Sunday, May 20, 2012

Inside Out 2012: Reviews #1

Reviews of screenings from the 22nd Annual Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.

Jobriath A.D. (Dir: Kieran Turner, USA, 2011, 107 min)

If you're the least bit interested in cult rocker Jobriath, you'll probably be going to see this movie. It's biographically comprehensive and gets facetime from nearly all the right people. That said, it is a talking-heads doc that runs a little long, and its attempts to break out of the format's limitations mostly fall flat.

But still, this is a compelling story. Coming to prominence in the original west-coast production of Hair, Jobriath headed to New York City and met Jerry Brandt, a huckster whose claim to fame was discovering Carly Simon. The two outsized egos combined to create an ahead-of-its-time pre-spectacle, a hype-first assertion of fame (a big-budget, non-underground application of a strategy that General Idea were working with in the same era).

Pushing past the sexual fluidity of glam, Jobriath was openly and defiantly gay ("Asking me if I'm homosexual is like asking James Brown if he's black.") — something the mainstream wasn't ready for yet. Despite that unprecedented PR campaign, the album flopped, setting Jobriath on a spiral towards obscurity. In one sense, it's nearly a queer Gatsby story, with child prodigy Bruce Wayne Campbell ditching his birth identity to reinvent himself as the flamboyant Jobriath and never quite reaching the brass ring.

Jobiath let his songs speak for him, so there's not much of him presenting himself in his own words. We do, however, get a lot of testimony from friends and contemporaries, including such notables as Jac Holzman, Eddie Kramer and Tony Zanetta. Plus there's extensive interviews with Brandt, who in turn receives a generous treatment. There's also praise from some contemporary artists who have picked up of various strands of Jobriath's work, including Jake Shears, Stephin Merritt and Will Sheff — although hipsters might be sad to learn that it's Def Leppard's Joe Elliott who is most articulate and entertaining of the lot.

Along the way, we get an interesting snapshot of the interaction between queerness and pop culture in the 70's, observing how the critical consensus of the time wasn't yet ready to move past its implicit straight machismo. By that token, the gay culture of that time — then in a very butch, leather-daddy phase — wasn't ready to embrace or champion a sissy self-declared fairy. From there, it was just a step down to the crash and subsequent landing on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel, lean hustler years with Jobriath giving way to Cole Berlin — a promising cabaret reinvention cut short by the emergence of AIDS.

So, yes — lots of interesting strands here, but the film is not without its flaws. It's unsurprising that there's no interview with Morrissey, a big fan who oversaw a Jobriath reissue campaign and reintroduced him to a new generation of fans in the internet age. But I think the film's biggest mis-step was a series of animated sequences, meant to bring to life a few moments in Jobriath's career. Like the artist's grand plans for a tour of Europe's opera houses that ended up as a tour of backwater bars, the animation's reach exceeds its grasp and looked a little shabby. It also contributed to the film feeling a little over-long by the end.

But this will be a valuable resource down the line, and hopefully there will be a DVD that's jam-packed with full performances (something missing from the doc) and the like.

Screens Saturday May 26, 4:30 PM @ TIFF Lightbox 1

Call Me Kuchu (Dir: Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright, USA, 2012, 87 min.)

It might seem distant from the day-to-day rhythm of things in Toronto, but there are places in the world where being gay is still a crime, punishable by the death penalty from inflamed vigilantes. This excellent documentary takes us to Uganda, where intense open discrimination has culminated in the proposal of a draconian new Anti-Homosexual Bill which would threaten to imprison not only gays and lesbians but also anyone failing to "report" on their friends, lovers, children or students. At a time when gutter newspapers are "outing" gays — under headlines like "HANG THEM", no less — it takes an incredible act of bravery for any "kuchu" to be out.

And yet, there are a small number who are standing up, organizing and trying to assert their most fundamental human rights. They know the stakes — when one references Jefferson's famous claim that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots", you know this isn't a distant theoretical worry. Foremost among the dedicated activists that we meet is David Kato, a brave and dignified former teacher who we meet while he helps collect the data needed to demonstrate to the world what's happening on the ground in Uganda. It's sadly not-shocking that we witness, a year into the film's production, the aftermath of his murder.

We also see some of those on the other side, including one of the anti-gay reporters who repeats his homophobic cant with the ease of someone who genuinely cannot see gays as fellow humans and cannot feel any empathy toward their pain. And in the larger picture, we see the religious zealots whipping up the frenzy, fake Christians who cling to Old Testament vengeance instead of turning the other cheek. They are encouraged by North American evangelicals who call this a beacon of virtuousness — and it's a chilling reminder of what these fundamentalists would say in North Carolina (or Alberta or Toronto) if they didn't have to couch their language in a cloak of tolerance.

Given the dangers, the bravery required to not shy away, to not return to the closet, to not become refugees is immense. The forbearance and grace under pressure that we see in the movie's subjects is almost unimaginable — considering this reality for a couple hours left me nearly immobilized with sadness and rage. Perhaps, then, one of the movie's few flaws is that at the end there was no concrete call for action, no information given for how we could help. But still, this is excellent work, and though an uncomfortable experience is a must-see.

The Crown Jewels (Kronjuvelerna) (Dir: Ella Lemhagen, 2011, Sweden, 120 min)

Director Ella Lemhagen's Patrik 1.5 (which screened at Inside Out back in 2009) presented us with a modern, urbane Sweden that felt lifted from the pages of an Ikea ad. Kronjuvelerna, every bit as gorgeously shot, takes us instead to the quaint countryside, and blurs the here-and-now feeling into something hazier by giving us a fairytale sensibility in a story imbued with a light gloss of magic realism. That tone might require a bit of a buy-in from the viewer, and what you get from this film probably depends on how much you can suspend cynicism and literalness and embrace its belief in the impossible.

Fernandez Fernandez, a shoe factory stock clerk (and alchemist on the side) is the chief promoter of that viewpoint. His daughter — and our protagonist — Fragancia, strives to believe in such magical possibilities, but has a rough time of it, which is unsurprising, given the tragedies that unfold around her. The film is told in a series of flashbacks — at the beginning, Richard Persson (a neighbour from a wealthy family born on the same day as her) is shot, and Fragancia's prison interrogation becomes the framework for the whole story. Along the way, we meet both her family and the quirky townsfolk she has grown up with, including the world's greatest hockey player, a pacifist that makes Ned Braden look like the Hanson Brothers.

The film is meticulously structured — at times almost airlessly so. A bit elusive at the start (especially given the presence of a secondary framing device featuring a narrator speaking from beyond the grave), we soon start to see a set of almost mathematically-exact setups — and by about the two-thirds mark we start to see the patterns of the resolutions emerge. That reduces some elements that at first seemed like charming quirks to wait-for-the-payoff placeholders. There's also an interesting tension in the way that the movie maintains a consistently sweet tone in the face of a series of grim tragedies, a juxtaposition that only works if you can accept the fairy-tale spirit at the heart of it all.

In the end, I'd call this a modestly successful movie — certainly well shot and nicely acted. I did find the neatly-tied bow of the resolution to be a bit too metaphysically trite, but I didn't mind the journey. And, in a local note, I'm sure there are some gnashings-of-teeth over at Telefilm Canada, with a certain jealous resentment that it was the Swedes who were first to market with a hockey subplot that effortlessly incorporates a queer storyline. Score one for the Tre Kronor!

1 comment:

  1. It should also be noted that Jake Shears wears a fabulous gold lamé sweater in the Jobraith movie.