"Sometimes," says Bruce Weber, narrating his lovely film Chop Suey, the highlight of the 7th Annual North Carolina Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, "you photograph what you can never be." The festival provides ample evidence for Weber's claim but also, in its variety and range, for its opposite. Sometimes you try to be what you can never photograph.
As anyone knows who's been involved in queer politics over the last decade or so, rites of designation have sometimes taken priority over less fundamental issues of queer identity politics; whole meetings will still routinely be given over to finding appellations comprehensive enough. And this year's festival, perhaps more than ever before, makes room for a decisive queerness, that emergent category of the '90s, above and beyond gay or lesbian, that tries to widen the frames of reference of sexual identities. A few of the films in the festival go the way of Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy, the straightest and most despicable "queer" movie of the '90s. Festival entries like Experimental Me or Issues 101 are nowhere near so dreadful as Smith's debacle, if only because they're not likely to be so influential. Yet both, in different ways, seem to want to alter definitions of sexual identity to bring in straight people.
This goal has the obvious advantage of inclusiveness but the potential drawback of dispersing the claims of sexual minorities so broadly that they can no longer form workable coalitions. Neither of these movies allays the latter fear. Experimental Me is about a man who flirts with homosexuality because he's having trouble dating women (Kissing Jessica Stein, anyone?), and the film is mostly about his straight friends' responses to this flirtation. Issues 101 concerns a gay pledge in a fraternity who brings out the queer side of his frat brothers. The first of these movies looks like a wedding video, the second like a porn movie without the money shots. The ultimate ambiguities of both, like those of Chasing Amy, seem more inclined to make queer identities weirdly titillating (as if they were aimed to straight audiences) rather than to celebrate exploratory sexualities.
I mention these films up front because, if there are any movies to avoid at this year's festival, these are the ones, though even they have their positive attributes: a random impulse toward sensitivity, a cute boy here, a hot sex scene there. Such values are predominant across the board in a festival that seems, with several crucial exceptions, a bit more interested in a good time--in having one and giving one--than in promoting the art of film. I hope it's needless to add that there is nothing wrong with that, after a fashion, so long as the art of film is promoted somewhere, as it certainly is on at least a weekly basis at the Carolina Theatre.
And then there is, above all, Chop Suey.
First, though, a broader survey of the festival's offerings. Two interrelated themes of the festival concern generational transitions in ideology and new terms of domesticity that emerge in the acceptance of new sexualities. The Perfect Son, winner of the festival's prize for best feature, concerns two brothers, separate in age and long in conflict, who rediscover their brotherhood after their father's death when the younger brother (David Cubitt) learns that the older (Colm Feore) is dying of AIDS. Though little known in the states, Feore is one of Canada's most distinguished actors of his generation, and his cleanly chiseled performance, and Cubitt's slightly blurrier one, are the main attractions of the film.
One + One is a documentary about two couples, one straight, one gay, dealing with HIV, and it eschews the melodramatics of most fictional treatments of the disease to present it as something one lives with, rather than something one dies from. Our Brothers, Our Sons concerns the rise of unprotected sex among younger gay men. The generational debate between "Baby Boomers" who practice safe sex and "Generation X-ers" who "bareback" as a statement of sexual freedom is presented with a semblance of neutrality, until the film comes down squarely with the Baby Boomers in the end. Despite the passion of this concluding plea, the schematic division of generations threatens to trivialize the issue.
AIDS hovers as a largely unspoken threat, too, over the films dealing with the phenomenon of gay circuit parties. The highest profile of these, Circuit, was a big hit at last year's Outfest in Los Angeles, where it's still playing a year later. Directed by Dirk Shafer (Man of the Year), it tells the story of a small-town cop who moves to Los Angeles and enters the circuit scene. Its use of digital video gives it immediacy, but like a lot of recent gay culture--the example of the American Queer as Folk comes to mind--it seems like a quaint throwback to the late '70s rather than an extension of the last two decades' developments. In plot and treatment, the film has a lot in common with the first wave of contemporary American gay fiction--like Andrew Holleran's Dancer from the Dance (1978)--but do gay men really still spend much of their time strutting and thrashing under strobe lights?
When Boys Fly, a documentary on the same subject, employs reality-TV conventions, mostly by way of The Real World, to lay out the pros and cons of Circuitland: Some of the talking heads say it's all about being free, while others maintain it's fake and futureless; intercut glimpses of orgies, resembling digitally enhanced negatives of MTV "Spring Break" specials, and let us decide for ourselves. At the beginning, one of the doubters says he expects all the attendees to be shallow party boys. After the ball, he says he's decided they're not. It will be unclear to most viewers just what changed his mind.
