS.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

LLGFF: The (Not So) Perfect Family

Still from The Perfect FamilyPhew. A flurry of family dramas to get through. Just seen is The Perfect Family, Anne Renton's sly look at a would-be white picket family unit coming apart at the seams. Matriarch Eileen (Kathleen Turner on fine form) is a devout Catholic who attends Mass every day and spends every other waking hour serving the community and assuming her husband and offspring will follow her moral compass. Except hubby Frank is a recovering alcoholic, son Frank Jr. has left his wife, and daughter Shannon isn't going to get married... to a man, anyway, as Eileen discovers to her horror. A host of clever one-liners and a genuinely moving performance by Turner in what could have been a horrendously unsympathetic role make The Perfect Family a delight.

Another comic mother takes the lead in the Argentine film Mother Tongue (dir Liliana Paolinelli), as Estela learns rather late that her 43-year-old daughter Ruth has a lover of 14 years and sets about making up for lost time--by hitting the women's bars! The relationship between mother and daughter takes some twists and turns in this quirky tale.

Much more sombre in tone is Circumstance, Maryam Keshavarz's Iranian drama in which the kids take-centre stage. Best friends Atafeh and Shireen are leading double lives, veiled school girls by day and secret clubbers by night. This being Teheran, both are possible but the stakes are high for those who get caught doing anything un-Islamic, which includes the budding romantic relationship between the girls... Aside from one hilarious sequence in which the girls and their friends dub Sex and the City into Persian, the film is largely a tension-building affair, as Atafeh's increasingly paranoid brother Mehran intrudes into the girls' relationship, forcing her to make a decision about her future.

LLGFF: Gun Hill Road

Still from Gun Hill RoadHaven't seen much drama yet, but this ranks as the best so far. I was immediately intrigued as the title indicates the setting, a Latino neighbourhood in the Bronx, not too far from where I grew up.

Michael is a 17-year-old doing the usual teenaged stuff: dressing up, dating, going to nightclubs to do spoken word and attempting to transition by sneaking off to buy hormones from a local dealer. OK, not so typical. Add in two absent fathers (one biological and one chosen), and a mother who has her own secrets, and Michael aka Vanessa has a lot on her plate. When chosen dad Enrique (Esai Morales) is released from jail and returns home to find his little boy has changed, trouble is afoot.

Of course it all gets messy and the pot well and truly boils, but there are moments of comedy, as well, and Harmony Santana as Michael/Vanessa offers a very sweet vulnerability in the role, tentatively asking her boyfriend why he doesn't take her out, as promised. Esai Morales as the macho dad trying to understand, while dealing with his own compromised masculinity, is impressive. It doesn't seem that long ago he was playing the teenaged roles. How time flies.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

LLGFF: Genre Bending

Still from The Ballad of Genesis and Lady JayeLast night found me watching two ambitious, if flawed and sometimes tedious, docs, to varying degrees of frustration.

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (dir Marie Losier) featured the intriguing premise that its titular couple sought to fuse themselves into one being: the Pandrogyne. Genesis P-Orridge's entire career has been spent shape-shifting, changing names, bands and identities, though it remained unclear whether the desire to fuse with Lady Jaye actually placed P-Orridge in the transgender camp (P-Orridge seems to prefer "we" as the pronoun of choice). Though P-Orridge's voiceover provided the narrative flow of the doc, in my mind, the important questions went unanswered: Who was Lady Jaye? What was their relationship about? And what is Pandrogyny? Instead Marie Losier's camera lingered on P-Orridge, mugging, showing off implant-enhanced breasts, performing turns and recounting scandals past. Lady Jaye remained in the background, breezing in and out of shot and saying almost nothing. It really never felt like the two names in the title were at all warranted. Genesis Remembers would be a more fitting title, as Lady Jaye is no longer with us.

Earlier in the evening, I spent a bum-numbing two hours sitting through This Is Not a Dream (dirs Ben Walters/Gavin Butt), a recap of the breakthrough of queer voices into the realm of alternative television, from cable in the 70s to the current You Tube "stars". Again, the premise intrigued, but the delivery was marred by interminable interviews with not very interesting people, badly edited. Bright spots included Vaginal Davis recounting the Fertile La Toyah Jackson project and Nao Bustamante's "intervention" on Joan Rivers' talk show (missed that, myself). But, a lot of it was unnecessary flab and could have been trimmed way, way down. Kudos to Dickie Beau for the live spots, which would have worked better in a reduced running time.

Monday, March 26, 2012

LLGFF: the Future of Language

Still from Hit So HardJust finished a whirlwind day at the Southbank Centre attending my first day at the LLGFF, which has been underway since Friday. Caught 2.5 screenings, conducted an interview and swung by the Royal Festival Hall to watch Laurie Anderson's Sounds from a Room performance live from the adjacent building.

To recap: Hit So Hard is a really emotive and illuminating doc on the life and near-death of Hole drummer Patty Schemel, chock full of archive footage she shot while on tour in the '90s, supplemented with up-to-date interviews with all of the band members and various observers and associates, among them Phranc, Gina Schock and Patty's mother and brother.

