Reeling: The Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival 2011

Chicago’s LGBT film fest turns 30.

We Were Here

Pre-Brokeback Hollywood cranked out dismal fare like William Friedkin’s Cruising and the Village People biopic Can’t Stop the Music. So the locals who, in April 1981, packed themselves into Chicago Filmmakers’ 90-seat screening room on West Hubbard Street to see queer life depicted onscreen must’ve been thrilled. Three decades later, Reeling: The Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival, the second-oldest such fest in the U.S., returns with a crop of films that proves maturity—even in the ageist gay community—isn’t always a bad thing.

Like Reeling, AIDS also turns 30 this year. In We Were Here (Sunday 6), a heartbreaking doc about the impact of the crisis on San Francisco’s Castro district, the talking heads don’t just augment the story line—they form its beating heart. Five survivors of the worst years of the epidemic talk about how they went from hedonists to soldiers in a war zone.

It isn’t the only film that looks back. The Night Watch (Sunday 6), based on the book by out Brit novelist Sarah Waters, imagines the intersecting lives of three queer women, one gay man and a straight couple in the aftermath of WWII. Told in reverse chronological order (think Betrayal meets The End of the Affair), it’s the kind of film that words like ravishing were invented to describe. While revisionist in its depiction of gay life in the ’40s, it’s lovely to watch. A different kind of period piece, the dumb sex farce Longhorns (November 10) likes to think Reagan-era Texas was full of horny hunks with feathered hair and pink polos who were willing to switch orientations at the first sight of a big dick.

If a discernible trend emerges at this year’s fest, it might be the notion that queer youth still live complicated lives. The excellent German entry Romeos (Wednesday 9) depicts 20-year-old Lukas, an FTM guy struggling to find acceptance, even within the queer community. The upbeat ending almost betrays the film’s tough depiction of the issues facing trans-identified youth. In the short Brit film “Fucked” (screening with Buffering, Tuesday 8), a teenager is well-adjusted, studious and out to his mum, but also at risk of HIV/AIDS.

Meanwhile, a trio of high-school seniors in the Bible Belt grapples with faith, sexuality and adulthood in Chicago filmmaker Stephen Cone’s patient and wonderful opening-night feature, The Wise Kids (Thursday 3; see “Kids rocks,” page 73), which keenly observes the unexpressed desires of people of faith.

The South continues to be a difficult place to be out in Wish Me Away (Saturday 5), a doc about lesbian country singer Chely Wright. While the film plays like an Oprah-style confession between Wright and her spiritual adviser, it asks an interesting question: What happens when fans realize a celebrity isn’t the fantasy they’ve constructed in their heads?

The global recession hits queer cinema this year. In the U.K. entry Buffering, a couple turns to Internet sex for fast cash in tough times; their erections rise above hideously thin plot points. Meanwhile, the pouty, wanna-be actor protagonist of November 12’s closing-night film, Going Down in La-La Land (from ubiquitous queer director Casper Andreas), turns to gay porn and escorting to pay the rent. Both movies squander an opportunity to discuss real issues—fame, privacy, intimacy—with gay stereotypes and gratuitous ass shots. Then again, sex has always been a trademark of gay filmmaking. Even wisdom has its limits when one is properly aroused.

Reeling kicks off Thursday 3 at the Music Box. Other films screen at Chicago Filmmakers and Landmark’s Century Centre.

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