Festival Frenzy in Frisco! By Andrea Freeman. San Francisco is not a movie town. Independents rarely make it to our unforgiving cinemas; even blockbusters often appear weeks after their initial release...

San Francisco is not a movie town. Independents rarely make it to our unforgiving cinemas; even blockbusters often appear weeks after their initial release. That doesn’t stop the SF International Film Festival (April 20—May 4, 2000) from trying to become the exception to the rule. Despite the efforts of the SFIFF, true film aficionados know that the real excitement happens here in June when Frameline’s International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival takes the city by storm.

This year Frameline opened with Patrik-Ian Polk’s comedy Punks. Although the title might bring to mind blue mohawks and Doc Martens, here “punk” refers to the classic street lingo for “queer.” The punks in question are four fashionable fags on the make, three African-American and one Latino. Gathered together at a birthday bash for Michael, the sweet and sensitive one, they rally to his aid after he catches his boyfriend in the bushes with another man. Despite the gang’s attempts to soothe him by extolling the virtues of seedy bar sex, Michael cultivates an innocent friendship with his hunky, straight new neighbor. The plot thickens in the usual ways, but the voyeuristic pleasure of watching the pain and panache of their world more than makes up for some degree of predictability.

On the other side of town and several weeks earlier, the SFIFF opened with much more subdued fare: Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides. Unsurprisingly, if you read Jeffrey Eugenides’s subtle, seductive book of the same name, you were disappointed in the movie. Despite Kirsten Dunst’s nymph-like presence (she really should play the slut more often), the film ambles pleasantly to an intriguing climax then dive-bombs to a bewildering crash landing. We feel sorry for these poor blonde sheltered children. But does an overprotective mother merit sending an entire gaggle of adolescents squawking towards the grave? The book by Jeffrey Eugenides is about boys grappling with puberty. Four neighborhood boys gather items touched by the five blonde, short-suffering sisters who live across the street. By collecting and studying diary entries, discarded hairbands and postcards pleading for rescue, the boys attempt to make sense of their own suffocation. Unfortunately, the movie is about a bunch of sisters who kill themselves because their curfews are too strict.

Both festivals closed with high quality indies, although once again the SFIFF offered the more somber selection with Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet. Almereyda established himself as a master of doom and gloom with the post-modern vampire tale Nadja and the straight-to-video story of a resuscitated mummy filmed as Nora then released as The Eternal, then Trance. His approach to Hamlet was straightforward: make everyone pretty (Ethan Hawke and a cradle-robbed Julia Stiles as the young lovers) and cut out the parts (a good three hours) that don’t jibe with the NY vibe. Make no mistake, the film is magically modernized. It’s slick and stylish with striking visuals. However, calling it Hamlet is a stretch, “Hamlet-inspired,” perhaps.

Back at the ranch, Frameline thundered to a close with Jamie Babbit’s first feature film effort, But I’m a Cheerleader. Despite the devastating truth of these real-life camps where gay teenagers are ceremoniously stuffed into the square hole of heterosexuality, Babbit created a fantasy world of outrageous Technicolor pink for girls and blue for boys. Painted with broad strokes, the characters bleed into caricatures at times, but they’re so damn cute you just can’t help forgiving them. Natasha Lyonne and Clea Duvall are a lusciously watchable twosome and Lyonne delivers the soon-to-be classic line: “I thought everyone had those thoughts!” Watch the movie because you won’t believe this quasi-concentration camp could exist. Then boycott the Salvation Army, because they run these camps in the real world.

The other two films awarded gala status at the SFIFF were Alan Rudolph’s Trixie and Philip Haas’s Up at the Villa. The singularly mediocre Trixie features Emily Watson in one of the most annoying roles ever created for the big screen. For unknown reasons, Watson’s Trixie has the intellect and subsequent appeal of a severely stunted four year-old. A slew of mixed metaphors substitute for articulate speech. Ostensibly a mystery, there is nothing mysterious about this sad ditty of washed-out casino employees. The true confusion lies in how the director of intelligent films like The Moderns, Choose Me, Mrs. Parker and the Viscious Circile, and Afterglow could have stooped so low.

A similar query comes to mind regarding Up at the Villa, Haas’s follow-up to the psychologically stunning Music of Chance and the visually alarming Angels and Insects. After adapting the works of literary greats Paul Auster and A.S. Byatt with Belinda Haas as scribe, the couple decided to take on Somerset Maugham. The result is a relatively dull sojourn in the European countryside, where Kristin Scott Thomas’s aspirations to wealth are sideswiped by her overactive libido. Thomas’ embarrassing confession of an abusive marriage evoked more than a few chuckles while the rest of the film made yawning an imperative.

