My journey as a filmgoer who grew up in the minefield of the homophobic 1980s has been a rocky, fascinating one. Culture attempted to open up in the ’70s, the denial of non-heteronormative relationships of the previous eras was shattered by the mentions of homosexuals, abortions and unwed pregnancies (mostly on Norman Lear’s television shows) before the Reagan era and fear of AIDS made popular culture very conservative again. The television I remember watching as a kid was terrified of even admitting that anything outside the pursuit of the straight and monogamous existed.
The argument for us members of the community watching films and television over the years was about the ways in which we were being represented: Is it better to show us in a positive light or a “real” one? When I was in high school, having the visibility of a character like Matt Fielding (played by Doug Savant) on Melrose Place was a breakthrough despite the fact that he barely got to touch anyone and was suspiciously saintly. Gay made its way back into movies and television shows, but, in the most popular examples, under the most sexless of terms (My Best Friend’s Wedding, As Good As It Gets). Whether or not you could make LGBTQ+ characters problematic was still up for debate and, even now, with a wider range of options and stories out there, it’s one that we’re still having. Is it a conversation worth having? If a straight person can be both idealized and condemned depending on the movie they are watching, then I want that too: The Kids Are All Right got Obama to shift on the gay marriage debate while Swoon was exciting and sexy. I don’t see any reason we can’t have both (in the case of William Friedkin’s Cruising it seems we do, a movie that was protested when it was made but now, decades later, is seen as a celebratory look at pre-AIDS sexual freedom).
Audiences seeking LGBTQ+ content know that in the mainstream, English-language market, we are the supporting parts, often a noble relative or fun best friend. We get to be the leads in independent/low-budget movies that are mostly terrible and preach only to the converted, movies that we know will be bad but we watch and enjoy them anyway (I was inspired to create a podcast because of these movies, and it’s now in it’s tenth year). In cinema outside of North America, we’re the leads and supporting parts in plenty of movies because most film industries in other countries aren’t that large and their projects struggle to find financial support regardless of their subject matter. These are usually the best selections at any LGBTQ+-themed film festivals. One End of the Century makes up for a lot of J.C. Calciano projects.
This past month, Criterion Channel put up two collections to celebrate Pride, one called LGBTQ+ Favourites and one called Masc, a grouping focused on cinematic representations of trans masculinity, a terrific way to help even out media representation that usually focuses on cisgendered gay men. In neither of these collections do we get any mainstream studio classics. There’s no Boys Don’t Cry, In & Out or Monster–in fact, most of the selections, with a heavy emphasis on hard-hitting documentaries about queer youth, feel like homework meant to make you a better person. They aren’t what I’d call entertainment. With Pride month now behind us, however, doing what’s good for you might be the perfect cool-down exercise. Many of the entries are films made from the point of view of members of the community, directors speaking to their own experiences and celebrating not just visibility but the legitimacy of queer storytelling.
Reviews are by Bil Antoniou except where noted, with thanks to Dakota Arseneault and Marko Djurdjic for their generous contributions.
Greetings from Washington, D.C. (Rob Epstein, Frances Reid, Greta Schiller, Lucy Winer, 1981)
A short thirty minute ride through a Pride demonstration on the capital, this early effort by the team who would later win Oscars for The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads is a fascinating time capsule of an era gone by. In the brief running time, Epstein and company introduce us to a rich variety of personalities, family dynamics, and political viewpoints (including passersby who give us their friendly, Bible-based opinions). The protest is joyful and the demands for rights expressed with hope. Inheriting much of the aesthetic and optimism of the counterculture of the decade prior, the people in this documentary provide an unintentional pre-cursor to Common Thread. Once the AIDS epidemic begins to ravage the community and the government reaction was, to say the last, dissatisfying, the nature of this event would take on a much more galvanizing tone.
