Here Comes the Sundance

Once again, our man on the scene at the Sundance Film Festival reports on the queer side of the annual movie extravaganza.
By Lawrence Ferber (with sidebar by Rob Arcos)

See also SUNDANCE: A HOUSTON TAKE, by Rob Arcos

Gays are over themselves.

Save Me: (Shock to the System's Chad Allen, l) strikes up a close-knit relationship with Scott (Queer as Folk's Robert Gant, r).

Or at least one could get that impression while surveying the line-up at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Many established and new gay filmmakers presented works at the Park City, Utah, extravaganza in January, yet few of those were explicitly queer in content, characters, and even subtexts. In fact, only two features really could be labeled “gay” films: Save Me, in which Chad Allen and Robert Gant play ex-gays who fall in love at a ministry lorded over by Judith Light, and For The Bible Tells Me So, a documentary by Daniel G. Karslake, a producer on the PBS series In the Life, examining how the “good book” has been used—and misused—as a weapon against homosexuality. A runner-up would be Tulifrom director Auraeus Solito (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros), the final third of which includes a lesbian love story.

That said, outside the theaters, Sundance—unofficially the gayest nongay film festival in the country—remained queer as ever. The Queer Lounge, now a two-level suite housed in the Silver King Hotel, buzzed with filmmakers, festival programmers, musicians, and others who were schmoozing, drinking, networking, and chilling out. The Silver King’s steamy indoor pool was the setting for a couple of Queer Lounge parties as well (with gift bags containing upscale sex toys from Fun Factory). There was a pair of queer brunches—one hosted by Outfest, producer of the Los Angeles GLBT film festival, and the here! cable network (at which Hollywood blockbuster director Roland Emmerich was toasted for his contribution to the Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation), the other by PlanetOut—along with † an L Word brouhaha and a GLAAD Awards shindig to announce the year’s media nominees. In fact, all the queer gatherings inspired one publicist to groan in exasperation, “I’ve seen the same gay people all day. I’m over the queers, too!”

Save Me director Robert Cary.

The year’s dearth of overly queer films, says Out Sundance programmer Shari Frilot, is due to the fact that “gays are doing their thing just like any other artists. Not everything is gay-themed, but they’re bringing their flavor to whatever they touch.”

Among the gay filmmakers at work: Tommy O’Haver, the out director who followed the very gay Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss with Get Over It and Ella Enchanted, brought the harrowing An American Crime. A sort of Flowers in the Attic meets Lord of the Flies based on a real-life case, the film stars Catherine Keener as an unhinged single mother who turns her basement into a torture chamber for an adolescent girl she is supposed to look after (X-Men 3 ‘s Ellen Page). The film’s premiere came to a temporary halt near the climax when an audience member suffered a seizure.

Director Auraeus Solito (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros) experiments with lesbian love in Tuli.

Other gay filmmakers: Ian Iqbal Rashid, director of 2004 Sundance queer pick Touch of Pink, returned with How She Move, a Bring It On for the stepping competition set. Marco Kreuzpaintner, German director of the sexy gay coming-of-age hit Summerstorm, delved into the sordid world of international child-sex trafficking with Trade, an English-language thriller. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory screenwriter John August made his feature directorial debut with The Nines, a perplexing sci-fi dramedy in which Ryan Reynolds plays three characters, including a gay writer for television. Writer Mike White (Chuck & Buck) also turned director with his comedy Year of the Dog, in which Molly Shannon plays a dog lover turned animal activist (says Sundance programmer Frilot: “It can be said there are some gay notes in it, not overly sexual but in the spirit of the movie.”). Teeth, written, directed, and produced by Mitchell Lichtenstein (The Wedding Banquet), created chatter with its disturbing tale of a young woman whose vagina packs a set of chompers. Sundance vet Gregg Araki, whose dark drama Mysterious Skin played in 2004, returned to comedy with Smiley Face, in which a pothead (Scary Movie franchise’s Anna Farris) spends a day in pot-brownie nirvana.

