If public libraries can now be purged of gay-positive (or even gay-referencing) materials, with conservatives using the usual “Think of the children!” excuse, how much further might the trend go if unchecked? Since 1988, the National Film Registry has amassed a list (adding 25 annually) of movies to be preserved for their artistic, historical, and/or cultural significance, an archive that’s increasingly encompassed titles of representational importance to particular minority groups. What’s to prevent reactionary interests from one day demanding de-selection of “offending” LGBTQ+-themed selections, on the premise that their validating inclusion in the Library of Congress somehow constitutes “grooming”?
Two of the films in BAMPFA’s current “Pioneers of Queer Cinema” series just got added to that preservation roster last year, and pretty much the entire program consists of prior or likely future Registry additions—evidence of an American history many on the right would love to erase. Stretching over two months, the schedule began last weekend with two-thirds of its narrative feature content: Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 The Watermelon Woman, and Warhol’s 1965 My Hustler. Next up on March 19 is the remaining third, Bill Sherwood’s 1986 Parting Glances, one of the first movies to dramatize the AIDS era. While the Manhattan-set story’s focus is on a gay couple on the verge of breakup, the film is pretty much stolen whole by Steve Buscemi’s breakout turn as a best-friend artist facing mortality far too soon.
The remainder of the series, which runs through May 3, consists of important and adventurous nonfiction cinema, starting (on April 2) with 1977’s groundbreaking Word Is Out: Stories Of Some Of Our Lives, the collectively-produced compendium of interviews spanning the breadth of US queer experience—not just in the heyday of “Gay Lib” but in the deep closets of prior decades. Because almost nothing like it had existed before, it provided the first time many viewers had seen people recognizably like themselves onscreen.
Later on, key periods of public resistance are captured in features like Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning and Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk, while others—Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied, Tom Joslin’s Blackstar: Autobiography of a Close Friend, Debra Chasnoff and Kim Klausner’s Choosing Children, Su Friedrich’s Hide and Seek—take various tacts to mix the political and the very personal. For full program and schedule info, go here.
A couple fiction features arriving on streaming platforms this week, both from “down under”—New Zealand as well as Australia—underline that for many, coming out in the 21st century isn’t much less fraught than it was in the 20th. With his brawn, crewcut, ten-gallon hat and cowboy boots, Casey (Josh Lavery) in Lonesome rolls into Sydney the very picture of corn-fed rough trade. He’s willing to play that part, too, for pay or just for kicks.
Yet even this “gay mecca” can be a pretty cold place for a newcomer without money or connections. He lucks into an alliance with Tib (Daniel Gabriel), another sexy young mofo who’s carved out an existence of odd-jobbing and casual sex. They might be one another’s salvation, if they don’t blow it in subservience to individual self-destructive tendencies bred by painful past rejections.
Craig Boreham’s film has a familiar Midnight Cowboy ring in general premise, and some may object to a whiff of old-school gay self-loathing—particularly when Casey tumbles into a gamey and degrading kinky paid-sex gig (involving former pro rugby player Ian Roberts as a leather daddy) towards the end. Still, it operates primarily from a position of empathy. Even the considerable amount of well-toned male nudity here seems more logical to these characters’ escape-chasing lives than routinely exploitative. Lonesome has a honed aesthetic that’s impressive without being self-conscious, and the performers are likewise attractive yet always thoughtful in expressing their roles’ inner conflicts. Dark Star Pictures releases it to US digital and On Demand outlets on Tues/7.
While we meet Casey on the run from scandal in his rural hometown, the protagonists in New Zealander Welby Ings’ debut feature Punch—one of whom dreams out loud of running off to Sydney—are pretty much living that backstory, one they’ll hopefully bury deep in the past some day. Jim (Jordan Oosterhof, looking like young Matt Damon) is an athletic teen who nevertheless chafes somewhat at his hard-drinking father’s (Tim Roth) humorless focus on training him for a boxing career. Fellow high schooler Whetu (Conan Hayes) is at the contrasting nadir of the local social totem pole, a loner gay kid without apparent family, angrily proud enough to snipe back at his bullies.
The two boys cross paths in their coastal hamlet—at first adversarially, then less so when Whetu comes to the assistance of a jellyfish-stung Jim. Their friendship develops fast, albeit ambiguously in terms of romantic interest, and hesitantly in terms of Jim’s willingness to publicly associate with the village pariah.
Punch is in certain respects more ambitious than Lonesome, but all the things that latter film downplays to nuanced effect get amped up here, to results that are often heavy-handed. Stylistically, the film is too showy (how many training montages do we need?) and occasionally pretentious. The villains are cartoonish, melodrama gets laid on thick, and principal characters played sincerely enough nonetheless get virtually no explanatory background. I’m not sure which element is more precious or gratuitous, Oosterhof’s constant shirtlessness or Hayes’ warbling of generic sensitive pop tunes. The Maori cultural aspects are so poorly articulated, you’re surprised when advisers get thanked in the closing credits. Worst of all, Ings’ dialogue is frequently so labored, it’s amazing it survived any (presumed) script revision process intact.
I’m probably making it sound worse than it is, because the extent to which Punch lets down its potential is ultimately just a few degrees below the level at which Lonesome rises above its conceptual modesty. But it’s got that particular grating quality of a filmmaker trying to cram every idea and flourish into a magnum opus—as if they might never get the chance again—only to underline the material’s superficiality by overplaying it. In the end, its mashup of teen Rocky and teen Ma vie en rose plays exactly as that sounds, like a shotgun marriage of dueling cliched narratives that refuse to bond. Another Dark Star release, Punch’s limited US theatrical release this Fri/10 is bypassing the Bay Area, but it’s simultaneously launching on digital and On Demand platforms, then coming out on DVD April 11.