Dressed in Blue (Antonio Gimenez Rico, 1983)
Documentary and drama are mixed freely and, for the most part, undetectably in this delightful, sometimes shocking film about a group of Spanish trans women who invite us into their personal lives. Surviving, sometimes thriving in a culture that celebrates machismo as a sacrament, these ladies have warm, witty personalities that have been shaped by their experiences. One of the most powerful and exciting aspects of this film is just how different those experiences are. Rico scripts a number of scenes, particularly gatherings that function as the central focus from which their individual tales spring. We learn of their romantic lives, their relationships with their families, their careers, and their journeys towards their identities. In one case, the film invites us to view, in graphic detail, breast augmentation surgery. We meet families, we watch nightclub acts, we experience both a modern feel of gender fluidity as well as markers of the film’s being made a long time ago. (The pronoun game is not played in a way that will satisfy modern viewers, and it’s hilarious how many of these ladies’ family members call them “artists” as an excuse rather than as a professional designation.) What is real and what is contrived is impossible to glean and it doesn’t matter as that would ruin a great deal of the pleasure, while seeing prototypes of characters that Almodóvar would later celebrate is a film lover’s delight.
The Times of Harvey Milk (Robert Epstein, 1984)
Epstein won his first Oscar for this magnificent documentary that covers the biography of the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. Harvey Milk’s love for life won him admirers and friends and took him far in politics despite the overwhelming odds against him, including none other than Anita Bryant and her “Save Our Children” campaign But his life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet. Dan White, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who was about to be replaced in his position, shot both Milk and Mayor George Moscone after he was let go and told he would be replaced, which was followed by a highly controversial trial and a relatively light sentence for what would presumably be a double first-degree murder (thanks to what is now famously known as the “Twinkie defense”) that ignited the city’s population. Moving through a great deal of narrative without lightening any of the emotional effect, this is a powerful record of a truly important chapter in queer cultural and political history.
Mala Noche (Gus Van Sant, 1985)
Van Sant has rarely made a movie as fresh and sexy since his debut based on the novel by Walt Curtis, Portland’s “Peckerneck Poet.” Tim Streeter gives a wonderful performance as Walt, a store clerk who falls madly in love with a Mexican boy named Johnny who won’t give him the time of day, and while remaining obsessed with him takes up with Johnny’s friend, Roberto. Walt is paying an undocumented immigrant for sex but he has deeper feelings for him. Roberto refuses to be affectionate except late at night when the lights are off, but there’s tension between his desires and his willingness to put out for cash. Without ever overplaying any of these themes, Van Sant uses his artistically creative, never pretentious black and white images to create spontaneous moments of passion and humour set in the grungiest parts of a town that would later become the butt of all hipster jokes. Drugstore Cowboy is his masterpiece but it lacks this one’s eroticism, My Own Private Idaho is a more fleshed-out movie but it lacks Mala Noche‘s infectious joy.
Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box (Michelle Parkerson, 1987)
This wonderful documentary short catches up with drag king Stormé DeLarverie, working as a bodyguard at a New York City nightclub in the 1980s, reflecting on her remarkable life and experiences. Frequently cited as the first brick-thrower at Stonewall, DeLarverie was also the dapper tuxedo-class host of the Jewel Box Revue, a drag queen spectacle whose memories she shares while also detailing her personal journey in defining her identity.
Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs, 1989)
Riggs was a talented artist and died from AIDS when he was only 37, leaving behind an impressive, prolific career as filmmaker and writer despite such a short life. His films frequently consider the presentation of African-Americans in popular culture, including this rich, highly charismatic combination of documentary and dramatic performance. Various actors read poetry on screen about their experiences as members of more than one political minority. Being Black and gay comes with vulnerabilities as well as triumphs in multiple ways, and in between these monologues we get tutorials on the Diva Snap and Voguing. The film was at the centre of a great deal of controversy when it was first released, its receiving national funding got a lot of political tongues wagging and required Riggs to defend his right to make art that was situated outside the usual expectations. This many years later, it still has the power to provoke and is all the richer for it.
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, 1989)
Winning an Academy Award meant that a wider audience beyond viewers with an interest in documentary or those sympathetic to the subject matter (AIDS) would see this film. As a pre-teen who wanted to see anything that won Oscars, I was greatly enriched by this film, enlightened a great deal on its topic and, watching it for the second time almost three decades later, was amazed by how much of it I still remember. Epstein and Friedman interview five individuals who lost someone close to them to AIDS and whose stories were included in the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, a memorial first displayed on the Washington Mall in 1987 commemorating those lost to the disease (you can see it virtually now on the San Francisco AIDS memorial site). The best friend and co-parent of a gay Olympic athlete, the wife of a drug user, author Vito Russo (who would die only a year later) talking about his late partner, the mother of a hemophiliac who died at the age of eight, and a Navy captain who came out and met the love of his life after having been married with children (and who died before the film was completed) all discuss those they lost. They remind us of who they were before they became a statistic. At a time when narratives around the AIDS epidemic often involved empty talk about a plague upon sinners, or people rating the value of one victim versus another (I remember a lot of people insisting that a child getting it from a blood transfusion was so much more tragic than someone who just HAD to have sex), this film reminds us of the human value of all those affected by this incredible tragedy. It’s a remarkable film whose power has not waned.
Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990)
The spiritual follow-up to 1968 documentary The Queen covers ballroom culture in the late 1980s, with the legendary Pepper LaBeija and Dorian Corey guiding us through the excitement of the drag competition that the contestants, marginalized outside of this world and legitimized within it, do their best to win. For some, it’s the first step towards much bigger dreams, which director Livingston does a beautiful job of capturing in between the opportunities to enlighten us on the meaning of terms like “mopping” and “reading.” Long before ball culture went mainstream with RuPaul’s Drag Race, this highly acclaimed film welcomed us to love its participants like family by making us feel that we were being loved back, and considering how many of them are no longer with us since it was released, it’s a tribute to their legacy as well.
Max (Monike Treut, 1992)
An excellent short documentary featuring a generous interview with Max Wolf Valerio, who sits down to Treut’s camera and details his entire life experience. He tells of being a lesbian in his twenties to being a heterosexual male at present and all the emotional realizations and physical changes that have been a part of this journey. Valerio is honest about the challenges he has faced and continues to encounter but is overall positive and upbeat in his perspective that, despite the challenges he’s faced, life’s been joyful and exciting.
Trans (Sophie E. Constantinou, 1994)
One of the most enjoyable films in this collection, this ten minute interview with Henry S. Rubin highlights a charismatic personality whose honesty is refreshing. Rubin details his experiences coming out as a lesbian before then coming out as trans. He shares all the feedback he got along the way, as well as the risks and rewards of finally being what he dreams of. The result is something that reveals, to anyone who may feel they need more information on the topic, that going beyond gender norms is a profoundly human experience.
Southern Comfort (Kate Davis, 2001)
Robert Eads was a trans man in Georgia who learned he had aggressive ovarian cancer and was turned down by twenty doctors before finally finding someone willing to treat him. That’s how this journey into Eads’ world begins before chronicling his last year of life leading up to his last appearance at Southern Comfort, an annual event that sees members of his community come together to share stories and celebrate their survival in a world where they are held to so low a standard that even the medical community sees them as unworthy of care. Eads is not prone to self-pity, having developed the thick skin and wry expression of a character actor in a western. He’s happy to spend time with his family both biological and chosen, deeply in love with his partner Lola, and proud of his mentorship of the younger trans men he considers his sons. As we get to know this infectiously friendly and fun group of characters, we feel that much more enraged by the likelihood that his illness has become terminal thanks to neglect. One of the most powerful films in this collection, and one of the most moving.
Tomboy (Celine Scimma, 2011)
Dakota Arseneault: Sciamma had her international breakthrough with 2014’s Girlhood, found wider acclaimed with 2019′s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and followed it up with 2021’s Petit Maman, but film lovers likely first caught wind of her talents with 2011’s Tomboy. The film follows young Laure, a prepubescent girl whose family moves to a new home where she decides to introduce herself to the neighbourhood kids as Mickäel, a boy. The local children accept it at face value as Laure exclusively dresses in what can be described as “boy’s clothing” and has her hair cut so short she looks no different than the other boys. As an adult, we know that eventually things will come to a head, and will likely be a traumatic revelation to both Laure and the other children. As Mickäel, he plays soccer with the other boys and even takes his shirt off to be on the “skins” team. The one other girl in the group, Lisa, notices that Mickäel isn’t like other boys and develops a crush on him. Things start to get dicey when all the boys freely urinate outside or when Laure makes a makeshift penis to stuff in her bathing suit. The film is fascinating as it can be read in so many different ways. Is Laure a transgender man and struggling with their gender identity? Is Laure a lesbian because she gets absolutely giddy when Lisa kisses Mickäel. Is Laure just as the title might suggest, a “Tomboy,” a young girl who prefers to dress more masculine and roughhouse with boys over more conventional girly things? As the discussion on gender identity and sexuality continues to evolve, this film continues to be more prescient, especially considering most queer people knew from an early age they were different from their peers but struggled with labels.
Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011)
Marko Djurdjic: After Russell and Glen meet at a club in Nottingham, they spend a night together and develop an intense bond, spending the titular weekend candidly discussing life, love, art, and sexuality. That’s the premise of Weekend, and while it sounds like a seemingly simple one, it allows the characters—their thoughts, beliefs, and emotions—to take over the screen, with much of the dialogue improvised and present. Haigh employs long takes and lingering scenes throughout, allowing the relationships and interactions to unfold naturally. Sometimes, our presence is aggressively voyeuristic, infringing on something private and hidden; other times, we feel part of the relationship, invited into the fragile inner sanctum of Russell’s apartment. Taking over where sex, lies, and videotape left off, the film—like its central relationship—is intimate and vulnerable, but also unfiltered and blunt. There’s nothing vulgar or, as the characters mention, “dirty” about consenting adults being honest and frank about sex and sexuality, about intimacy and needs, desires and love. Although the world around them is dismissive of, disgusted by, even angered by the very presence of queerness, the film doesn’t focus on the hate. There are inevitable confrontations and homophobic remarks, but they never devolve into physical violence. Instead, it transfers that intensity and tension into a sincere and profound connection between Russell and Glen. Small moments of camaraderie—sharing a beer or a joint, talking about an old mug, doubling up on a bike, grabbing food, walking closely at a carnival—take on a powerful significance, particularly for Russell, who lives life as a semi-closeted gay man (close friends know, coworkers and neighbours don’t). For him, any revelation—however slow, however slight—of who he is to the outside world is momentous. In one particularly telling scene, when Russell wipes cum off his stomach, it feels so real, both unremarkable and radical, an intimate moment that is thoroughly underrepresented in cinema. It’s not exploitative or sensational, but naked, unambiguous, and honest, with itself, its audience, and its characters. Only the best films are.
Chavela (Catherine Gund, Daresha Kyi, 2017)
There are few greater pleasures in this collection than this magnificent documentary, a look at the life and work of one of Mexico’s most famous ranchera singers. For those of us who got to know Chavela Vargas following her resurgence in the 1990s, including her presence on Pedro Almodóvar’s soundtracks and her appearance in Julie Taymor’s Frida, it’s a rich voyage back through the years to learn about her origins. Born in Costa Rica to parents who divorced when she was young, Vargas was all but abandoned by her family. She felt they never loved her because she refused to present as a culturally idealized feminine woman. By adulthood, she was the toast of nightclubs, famous for her impassioned delivery on stage as well as for her rowdy, gun-toting, booze-fuelled pursuit of the ladies who crossed her path off it. By the ’80s, Vargas was broke and out of the performance world thanks to years of alcoholism, but her comeback made her more famous than ever and lead to performances around the world until almost the end of her magnificently long life. Rich with music and remembrances by friends and lovers who give us the good and the bad, made that much that more personal thanks to a great deal of interview footage with the woman herself, this film is a marvelous experience.
No Ordinary Man (Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase Joynt, 2021)
One of two music documentaries in this collection and one of the most powerful films of the bunch, this beautifully assembled project looks at the life of Billy Tipton, one of the most celebrated jazz artists of his day who, upon his death, was discovered to have been born biologically female. The headlines that this revelation lead to were, as explained by many of the commentators who appear in this film, such that treated Tipton’s life like a trick he was playing on the world with his death a punchline, something that even Diane Middlebrook’s biography (dubiously titled “Suits Me”) took as a perspective in writing about him. Chin-Yee and Joynt risk going too far afield from their subject with a film that tests the bounds of documentary, including sequences in which they audition actors to play Tipton in a biopic, but all the information ends up coming back to the film’s central theme. The film explores how Tipton’s struggle to live authentically resulted in us knowing very little about him personally. We are left to assemble what pieces we can find to put things together. Moments with Tipton’s son, who like his mother did not know his father’s biography until after his death, are touching, while interviews with other notable trans luminaries, including Marquise Vilson, with whom we catch up after meeting him in The Aggressives in this collection (see below), relating their own experiences of finding their way in a hostile world are broadening for the mind.