Meanwhile, the documentary A Very British Gangster revealed that its subject was gay, and openly so, but didn’t dig far into specifics. Jessica Yu’s Protagonist blended puppetry and Greek
myth with the stories of four charismatic individuals who became what they hated most, one being an ex-gay minister who spread his self-loathing around the globe. 

For the Bible Tells Me So director Daniel Karslake.

Gayness aside, this was a stupendous year for good films (a must-see: Strange Culture, a stunningly original documentary-narrative about an artist/activist framed and persecuted as a bio-terrorist by our well-meaning but overzealous government) and deal making, with many sales in the seven-figures. Bought for $7 million, Son of Rambow, the delightful Garth Jennings (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) comedy, sees a pair of British preteens in the ’80s making a stunt-filled amateur movie inspired by the Sylvester Stallone action flicks with help from a New Wave-styled French exchange student who attracts as many boys as girls. Fox Searchlight’s $4 million baby, Joshua, is a delicious Bad Seed remake set on Upper West Side of Manhattan in which the titular piano-playing hellspawn is enamored with his erudite gay uncle (portrayed by Houston-born Dallas Roberts of A Home at the End of the World and several L Word episodes).

A few films sparked off controversy, most notoriously Hounddog, a.k.a “Dakota Fanning Gets Raped.” Reportedly, the Salt Lake City screening was met with protests and demands in both local and national media that the film be investigated for child pornography. But after the press screening of this Southern Gothic tale, most audience members felt it should be investigated for racism and stereotyping. The black characters sit around singing blues and talking rattlesnake magic while the whites are all trashy and morally/spiritually bankrupt rednecks, even the rich ones. Memo to Dakota (who claimed she was so compelled by the script that she simply had to make this movie): This is the reason you should wait until you’re 18 to make adult decisions. Another film involving sexual exploitation of children, but this time for real, was Children of God: Lost & Found. Playing the concurrent Slamdance Film Festival, this startling documentary—produced by World of Wonder’s Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (The Eyes of Tammy Faye, TransGeneration)—investigates the cult known as The Family that subjects its child members to abuses, carnal and otherwise. Two members of The Family infiltrated a screening with recording devices but were caught and detained by police.

Writer Craig Chester (l) and producer Chris Ractser of Save Me at the Outfest Queer Brunch.

At long last, the war against swag at Sundance was being openly waged. Festival  organizers distributed large buttons with the slogan Focus on Film, subtly protesting the freebie fever at previous festivals that saw Paris Hilton’s comp shopping garnering as much if not more press and chatter than the movies. Some typically visible brands and corporations were nowhere to be seen this year, while the few hospitality lodges/suites that remained aimed to at least project an altruistic edge. Besides Mary Louise Butter’s aromatic artisan brownies and Lolly Lu’s queer and campy flasks and mugs, the Winter Warm Up Retreat dedicated space to The Freedom Campaign, which endeavors to free Myanmar political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and helped young American Film Institute talents make connections and network by introducing them to suite visitors. The Ultimate Green Room boasted organic goods like Pureology hair products and Green & Black’s chocolates and also spotlighted the work of The Creative Coalition, the celebrity-heavy arts advocacy group. Speaking of upscale products, high-end skin-care treatments were in abundance—Utah-based StriVectin, makers of a popular $135/tube stretch mark/wrinkle cream, set up shop on Main Street, and the always hot Marquee on Main featured Dermalogica (along with Lacoste, Lia Sophia, and Polaroid)—as were undies (2xist and Ginch Gonch). I savored a heavenly foot massage with Desert Essence Organics lotions at The Green House.

