Monday, July 9, 2012

Reverend's Previw: Outfest at 30

In 1982, the Rubik’s Cube was all the rage, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was the #1 movie, and Madonna’s career was just beginning.  It was also the year a group of GLBT volunteers at UCLA first organized what would become Outfest, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.  That initial event featured a mere three films: Taxi Zum Klo, Making Love and the lesser-known Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man.

Outfest 2012, which is set to take place July 12th-22nd, will celebrate the global growth of GLBT-themed films over the last three decades with special anniversary screenings of those movies as well as the Los Angeles premieres of 147 productions from 24 countries.  Outfest is today the oldest of the many annual film festivals in LA and the leading GLBT festival in the US.

“In this 30th anniversary year, it is remarkable to see the evolution of queer storytelling,” said Outfest’s Executive Director, Kirsten Schaffer.  ”Outfest began with just three films, and now we are screening nearly 150 high-quality movies that represent the rich diversity of our community; stories that contribute to changing culture and attitudes about LGBT people.”  Several of the most prominent queer filmmakers of the last thirty years — including Gregg Araki (The Living End), Rose Troche (Go Fish) and Tommy O’Haver (Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss) — will be feted during a special “Directors Tell All” program on July 15th.

Opening night gala events on Thursday, July 12th will include the LA premiere of the excellent documentary Vito, about author/historian Vito Russo of The Celluloid Closet fame, as well as presentation of the 16th annual Outfest Achievement Award to John Waters.  Waters needs little introduction as the writer-director of such contemporary classics as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester, Hairspray, Pecker (my personal favorite), A Dirty Shame and, of course, Serial Mom.

For me, Outfest wouldn’t be complete each year without its Sing-Along Musical night at Hollywood’s Ford Amphitheater.  This year’s selection, largely in tribute to Waters, is the 2007 musical version of Hairspray starring John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah and Zac Efron.  It will be held the evening of Thursday, July 19th.  Attendees are encouraged to dress in costume as characters from the film and, naturally, to sing along.

Other movies being shown during Outfest 2012 that I have seen in advance and recommend highly include: Sassy Pants (see my interview with one of its stars, Oscar nominee Haley Joel Osment, later this week); the International Centerpiece film Young & Wild; local filmmaker Aurora Guerrero’s lesbian romance Mosquita y Mari; the sweet Slamdance Film Festival award-winner Heavy Girls, from Germany; the Swedish girl-on-girl tale Kiss Me; Stud Life, from Great Britain; and Katherine Brooks’ Facebook expose, Face 2 Face.  For a complete listing of films or to purchase tickets for screenings and related events, please visit the Outfest website or call (213) 480-7065.

Quentin Lee is another prominent queer filmmaker who has been featured at Outfest several times.  The director of such Asian-fusion movies as Drift and The People I’ve Slept With is back this year with White Frog, a moving family drama that incorporates homosexuality, conservative Christianity and Asperger’s Syndrome.  It boasts a great cast that includes Glee’s Harry Shum Jr., out actor BD Wong, the lovely Joan Chen (The Last Emperor; Lust, Caution) and, in a potentially star-making performance, Boo Boo Stewart (The Twilight Saga).  The Hong Kong-born Lee took time out just prior to starting work on a new film, provocatively titled Chink, to speak with me about White Frog.

“Reaction to the film has been really good,” Lee reported.  “We’ve played one festival so far (the San Francisco International Asian American Film Fest); kids, in particular, really loved the movie.”

The central story in White Frog is about two brothers (Shum and Stewart) afflicted by what others may perceive as “handicaps” who are being raised by fundamentalist Christian parents (Wong and Chen).  When tragedy strikes, one of them must stand up to defend his brother’s honor and become the man he is meant to be.

The screenplay, written by Ellie Wen but shepherded by Tony Award-winning playwright and producer David Henry Hwang, found its way to Lee via Facebook.  “What happened was a year and a half ago, the writer contacted me on Facebook and said, ‘Hey, I’d love for you to direct this!’  It was very personal for them, the story of someone they knew who died and hadn’t been able to come out.  I liked too that it was about two generations and multi-cultural.”

In the film, a traditional story is related of a young frog that is encased in a coconut and emerges completely white (hence the movie’s title).  When asked about this, Lee responded: “We were thinking, ‘Was the white frog something good or is it something bad?’  We decided it was a metaphor for how parents raise and form their children.”

White Frog makes a number of nods to the New Testament and traditional Christian themes of rebirth and resurrection.  Lee shared about his own diverse religious background: “My father was an atheist; I went to Protestant schools and have a Christian background but am not particularly religious.  I hope the movie encourages discussion and debate about Christian conservatism.”

What Lee did not know while he was immersed in pre-production on White Frog was that his own sister was struggling with Asperger’s Syndrome.  She was diagnosed just two weeks before cameras rolled.  While “totally coincidental,” according to Lee, it brought an unexpected resonance and heft to the project.

“I hope the film sparks more discussion among younger people about both homosexuality and Asperger’s, these controversial topics,” Lee said.

White Frog will screen at Outfest on July 21st.

Preview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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