A Queerer Sundance

Though not an out-and-out GLBT event, this year’s Sundance Film Festival featured more queer content—from lesbian soldiers to gay zombies.

By Lawrence Ferber

Otto; or, Up with Dead People director Bruce LaBruce.

They say you can never go home again, but that aphorism isn’t entirely true judging by the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. In January, seminal New Queer Filmmakers Tom Kalin (Swoon), Bruce LaBruce (Hustler White), Gregg Araki (The Living End), Isaac Julien (Looking for Langston), Marcus Hu (producer/distributor, Frisk), and Killer Films co-founder Christine Vachon (Boys Don’t Cry, among other queer movies) reconvened at the Park City, Utah, event, where nearly two decades ago their movement was born (and given a name by critic B. Ruby Rich). And they were still able to shock and awe new audiences—especially Bruce LaBruce.

During the world premiere screening of LaBruce’s Otto; or, Up with Dead People, a third of the audience bolted at record speed, all but leaving cartoonish Road Runner dust clouds behind them, when a gay zombie started having explicit intercourse with a stomach wound that he made in his dead boyfriend (while literally eating him out). The “gut f–k,” as LaBruce put it.

Even given that bit of homo zombie sex, Sundance 2008 was just marginally gayer, film-wise, than the barely queer 2007 festival. The concurrent Slamdance (now in its 14th year) did add a couple of much-needed GLBT-inclusive docs, a feature, and handful of shorts to the mix.

Outside the screenings, the queerness was, as usual, an overflowing river. Partnered with Absolut and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the four-year-old Queer Lounge upped its game with a prime three-floor Main Street location for meeting and chilling; an amazing series of panels and parties (opening night featured a rawkin’ set by The Donnas); an endless supply of Borba Skin Balance drinks and Absolut cocktails; and an exhibition of posters from previous years’ queer films.

As everywhere in Park City, the Queer Lounge was the scene of much commiseration and puzzlement over the shocking death of Heath Ledger, news that rushed through Park City like a frosty avalanche.  

The annual Outfest Queer Brunch at the Grub Steak restaurant was as schmoozy as ever, with chatter about community developments that included the here! TV network Change Starts Here! initiative (which sees $10 from each new subscription donated to a community nonprofit group) and the Outfest Legacy Film Preservation project.

Outfest also hosted an evening filmmaker party, where I ran into Boy Culture co-writer/producer Philip Pierce, who mentioned a new project in the works: Ditto, a feature about a pair of twins, one gay, the other straight.

Movie Recap

Jey Crisfar plays a gay zombie in Bruce LaBruce’s Otto; or, Up with Dead People.

The word queer only begins to describe LaBruce’s Otto, which follows the title character, a cute young gay zombie (Jey Crisfar)—or is he merely delusional?—cast in a politically charged zombie porn flick lensed by an iconoclastic lesbian director. As typical of LaBruce’s repertoire, there’s hardcore gay sex, hot young punk boys, and bizarre flourishes like a character that exists in a black-and-white silent-film universe. Shot in Berlin, Otto also represents a step forward for LaBruce, who imbues the outrageous proceeding with emotion, fantastic music by the likes of Antony & The Johnsons, and nods to influences like the 1962 horror film Carnival of Souls (which stars Sidney Berger, the retired University of Houston drama school chairman, who was a grad student at the time) and George Romero’s Martin.

What inspired LaBruce to make a gay zombie flick? “A bathhouse is like Night of the Living Dead!” he quipped.

Tom Kalin’s Savage Grace, set for a May theatrical release by IFC (and produced by Vachon), also scored high on the twisted-o-meter. In this based-on-a-true-story tragedy, Julianne Moore plays Barbara Daly, a former model who develops a sordid connection with her spoiled gay son, Tony (adorable, freckled British actor Eddie Redmayne).

Peter Sarsgaard (l) and Jon Foster star in Mysteries of Pittsburgh.

