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Thursday, September 28, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Pride—and queer film—is busting out all over

Screen Grabs: Pride—and queer film—is busting out all over

From John Waters and Gay Girls Riding Club to International Male, rainbow celluloid season heats up

It’s Pride Month, and of course for movie lovers that means the big event is the Frameline film fest, which opens Wed/14 and runs through June 24 at various SF and Oakland locations (with an extra week of streaming access afterward). But that’s next week. If you just can’t wait so long for that queer cinema fix, there are plenty of alternative options to whet your appetite for the annual 11-day onslaught.

They include relevant programming at local rep and arthouses, with CinemaSF hosting a mini John Waters festival (Pink FlamingosSerial Mom, Female TroublePolyester) among its three city venues. Which will also play additional titles of gay interest this month: The Birdcage and Milk at the Balboa; TangerineWomen on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and Desert Hearts at the 4Star; and Showgirls and La Cage aux Folles (wait, aren’t they the same movie?) at the Vogue. Go to www.cinemasf.com for dates, showtimes and other details.

The Smith Rafael Film Center in Marin is having a short CaFilm Pride series this weekend, Fri/9-Sun/11, starting with a screening of the great 2002 local history doc The Cockettes, featuring some very special in-person guests. On Saturday there’s Aurora Guerrero’s 2012 Mosquita y Mari, a fictive romance between two Chicana teens in Greater Los Angeles. Sunday brings an 11 am program of “Free Queer Shorts For the Whole Family,” including several animations. That afternoon, there’s another 2012 title, Call Me Kuchu—but given recent political events (including passage of a literal “Anti-Homosexuality Act”), this documentary about persecution of LGBT people in Uganda is depressingly more relevant than ever.

Streaming services are also hopping on the Pride train with some special programming. The Criterion Channel is going all-out with various individual titles as well as several series: The six-decade international sprawl of “LGBTQ+ Favorites: 20 Unforgettable Films”; a collection of features by veteran envelope-pusher Gregg Araki; an intriguing 10-film selection called “Queersighted: The Gay Best Friend,” dedicated to a character type/plot device familiar as far back as 1937 screwball classic Easy Living; and “Masc: 19 Films About Trans Men, Butch Lesbians, and Gender-Nonconforming Heroes,” whose selection of features and shorts was curated by SF’s own filmmaker/archivist Jenni Olsen and critic Caden Mark Gardner. More info at www.criterionchannel.com.

Metrograph at Home (the streaming arm of an NYC exhibition venue) has an extensive Pride programming calendar including one particularly rare slice of underground gay history. That is the output of Gay Girls Riding Club (more info here), a Los Angeles group of gay men and their friends who with 1962’s Always On Sunday began making elaborate amateur 16mm drag-camp parodies of mainstream films. That eventually encompassed the inevitable Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? spoof, another called The Roman Springs On Mrs. Stone, and a general espionage genre sendup called Spy On the Fly, whose action (involving Agent 0069 and lots of go-go dancing) eventually stretches to San Francisco.

These were all B&W silents, but the collective’s final effort was a feature-length extravaganza in color and sound. 1972’s All About Alice camped up Bette Davis’ ultimate vehicle with a starring impersonator and enough hunky full frontal nudity (from Dakota aka Ken Sprague, a bodybuilder who used his porn-flick profits to buy the original Gold’s Gym that same year) to get bookings at “all-male action” cinemas. The bewigged humor may wear thin, but these surprisingly slick private entertainments certainly prove that some gay men were having plenty of self-expressive fun before Stonewall.

That’s just a sampling of Pride Month film events outside Frameline—apologies for anything local that we missed. But there are also several newish LGBTQ features from around the globe just released to streaming platforms that we’ve taken the measure of below:

Nelly & Nadine

A different, equally surprising view of a fairly liberated gay life available pre-Stonewall—at least to those with with the economic means—is afforded by Swedish documentarian Magnus Gertten’s feature. He became fascinated by rare April 1945 footage of evacuated female concentration camp survivors arriving by boat in Malmo, wanting to identify each face its camera captured. One of the few not smiling and waving at her liberators turned out to be Nadine Hwang, Madrid-born daughter to China’s ambassador to Spain and a Belgian mother. And no wonder, since at that point she had no idea if the fellow prisoner she’d fallen in love with had also survived—opera singer Nelly Mousset-Vos got moved from Ravensbruck to another camp just before liberation. Both had been arrested for aiding anti-Nazi resistance forces.

They were indeed reunited soon after, eventually moving to Venezuela, where various recovered writings, photos and home movies show them enjoying a barely-closeted existence for decades to come. Nonetheless, outside their social circle, they claimed they were merely cohabiting “cousins,” Much of Nelly & Nadine has latterday family members expressing shocked delight at evidence of a long-term lesbian liaison they’d never heard mentioned before. This portrait of two highly accomplished women is gracefully crafted, offering a poignant glimpse not only of a hidden past but a reminder of just how many remarkable life stories get buried by time and circumstance. Wolfe Video releases it to On Demand platforms Tues/6.

Under My Skin
An interesting experiment in exploring the complexities of trans identity and transitioning, writer-director David O’Donnell’s debut feature has four non-binary actors—Liv Hewson, Bobbi Salvor Menuez, Lex Ryan, Chloe Freeman—as Denny. She’s an aspiring musician with an angsty nonconformist air who piques the interest of contrastingly vanilla Ryan (Alex Russell). He’s a young lawyer working in a stereotypical corporate environment of casually sexist, homophobic alpha males. Despite her initial disinterest and their lack of any tangible common ground, they become a couple. But Denny is not really comfortable, either as a “girlfriend” or indeed even in her own body. Some big changes are afoot, and Ryan will likely be among the relics of a past identity that must be left behind.

