Friday, May 31, 2013

Inside Out 2013: Reviews #3

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

C.O.G. (Dir: Kyle Patrick Alvarez, 88 minutes, USA)

When handed a religious tract reading "Are you a C.O.G.?", David laughs it off and makes a joke, and yet it somehow resonates with him, and he keeps it like a talisman. This would figure into his subsequent deeper encounter with faith ("Are you a Child of God?" is what it's asking), but it's quite evident that David is also worried about becoming merely a cog in society's machine.

That would be one reason why that after finishing his M.A. at Yale he's hopped on a bus and headed west to Oregon to join in with the apple harvest. (There's shades here of know-it-all Leland Stamper making a similar trip west in Sometimes a Great Notion, not in the least in a pre-credit sequence detailing the waking nightmare of a cross-country Greyhound trip.) Sure, originally there was a romantic plan, hatched up by his girlfriend, to slum it with the proles — but once she stops by only long enough to introduce her new boyfriend and ride off into the sunset, David seems even more determined to stick it out. It becomes clear pretty quickly that he's not just out for an adventure — he's running away from himself.

Of course, there are parts of you that are going to be there if you want them or not. You can find a new town, a new life, and new ways to tamp your desires down but they're just not going anywhere. As we follow David's episodic adventures (from the apple grove to the packing plant to an artist's workshop) we see this struggle play out. Along the way, his vulnerabilities leave some chips in his smug and superior veneer.

Jonathan Groff does good work here in the lead role, never going too "big", and thus letting each small payoff register. The supporting actors — and this is largely a film of and about men — evoke some solid characterizations as well, from Dean Stockwell's taciturn farmer to Corey Stoll's rambunctious co-worker to Denis O'Hare's evangelical artist. Director Alvarez maintains a solid balance here as well, keeping the story moving along without things ever feeling rushed. Some of his counter-intuitive choices, such as a score filled with a lot of Steve Reich music, also work out rather nicely.

Adapted from a David Sedaris essay, this film shines as a quote-unquote modest story about the slow accretion of experiences that can sometimes lead to growing up. It's silly and affecting just like lives lived tend to be, and the biggest changes are internal — represented by seeing David's eyes looking on the world in a slightly different way. That welcome modesty can be a hard sell in the marketplace, but this film certainly deserves to find an audience.

Continental (Dir: Malcom Ingram, 96 minutes, UK)

Everybody knows that Bette Midler got her start in the gay bathhouses of New York City. That tidbit might be the hook for this story about The Continental Baths, where that breakthrough happened, but this film's ambitions keep it interested in something more than salacious nostalgia. Indeed, amongst a panoply of celebrities such as Frankie Knuckles, Holly Woodlawn and Labelle's Sarah Dash, Midler is one of the few who doesn't show up to offer a remembrance. But given the various strands contained in this film, her presence is hardly missed.

Tracking a "high point of hedonism" in that moment of sexual freedom between the discovery of The Pill and the advent of AIDS, The Continental was both a product of a period of increasing liberality ("the 60's") as well as a force to push the gay liberation agenda even further. By serving as a hub for community organizing, it managed to transform the context (beholden to the mob and dependent on graft to be left alone by the police) that bathhouses operated in.

All of which also makes this the story of Steve Ostrow, The Continental's owner, whose commitment extended well past dollars and cents and into the realm of social transformation. Copious interviews with him flesh out both his life story and the saga of The Continental (as well as plenty of outlandish-but-true tales along the way), and that gives this documentary its heart and soul. By the end, you'll feel honoured to have made his acquaintance.

And along the way, there's also a chance to re-live the joyful excess and opulence of The Continental. Located in the gorgeous Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side, the baths operated 24/7, with both the disco floor out front and the private rooms in the back serving thousands of patrons daily. Over time, growing bolder and more ambitious, it became a chic nightspot, a place-to-be-seen where straight couples on a night out would mingle with the towel-clad clientele to see the biggest cabaret stars of the day. In a monumental coup for the opera-loving Ostrow, Eleanor Steber, diva of The Met, would record a live album there during a "black towel" event. Over time, the baths would serve as a precursor to disco-era hotspots such as Studio 54.

The film gives us plenty of colourful stories to bring the Continental's heyday to life — and it doesn't stint on reminding us that this was a sexually-charged space for men to fuck (a point that Michael Musto gets across with great relish.) And yet, it's the attachment to the broader social context — and the people who made it possible — that make this memorable. (The screening was also elevated by a lively Q&A with gregariously argumentative director Ingram, who came across as the sort of person you'd want to hang out and have a beer with.)

The film screened with the short Death of a Bathhouse (Dir: Rolyn Chambers, 11 minutes, Canada), which put a local spin on some of the same issues. Tracking the last days of the St. Marc's Spa, the film includes some musings on the changes in bathhouse culture, as well as a look at the commitment to art (with "curated" rooms similar to those at the Gladstone) that made this spot unique. Slightly shaky source images ("I'd been up for about thirty hours straight at the time," Chambers commented of the Spa's hectic last weekend, when he'd shot the footage) is fleshed out with interviews from a who's-who of local queer artists, including Sky Gilbert, Keith Cole (interviewed in his bubble bath!), Drasko Bogdanovic and Shane MacKinnon. A nice remembrance of some local history.

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