Bronx by the Bay: The Kuchar brothers, Mike (left) and George, receive the Frameline Award--and Jennifer M. Kroot's documentary It Came From Kuchar screens along with the Kuchars' own work.

Frameline33: Something Old, Something New

Dennis Harvey June 17, 2009

The success of anti-gay-marriage Prop. 8 shocked many people who’d assumed their fellow Californians were ahead of the national curve in terms of sophistication and tolerance. (And they were probably right, in that it took considerable out-of-state money expended on misleading, inflammatory ad campaigns to scare a narrow Left Coast majority into believing traditional marriage needed "defending.")

The general wisdom is that this will prove merely a temporary setback, that widespread social acceptance of homosexuality is an unstoppable trend. Where just a generation (let alone two) ago gay and lesbian life was entirely closeted to the world, existing only "underground," today such once-unthinkable phenomena as "out" elected officials, celebrities and TV characters are common to the point of rarely being considered newsworthy anymore. (Of course there are many conservative communities within the U.S. and cultures beyond that lag several long steps behind—including those nations where same-sex preference is still considered a capital crime.)

So, we live in an era where the signals are confusing: On one hand blasé, even "So what?" attitudes, on the other, stinging public face slaps like Prop 8. Given such mixed messages, it’s never a bad time for a dose of self-affirmation. And a massive annual one arrives this week with Frameline33, whose streamlined monicker now officially stands in for the multiple-breath-intake-requiring "San Francisco International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Film Festival."

This year’s slogan is "The Power of Film," and as usual the expansive program limns the diversity, issues, and omnipresence of LGBT communities worldwide. "Gay Power," once a rather hopeful concept, now really exerts itself on everything from everything from the deceptively trivial (consumer marketing, entertainment images) to the dead-serious (legislative policy, human rights pressures).

So much of edition 33 focuses on up-to-the-moment, hot-button topics like gay parenting (the plot hook in narrative features like Misconceptions and The Baby Formula), coming out in the African American community (Standing-n-Truth: Breaking the Silence), and new frontiers in gender definition (too many to mention, but including Against a Trans Narrative, Still Black: A Portrait of Gay Transmen, Two Spirits, Straightlaced and The Butch Factor).

A major sidebar, however, looks backward to the era when gay life first surfaced significantly on the mainstream radar and began fighting for equal rights. Tying in with the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots (which falls on Frameline’s closing night) "Queer Notes from Underground Cinema: 1960s-1970s" encompasses a number of programs chronicling aspects of that febrile period.

It includes portraits of a lesbian couple (Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement) together since well before Stonewall; sexy Warhol "superstar" Joe Dallesandro, who sorta-kinda admits to bisexuality in Little Joe; 70-something S.F. "living legend" drag diva Viki Marlane (Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight); and Mart Crowley (Making the Boys), whose 1969 play The Boys in the Band both broke down barriers about gay depiction in popular media and incited debate within the gay community about the perceived stereotyping of its characters.

This year’s Frameline Award goes to George and Mike Kuchar, the Bronx-born brothers whose deliriously campy early films predated (and influenced) those of Warhol, John Waters and many others. Jennifer M. Kroot’s documentary It Came From Kuchar will delight both old fans and those new to the still-active brothers’ work. Even that introduction won’t quite prepare you, however, for the mind-boggling B&W Gothic porn melodramatics of 1975’s Thundercrack!, which George wrote and late S.F. experimentalist Curt McDowell directed. More of yesteryear’s envelope-pushing is packaged in the "Canyon Cinema’s Queer Underground"program. Reaching back as far as 1947, it collects influential shorts by McDowell, James Broughton, Kenneth Anger, Su Friedrich and others.

Highlights elsewhere in the Frameline schedule are plentiful, bookended by opening nighter An Englishman in New York (John Hurt reprising his 70s Naked Civil Servant role as Quentin Crisp) and official closer Hannah Free (Cagney & Lacey’s Sharon Gless as a woman facing crisis after decades of a closeted lesbian relationship).

Recommendables include "Centerpiece" presentations Patrik 1.5, an endearing Swedish comedy, and Kimberley Reed’s dramatic personal documentary Prodigal Sons. Shine Louise Houston’s Champion mixes mixed-martial arts competition, S&M, graphic sex, and just enough ballasting plot/character content into one of the hotter lesbian features in recent memory.

Faith Trimel’s Family is a blunt, juicy soap opera about several L.A. African American women who make a pact to come out at the same time. Adam Salky’s slick Dare has a group of precocious high schoolers testing their formative sexual identities all along the Kinsey scale. Cary Cronenwett’s B&W Maggots and Men pays adventurous tribute to Russian silent cinema and avant-garde theatre with its dramatization of a real (if homoerotically amped-up) rebellion in the 1921 USSR.

Favorite talents returning with new work include Lilies’ John Greyson (Fig Tree), Colma: The Musical’s H.P. Mendoza (Fruit Fly), French duo Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau (Born in ’68), Teutonic prankster Monika Treut (Ghosted) and Oscar-winning local documentarian Debra Chasnoff (Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up).

Wish we had space here to enumerate all the additional titles of Bay Area creation or interest; international films hailing everywhere from China to Czechoslovakia; and unpreviewed features that came recommended by our spies. But you’ll just have to explore Frameline33 further for yourself. As ever with this festival, those not already holding tickets should plan on lining up early for all but weekday matinee shows.

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