Sunday, March 30, 2014

BFI Flare: Tru Love and Conscious Coupling

Tru Love
When I booked my last day at the festival yesterday, little did I realise it would be the first day of equal marriage in the UK, and the trappings of weddings were all around: Sandi Toksvig was renewing her vows next door, the festival delegate centre laid on mimosas and the screen was showing footage of happy same sex couples getting spliced. Even Twitter was running a hashtag called #sayido. Oh, my. A bit much for early on a Saturday. Or any day. I shared a few grumbles with another old hand as we stood by the bar, ignoring the cocktails and chocolate hearts. Assimilation. Grumble, grumble. Homonationalism. Grumble. Privatisation of relationships. Grumble. Good luck to 'em, but my view is: #sayidont.

Grasping my glass of prosecco-free orange juice, I pondered my first viewing of the day. Tru Love. Oh, great. But, this turned out not to be so much a rom-com as a reflection on unfulfilled promise and what people settle for. A Canadian drama written by and starring Shauna McDonald, the film starts off as a bit of a sex farce, with McDonald's character Tru jumping out of bed with someone to rush back to a friend's to let in her mother, Alice. It seems Tru is always running away: from relationships, jobs, any form of commitment. As her relationship with Alice unfolds, Tru reveals some early hurts, such as losing her parents and being thrown out on the street, that may explain some of her behaviours. But, that doesn't make them any less difficult for those around her. Another relationship, between her friend Suzanne and Alice, also needs some attention, while Suzanne and Tru also have some simmering issues. And, so, though the film starts off looking pretty formulaic, it actually turns into quite compelling viewing, as one wonders how all of this will unwind. I was quite touched, even if I thought the ending left one important strand unresolved while wrapping up another unconvincingly.

My last two screenings were both shorts programmes, both of a very different character. You're the One, Aren't You? turned out to be about love (that again!), with a range of relationship dramas, comedies and even an animation in which lesbian astronauts save the world! The Spanish farce Vecinas was a highlight, as two lesbian couples decide to swap partners for the night, with amusing consequences. I especially liked the translation of confusion which spelled it as "confussion", surely a lesbian neologism that fuses fuss and confusion. I have definitely experienced "confussion" in my life.

And then it was on to Past (Im)perfect, the experimental shorts programme which featured the world premiere of Bev Zalcock's and Sara Chambers' The Light Show: A Trilogy. Bev has been telling me about these films as she's been working on them over the last year, and so I was quite keen to see them. And they are lovely, a mix of digital and analogue, with dollops of disco iconography (Helen de Witt's term), melancholia and nostalgia. It can be hard to get into abstract work sometimes, but the audience was rapt and the sound was great. I very much enjoyed it. Some of the other works were hard-going, most notably the last film, a 29-minute piece that seemed to be five or six films strung together. I should have known when the first section was one shot of a man shaving in a shower that went on for several minutes. The one bright spark was a girl singing Nirvana's "Dumb" a cappella in a locker room.

Everyone seemed to be attending parties in the evening, but I had to rush home, meaning I missed the Vagina Wolf screening, attended by none other than Guin Turner. I did see Turner sneaking out for a crafty fag, earlier in the evening as I took another turn in Killjoy's Kastle, as I wanted to listen to the footage of the zombie folk singers, which you can only hear on headphones. The performer featured is none other than Gretchen Phillips, whom I well remember from her days in Two Nice Girls. Here she was sending up the hoary days of lesbian folk singers, in an all-Canadian set. And her choices were Kathy Fire and Ferron! I am still not sure if her white braid, which she had to flick out of the way of her guitar, is real or was part of her costume, but she gave her zombie character her all.

I also ran into Carol Morley, currently in post-production on her schoolgirl drama The Falling, which she is prepping for the spring festival circuit. Grading starts Monday, and Tracey Thorn is doing the music, so that sounds fab.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

BFI Flare: Who's Afraid of Vagina Wolf?

Who's Afraid of Vagina Wolf?
So far, this is hands-down the best thing I've viewed at the festival, and there are rumours afoot that director/star Anna Margarita Albelo will be bringing her vagina costume to the screening tonight, so it should be quite the event.

Part farce, part reflection on success and failure and part mid-life crisis drama, Vagina Wolf is a delightful melding of comedy and pathos, with Albelo at its heart. As struggling film director Anna arrives at her 40th birthday party, she realises she is at a crossroads: "I had sacrificed love for my career, and now I had neither." Dressed in the vagina costume in which she earns a crust as a performer in galleries, she is exposed and lonely. And her friends (including Guin Turner in marvellously bitchy form) are no help, either, egging her on to chat up women with whom she has nothing in common. She lives in a garage and dreams of making that breakthrough. Once she embarks on a lesbian reworking of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in order to impress a young lady, she is on a collision course with herself, as her frailties and fears come to the surface.

