This year's N.C. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (NCGLFF) comes to Durham's Carolina Theatre at a high point in gay culture in North America. Gay marriage recently became legal in Canada and in June, the stodgy gang on the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas sodomy law, thus overturning the notorious Bowers v. Hardwick decision of just a generation ago. Meanwhile, coming on the heels of Will and Grace, the hottest new show on television is called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (its five gay stars adorn the cover of the current Entertainment Weekly). Elsewhere, the media is promoting a new male identity called the "metrosexual," referring to straight men who take up heretofore unmanly habits like pedicures and facials.
It should be noted that most of these trends are male-oriented--lesbianism isn't enjoying the same vogue. Still, in an era when going to drag shows is practically an activity for middle-class squares, it seems that gayness isn't just for gays anymore.
But is that a good thing? On a certain level, sure. The current zeitgeist of tolerance is vastly preferable to the closeted past. But, there's a whiff of patronization to the current rage for all things gay that ignores, for example, the continuing ban on homosexuals in the military. We're no closer to lifting that ban than we were when Bill Clinton backed down from his efforts at outright integration 10 years ago. Furthermore, even as television makes stars of gay makeover artists, there's little chance that a major movie star will come out of the closet anytime soon.
Where does all of this leave the NCGLFF, now in its eighth year? As the diverse array of existing films demonstrates, there's plenty of queer territory left to explore, including aspects of the gay experience that are unlikely to be transformed into hit TV shows. Coincidentally, this year marks a dramatic expansion of the festival, which has been such a marvelous venue for Triangle film-lovers, queer and straight alike. Last year, the fest lasted three days; this year it's a five- day affair, with 98 films. As a bonus, there will be a four-day apres fest which will provide additional opportunities to catch the hits.
Here are capsule reviews of films that were available for preview. Best bets are denoted with a !. For a complete schedule, including film synopses, go online to www.carolinatheatre.org.
Alma Mater--This period piece opens with some potential as black comedy or camp. It's the fall of 1963 and a closeted Harvard professor has been denied tenure the same day that he gets an invitation from his freshman roommate Jack Kennedy, to attend a state dinner in that fateful November. While the prof turns to his male teaching assistant for comfort, his sex-starved, Jackie-obsessed wife begins shopping for an evening gown. However, the film loses momentum with a narrative that wanders off on subplots with atrociously written (and acted) minor characters. Saturday at 7:15 p.m.
Between Two Women--A well-acted British film about a married, working class woman's relationship with her son's art teacher in an industrial 1950s town. The period details are finely observed and sometimes oppressively so: There's no escaping the clanging of the trains, the whistling of the tea kettle and the ringing of the cathedral bells. Ultimately, this story of repression is a little too repressed for its own good--the pleasures this film affords are hardscrabble indeed. Saturday at 7:20 p.m.
! Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin--Perhaps the festival's best documentary, this film gives overdue attention to a vital figure from American radical politics. The African-American Rustin grew up as a middle-class Quaker in the partially segregated Philly suburb of West Chester before embarking on a wide-ranging and courageous career that included jail time for refusing to serve during World War II, behind-the-scenes work on the Montgomery bus boycott and organizing the 1963 March on Washington. Later, he held the non-violent line against the Black Panthers. Remarkably, he lived and worked as an openly gay man--despite a humiliating 1953 arrest in a public park that compromised his career. Of particular interest to North Carolinians: After Rustin was arrested in 1947 for sitting next to a white man on a Chapel Hill bus, he wrote a multi-part series for the New York Post about the 22 days he spent on a Tar Heel chain gang. Embarrassed officials quickly abolished the practice. One screening only: Friday at 5 p.m.
Coming Out--Gays and lesbians tell us how they told their friends and families. The stories are no less moving for their familiarity. Saturday at 11 a.m.
Eden's Curve--Lushly filmed in North Carolina, this is another period piece set at a college, and it concerns tensions that arise from a menage a trois between two men and a woman. However, the 1973 setting on a leafy campus would be more convincing if the film's star, a David Hasselhoff look-alike, didn't have carefully touched-up, two-toned hair to go with his well-over-college-age appearance. Saturday at 5 p.m.
! The Embalmer--This Italian drama may well be the finest artistic achievement of the festival but, thanks to its dark themes, it may not be the most popular. The film concerns a gay, 50-ish dwarf named Peppino who works as a taxidermist. Though he's genial and generous, Peppino is also a little weird--his moonlighting gig doing post-whack stitch-work for the Neopolitan mafia is just the least of it. His life changes when he meets Valerio--a working-class stud with little intelligence or personality--and gives him a job. Of course, the older man falls hopelessly and tragically in love with his new assistant. Fans of such 1970s European auteurs as Fassbinder and (especially) Pasolini will recognize this treatment of masochistic, doomed love between men. In particular, the hunky Valerio recalls the type of beautiful hoodlum that Pasolini craved (and was killed by). From the get-go, director Matteo Garrone sets a tone of danger and passion and never lets up, right down to the haunting finale in a fog-shrouded northern Italian town. There are numerous screenings of this film, beginning Thursday at 7 p.m.