Portrait of Jason (Shirley Clarke, 1967)
One of landmark documentarian Shirley Clarke’s most celebrated signature films, this candid experience saw Clarke hole up with her subject, Jason Holliday, for twelve hours in her room at the Chelsea as he enjoyed some cigarettes, drank vodka straight from the bottle, and spun tales that punctuated by his free and frequent laughter. He spoke of his childhood and his coming into awareness of himself and his sexuality, his adventures as both domestic servant to rich people and hustler to a variety of clientele, and even performed re-enactments of Funny Girl and Carmen Jones. The subject dazzles for two hours as the camera never leaves his face, subtly stripping layers away as the time passes until he is at his most raw and vulnerable in the devastating conclusion. It’s not for all tastes–it’s too experimental to be entertaining for everybody, but it is essential viewing at least once.
Jubilee (Derek Jarman, 1978)
Jarman’s first feature as solo director is still one of his most cherished films. It’s also an indication of the ‘Alex Cox’ direction his career could have taken if he hadn’t moved on to his more baroque investigations of the art world in the 1980s, and it shows that he wasn’t always as heavy handed as his later films would become. There’s a somewhat aimless but rebelliously fun caprice that begins when Elizabeth I asks her alchemist to show her the future. He takes her four hundred years forward to a modern-day London in which punk gangs cause mayhem on the streets of London, with scenes of angrily shouted manifestos interrupted by the odd performance by the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees. The cast is a veritable who’s who of the rougher side of the art scene who would find more legitimacy later on, including Adam Ant and Chariots of Fire‘s Ian Charleson, as well as Rocky Horror Picture Show cast members Little Nell and Richard O’Brien.
Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch, 1985)
Marko Djurdjic: There’s something mystical about the desert: the scope, the space, the heat–everything feels amplified, including desires. It’s 1959, and English professor Vivian Bell has just arrived in Reno to begin divorce proceedings against her husband. She opts to stay at a ranch where she meets Cay Rivers, and the two quickly develop a tumultuous, flirtatious friendship. When Vivian allows herself to be seduced by the younger, brasher, more liberated Cay, she tests the boundaries of their love surfacing the homophobia of their friends and Cay’s family. The film is tender, gentle, but also wildly passionate and liberating. Like Vivian, it starts off covered and repressed, before indulging in bodies, in skin and sweat and touch. It believes in its own sensuality, and even more so in its sexuality. It trusts its characters and cares for them, even when it puts them in precarious, heartbreaking situations. Unfortunately, although Deitch and screenwriter Natalie Cooper develop characters with empathy and nuance, these attributes are mostly reserved for the main characters driving the story. Nevertheless, there are moments of intimacy and everyday triviality, which Deitch couples with grand expressions of emotion, exploration, pain, and vulnerability. The soundtrack is a killer collection of burnin’ rock ‘n’ roll and honky tonkin’, tear-in-my-beer country, while Robert Elswit’s pensive and ambitious cinematography clearly prepared him for his work on There Will Be Blood. Most importantly, the film does what so many romance films ironically fail to do: be romantic. While it suffers from many of the pitfalls inherent to indie cinema—inconsistent transitions; secondary characters serving as little more than plot points; accelerated and intensified jumps in motivation and logic—and a few too many melodramatic flourishes in its second half, its place in film history—as an unapologetic cinematic document of lesbian love and desire—makes it an important watch for anyone exploring the queer film cannon.
Vera (Sergio Toledo, 1986)
The short life of writer Anderson Bigode Herzer provides the inspiration for this adaptation of his book A queda para o alto, starring newcomer Ana Beatriz Soares Nogueira in the performance that won her the Best Actress prize at the 1987 Berlin Film Festival. Vera Bauer prefers to go by his last name and struggles to clarify his identity to himself as well as to others, working at research centre under the caring tutelage of a concerned professor and flashing back to traumatic memories of growing up in a state institution. Bauer begins a relationship with a co-worker but has difficulty allowing himself to be too intimate, his complicated feelings about his body expressed in ways that complicate his relationships with women. The film feels quite modern in its sympathy for Bauer, although there are aspects of it that Toledo would likely be held accountable for if it were made today. There is the slight suggestion that his gender identity is a dysphoria brought on by childhood abuse and it’s rather problematic that Nogueira spends the whole movie wearing very soft and visible makeup, as if to persistently remind us that a cisgendered woman is dressed up in drag. Looking to past art in the spirit of condemnation is not productive, however, and it’s more important to celebrate the ways in which this film speaks directly to a relevant audience and brings everyone else into a more enlightened understanding of its themes.
