Genre Queer: Frameline’s Heroes and Icons

A preview of the nation’s oldest festival devoted to LGBTQ film.
By  · Published on June 11th, 2017

A preview of the nation’s oldest festival devoted to LGBTQ film.

Frameline, the nation’s oldest festival devoted to LGBTQ film, returns to San Francisco for 11 days with 147 films from across the globe that reflect the vitality of what is really a global community.

Standing out are 5 films that celebrate the life and legacy of queer icons and heroes, emphasizing their importance not only to arts and culture, but also through their cultural contributions and fierce activism, to gay liberation itself, and often the broader fight for equal rights.

Frameline was founded in 1977, and so it is especially fitting that one of this year’s best documentaries coincides with the timespan of Frameline and the concurrent queer history of San Francisco.

The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin

In The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, Jennifer Kroot (Director of the break-away gem To Be Takei) tells the story of the Tales of the City author with an intimate flair that takes viewers with Maupin on his journey from a starchy, segregationist “Old Southern” family to the war in Vietnam — and on from there onto the battlefields of the American culture wars.

As the film unfolds we see Maupin himself undergo a remarkable transformation, from his origins as a young Republican in North Carolina where he worked as a TV copy writer for the legendary homophobe Jesse Helms, before Helms’ notorious Senate career and before Maupin set off to Vietnam and the US Navy.

After the war young Maupin happily takes a job in 1971 as an AP reporter in San Francisco and it was in that bubbling cauldron of Gay Lib that he began to come out, shedding his Southern conservatism and diving into the city’s burgeoning gay subculture.

We learn details such as the origin story of Tales of the City, which was first conceived for the (still extant today) Pacific Sun weekly in Marin. A short time later, after Maupin moved to the San Francisco paper of Herb Caen, he truly introduced locals and eventually the rest of America to the bathhouses, leather scene and queer subculture and to the larger, diverse community of solidarity and chosen family (what Maupin calls his ‘logical family’) — through his daily newspaper serial.

Untold Tales features entertaining interviews with that chosen family, including Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Neil Gaiman, Sir Ian McKellan and transgender pioneer Kate Bornstein, among others. At an easily digestible 90 minutes, the viewer comes away feeling they know not only Mr. Maupin (including his current life) but also the magic place from which his stories came.

The Fabulous Allan Carr takes us into the in-fact very fabulous if bumpy life of the Tony Award-winning creator of classics like Grease and La Cage Aux Folles, and a protégée behind the careers of icons such as Bette Midler, Olivia Newton-John, and The Village People. A young audience may be surprised by the scope of Carr’s work behind the scenes bringing about so many touchstones of pop culture that still resonate today.

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago during the 1950s with a deep affection for the movies and the glamour of old Hollywood, Alan Solomon (back then with one ‘L’ and no Carr) started a most improbable journey that would take him to New York and Hollywood, he single-handedly brought back the movie musical (first the Rock Opera Tommy, and then Grease) in his singular and flamboyant fashion. It was in 1977 that Carr wrote the screen adaptation for Grease and co-produced the film, which became not only the highest-grossing film of 1978 but also one of the highest-grossing ever.

Besides his reputation as a producer and the manager of his own talent agency, Allan Carr created his own golden age of Gay Hollywood by throwing epic parties by the pool and in his Egyptian themed basement disco. The Fabulous Allan Carr celebrates the legacy of this queer icon by relying heavily on Robert Hofler’s biography Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll Starring the Fabulous Allan Carr. Like a favorite Carr quote: “There’s a part of me that’s the show, and a part of me that’s the business,” this documentary strikes a perfect note between the flamboyant showmanship and the professional legacy of Allan Carr in both Hollywood and on Broadway.

Chavela Vargas is the subject of Catherine Gund’s eponymous film Chavela, which for many will be their first introduction to this legendary lesbian musician, whose performances turned a prevailing stereotype of Mexico’s great balladeers on its head.

Chavela was born in Costa Rica, but the romance of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema soon drew the young runaway to Mexico, where she became a professional singer and made a traditionally male genre of ballad — the Ranchera — her own. Wearing no makeup and developing a trademark on-stage look of poncho and slacks, she performed melancholy and world-weary songs — most originally composed by and for men — that dealt with solitude and unfulfilled love for women.

Keeping the female pronouns in her adaption of the genre, she sang about Femme Fatales as an androgyne, drinking tequila and smoking cigars. Chavela celebrates this extraordinary singer and lesbian idol in a montage of archival material, photographs as well as extensive interviews with musical associates, friends, lovers and admirers — one of them being Pedro Almodovar, who helped introduce her in later life to a wider and new audience in Spain and led to her to Carnegie Hall and the Olympia in Paris.

In his historical narrative feature about Touko Laaksonen, Director Dome Karukoski brings to life the cult figure better known as Tom of Finland.

Though at one time Laaksonen was what one might have called an underground leather porn illustrator — famous largely in gay circles for his fetish fantasies of uniformed muscle men with supernaturally swollen biceps and other bulges — Tom of Finland is now considered a skilled artist of homoerotic iconography with shows everywhere including the New York MoMA.

Tom of Finland

Tom of Finland chronicles the man’s life as he returns a decorated soldier from World War II to Helsinki. How he finds a safe refuge in his art; sketching private masturbatory fantasies based on stylized versions of the soldiers, lumberjacks, and bikers who shaped his homoerotic imagination. Laaksonen the man was fairly private and lived through his illustrations, which makes this retelling of the whole of his story worth seeing, especially for fans of the man’s art and aesthetic.

With such a rich assortment of movies that pay tribute to important figures in popular culture and the arts — it is fitting to also have a film in this year’s line-up that honors a significant though little-remembered figure in the origins of the Gay Liberation Movement itself and especially the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and the New York club scene thereafter.

The history of Stonewall seems to be continuously re-written — at once as the singular achievement of mainstream gay men — most notably in Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall — and then as solely a riot comprised of marginalized hustlers and drag queens. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, however, rings truer, but it does not flinch from the fact that in the early days of the movement the ‘T’s’ in LGBT were ignored and often ostracized — edited out of the story of gay liberation.

How to Survive a Plague director David France’s documentary charts an investigation into the still-unsolved death of Marsha P. Johnson, who was in her time a trans icon in New York, present at Stonewall and seemingly everywhere else, a fierce transgender and queer rights activist but also a personality, in the orbit of Warhol and a real player in the burgeoning club scene. A person whose horrible death leads to protest marches and legal challenges that presage later AIDS activism. It’s a finely wrought and inspiring film. The truth isn’t just stranger than fiction when it’s long overdue, truth can be a celebration.

Frameline runs June 15–25, 2017 for information visit

Related Topics: ,