Girl King--If you take Xena, Twelfth Night, Treasure Island, Mystery Science Theater, a Jacques Costeau underwater flick, and stick it all in a blender, you might end up with Girl King. Mmmm. Saturday at 3 p.m. and Sunday at 12:10 p.m.
! Hooked--This frank, dispassionate, but troubling documentary explores cruising in the Internet age. Thanks to real-time chat, men are able to trade vital stats and arrange a rendezvous in a matter of an hour. Director Todd Ahlberg talks with current and former cybercruisers: Some extol the culture as a vital means of near-instant gratification while others talk about it like a kicked cocaine habit. Sunday at 6:50 p.m.
P.S. Your Cat's Dead--Remember Steve Guttenberg? The 1980s equivalent of Jason Biggs who appeared in Police Academies 1,2,3 and 4? Well, Guttenberg's still on the beat and he comes to NCGLFF with this indie project that he directs and stars in. The film is adapted from a fairly well-known James Kirkwood play about a demoralized writer who engages in sexual power games with a man he catches in the act of robbing his apartment. However, one has the feeling that this material works better in the black box because the premise is too patently ludicrous to be convincing as a movie. Guttenberg's performance doesn't help: His turn as a pathetic sad-sack gives us nothing to root for. Friday at 9:15 p.m.
! Questioning Faith: Confessions of a Seminarian--This earnest documentary from North Carolina native Macky Alston concerns the ever-vexing quandary for those who believe in a benevolent deity: Why do bad things happen to good people? Alston undertook the project after a friend and fellow seminarian died from AIDS and the resulting film contains portraits of New Yorkers from diverse religious affiliations. Questioning Faith originally appeared at the 2002 Full Frame fest before airing last year on cable television. Saturday at 9:10 p.m.
Suddenly (Tan Repente)--There's nothing "sudden" about this flagrantly mistitled Argentine film. A lonely and overweight Buenos Aires woman gets kidnapped by two menacing, switchblade-wielding lesbians who take her for a road trip. The weird sisters, who call themselves Mao and Lenin, never make it completely clear why they've abducted the woman, but after some deadly dull sequences traveling through the pampas, the trio arrives at the hometown of Lenin (or was it Mao?) where some modest but sweet surprises are in store. Despite its dragginess, this film has some interest, mostly in the intense performances and gloomy black-and-white cinematography that purposefully eschews any Latin glamour. Thursday at 7:20 p.m. and Sunday at 2:45 p.m.
Summer Thunder--A young janitor and fluffer at a gay porn company copes with the trauma of having achieved childhood notoriety by losing his penis in a freak accident, a feat that earned him the moniker "Bloody Billy." There's a nice turn here by UNC grad Jessica Burstein but this film isn't exactly the second coming of There's Something About Mary. Sunday at 10:45 a.m.
! This Obedience--From the Twin Cities comes this documentary about Anita C. Hill, the first actively queer minister to be ordained in the Lutheran church. The story didn't end there, for the trailblazing parish was censured by the national church--events that this film documents exhaustively. The images of joyful and diverse worshippers at the Rev. Hill's liberal St. Paul congregation should be required viewing for the aging Catholic warlocks who are looking to find a way out of their church's present image as a chickenhawk ring. Sunday at 10:15 a.m.
! Treading Water--Ah, the best celebration of the Northern plains since Fargo! In Duluth, Minn., and other Iron Range communities, there are active and cheery groups of gays and lesbians, many of whom congregate in a gay bar called The Main Club, which was founded by a leather dude with court-ordered monetary damages from the Catholic Church. In this unassuming doc, the filmmakers uncover some surprises about being queer in the cold, cold north. Although the rural Midwest comes off as a gay-friendly place, an Asian man tells us that his biggest struggle was against local racism. Friday at 3:20 p.m.
!The Trip--This 10-year love story between a lefty activist and a conservative egghead is basically a television movie, a sentimental and comic tale that reaches a predictable conclusion. Still, this popular flick features strong performances from the leads and lively dialogue (it's gratifying to see that people still make jokes about Spiro Agnew). Writer/director Miles Swain keeps things zipping along despite occasionally deficient production values which include some of the worst wigs seen since Dana Carvey left the basement. Many, many screenings, beginning Wednesday at 7:15 p.m.
! Yossi and Jagger--This Israeli film is an affecting and sad portrait of two gay soldiers at a remote, snowy outpost. Yossi is the tough and dour unit commander while his lover, the beautiful, popular and high-spirited Jagger, urges him to lighten up. One striking aspect of this film is the apparent maturity of Israeli soldiers--mixed as they are by education, gender and sexual orientation--which stands in embarrassing contrast to the Neanderthal culture that the Pentagon continues to encourage in our own military. Sunday at 5 p.m.
The 8th Annual N.C. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival begins Aug. 6 and continues through Aug. 10. The hit films will screen for an additional four days, beginning Aug. 11.