Other films exploring nontraditional family arrangements include Swimming Upstream, an emotionally alert chronicle of a lesbian couple's journey to childbirth; For Straights Only, an incisive treatment by a South Asian filmmaker of her brother's homosexuality, and of the status of gays and lesbians in South Asia more generally; and Family Values, an odd but fetching documentary about a lesbian cop whose partner goes into business as a crime-scene restorer. Potentially grisly, the film goes beyond standard documentary procedures to achieve a more satirical spirit--as in juxtaposing '50s sitcom music over crime scenes, to comment on the changing nature of modern domesticity.
Short films have traditionally been among the festival's highlights. This year documentaries dominate that field--perhaps because digital video has made them a little easier to produce--but some of the short fiction films stand out. War Story, a clever but overlong parody that queers Buster Keaton's The General, represents the more imaginative end of the spectrum, while Shooting Blanks, a trying comedy about a sterile oaf who kidnaps his brother to extort his sperm, confuses portraying obnoxiousness with enacting it.
A few entries need no introduction, like the much-anticipated The Fluffer, an acerbic, endearing account of life in gay porn, or Second Skin, a Spanish film in which Javier Bardem, of Before Night Falls, plays a gay man having an affair with a married man. It combines some of the sudsy melodramatics of Making Love with the arty strains of Steam (which it resembles more than passingly), but brings enough tact to the mix to pull it off with some class. Two gay-friendly divas, Elvira and Margaret Cho, make campy appearances, Cho in her funny concert film Notorious C.H.O. and Elvira in the unexpectedly pleasing Elvira's Haunted Hills, a horror parody with production design resourceful enough in its way to rival Roman Polanski's Fearless Vampire Killers, and a knowledge of horror buff enough to earn the film's dedication to Vincent Price.
Two more features worthy of mention include Susan Turley's cleverly plotted The M.O. of M.I., though, matching its title, it becomes too clever by the end; and Jeff Jenkins' Play Dead, a sort of queer Weekend at Bernie's, distinguished by fine performances from Nathan Bexton, who has a bouncy but restrained nervousness reminiscent of a young Matthew Broderick, and Jessica Stone, a beautifully fierce-faced little girl, whose hilarious severity makes her the anti-Margaret O'Brien.
North Carolina is showcased in a few of the festival's key films. North Carolina native Everett Lewis' Luster, something of a follow-up to his A Natural History of Parking Lots, is about a Los Angeles slacker who wants to seduce his cousin visiting from Iowa. It bears the influence of Dennis Cooper, the Marquis de Sade of dissolute youth culture, whose Frisk, in its movie version, was one of the only movies I've ever seen that I thought was a case of borderline immorality. Despite a frivolously comic take on S-M in Luster, an old-fashioned romantic heart beats under the grungy surface, and Cooper's poems, read in voice-over, sound in this context quite as banal as they really are.
The Triad weighs in with two films: Immaculate Reception, a fleetingly funny sort of lower-rent Raising Arizona--and how much lower can you go?--and A Union in Wait, a documentary about a lesbian union on the campus of Wake Forest University, in which the wedding itself provides a moving centerpiece. One film from the Triangle--Camp, made by a group associated with the Raleigh bar Flex--I was unable to preview, but another, The Kids Are All Right, provides a heartening, piercing glimpse into attitudes of queer youth in Raleigh. As a recent gay refugee from Raleigh myself, I felt some pangs of sympathy with these kids in their feeling that they're stuck there, but also waves of gratitude, on behalf of North Carolina, for having such wonderful, brilliant kids, who will surely grow--despite the obstacles they'll face in a structurally homophobic state--to make it a better place. A goal to which the festival itself, of course, aspires, and for which it should be celebrated.
Which brings us to Chop Suey, Bruce Weber's free-associational essay film on longing and looking, camp and love, the homoerotics of heterosexuality (and vice versa), a gorgeous Wisconsin wrestler named Peter Johnson, and diva-before-her-time Frances Faye. It's a deeply personal film, with a free-wheeling elegance and a reticent formal exuberance, and its moody loops and darts are unexpected, ebullient and perfect--from Jan-Michael Vincent to Diana Vreeland, skateboarders to Walt Whitman's "A Child Went Forth." If it makes no sense to you, you may still be moved. And if it makes sense, you're likely to think it could turn the whole world into a better place, which is what movies should do: give us, as this beautiful film declares, a permanent glimpse of a fleeting moment in a floating world.