Monday, May 27, 2013

Inside Out 2013: Reviews #1

Reviews of screenings from the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.

I Am Divine (Dir: Jeffery Schwarz, 86 minutes, USA)

Harris "Glenn" Milstead — better known under the name of his drag persona Divine — receives a feature-length biographical treatment. A product (narrowly) of the weird cultural ferment in Baltimore that produced John Waters as well as (more widely) the pre-AIDS gay-lib awakening, this touches on a wide number of themes, including the entertainment industry and the "underground", queers as outsiders, drag, and body image. But at its heart, it's a rags-to-riches style celebration of an artist following their own vision. With lots of archival footage and access to the story's key players, this is likely the definitive version of Divine's story.

John Waters is on hand (and as charming as ever), commenting on the intersection of Bergman and LSD that led to his film career, and the creation of his Dreamlanders, where David Lochary helped to craft Divine's look into a "walking work of art" that quickly led to him becoming the lead in such films as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Polyester — performances that still crackle with delightfully trashy intensity today.

This doc is also a reminder that there was far more to Divine's career than those films. Divine was, in fact, a bona fide underground superstar, moving to San Fransisco to join drag troupe The Cockettes (and appearing as the star in a number of revues) and performing off-Broadway (in Women Behind Bars and more). And, of course, there was also Divine's successful musical career, appearing not only as one of the largest draws in the the still-underground disco scene, but even crossing over to some mainstream success (including an appearance on Top of the Pops in the UK). This is still fab music, by the way, electro before there was such a thing, and definitely with a raw, punk edge.

Beyond that, we get a sense of the person behind the persona, although they certainly blurred into each other. Divine was a perpetual outsider, not only to the straight life, but even within the drag scene, pushing the boundaries of the acceptable with his hyper-exaggerated get-up. Struggling with obesity throughout his life, Milstead was vulnerable and sensitive about his appearance (though he learn that he never lacked for lovers and admirers throughout his life), as well as a generous spendthrift, lavishing gifts upon friends without worrying about whether they were affordable.

We also learn of Milstead's winding relationship with his family through insightful interviews with his mother Frances Milstead. Rejected by his family for his lifestyle, their later reconciliation was one factor leading to Milstead's late-life happiness. In the wake of Hairspray's success, it looked like a mainstream breakthrough was imminent, with Milstead winning a recurring role on sitcom Married... with Children. How that might have unfolded will never be known in the aftermath of his death on the eve of joining the cast.

There's also a lot of intriguing cultural history and food for thought, especially around the idea of gender (as expressed through drag) as a construct — the female attributes for which he was famous were considered as Milstead's "work clothes" that came off at the end of the day. That led to a very specific typecasting as Milstead struggled to gain acceptance as a character actor out of drag. But those larger questions, as well as the sadness at all the what-might-have-beens, can't keep this from being a joyful ride through a "filthy" outsider's ascent, and the film manages to pass Divine's manic energy along.

Screens: Saturday, June 1, 7:15 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox 1

Gay Shorts: Teenage Dream [shorts programme]

A strong selections of shorts here, this one is recommended — who can't relate to the memories of those awkward years?

Best of the bunch is the short documentary Straight With You (Niet Op Meisjes) (Dir: Daan Bol, 19 minutes, The Netherlands) which introduces us to Dutch eleven-year-old Melvin. He knows what he is, but is still keeping it secret from most of his friends. When a classmate asks to be his girlfriend, he struggles to find a way to tell her why he can't be. Afraid of bullying — and of just being "different" — this is a fascinating reminder of how quickly kids pick up what is supposed to be "normal" behaviour, and how hard it is to step outside those constraints. Even in an accepting family and social environment, coming out is still a struggle — but we get the idea that this articulate young charmer will do okay. Hopeful and empathetic, this film deserves a prize.

Fans of the Hidden Cameras will want to keep an eye out for Gay Goth Scene (Dir: Kai Stäenicke, 5 minutes, Germany) which sets this new tune from Joel Gibb to striking and moody images, in a brief tale of of high-school peer pressure and bullying as well as its aftermath.

Mapping those who really "get" the rather likeable Jackpot (Dir: Adam Baran, 10 minutes, USA) might point out that this tale appeals as much to a certain age bracket as to any specific orientation. This tale of a dumpster-hunt for porn mags will evoke a sympathetic response in many who grew up before the internet's ubiquity. But it's the fact that Jack is looking for pictures of men that gets him in hot water. Will his new fantasies give him the strength to step up and fight for himself?

There's a sense of verisimilitude in watching two sets of teens talk about the previous night's broadcast of Brokeback Mountain in It's Not a Cowboy Movie (Ce n'est pas un film de cow-boys) (Dir: Benjamin Parent, 12 minutes, France). Pushing back the mysteries of sex happens piecemeal in realtime excursions like these, as two boys skirt around the hidden desires the film explores. Meanwhile, the limits of tolerance slowly get nudged in the same way as one girl teases her friend about her gay father, only to feel a sting of regret.

Bright and comedic, Yeah Kowalski! (Dir: Evan Roberts, 10 minutes, USA) is noteworthy in how much it takes its hero's queerness as a matter of fact, just one more element in its joyfully colourful world. Not that life for Gabe is without problems: when everyone's bodies start changing around him, he's impatient to "catch up" and be able to subtly show off his own development to impress a crush. Trying to short-circuit the process leads to awkward results — and the amusing pain of recognition for the audience.

Rounding out the programme, Kiss Me Softly (Kus me zachtjes) (Dir: Anthony Schatteman, 16 minutes, Belgium) is a moody, pensive sort of character piece. Nicely shot, but a bit too static to really engage. Coming Out (Komma Ut) (Dir: Jerry Carlsson, 5 minutes, Sweden) focuses on those moments where the desire to just say it out loud are just so overpowering — but never quite as insistent as the fearful desire to stay silent. Even the quietest, most typical day before supper can feel like an internal battleground. And The First Time (Fšrsta gœngen) (Dir: Anders Hazelius, 9 minutes, Sweden) gives us a sympathetic beach encounter between a teenage girl and a boy who's not quite prepared to go through with an amorous encounter. It's apparently shot in murk-o-vision, presumably to replicate night-time fumblings as much as symbolize the characters' conceptual lack of clarity, but it also mars the enjoyment of the piece somewhat.

Screens: Tuesday, May 28, 5:30 p.m. # TIFF Lightbox 2.

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