The highly anticipated Mysteries of Pittsburgh got plenty of attention for a different reason: It sucked. Based on—make that eviscerated from—Michael Chabon’s novel by dreadful hack Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball), this snorefest follows the dull, inarticulate son of a crime lord as he dabbles in a summertime affair with a woman and her bisexual thug boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard). In short, a major gay character in the novel was scrapped entirely, and the book’s finest elements were amalgamated into pabulum. An online boycott website elaborates on the film’s awful changes: myspace.com/mysteriesofpittsburgh. At least Sarsgaard (The Dying Gaul, Kinsey) adds yet another queer love scene to his résumé.

Downright polarizing critic-wise, Amy Redford’s The Guitar is an indie twist on Last Holiday, the 2006 Queen Latifah vehicle. A milquetoast New Yorker (the out Saffron Burroughs) discovers she has terminal cancer and goes credit-card batshit, ordering delivery meals and Jonathan Adler vases and housewares, and screwing a married black deliveryman and repressed Latina pizza delivery girl. The messages are dubious (Enrich your life through retail therapy! Hump unavailable men and women!), but I found the movie entertaining. And Burroughs is truly Oscar-y.

Two sisters (Emily Blunt and Amy Adams) start a crime-scene cleanup business in Sunshine Cleaning. Blunt’s character becomes involved with a lesbian played by Mary Lynn Rajskub. Though their relationship never goes where it should (rumor is a same-sex smooch was cut), the flick is a pleasing and accessible 90 minutes.

Less mainstream-friendly, and quite arty, the partly animated ensemble drama Half-Life boasts a young gay Asian and his African-American boyfriend. Narratives with peripheral or subtle queer characters included Pretty Bird and Birds of America. At the premiere of the latter, out director Craig Lucas cracked up the crowd by kicking off the Q&A with the observation, “Watching this with you was as fun as cleaning the cigarette butts from the urinals at Grand Central Station—a job I always wanted.” If only Birds were as consistently amusing as Lucas himself.

Sex-change surgery is preferable to execution for gay Iranians in Be Like Others.

Tanaz Eshaghian’s documentary Be Like Others —about Iranian gays who, rather than risk the death penalty for homosexuality, undergo sex changes—represents a big fat finger in the face of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cockamamie remarks last year about the absence of homosexuals in Iran. Expect to see Be Like Others on cable this year. Edet Belzberg’s An American Soldier includes a lesbian recruit amongst its subjects.

Sundance’s best queer documentary was Derek, Isaac Julien’s clip-rich retrospective of the late, great queer artist/filmmaker Derek Jarman’s work, structured around a lengthy filmed interview. Actress Tilda Swinton, one of Jarman’s muses, wrote the film, which she narrates (she is also executive producer). At the premiere, Swinton discussed her belief that a carpet has been laid over Jarman and his era of maverick filmmaking, which Julien is trying to remove. Film Sales Company bought the U.S. rights and intends a 2008 theatrical release.

Over at Slamdance, the queer face included Goodbye Baby, in which a young wannabe comedienne (Christine Evangelista) moves in with her gay musician brother (Ivan Sandomire) and his model/actor boyfriend (Kane Manera). The jubilant documentary Pageant introduces five Miss Gay America contestants, while another Slamdance doc, I Think We’re Alone Now, plumbs the crazy depths of two Tiffany stalkers, one of them an intersexed individual (and not really a choice spokesperson for his/her community).

Yet another concurrent movie event, the Park City Film & Music Festival, opened with a feature with GLBT content. In his autobiographical Single Tracks, Utah filmmaker An Dinh presents an Asian-American man and his recently out lesbian wife who maintain a close friendship despite their split (Dinh and ex-wife Elena play themselves). For those who doubt that Salt Lake City is pretty gay year-round, Dinh intercuts Single Tracks with interviews with plenty of real-life local GLBTs, including Queer Lounge volunteer Dominique Storni.

Queer-inclusive or -themed cinema didn’t come away with many prizes or big buys at Sundance this year, exceptions being an honorable mention for the short documentary La Corona (The Crown), about a beauty pageant in a Columbian women’s prison, and at Slamdance, the satirical short Woman in Burka snagged the Spirit of Slamdance Award—a Jagermeister gift basket. Not bad, after 10 days of watered-down Utah beer.

Scenes from Sundance

• Gregg Araki and Marcus Hu unveiled and screened a remastered version of The Living End, their 1992 cult favorite. With the screening, Living End (written and directed by Araki and produced by Hu) entered the Sundance Collection, the University of California-Los Angeles film archive.

