The Sundance Film Festival serves up tasty fare.
by Lawrence Ferber
Park City, Utah: Despite this year’s theme of “Rebel,” there was little rocking of the boat at the Sundance Film Festival.
The first edition headed by openly gay fest director John Cooper, a 20-plus-year Sundance staff vet, 2010 saw only subtle tweaks in programming and structure—for instance, three opening-night programs and the inaugural sections NEXT, for micro/no-budget entries, and the international-inclusive Spotlight—and, barring Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, who starred in two entries, a slight toning down in the celeb factor and return to more anti-Hollywood-minded roots. The year’s biggest game-changing shake-ups occurred off-screen: Queer Lounge was gone, Miramax closed shop, and many familiar industry faces were absent—all casualties of the economy.
Film-wise it was a year of girl power (and gayer!), with females behind some of the most buzz-garnering titles. Picked up by Focus Features for, reportedly, somewhere in the region of $5 million, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right stars Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as Nic and Jules, a lesbian couple whose teenage son and daughter track down their sperm donor father (Mark Ruffalo).
Funny and complicated, yet quintessentially Sundance with its family-on-the-edge plot/theme and well-drawn, meticulously acted characters, Cholodenko’s fourth feature (High Art, Laurel ? Canyon) is a cinematic watershed in its outstanding, fully developed post-gay representation of an LGBT family unit.
Natural and flawed, Bening’s prickly Nic and Moore’s confused Jules face all the same challenges and foibles of a “normal” heterosexual couple, and are painted as such. Their parenting discussions ring true and are frequently riotous, like when son Laser asks them to explain their hidden stash of gay male porno videos (which they caught Laser watching with another boy, leading to an awkward birds-and-bees chat about his sexuality). It’s an absolute must-see.
Buzzed about well in advance of the festival, The Runaways, directed by Floria Sigismondi, dramatizes the story of Joan Jett’s legendary all-teenage-girl band (best known for their hit single, “Cherry Bomb”). Star Kristen Stewart is a dead-ringer for Jett, while Dakota Fanning—she’s all growed up!—portrays exploited jailbait vocalist Cherie Currie.
Yet for a film about rocking with your (figurative) c–k out, the film suffers from an ironic prudishness. Jett is painted as almost asexual, barring a brief onscreen acknowledgement of intimate relations with Currie, and guitarist Lita Ford barely registers (FYI, Jett served as an exec producer and performed at a packed Harry O’s party during the fest). Yet character actor Michael Shannon, as Kim Fowley, the band’s flamboyant Eddie Izzard-esque creator/manager, adds scenery-chewing spice.
A lilting folk ditty compared to Runaways’ rock ballad, writer/director Adriana Maggs’ Grown Up Movie Star stars Big Love’s Shawn Doyle as a Newfoundland father whose life is shaken up by his daughter’s (Tatiana Maslany, winner of a Special Jury Prize for Breakout Performance) sexual rebellion, as well as his own gay awakening.
Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg document Joan Rivers’ tireless efforts to stay relevant over the course of a year in the supremely entertaining
A Piece of Work. On hand for several screenings, Rivers, 76, kept audiences in stitches during Q&As, and offstage partook of a de facto Sundance tradition—swagging. “I got a lot of swag,” she admitted once back in Manhattan. “You get it home and you go, ‘who needs this,’ but that’s not the point. It’s still fun to take at the moment.”
I ran into Juliette Lewis in swag mode at the Lia Sophia Lounge, where Diesel handed out new watches, fragrances, and “Be Stupid” T-shirts. Naomi Watts swung by the Art & Soul Center, where ConAir provided hairstyling and goodies. Village at The Yard proved a treasure trove as usual, a Fred Segal gifting lounge plump with brands like Dockers, Parish Nation, and Affliction. I ran into Elijah Wood at the Swagg Media/Gibson Lounge, while House of Hype—where Bill Gates (!) threw a party—boasted pretty darned sassy Sean John jackets, possibly the fest’s coolest get.
But back to the films and girl power. Slamdance’s The Four-Faced Liar, written by and starring Marja-Lewis Ryan, charts a rocky love triangle between a heterosexual couple and a lesbian. Even one of the year’s most highly anticipated gay male titles in Park City, Sundance opener Howl, was produced by a female team, Elizabeth Redleaf and Christine Kunewa Walker.
A stylized, experimental biopic directed by gay Oscar-winning documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt), Howl focuses on the youthful years of queer Beat poet Allen Ginsberg—portrayed by James Franco—while amalgamating a recreation of the landmark 1957 obscenity trial against his published poem, “Howl,” and a
vibrantly animated interpretation.
Franco was present at the film’s January 23 screening, where he shared that he’d been a fan of the Beat Generation since high school. “They’ve always been with me, and now that I’m in grad school [at Columbia University], where Ginsberg went, he’s constantly in my life.” He also admitted that he was surprised to be cast as Ginsberg. “If I ever played a Beat, I thought it would be Neal Cassady or Jack Kerouac. I’m not sure why they chose me!”
Director Yony Leyser’s Slamdance documentary, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, entailed a fantastic Howl companion piece—an interviews-loaded look back at the Beat elder and the banning of his tome, Naked Lunch.
Speaking of bans, Reed Cowan and Steven Greenstreet’s 8: The Mormon Proposition exposes the Mormon Church’s substantial involvement in California’s successful Proposition 8 campaign, the extremes it has taken to persecute its gay members and families, and the heartbreaking casualties.
At the film’s world premiere at
Park City’s Racquet Club, the directors were joined onstage by narrator Dustin Lance Black and interview subject/
San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. During the lively Q&A, a practicing Mormon female expressed her support for same-sex marriage. “There is not one Mormon mind,” she shared, “and I’ve seen change come to my church.” Newsom reminded the audience that the narrative of the same-sex marriage struggle is similar to that of interracial marriage and, ultimately, “history bends towards justice.”
Some queer-interest works were screened, and performed live, in the festival’s New Frontier On Main contempo/multimedia art space, including Kalup Linzy’s southern-gay-black-drag hotpot, Sweet, Sampled and LeftOva, and Nao Bustamante’s Jack Smith-meets-Maria Montez trip-out, Silver & Gold.
Many grieved about the lack of a fulltime Queer Lounge space, yet LGBTs did get to converge at the annual Outfest Queer Brunch for gossip and
networking (to wit: filmmaker Phillip Bartell informed me that Eating Out 4 & 5 have been greenlit by Ariztical, and he’s also set to work on a sequel to Jason Bushman’s Hollywood Je T’aime, entitled Hollywood Te Amo) as well as a handful of GLAAD and Queer Lounge-sponsored panels, cocktail parties, and the annual Homos Away From Home shindig.
The closing weekend’s Sundance Awards proved celebratory for writer/ director Javier Fuentes-Leõn, whose Contracorriente (aka Undertow) won the World Cinema Audience Award for Dramatic Feature honor. The affecting tale of a deeply closeted Peruvian who carries on an affair with the ghost of his recently deceased gay lover, Contracorriente was picked up by distributor Wolfe Releasing. Coming up empty but worth mention are director Eyad Zahra’s The Taqwacores, set in the emerging Islamic punk music scene and featuring a queer Muslim character; Jamie Travis’ visionary, colorful-whilst-dark short about a little boy repressing a dark secret, The Armoire; Ira Sachs’ profound Last Address; and Jonathan Lisecki’s fun gay-guy-and-straight-woman-want-a-child short, Gayby.
Perhaps, and in fact most likely, no Precious will emerge this year as the dust settles, but keep eyes peeled at your local festivals and theaters for a taste of rebellion.
Lawrence Ferber is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.