What I love about this film is that Albelo, a seasoned comic actress, isn't afraid to make herself look ridiculous, as she spends much of the film hiding inside this costume. But, once on set, as Georgie, Anna is exposed emotionally, having to confront her worst fears, and the tone becomes quite serious. It isn't played for laughs. This character is going through hard times and we are not sure how she will emerge. It's very brave film-making. The film-within-a-film trope has been done many times, but here it really works. And the fact it may be autobiographical also has resonance.

Albelo's Hooters was a highlight for me of a previous festival, but here she really comes into her own as an actress and film-maker.

Friday, March 28, 2014

BFI Flare: Sex and Liberation

Between the Waves dir. Tejal Shah
Last night's Flare viewing consisted of a documentary on a pioneer of underground gay film, plus a semi-retrospective on a current artist filmmaker.

James Broughton, celebrated in Big Joy, was a West Coast filmmaker-poet active in the post-war years in San Francisco, though he attracted more attention in Europe, earning a special prize at Cannes. In truth, the film footage shown looked a bit ropy to me: sub-Chaplinesque hetero follies played out in unlikely locales, including London's Crystal Palace. But, there was more to Broughton than his films. A playful wordsmith, he wrote 23 books of poetry, lines of which are cleverly used in the film, whether flashing up on screen or read out by his nearest and dearest, including his estranged wife. Yes, wife, because Broughton swung both ways and wasn't exactly careful in his relationships. Three children came out of his liaisons with film critic Pauline Kael and his later wife, Suzanna Hart, who still seems broken by the betrayal. Broughton left her for the love of his life, a younger man, but I did feel for the abandoned wife. Very telling, too, that two of his children declined to be interviewed for the film. Artists, eh? The most amusing parts of the film (aside from the appearance of Frida Kahlo on two interviewees' walls) are the acerbic comments by George Kuchar, who takes the piss out of Broughton's sunny Radical Faerie world view, and stresses that his film The Bed was detested "on the East Coast". You can take the boy out of the Bronx...

The evening was capped off by The Stinging Kiss, nine films by Tejal Shah, who works in Goa and ususally shows in gallery settings. This festival screening, she said, was new territory for her. And for me, as I found myself by turns discomited, bemused, and a bit fidgety over the next two hours. The films' aesthetic reminds me a bit of the Austrian cyberqueer film, Flaming Ears, that I saw many, many years ago, and Shah did name-check Donna Haraway in her comments. There is a coldness and detachment that makes it difficult to get immersed in the works. To be sure, Shah is exploring power relations and oppositions, as she positions herself in the frame in different roles. In one, she is the "dacoit" (a term new to me) enacting a scene that blurs the lines between torture and S/M with a male protagonist playing a cinematic heroine. In another, she is being force-fed reams of food by a dead-eyed female collaborator. In the longest work, an epic five-part sci-fi meets nature drama (Shah declared herself newly out as an ecosexual), a band of unicorn beings frolics in various incongruous settings, including a desert and underwater grotto. I wasn't clear what was happening, but watching Shah penetrate her partner with her horn while both writhed in pomegranate juice, well, you don't get those experiences in a multi-plex.

Pick of the day:
For a good old-fashioned tragic romance, you can't beat Reaching for the Moon, Bruno Barreto's lush drama on the love affair between poet Elizabeth Bishop and architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Wow! These two women were seriously high-powered and highly strung. Two continents aren't enough for them, as they build parks, write masterpieces, squabble and seemingly ignore the heartbreak and simmering resentment of Soares' cast-aside partner Mary, an old friend of Bishop's. A high IQ clearly doesn't equal a high emotional IQ, and Mary's revenge is a turning point in the film. With gorgeous visuals of Brazilian landscapes, and judicious use of Bishop's poems, the film also features three excellent performances by the leads playing out the triangle over a 16-year period. Take tissues.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

BFI Flare: Another Time, Another Place

To be filed under back in the day, two features focused on gay men offer up competing visions of sexual mores and practices.

Continental, Malcolm Ingram's doc on New York's legendary Continental Baths, casts the mind back to a time between 1968 and 1974, when gay men didn't need to worry about safe sex and could frolic and bareback to their hearts' content. As long as the police and Mafia were paid off, since gay sex was illegal. But, if you didn't mind that intrusion, it was possible to meet hot guys and take in a show by Bette Midler and have a swim in the same venue. (Even Hitch dropped in!) Proprietor Steve Ostrow takes centre-stage, and his story threatens to overwhelm the Baths', as the doc shuffles along, creaking to a stop in present-day Sydney, where Steve has finally achieved his lifelong dream of a career in music.

