Houston’s 21st annual LGBTQ film festival runs July 27-31.
By Josh Inocéncio
This weekend’s 21st annual QFest will feature a diverse cinematic landscape, from documentaries to period dramas to biopics of significant LGBTQ figures.
Among the films showing at Houston’s LGBTQ film festival is the newly released Tom of Finland (2017), which follows the life of Touko “Tom” Laaksonen, the gay Finnish illustrator. Laaksonen became famous in Europe and the U.S. for his sexually frank, and frequently fetish-driven, depictions of gay sex. The film, which will be shown at Rice Media Center, is a sweeping biopic that begins with Laaksonen’s military service during World War II as a closeted gay man, then trackshis meteoric rise in the States, and ends with the crushing AIDS epidemic.
For those who are unfamiliar, “Tom of Finland” was Laaksonen’s pseudonym, and his work inspired a movement, particularly in the U.S., built around fetishes and cruising. The online store, www.tomoffinlandstore.com, sells merchandise, such as bomber jackets and sex toys, featuring Laaksonen’s drawings. The site also sells coffee-table books with prints of Laaksonen’s work for history and erotica enthusiasts. Common images include leather, aviator sunglasses, muscles, and cartoon-sized penises. As the U.S. decriminalized depictions of gay sex in media, his work was popularized in beefcake magazines.
What the film mines from Laaksonen’s oeuvre is how gay men in Finland and the U.S. used small, pornographic images to cruise and determine if other nearby men were interested in sex. Presenting art as a form of gay resistance to cultural mores, the film is not only a historical treat about a popular cult figure, but also a politically relevant drama.
Alongside Tom of Finland, the festival will showcase a 4K digital restoration of Maurice (UK, 1987), based on the controversial novel of the same name by E.M. Forster, at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. The novel, which Forster wrote in 1914, was published posthumously in 1971. Starring Hugh Grant in the titular role, the film follows two Cambridge University students as they navigate their romance in the early 20th century.
The film, like the novel, was not a huge hit upon its original release, and it was deemed too LGBT-specific for mainstream popularity. But 30 years later, film festivals and cinema houses are showing the restoration. As The Guardian notes, “Far from dated, Merchant Ivory’s Maurice looks positively ahead of its time: an honestly strait-laced depiction of alternative sexuality that dared to play by the same rules as any other respectable costume drama.”
On closing night, QFest will show a musical biopic on a lesser-known celebrity with the Texas premiere of Thirsty (USA, 2016) at Rice Media Center. The first narrative feature by director Margo Pelletier, the film follows Scott Townsend, a famed Cher impersonator based in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Townsend styles his persona as “Thirsty Burlington,” embracing drag performance to navigate his femme identity. As Variety notes, “Though it deals with some of the harsh realities surrounding sexual identity and LGBTQ issues, ‘Thirsty’ is nevertheless an uplifting experience, an inspiration, not to mention handsomely set-dressed, story of self-invention and survival.” This “post-queer” musical stars the real Scott Townsend, who will attend the Houston showing and participate in a Q&A afterward.
In addition to these historical films, QFest will feature rich documentaries, including Small Talk (Taiwan, 2016), which follows a Taiwanese mother who comes out as lesbian to her children, and Julio of Jackson Heights (USA, 2016), which investigates the 1990 murder of gay hustler Julio River in Queens. Other restorations of classics include Desert Hearts (USA, 1987), a lesbian romance based on the novel by Jane Rule, and Both Ways (USA, 1975), which centers on a married father as he balances his family and his male lover.