A Look Forward to Frameline, San Francisco’s World Class LGBTQ Film Festival

By  · Published on June 11th, 2015

Eisenstein in Guanajuato

With the tag line “There’s No Place Like Here…” and a neon-glow logo that feels partially inspired by the title art for the recently canceled HBO series Looking, Frameline: San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival is gearing up for its 39th run June 18–28.

At a time when many are questioning if The City is losing it socially conscious soul to money and tech, it was oddly refreshing to see protesters picketing this year’s kick-off press conference. At this point any protest is an affirmation that San Francisco still has its historical sprit.

Frameline, for the uninitiated, is the world’s largest LGBTQ media arts non-profit organization and its festival this year will attract 65,000 film lovers who over 11 days will converge to watch the 180 films on view at an assortment of venues from the grand Castro to the creaky little Victoria.

This year one could say Frameline is turning the tables on filmmaking by placing some filmmakers themselves on screen. Some of the strongest films celebrate directors and other queer creators.

As Christian Braad Thomsen’s intimate docu-portrait Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands confirms, it’s impossible to remove the personal life of arguably the 20th century’s greatest German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder from his films.

Thomsen, who befriended Fassbinder after the adverse reaction to his feature debut, Love is Colder Than Death, insinuated himself into the director’s assembled family where the lines between lover, actor, director, patriarch and cult leader were often as hard to follow as an avant garde film plot.

Fassbinder directed more than 60 films and shorts in only 15 years, and Thomsen offers a physiological not cinematic portrait that attempts to explain the motivations and energies that drove the frenetic pace; “I only thought I existed while I was working,” Fassbinder states by way of explanation. Still there are great film clips sprinkled throughout and while they are used to reveal the director’s dadaesque personality more than to scrutinize his oeuvre, it’s fascinating to look at the bad-boy inventor of New German Cinema (who literally worked himself to death) from such an intimate and irreverent point of view.

Fassbinder – To Love Without Demands

Eisenstein in Guanajuato, in its imagining of the “ten days that shook Eisenstein” doesn’t just explore a pivotal period in the Soviet director’s artistic and sexual awaking, it drags us headlong and deep into every most intimate moment of it, and quite beautifully at that.

Reportedly conceived in part as a commentary on Russia’s anti-gay laws both past and present, director Peter Greenaway’s look at one of cinema’s most respected directors tells the story of Sergei Eisenstein’s (played with a near perfect comedic energy by Finnish actor Elmer Back) epic time working on a mad movie scheme in Mexico.

The themes are classic Greenaway: birth, death and Eros.

Though all based in fact this is a cinematic passion play where resurrection is dispensed via a sexual awaking provided mid-point by his Mexican guide, the handsome Palomino Canedo (Luis Alberti) who, with the help of a bedside bottle of olive oil literally opens dear Sergei to newfound pleasures of body and spirit.

Greenaway revels in celebrating the artificiality of cinema. Providing a dazzling pastiche of split screen triptychs, stunning CGI trickery and 360-degree tracking shots – even shooting through translucent alabaster floors, and by injecting his trademark painterly vision he enriches cinema – as a medium that in this case feels full of promise all over again.

Documentarian and writer Michael Stabile’s energetic new film Seed Money: The Chuck Holmes Story recounts not just the rollicking founding of gay porn’s most prestigious studio, Falcon and it’s driving force Chuck Holmes, it lays out how for gay men coming of age in the 70’s and 80’s turned to Falcon’s uniquely stylish and upscale reinvention of gay porn that proved more than just a safe sexual outlet – it supplied cultural validation.

Founder Holmes and his team smartly infused adult film with a very specific, even branded, esthetic. Gone were unkempt looking street boys, replaced by “the Falcon man”. Influenced by the materialism of the Reagan era’s Dynasty esthetic (the 1980’s, when Falcon was peerless) models were shaved smooth, hair was quaffed, clothing was on-trend and the once dirty bottoms of the feet were, on Holmes orders, scrubbed clean. The models were self assured, confident and allowed to desire each other without shame. This was aspirational porn.

It is said that porn lacks narrative, but Stabile cleverly uses the prolific Falcon library to document the arc of Holmes’ life and with it the larger ecosystem of gay culture’s migration west.

Coupled with lively and often touching and emotional first person accounts, Seed Money evokes a heady time when being gay in San Francisco meant you were definitely livin la vida loca.