Moving into 1980s San Francisco, Chris Mason Johnson's Test takes us into the world of modern dance, as young Frankie comes to terms with the realities of being a sexually active gay man unsure of the risks of his behaviour and trying to decide whether to take the new HIV test. I found the frequent dance sequences interrupted the unfolding drama, and waited impatiently to see whether Frankie and his hirsute colleague Todd would get together. The film picks up quite a bit in the last 15 minutes and there is a delightful nightclub scene in which Frankie and Todd shed their professional demeanour to have a good ol' knees up.

Monday, March 24, 2014

BFI Flare: The Punk Singer

The Punk Singer
It's been a long wait to see The Punk Singer in the UK, after it premiered at SXSW in 2013, and I had built up huge expectations in the meantime. Kathleen Hanna's story is hugely intriguing to me, for musical and political reasons. Bikini Kill remain one of my favourite bands and my interviews with her are also some of my favourites.

Sini Anderson's doc, shot between 2010 and 2011, crams a lot in, and, with its plethora of interviewees (too many, I suspect), covers a lot of ground, from Hanna's early spoken word (which opens the film) to her diagnosis of late stage Lyme disease (after being ill for five years). I hadn't realised Hanna had been absent from the music scene since 2005, so the film's prolonged tease about what exactly had kept her off-stage didn't work for me as a mystery, but it's still instructive to know more about this illness and its effects (quite dramatic, as one scene shot by her husband at home shows) on her.

As far as those interviewees go, well, there are so many of them, that several don't even merit captions (including Kaia Wilson--I would have liked to have heard what she had to say), and the plethora of hagiographic praise and snapshots of the singer only serves to create a cult of personality around Hanna, something she persistently resisted in her years with Bikini Kill. That's a shame, because while she is in interesting figure, the message of Riot Grrrl and feminism in general has always been to go out and do it yourself, rather than worshiping someone else for doing so. I wonder if the intervening years have diluted that message to the point that it's been lost.

In the house was Lucy Thane, as well as Shirley and Ana from The Raincoats, all of whom came on-stage for a post-film Q &A, appropriate as Thane's It Changed My Life was the opener for the Hanna doc. It's interesting to see how this record of Bikini Kill's UK tour from 1993 has aged. All the energy and graininess of the time is still there, but the audience seemed to find the naivety of the British bands who emerged, such as Skinned Teen, comical. I don't recall that being so when I first viewed it all those years ago. Perhaps there is less tolerance for non-technical playing these days.

I asked the panel about current feminism's preoccupation with responding to pop culture, rather than creating alternatives. Ana replied she'd like to see both, and doesn't mind pop culture if it has something to say. As these films remind us, sometimes the subculture says it louder and better.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

BFI Flare: Contentious

Today's overview centres on difficult women, from lesbian rogues to a mother harbouring secrets.

The rogue is the late Dawn O'Donnell, clearly a legend of Sydney's LGBT scene but unknown to me until Fiona Cunningham-Reid's Croc-a-Dyke Dundee. Colourful doesn't begin to cover O'Donnell's life: convent school girl, ice skater, nightclub maven and ruthless businesswomen who also had an eye for the ladies. Was she involved in a murder, too? The doc's voiceover is archly vague about this, but it's quite a tale.

Violette Leduc was clearly a woman in thrall to her passions, but she was French, so that's par for the course. In truth, the writer comes across as a bit of a drag in Esther Hoffenberg's doc, Violette Leduc: In Pursuit of Love, enmeshed in unrequited relationships with Simone de Beauvoir and several gay men, while complaining of never being at home anywhere. It did make me curious about her writing, however, so all is not lost.

Pick of the day:
Marcel Gisler's Rosie is a slow-burning drama about family obligations and secrets. Sibylle Brunner is mesmerising as the matriarch slowly succumbing to age, while her gay son Lorenz can't seem to commit, even when love is right in front of him. The rural Swiss locations are beautifully observed, as Lorenz makes ever more trips from Berlin back to the homestead to tend to Mama, while in denial about her frailty. When secrets emerge about his late father's past, Lorenz has to face up to some home truths.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

BFI Flare: First Impressions

Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger
I spent a very enjoyable afternoon / evening at the shiny new BFI Flare yesterday. Formerly the LLGFF, it's been rebranded and spruced up with rather viral looking explosive blobs that some mistook for hothouse flowers, but which I quickly recognised as flares. Ahem.