I'd hotfooted it back from Laurie Anderson's "The Future of Language" to speak to Patty before the screening, meaning I had yet to see the film, but we had a good chat about her early inspirations (amazingly similar to my own), as well as her current life in Los Angeles, where she has a dog-walking business.

I capped off the evening with a screening of Girl Or Boy: My Sex Is Not My Gender, Valerie Mitteaux's portmanteau documentary on four individuals born women who now identify as men or none of the above, among them none other than Lynnee Breedlove, ex of Tribe 8, whose bandmate Lesley Mah turns up in wedding footage in Hit So Hard. Truly a small world. Afterward, Mitteaux answered questions, and various testimony was given by audience members as to the limits placed on identity by the state, people's imaginations, and indeed the language we speak. Mitteaux said her film was meant to break out of the box and look beyond binary gender identity and that she hoped in future it would not be given so much consideration.

Friday, March 23, 2012

London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival: Opening Night

Still from CloudburstTonight the 26th LLGFF opens with the road comedy Cloudburst. Starring venerable Oscar-winners Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker as lezzies on the lam, the film breaks new ground in presenting a long-term lesbian couple as heroines of their own adventure, while presenting their relationship as a given. After 31 years together, Stella and Dot find themselves separated when Dot's grand-daughter has her committed to a home. Stella breaks her out and the two go on the run.

Dukakis is a revelation as Stella, an unreconstructed butch, trading earthy jokes with her partner, while giving anyone who crosses her path an earful of her foul-mouthed opinions. The opening shot establishes the feel of the film brilliantly, with Dukakis, resplendent in flannel shirt and cowgirl hat, at the wheel of a pick-up, humming along to k.d. lang (several of whose early songs feature on the soundtrack). Marvellous.

Fricker has the tricky task of offering understated support as Dot, the blind, fragile partner to Dukakis' exuberant lead, but she also has some great moments, although the comic setpiece that finds her headbutting a naked man in bed is misjudged. The film does occasionally stray into crude slapstick, but there are so many great moments that the mis-steps don't spoil the fun.

One might question the necessity of introducing Ryan Doucette's metrosexual dancer Prentice to join the women on the run, but perhaps writer-director Thom Fitzgerald thought this would provide eye candy for the boys, the number of times Doucette takes off his shirt.

I was looking forward to meeting Ms. Dukakis for an interview today, but she has cancelled her appearance at the festival. A shame that, as I was hoping to get some butch tips from her.

Other highlights to look forward to: docs on Alice Walker, Patty Schemel, Vito Russo and Jobriath; hotly-tipped dramas Circumstance, Gun Hill Road and Stud Life; and chances to see Weekend, Pariah and Potiche.

The 26th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival runs from 23 March to 1 April at BFI Southbank.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Standing Drummer, Kneeling Guitarist

Plaided live; photo by Val PhoenixAs a long-time devotee of music, one sees peaks and troughs, and recently I have heard little to inspire me: playlisted radio, awards handed out to mediocrities--it's a bit dulling to the senses.

And then there's Plaided. Watching their progress from a distance, I wondered where this Vienna duo would go, and last night's gig at the Lexington gave the answer. Formed from the ashes of Ilsebill, Plaided take guitar and drums places they didn't know they wanted to go, down dark post-punk alleys, teeming with pissed-off Riot Grrrls who've nicked Kleenex's records.

A delightful study in contrasts, the band features diminutive Veronika on scratchy guitar and plaintive vocals, complemented by the Amazonian Julia on tribal drums, the two making such a racket one would think four or five players were on stage. But for the last number they switched, and Veronika prowled the stage, a single drumstick in hand, while her bandmate knelt down to pick out her guitar part.

Watching from the audience were some of their Vienna posse, including some burlesque performers and erstwhile Ilsebill bandmate Lena, who is now studying in the UK. It all added to the rough-hewn charm of the gig.

Plaided have one single out on Fettkakao, with an album to follow in summer.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Happy IWD

Hope you are enjoying International Women's Day, which has been trending at the top of Twitter's topics all day.

The news has been mixed, with a BBC exec stating the corporation no longer worries about gender; Pussy Riot still in jail; and an exhibit of women musicians shot by women snappers opening in London.

Here's Pussy Riot in action.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Radio: the professional way

Just catching up on my Deutsche Welle news, when I thought my player was malfunctioning. I distinctly heard the newsreader pause and then utter: "Scheisse", before continuing. (03:39)

Wow! What was the producer doing allowing that to go out unedited?

Extra funny points for it being "langsame gesprochene" reports designed to teach non-natives German!

Thursday, March 01, 2012

If Not Us, Who?

My review of this film, which opens in the UK tomorrow, is up now at The Quietus.

The editors re-wrote the headline and intro. I am biased, but I prefer mine: "War of Words: ideological bed-hopping in Andres Veiel's lumpen drama... "

I mean: "ideological bed-hopping". That's pretty good, right?

Took me 24 hours to work out that "Baader Romance" was a Lady Gaga reference. Not down with the kids.