Perhaps most importantly, Seed Money documents some fascinating early A-GAY tensions, that in an effort to garner mainstream acceptance, society gays (and the politicians who wanted their money and votes) often shunned this most creative and provocative member of their tribe in public while taking his contributions offline.

Stabile helps immortalize a man with a flare for breaking the rules at a time and in an industry where that could land you in jail. It’s a message of freedom, risk-taking and achievement which otherwise may well have been forgotten.

Seed Money: The Chuck Holmes Story

Barbara Hammer’s Welcome to This House, a film about Elizabeth Bishop is a fascinating diary of the acclaimed poet’s life and times. Most entertainingly, Bishop’s blustery romance with the trailblazing lesbian Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo (which inspired the film Reaching for the Moon) is given ample screen time and the vintage footage interspersed with Bishop’s sublime writing elevates everything. This is a rare deep dive into the mind and affairs of one of our great poets (Bishop was poet laureate of the United States during the Truman administration).

Reel in the Closet features LGBT home movies from the 40’s through the present day. It does an excellent job of tying together the past and the present by taking the time to provide continuity and detail about the people behind these superb collections, rather than relying simply on the novelty of it all. While I had previously seen many gay men’s home movies, this production includes marvelous lesbian 8 mm footage. Included among them is a filmed interlude at a 40’s San Francisco joint, Mona’s Candle Light, a lesbian “bohemian bar” in North Beach, featuring performances from a sultry troubadour and a fabulous butch gal in a smart tan men’s suit, all interspersed with shots of the equally smart looking audience. Divine.

As has been the case in years past, the international selection of narrative features prove more resonant than their domestic counterparts.

In Xenia, two Greek-Albanian brothers a 15-year-old lollipop twink Danny and his straight older brother Odysseas partake in a dreamlike odyssey to locate their estranged father. The trip spills over with surrealist references including giant talking rabbits; rugs that morph into chest hair, and cameos from Italian pop legend Patty Pravo that will send you searching on iTunes. And while its 128 minute running time could have been reduced, the emotionally (and visually) arresting lead actors Kostas Nikouli (Danny) and Nikos Gelia (Odysseas) hold our attention throughout in this Cannes debuted standout.

In the Brazilian feature Seashore, Martin (Mateus Almada) and Tomaz (Maurício Barcellos) have been good friends for years and they now find themselves at the edge of adulthood. When Martin’s father sends the boys to coastal south Brazil to sort out a family matter, the brief trip becomes yes, a journey of self-discovery.

But this one is different because through the use of close-ups, and out of focus shots co-directors Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon use their camera to augment the oft told aspects of the film. And by not overly relying on traditional narrative devices, meaning much is not said, they (and their excellent cast) superbly capture the stoic psychological reality of male friendship.

The emotional exchanges that form the backbone of the relationship study, In the Greyscale (the freshman feature from Chilean director Claudio Marcone) may be in part a nod to Andrew Haigh’s Weekend – both features highlight subtle dramatic conflict in the dissimilar inner natures of two men finding love.

Bruno (Francisco Celhay) is a noted architect who sets out to deliver a signature commission for a prominent local developer while also constructing a new life for himself as he separates from his wife to explore his bisexuality.

The path to that new life conveniently presents itself with the arrival of Fernando (Emilio Edwards) who is hired on as a street-savvy guide to show Bruno little-known historical sites as inspiration. But the inspiration goes way beyond that initial scope.

Fernando presents Bruno with just the strident view of sexuality he needs for a kick in the pants: “In the event you’re homosexual then it’s black and white,” he says in sharp contrast to Bruno’s fluidity.

These two leads deliver intellectually honest and emotionally resonant performances that capture the push and pull of their attractions. And while the symbolism of Bruno making the architectural project a progression from phallic tower to transitional bridge may not be subtle, it serves a wider duality as a bridge between Chile’s colonial past and its dynamic present.

While Frameline’s opening night feature, I Am Michael may prove most memorable for James Franco’s understated performance in the overly evenhanded portrayal of a gay man going back into the closet, the closing evening film Bare (Natalia Leite), fresh from its Tribeca debut stands out.

A young girl Sarah (Dianna Agron) is introduced into a stripper’s world of pole dancing, hard drugs, and psychedelic mushrooms by a manipulative female drifter played by Paz de la Huerta. This director’s debut feature offers a compelling take on the intersection of two women who are seeking the way up and out of their desperate circumstances, and heralds a new female voice to keep an eye on.

Frameline 39: The San Francisco International LGBTQ International Film Festival runs June 18th-28th, 2015. Tickets on sale through www.frameline.org