Putting their actions where their buttons were, some stars skipped the swag entirely. But others loaded up anyway, including the reportedly on again/off again gay couple Lance Bass and Reichen Lehmkuhl, who also showed up at the Save Me premiere. Speaking of Save Me, I attended a pre-premiere private dinner with the filmmakers and stars, during which Gant mentioned that Queer as Folk might have lasted at least another season had the escalating costs of the stars’ contracts—and the fact that at least one principal actor was totally over the Showtime series—not killed that notion. Introducing Save Me to a packed house eager for some gay lovin’ and triumph over ultra-religious adversity (and self-loathing), Sundance programmer John Cooper noted, “It’s not a gay film. It’s not a Christian film. It’s an American film.” During the post-screening Q&A, Light pointed out that her character’s beliefs were far-removed from her own: “My heart and soul belong to the gay community,” she shared to smiles and applause. The post-film party was equally warm and celebratory. Patrik Ian Polk, whose Logo series Noah’s Arc is set to evolve into a 2008 feature film, swung by, while Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman—the gay, Oscar-winning documentarians (The Times of Harvey Milk, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt) originally slated to direct Save Me while it was in development at Fox Searchlight during the late ’90s—and co-screenwriter Craig Chester (Adam & Steve) shared in the joy.

There was additional celebration for gays at Sundance before the Sunday-night closing. Cynthia Wade’s short documentary Freeheld, which follows the struggle of dying lesbian police lieutenant Laurel Hester to leave her pension to life partner Stacie Andree, was awarded a Special Jury Prize. And over at Slamdance, Red Without Blue, a documentary about a pair of twins (one gay, the other transgender) won the audience award—a sweet, perhaps bittersweet, victory at a not-very-gay, yet very much memorable year in Park City.

New York-based entertainment writer Lawrence Ferber reports each year from the Sundance Film Festival for OutSmart.
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by Rob Arcos

Parker Posey is Fay Grim. See SUNDANCE: A HOUSTON TAKE, by Rob Arcos.

We also asked local cineaste Rob Arcos for tips on a few Sundance flicks that he looks forward to. Arcos was executive director of the 10th annual Houston Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in 2006 (read “Reel Time,” September OutSmart) and recently opened MOViES, a video/DVD rental store (1407 Richmond, 713/527-9997, www.moviesthestore.com).

Military lovin’ might or might not be the case with the South Korean film A Day Out. But any film that combines a (male) sergeant, a (male) private, and a (female) prostitute in a story featuring “repressed sexual longings” — the advance word promises — sounds worth checking out.

When I heard that gay director Gregg Araki (Doom Generation, Mysterious Skin) had a new film in competition, my homo-senses tingled. And when I read that Smiley Face starred Anna Faris (Lost In Translation, the Scary Movies), I was ready to book a flight to Utah. But after coming to my senses (I have my partner to thank for that), I decided to wait along with my fellow Houstonians to watch Araki’s dark comedy about the misadventures you might have if you unknowingly ate some special brownies.

With the recent success of Layer Cake and Sexy Beast, the documentary A Very British Gangster couldn’t be more timely. Showing another side of one of cinema’s most used genres, Gangster follows the trials and tribulations of gay Manchester crime boss Dominic Noonan as he lurches from criminal trial to trial while serving as the patriarch of an entire community, which he protects with his own brand of justice and security.

Even though these next titles might not have GLBT content, I include them because the actresses involved have always been supporters of our community:

Parker Posey continues to prove to audiences that she indeed deserves the title Indie Queen. With two films in the festival, Posey balances broad, slapstick comedy in Broken English with a deeply, dysfunctional wife and mother in Hal Hartley’s new film, Fay Grim.

Another Hartley alumna, Sarah Polley (one of my favorite actors), made the leap from actress to director at this year’s festival. She delivers a challenging and engrossing drama, Away From Her, about a couple coming to grips with the onset of memory loss.



The cross-dresser Cate Blanchett? See sidebar KISS ME CATE!


magazine has entered its 14th year by premiering its winter issue at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Packed with interviews and analyses of the year’s moviemaking trends, the new issue features a cover interview with Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett, who discusses her work on four of the most talked-about films of the year: Babel, The Good German, Notes on a Scandal, and the upcoming I’m Not There (directed by Todd Haynes), in which she plays Bob Dylan. MovieMaker‘s winter 2007 issue also spotlights some of the entries at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in its “Park City Preview,” then rolls back the clock with a look at “Sundance’s Greatest Hits,” featuring commentary from past and present festival directors. For more information: www.moviemaker.com. — Troy Carrington


Lawrence Ferber

Lawrence Ferber is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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