Even a casual observer would surmise that Bay Area queer filmmakers take special pleasure in unveiling their latest work at the S.F. International LGBT Film Festival. What is open to debate each year, though, is whether this or that feature-length film deserves its spot in the program, or if hometown favoritism played the deciding role. What's the 2010 verdict? Merit badges are in order. (See Emmanuel Hapsis's Festival Preview for a list of must-see flix.)
Starting with the narratives, Hollywood hair stylist turned San Francisco writer-director Billy Clift offers a delicious response to that perennial question, "Can we finally please let go of the Bette Davis-Joan Crawford thing?" Not just yet, sweet cheeks, for there's life in the old bags yet. At least as played by Matthew Martin (as Bette, er, Baby Jane) and J. Frank Martin (Joan/Blanche) in Clift's salute-slash-parody Baby Jane? (June 22, 9:45pm, Castro Theatre). The movie manages to create its own world, ambience and knowing jokes even as it lifts lines and camera angles from the 1962 camp classic. An impressive achievement all around, and trés entertaining. (Note: Billy Clift will share his favorite SF food spots on Bay Area Bites, KQED's food blog. Check it out Monday, June 21.)
Scott Boswell's The Stranger In Us (June 23, 6:45, Roxie Theater) seamlessly blends grit and grace in its intimate study of an East Coast transplant's rocky first year in San Francisco. Raphael Barker gives an appealingly vulnerable performance as a would-be writer who moves here to be with his upwardly mobile lover yet finds himself inexorably drawn to the nocturnal street crowd in the Tenderloin. Boswell's clever (though not too clever) structure is pivotal in adding layers of depth, mystery and social commentary to a low-budget film essentially populated by three characters.
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's one-of-a-kind Howl (June 27, 7:30pm, Castro Theatre) opened Sundance and closes Frameline; you'll hear all about it when it opens in theaters nationwide in September. Suffice to say that it's an odd picture, intelligent and diligent but without a strong narrative thread. James Franco's tasty and occasionally thrilling performance as beat poet Allen Ginsberg, reenacting a candid late-'50s interview, is the movie's motor, although the obscenity trial of City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti supplies a measure of drama (as well as comic relief). A film for those who love words and language, as well as those who ascribe more value to ideas than to stories.
Segueing from dramatized history to straightforward nonfiction, Steve Clark Hall's timely Out of Annapolis (June 26, 11am, Castro Theatre) presents the experiences of a number of former servicemen and women who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. The doc succeeds, as you'd expect, as an exposé of the costs of "Don't ask, don't tell" and a rebuke of the canard that gays and lesbians are a distraction (or worse) in the military. A retired officer himself, Hall assembles a slew of interesting people willing to speak openly and articulately, however their testimony is largely devoid of emotion or raw spontaneity. (Casualties, perhaps, of the discipline and discretion acquired in the service.) Presumably because of budget constraints, Hall illustrates their stories almost entirely with still photographs, which wouldn't be worth mentioning if the interviewees were more revealing and less buttoned-down. A worthy addition to gay and lesbian history, but not as compelling for the general public as it might have been.
There's no lack of straight-talking, no-holds-barred subjects in veteran TV producer Glenn Davis's Trans Francisco (June 19, 11am, Victoria Theatre), which gives poignant voice to a range of urban transsexuals. Although not quite as demonized and persecuted as they were, say, 20 years ago, most of these transgender people describe being banished by their parents, turning to prostitution to support themselves and, all in all, what's it like as the last Americans whose rights and feelings are routinely trampled. This street-real 52-minute film is marred by jarring transitions and haphazard organization, but those flaws are far outweighed by the array of remarkable people who grant us entrée to their lives.
We Were Here: Voices From the AIDS Years in San Francisco, the stark and unflinching new film by David Weissman (The Cockettes), screens June 20 at the Castro in what's billed as a "special sneak preview of an almost-completed film." The doc wasn't available for press preview, but I'm planning to attend this sure-to-be-memorable screening and encourage you to do likewise. And yes, that's right, I'm giving this film a merit badge sight unseen. I'll elaborate at some point later this year, when the film is released.
Frameline34 runs June 17-27, 2010 at the Castro, Roxie and Victoria Theatres in San Francisco and the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley. For tickets and information, call (415) 703-8655 or visit frameline.org.