Meanwhile, on the sentiment-studded streets of the Castro, even the most attentive audience members lost lines due to laughter that felt canned: it came in all the right places. The agents of this unabashed glee were two comedies: Lane Janger’s Just One Time and Margaret Cho’s I’m the One that I Want. The happy heterosexual ending of Just One Time did nothing to mitigate the pure joy of its heroes’ excursions into ambiguity. A fireman on the verge of lifelong commitment to his one true love asks her to fulfill his long-standing fantasy of a threesome before the fateful date. Her response to his request is fair: she will if he will. So while he battles an admirer’s advances after claiming he couldn’t have sex without dating him first, his fiancée explores the possibilities of the dyke next door. The complications ring true and it feels like we’re all on the same side after all.

In Cho’s celluloid version of her popular stand-up show, I’m the One that I Want, the super-comedienne converts the trials and tribulations of an overweight Korean gal trying to make it in Hollywood into a hysterically moving saga. Best known for her short-lived television vehicle “All-American Girl,” Cho has also appeared in a number of films including Face/Off, Doom Generation, and It’s My Party. Her success has been in spite of all of her best attributes—her weight, her heritage, her honesty, and her humor. This one-woman show detailing her rise and fall simply serves to whet the appetite for more of this self-assured should-be diva.

Frameline isn’t all about comedy, though. It’s also about heart-wrenching documentaries, experimental films, and the occasional family drama, like Gurinder Chadha’s What’s Cooking? This Thanksgiving-centered saga, depicting the holiday hysteria of four culturally diverse households, is quite a departure for the British Indian Chadha, whose previous films explored different aspects of the Indian woman’s experience. The food is the centerpiece of What’s Cooking?, a sumptuous smorgasbord of culture and conflict.

The best movie premiering at the SFIFF was Alison Maclean’s Jesus’ Son. Based on a Denis Johnson story, the movie captures Johnson’s impossibly visceral style, creating a narrative with its experimental technique that surpasses most traditional storytelling in meaning and emotion. Watch the movie and read the book. Then read Johnson’s other books: Fiskadoro, Angels, and The Stars at Noon. They read like cinema. Then watch Maclean’s other movie, Crush. All of these tales will creep into your soul.

The SFIFF excels at bringing obscure international cinema to a city that’s starving for it. Although at times you’ll wish it didn’t, it’s a necessary indulgence. In a city that loves its therapy, the perfect antidote is countless springtime hours spent in dark rooms languishing in subtitled angst (and perhaps suffering through Raul Ruiz’s Time Regained, which proves the unadaptability of Proust).

The SFIFF also supports local filmmakers such as Julia Query, whose Live! Nude! Girls Unite! documents the unionization of San Francisco’s Lusty Lady strip joint. Interesting as the subject matter is, Query spends too much time on her own struggle to out herself as a stripper to her politically active mother. Nonetheless, the sheer quantity of representatives from the local sex-worker scene made for an evening’s entertainment in itself.

Frameline specializes in bringing queer media from around the world to the city where it can truly belong. From the HBO special If These Walls Could Talk 2 to the British series “Queer as Folk,” if it’s out there, we’re watching it. Where the SFIFF opens its doors to renowned international directors, Frameline rolls out the red carpet for the unknowns—the filmmakers tackling difficult subject matter that most people don’t want to hear about, much less pay for. Both festivals brought back classics that are hard to catch on the big screen. At the SFIFF: Babette’s Feast, Lessons in Darkness, Sugar Cane Alley, The World of Apu, and Kagemusha. At Frameline: Basic Instinct, Bound, Heavenly Creatures, and Sex Monster.

The folks at the SFIFF put on a pretty good show. The parties were appropriately lavish; the line-ups were long and studded with hipsters. The introductions were wise and pithy; the Q&A sessions offered sufficient opportunities to wonder at the average IQ of the audience members. Frameline also did its job well, in spite of its annoying habit of throwing late-night parties in the wind tunnel outside the Castro theatre. The people were beautiful; the bashes were wild. It was a scene.

If you’re festival-hopping next year, book your tickets for June. You might not feel as cultured at Frameline’s festival, but you’ll have more fun. Better yet, move to San Francisco and lobby to make this city into a bonafide movie-lover’s paradise.

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