(*homocinematically inclined)

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Reverend's Preview: 21st Annual FilmOut San Diego Prepares To Take Flight

The LGBTQ Film Festival known as FilmOut San Diego celebrate its 21st anniversary this year from September 9th–12th. 47 movies will be screened during the mostly in-person, four-day festival at The San Diego Natural History Museum (THE NAT) and The Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) both located in San Diego’s historic Balboa Park. Award-winning films from Sundance, SXSW and Berlin Film Festivals will be featured, along with independent features and a variety of short films.

According to its organizers, FilmOut San Diego "annually affirms the ongoing integrity and boundless imagination of our community and the artists who tell our stories. The Board of Directors believes its work is an integral part of an ongoing effort to build a vibrant, affirming and sustainable LGBTQ community in San Diego County." Local filmmakers will be represented during the fest by two noteworthy short films: Las Reinas de los Cuentos and the very funny We All Die Alone.

The Opening Night film on September 9th will be Peeter Rebane’s Firebird. This visually-impressive gay romance, based on a true story, opens in Soviet-occupied Estonia in 1977. Troubled soldier Sergey (played by the hunky Tom Prior, who also co-wrote the screenplay) falls in love with an esteemed fighter pilot, the equally attractive Roman. Unfortunately, their relationship becomes complicated by the affections of their commanding officer's daughter as well as by a suspicious KGB agent, at a time when homosexuality was considered a criminal offense. Their love story spans five years, and the film culminates in a performance of Stravinski's title symphony. The screening will start at 7:00 PM at THE NAT and will be followed by an Opening Night Party until 11:30 PM.

A final performance by the late, great Cloris Leachman highlights Jump, Darling, the fest's Closing Night film on September 12th. Written and directed by debut filmmaker Phil Connell, it follows a rookie drag queen (played by newcomer Thomas Duplessie) reeling from a breakup who moves in with his declining grandmother (Leachman) to protect her from the local nursing home. The film is a thoughtful exploration of the right to live as who we are and how we wish. It will screen at 7:00 PM and be followed by a Closing Night Dessert Reception at MOPA.

Other fest highlights include veteran filmmaker Q. Allan Brocka’s Boy Culture: The Series (Men's Centerpiece), Kelly Walker’s My Fiona (Women's Centerpiece) and Rafael Gomes’ Music for Bleeding Hearts (International Spotlight). One of my personal faves to be screened is Potato Dreams of America, a 99% autobiographical saga according to writer-director Wes Hurley. Precocious 12-year-old Vasili, affectionately nicknamed Potato, lives with his grandmother (a terrific, largely serious turn by Lea Delaria) and prison-doctor mother in the USSR circa 1985. His near-religious devotion to American movies is hilariously personified by a movie-loving Jesus Christ. Potato and his mother are eventually brought to the US by an American man with whom his mother has been having a correspondence. Once in 1990's NYC, Potato begins to define his homosexuality with the help of repeat viewings of Gregg Araki's indie gay classic The Living End. It's a funny, lovable flick and even features the occasional musical number!

In addition to the in-person festival, four additional films will be available exclusively online during the festival. These will give patrons who aren't quite ready to mingle in person the opportunity to participate in FilmOut from home. One of the movies is Beyto, a Turkish twist on the familiar coming out story. The title character is a competitive swimmer in Switzerland, played by the very appealing Burak Ates. Originally from Turkey, Beyto falls in love with another male teammate. However, he remains closeted from his conservative parents. After a friend of his mother spots Beyto at a Pride parade, his parents trick him into returning to Turkey and force him to marry a longtime female friend. It often plays like a 1950's melodrama but is sadly contemporary. Fortunately, love wins out in the end for all concerned. Beyto is directed and co-written by Gitta Gsell, a Swiss woman filmmaker. Her sensitive, respectful approach is a plus.

I also recommend the truly surprising Festival Spotlight film: Boulevard! A Hollywood Story. It is the latest work by out, Emmy-winning documentarian Jeffrey Schwarz. His previous queer-centric documentaries include The Fabulous Allan Carr, Tab Hunter Confidential, Vito and I Am Divine (the latter of which is currently streaming on Netflix). Additionally, Schwarz was the recipient of the 2015 Frameline Award, which honors those who have made a major contribution to LGBT representation in film, television and the media arts.

For Gloria Swanson, the iconic star of Sunset Boulevard, both the movie and the character of Norma Desmond provided a renewed spotlight. Seeing in Norma a portal back to the fame she once commanded during her early years as an actress in silent pictures, Swanson strategically began to envision a Broadway musical adaptation of the film in which she would star. Enter Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley, two young songwriters and closeted romantic partners. They found themselves caught in Swanson’s web when she hired them to write the more succinctly titled Boulevard, a musical version of her now-classic film. Life imitated art when Gloria fell for Richard, and the men found themselves living a real-life version of the movie!

Jeffrey Schwarz is well known to this writer from his previous appearances at the Long Beach QFilm Festival. I was thrilled that he let me be one of the first to view the final edit of his latest work, as well as to be the first journalist he spoke with about it. Here is a summary of our recent conversation:

CC: It was good to see you in the film! Is this the first time you actually appear in one of your documentaries?
JS: Yes, it is the first time and hopefully the last (laugh). I didn't intend to be in it at first, but I wanted to show the process of making the movie and ultimately realized having the camera follow me was the best way to do it.

CC: What inspired you to tell this story?
JS: I've always loved Sunset Boulevard and I've learned that, for gay people, our taste in movies comes out before we do. I also love learning about the behind-the-scenes drama of classic movies, and devoured film historian Sam Staggs' book Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard. It was here I first learned about Gloria Swanson's failed attempt to launch a musical version of Sunset Boulevard and the resulting creative threesome with her composers. It was a fascinating story. Part of what motivates me to make movies is to discover these hidden stories, especially from a time when LGBT people couldn't tell our stories openly. I initially was most interested in Swanson but became more interested in Richard Stapley and Dick Hughes. They were a gay couple but never acknowledged their relationship publicly.

CC: Why do you think Sunset Boulevard still holds such appeal, especially for gay men?
JS: That's such a great question. Gay people are drawn to these bigger-than-life characters and especially people like Norma Desmond, who is defiant and (even though she loses her mind) confident in who she is. There have been volumes written about this topic so this is my best summation. It's also just such a brilliant and cynical image of Hollywood, and not much has changed. The film is also a powerful testament to actresses over the age of 50 playing lead roles, which was pretty much unheard of then and is still difficult today.

CC: You interviewed the late (and gay) movie historian Robert Osborne for this film. How was that experience?
JS: I interviewed him for my last movie about Allan Carr. (Osborne died in 2017.) I was inspired to ask him then if he would say a few things about Sunset Boulevard. He was always so generous with his time and such a lovely man. I miss him a lot.

CC: I'll be curious to see if your documentary creates enough interest in the Boulevard musical that someone will yet produce it. What do you think?
JS: Who knows? It's hard because the Andrew Lloyd Webber version is so dominant. (A movie version of it starring Glenn Close is in the works.) I hope the story goes on. I hope to make a feature film about it someday. But who knows? Maybe some Broadway producer will get interested in it.

CC: I sure hope so! What's next for you?
JS: I have a few things waiting in the wings. One is a doc about the making of Showgirls. I'm busy editing that right now. I try to be working on a few projects simultaneously because you never know which are going to fly.

I hereby proclaim Boulevard! A Hollywood Story a must see! For complete festival info including tickets, sponsorships and volunteer information, visit the FilmOut website. You can also follow the fest on Facebook at FilmOut San Diego or on Instagram and Twitter at @FilmOutSD.

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

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