• One evening I ran into the openly gay winner of the CBS series Survivor: China, Utah-born Todd Herzog, at GLAAD’s “And The Nominees Are…” reception. What was it like being stuck on an island with nobody he found hot? I asked Herzog. It was a moot point, Herzog shared. “We all smelled so badly! There was no deodorant!”

• During the “And the Nominees Are….” ceremony, GLAAD unveiled its new public-service announcement, conceived by and starring actor Alan Cumming, aimed at eradicating the F-word (faggot, that is). I can’t say the spot was met with pumping fists and ACT-UP fervor. In fact, it was the subject of much eye-rolling over the following days and nights.

Dante’s Cove cast member (and former Lance Bass arm candy) Reichen Lehmkuhl told me that a movie version of his autobiography, Here’s What We’ll Say, is in pre-production. “It’s gonna show the effects of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” he promised.

• During one Queer Lounge panel, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato of World of Wonder (Eyes of Tammie Faye, TransGeneration, One Punk, Under God) discussed their upcoming HBO documentary, When I Knew, which airs in June. At another Queer Lounge event, The Advocate presented a raucous “Gay Filmmakers and Sexual Provocation” panel with Bruce LaBruce, Lesli Klainberg, Isaac Julien, and film critic Kyle Buchanan. During the evening, the conversation morphed into a sort of “GLAADgate” (as an observer put it), during which GLAAD was criticized for watchdog practices perceived as censorship, such as reviewing scripts and providing notes. GLAAD entertainment media director Damon Romine then felt compelled to clarify the mission and intent of the New York-based advocacy group. “It was good to have that discussion,” Romine reflected, “so filmmakers have a better understanding of what GLAAD does. GLAAD’s mission is to advocate for fair, accurate images, which is different from positive [images].”

• Commenting on what director Derek Jarman (who died in 1994) would be up to if still alive and in Park City, Tilda Swinton took a dig at the swag scene, which had all but overtaken Main Street. “Isaac and I ran the gamut of the shopping mall Sundance is,” she shared. “Maybe [if Derek were here he] would be making out with a Lexus. But there would be a reason!”

Last year saw the first sparks of a backlash against swag at Sundance and the distraction it had become. This year, the “Focus on Film” protest buttons were back. Publicist firm Jeremy Walker & Associates presented clients with a sobering “swagifesto” (reading in part, “Please help us avoid letting the allure of free stuff get in the way of our work with you, your film, and its stars”). Bigger stars were reticent to visit swag suites or accept goodies.

Nonetheless, smaller names, Hollywood types (including—quelle surprise—the Hilton sisters), and press still flocked to the freebies. Many suites included at least one altruistic or eco-oriented cause/exhibitor. At Village at the Yard, Diesel, in a sort of swag-it-forward gesture, encouraged VIPs to select an outfit for a youth in need. Rex Lee of Entourage participated, enjoyed a facial at St. Ives Sensory Spa & Gallery, and contributed to the Best Pickup Lines project at the Kenneth Cole Reaction Lounge (his line: “I have no game, so I don’t have a line that works on anybody.”). Laurel Holloman of The L Word hit the Revaleskin lounge for skin-care salves and Bubble & Bee Organic Bath & Body gift packs. I scored much-needed hand lotion from the charming, out Ole Henriksen at Hollywood Life House’s Sephora enclave.

• At the Outfest Queer Brunch, I ran into luminaries including Cheryl Dunye, who is developing a sequel to her 1996 lesbian classic, The Watermelon Woman, and documentarians Thomas Allen Harris (That’s My Face) and Yvonne Welbon (Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100, founder of the Sisters in Cinema project). Both said they are working on new projects. Besides shoptalk, we shared and laughed about new queer terminology, including dopplebangers (a couple that looks the same), futch (a femme butch), flip my rainbow (what you want to do when you’re turned on by someone of the opposite sex), and lesbro (a straight man who hangs out with lesbians).

Lawrence Ferber, the New York-based entertainment journalist, reports each year from the Sundance Film Festival for OutSmart. His interview with k.d. lang also appears in this issue.


Lawrence Ferber

Lawrence Ferber is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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