While well-made and generally well acted, this drama (evidently inspired by O’Donnell’s personal story) remains more a construct than anything emotionally immediate. The use of multiple performers in the lead role inevitably provides some distancing for the viewer. But more problematic is the fact that these two characters lack any detail or depth in the writing: He’s a one-dimensional Ken doll, earnest and bland, while Denny never quite comes into focus despite their laboriously sensitive songs (like “I Am the Ghost We Forgot”). Why do neither of them really seem to have other people (friends/family) in their lives? Why are they even attracted to each other? Under My Skin is an intriguing conceit, but it stays stubbornly abstract when it means to be psychologically revealing. 1091 Pictures releases the Australian-produced film to select US digital and cable platforms Tue/6.

Gay Bashing x 2: ‘The Neighbor,’ ‘Horseplay’

Two foreign-language features take very different approaches to homophobia in thought and deed. Pasquale Marrazzo’s The Neighbor (which has been released elsewhere as Hotel Milano) opens with a male couple relaxing in a park. Their Public Display of Affection is mild, but provoking enough to the brawny young lout who harasses them as his smirking friends look on, eventually forcing our protagonists to flee. Later, Luca (Jacopo Costantini) is alone when he runs into the same assailant, who this time beats him senseless. When Riki (Michele Costabile) hears about it, his partner is already comatose in the hospital—and he’s barred from seeing him by Luca’s bigoted parents. Meanwhile, flashbacks reveal the perp was no random hooligan, but an erstwhile childhood friend who’d been stalking and bullying ex-neighbor Riki for years.

A story of this nature can hardly help but have a degree of dramatic power, since so much of the behavior portrayed is so enraging—and so familiar. The problem is, Marrazzo’s execution is poorly judged, with way too much dysfunctional family melodrama piled onto the narrative, too many scenes of people yelling at each other on the phone, and other factors that turn a strong premise into something overlong, repetitious, and occasionally crude. (Plus, you know it’s an Italian movie when the real villains turn out to be smothering, manipulative mothers.) The actors do what they can, but their film ultimately lets them down. Dark Star Pictures and Uncork’d Entertainment are releasing it to U.S. digital platforms and DVD on Tues/6.

On the other hand, a little more melodrama would have been welcome in underplotted Horseplay by Argentine writer-director Marco Berger. He is one of those filmmakers whose personal preferences are perhaps a little too obvious: All his movies seem to be about toned young straight men wavering on the verge of having gay sex. That worked well enough in Plan B and The Blonde One, in which the characters were well-developed enough that their crossing a line from platonic friendship to something else had meaning, and credibility.

But his latest is more like the 2016 Taekwondo, a near-plotless excuse to show off a slew of such guys at leisure in various states of undress, both resisting and indulging a rampant homoeroticism. Indeed, it’s practically a remake, with another group of rambunctious dudes in another rural-vacation-home setting, their juvenile antics basically one long conundrum of “You homo” taunts and compulsively gay-adjacent behavior. It comes as no surprise when we discover that there is, in fact, some actual “I’m not a queer but hey… any port in a storm” hanky-panky going on here, discreetly under radar.

That hypocrisy, and the tension inherent in so much over-the-top “masculinity” flaunted by hot young men of privilege, inevitably leads to a fateful climactic explosion. Yet none of these characters have enough depth, or definition, to lend that event any real dramatic force. Berger definitely knows just how to present his ample eye candy, rendering it both titillative and fairly “natural.” He also has the finesse to keep us engaged by a film with almost no story—just a series of party-hearty incidents punctuated by occasional dialogue. But in the end, Horseplayhas almost nothing to say; it is content to gawk. The film’s current theatrical release seems to be bypassing the Bay Area, but it will be available on digital platforms and DVD from Dark Star Pictures on June 13.

All Man: The International Male Story
Also heavy on the beefcake and light on substance is this entertaining documentary tribute to the mail-order clothing company that became a sort of “Victoria’s Secret for men.” Its infamous catalogs featured a droolworthy parade of what one observer here describes as “Really masculine guys in pretty not-masculine outfits.” Indeed, the International Male sartorial look seemed to be alternately hot and “flaming,” sexy and camp, sometimes all at once. It was as if the client base was both gay men “of a certain age” with Liberace’s flamboyant taste, and the Chippendale-esque pool boys they preferred to walk around as minimally clad as possible.

Yet Brin Darling and Jesse Finley Reed’s film, narrated by Matt Bomer, reveals that despite all appearances, most of the models utilized were straight, and many of the customers were women buying for their husbands or boyfriends. Many of those customers were also non-white, as diversity-resistant as the catalog was. They saw the frequently garish clothes more as “romance novel fantasy” fodder, rather than, y’know, fit to fill a closet for The Boys in the Band.

International Male definitely played a role in freeing men from the dull “grey flannel suit” conformity of mid-century masculine fashion. Its fortunes rose, then fell. This isn’t an expose like the juicy recent Abercrombie & Fitch doc White Hot; it’s a pretty lightweight, hagiographic ode to a cultural footnote. But akin to looking at an old IM catalog, it offers fun of both the hubba-hubba and “People wear this?!?” type. Giant Pictures release All Man to digital platforms this Tues/6.

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