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Annual film festival features a host of exciting new queer cinema

“I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed, business-looking bohemians in my life,” Oscar Wilde noted of San Francisco in 1882.

He might have changed a few adjectives after observing the attendees of the 48th San Francisco International Film Festival last week, but he would no doubt have noted this was a happy group indeed.

And why shouldn’t it be? With 185 films from 48 countries and 77,000 lovers of celluloid, it was a non-stop party.

Some of the offerings ranged from the weird (In “Waves,” a woman with a huge facial birthmark dates a blind musician. Will his friends tell him she’s flawed?) to the truly weird. (In “Three… Extremes,” a wealthy dame eats dumplings stuffed with fetuses to regain her youth.)

Thankfully, there was also a nice selection of gay films, many of which will be traveling east to your local theater or festival.

The one that received the most enthusiastic acclaim and even sold out the huge Castro Theater was the documentary, “The Pursuit of Equality.” Directed by two heterosexual men, Geoff Callan and Mike Shaw, the film chronicles events that got America very nervous recently. It begins with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issuing same-sex marriage licenses on February 12, 2004 and ends six month later when all these unions are declared null and void. In the film, we get to see veteran activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon become the first lesbian couple to be married in the United States. Later on Rosie O Donnell and Kelli Carpenter are filmed, too, getting hitched.

John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, who are also in “Equality,” told me: “We were one of the first ten couples that got married at City Hall. It was really an absolutely profound experience for us. I think one way to put it is that as we stood there and heard the words: ‘By the authority vested in me by the state of California, I pronounce you spouses for life,’ we felt for the first time in our lives that we were equal human beings and that our government was treating us and our relationship with equal respect under the law. It was transformative. So six months later, when, as you’ll see in the film, the court takes away our marriage licenses, we just decided we had to do everything in our power to get them back to make sure everybody has this right. So we joined the lawsuit to strike down California’s ban on equal access to marriages as unconstitutional. And now we’re the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to gain our rights back along with some of the other couples in the film. The Superior Court in that lawsuit just last March ruled that to deny same-sex couples access to marriage violates the constitution. So we’re very encouraged by that ruling.”

Throughout the screening, the audience went wild, booing and cheering, depending on who was on the screen. Most didn’t noticed that no gay male couples are shown kissing on the lips. Only the lesbians smooch. But then what do you expect from a pair of well-meaning straight guys?

Edgardo Cozarnsky’s “Ronda Nocturna” (“Night Watch”) more than makes up for that lack. This erotic, beautifully shot feature chronicles a night in the life of an Argentinean gay hustler. Felix gets screwed by the chief of police in a car, sells drugs in a restaurant’s bathroom, gets blown in a high-scale gym and nearly gets killed twice, once with a hat pin. The two latter events are not quite believable, but Gonzalo Heredia is so beautiful—reminiscent of a young Alain Delon—that you’ll be glad to overlook the far-fetched moments.

Meanwhile, Jenni Olson, an important figure in American gay and lesbian cinema since 1986, unveiled her first feature, “The Joy of Life,” an experimental beauty that boasts one of the best screenplays of the year. The visuals are views of San Francisco that remain on the screen anywhere from 20 seconds to a minute. The semi-autobiographical narrator, a self-described butch lesbian, seems to be recalling her sexual liaisons as she walks through the city: “I saw K.C. last night. She’s so beautiful when I’m fucking her. All open and wide-eyed and sexy. I’m fucking her so deep and her mouth’s so soft, and her lips so wide… And after, when I’m laying on top of her and we’re talking about fucking and coming, she says how Emily, her ex, who she’s totally not over, used to come from fucking, and then she gets this look on her face that she misses Emily.”

The film then veers from sex to the making of Frank Capra’s “Meet John Doe” with Gary Cooper, to finally how the Golden Gate Bridge has become a mecca for suicides. The film is so strong that it has caused the powers that be in San Francisco to make the bridge safer. Politics aside, “The Joy of Life” is great art.

In Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer’s “Life in a Box,” the queer country duo, Y’All, after a decade of not hitting the big time, are disheartened but still tour the country in their trailer, singing their at-times amiable tunes in the tiniest of venues. James Dean Jay Byrd is bald and wears a dress. The bearded, demure Cheslik-DeMeyer is his guitar-playing soul mate. And Roger? Well, Roger is a young man they’ve picked up and sleep with. Sounds ideal? Well, failure is never good for a relationship, and the pair slowly gets on each other’s nerves and on those of the third wheel. Still, fights among true yoga devotees are very low-key. Just imagine “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” on a Valium overdose, and you’re halfway there.

Last, but far from least, gay wunderkind François Ozon, critically acclaimed for his “Water Drops on Burning Rocks” and “Swimming Pool,” revealed his latest effort, “5x2.” This is a look at Marian and Gilles’ marriage from divorce to their first meeting. Yes, it travels backward in time in five scenes, and once again Ozon proves he is a master. There are gay elements here, of course, as there are in almost all his features. Gilles has a gay brother with a much younger, unfaithful lover. And at a post-dinner chat, Gilles reveals he allowed himself to get screwed at an orgy in front of Marian so he could experience what his sibling feels during sex. Now, that’s a nice straight guy. “5x2” opens in June.

Jenni Olson’s “The Joy of Life” will screen at New York’s NewFest, the annual gay film series, June 2-12. For more information, visit newfest.org.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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