Highlight was most definitely Sam Feder's artful documentary Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger, a title as playful as its subject. Gender outlaw Bornstein was a fixture on the queer scene in SF when I lived there in the early '90s, and though we never officially met, she contributed much to discussions of gender expression and identity throughout that time. I'd lost track of her work since then, but the film mentions several of her books, including one on alternatives to suicide. Feder's portrait does not attempt an overview of her life, but merely touches on several aspects, as we meet some of her friends and family, including at least one ex. Bornstein emerges as a spirited, very funny and opinionated (her defence of "tranny" will rankle some) soul, whose battle with cancer and dedication to a life lived without being mean offers a vision of how to get through the worst obstacles.

My prelude to that couldn't be more different. GBF (dir Darren Stein) is the latest in an endless stream of US high school comedies. This one offers the trope that the gay best friend is the latest accessory for the ambitious would-be top girl, and so dorky Tanner finds himself suddenly in demand by the three high-maintenance divas vying to be Prom Queen. While a lot of the comedy is predicated on just how shallow the three girls are, I will give the film credit for clearly differentiating them, as well as offering a plethora of juicy female roles in what is essentially a gay male coming out story. Megan Mullally even turns up as one of the boy's well-intentioned, overly supportive mothers. The film also throws in a couple of ethnic minorities in what is otherwise a white suburban setting, but then spoils its feel-good mood by its casual use of "Wonton" and "rice queen" in reference to the Asian sidekick character. Gnarly, dude.

I capped off my visit with some cake, courtesy of Allyson Mitchell's Kill Joy's Kastle installation which has taken up residence in the very chilly atrium. More on this later, but the artist is giving a talk today at 16:00 GMT.

Today's film picks:
Big Words (dir Neil Drumming) is an ensemble piece set in NYC 2008, in which John attempts to pick up the pieces of his life after being fired from his latest job. It emerges he was once in a rap trio, DLP, in the '90s and the film circles around its three former members as they all come to terms with changes in their lives. The gay content is only peripheral, but the most interesting thing about the film is its resistance to the obvious plot devices. We expect the three to come together at some point, but their confrontation is not the expected happy ending. Kudos also to a film that is set on the day of Obama's election, and doesn't show any characters voting!

Valencia, based on Michelle Tea's novel, has 21 directors, so I won't run through them. But, the film is a fragmentary portrait of Michelle's life in the queer scene in SF in the 1990s, extravagantly depicted through many, many styles, including claymation! The music is awesome, as would be expected.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

IWD Mash-up

Happy International Women's Day! I have just been sent a link to AGF's amazing mash-up of women electronic music artists from the 1930s-onward. Get squelchy!

NERDGIRLS Mash by poemproducer AGF 8 March 2014 - for equality, diversity and world peace by Poemproducer Aka Agf on Mixcloud

Friday, March 07, 2014

Off Road

Elisa Amoruso's film Off Road, which is playing in London as part of the Cinema Made in Italy festival, is an intriguing, puzzling documentary which raises questions about identity and constructed lives.

At the centre of it is Beatrice, previously known as Pino, a mechanic with a lovely life shared with Marianna and the latter's son Daniele. Beatrice is quite matter-of-fact about her transition from life as Pino and is a boisterous character, dressing in bright pinks and always in search of a new dress. She is also head over heels in love with Marianna, explaining how she set eyes on her and immediately professed her love and her desire to take her home.

Marianna, for her part, is more reticent, and I noticed after the film ended, that she never declared her love for Beatrice. In fact, she didn't refer to Beatrice as Beatrice or even she, calling her Love and Darling, and in her interviews consistently referring to Beatrice using male pronouns. Oh, dear. Despite Beatrice's emphatic embracing of a female gender, those around her consistently named her as male, including her mother and Daniele, who had claimed her as Dad, despite meeting her after her transition. They seem to regard her more as a man who cross-dresses and Beatrice as the personification of this identity.

How does Beatrice manage this contradiction? Well, she seems not to acknowledge it, preferring to dwell on her skill as a mechanic (the team she works for "never spoke about" her transition), and tend to her ill dog, Kira, as well as her menagerie of farm animals in what seems to be a rural idyll.

As the film develops, it turns out Beatrice has run away from a previous life, including a child who is heard but not seen, and the story takes a bit of a sad turn (even the dog sub-plot turns sour). Beatrice appears as not such a carefree soul, but one burdened by unresolved issues and a bit of anger, if determined to claim her space on the road.

Elisa Amoruso will appear at the screening of Off Road on 8 March for a Q&A.