I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (Patricia Rozema, 1987)
Dakota Arseneault: Rozema’s debut feature film is light, breezy, and a joy to watch. The film stars Sheila McCarthy (recently seen in the Oscar-winning Women Talking) as Polly Vandersma, a flighty and clumsy woman prone to wild bursts of imaginative daydreaming. Polly is a Girl Friday (office assistant) hired through a temp agency to work at an art gallery owned by Paule Baillargeon’s Gabrielle. Despite Polly’s awkwardness and general terrible job at being a secretary, Gabrielle seems to take a liking to her and asks Polly to work for her full time. One day, a woman comes to visit Gabrielle and when Polly catches them kissing, her world is turned upside down and she suddenly realizes that she is in love with her boss . This movie isn’t about how to get the woman of your dreams but more so an awakening of sorts for Polly, who talks about having dated men but never really found one she wanted to stay with (a not so subtle flag some queer people ignore before coming to terms with their sexuality). The film jumps between the story of Polly working for Gabrielle along with creative and unique daydream sequences that show us how Polly’s mind works, and also with video footage of Polly confessing her innermost thoughts, clearly recorded after the events being shown in the film. The film is a landmark Canadian classic with at one point it appeared on the Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time as organized by TIFF. McCarthy is whimsical and a delight to watch, as you wonder where her mind will take viewers next. It is a must watch for Canadian cinephiles. Also: did you know that at one point, Sheila McCarthy was my acting teacher?
Ifé (H. Lenn Keller, 1993)
This beautifully photographed short tells the story of a lesbian who leaves Paris for San Francisco. While driving around looking for sex (and not love) in all the wrong (fun) places, she relates her experiences with women and her thoughts on the cultural divide.
Lifetime Guarantee: Phranc’s Adventure in Plastic (Lisa Udelson, 2001)
After a career as a punk rocker who once toured with Morrissey, Phranc moved into folk music as well as launching an impressive career selling Tupperware, which allowed her to settle down with partner and child. Driven and ambitious, the title character of this documentary is one of the top Tupperware salespeople in the country. She moves what feels like thousands of dollars in product every day. She hosts parties and wins over crowds with her bright and effervescent personality. Her tidy look (complete with apron, bow tie, and regularly maintained crew cut) and her irresistible sales pitch (it doesn’t scratch and comes with a lifetime guarantee!), help with the pitch. Udelson’s camera follows the self-styled “All-American Jewish lesbian folksinger” through performances and sales parties, a guest spot on Donny and Marie’s talk show, and gets her testimonials on the road between gigs. All of it leads to the big Tupperware conference that she attends thanks to her accomplishments in the field. After what feels like peppy promotional material for a genuine show biz personality, the film saves the most devastating moments for the finale: Phranc’s unconventional qualities are a big part of what makes her such a good seller, but that doesn’t mean a corporation is going to make enough room to celebrate her while pocketing the profits. Made more than twenty years ago but rarely available since, this is a bracing document of the queer experience in the corporate world, in which the popular idea of holding on to one’s identity must be negotiated against what they hope to achieve.
The Aggressives (Daniel Peddle, 2005)
The “aggressives” of the title are the group of individuals who are interviewed for this warm and enjoyable documentary. Their identities range from trans men to masc lesbians and they invite us to view their lives, relationships, and work experience. In some cases, they enjoy presenting their masculinity through fashion. In other cases, they accept their biologically female bodies but seeing themselves entirely as male. What’s most heartwarming about this film is that it doesn’t present anyone’s destiny as an unavoidable fate. There are happy endings and ones that are more troubling; successful pairings as well as skirmishes with the law. One person pursues a modeling career and another enlists in the US Army to help make their dreams come true. Many of the documentaries in this collection have little more narrative content than displaying the three dimensions of the lives of people that mainstream society knows little about. It hopefully does some manner of good for anyone watching them to realize that none of our assumptions about others matter.
Vamonos (Marvin Lemus, 2015)
This enjoyable dramatic short begins with the conflict between a grieving mother and her late daughter’s girlfriend, shopping for the outfit to bury their loved one which the latter knows should not be a frilly dress. It’s set up in a familiar way for short films–there’s a set-up and then a punch line–but the performances create a bigger drama than its brief running time immediately displays and the photography is superb.
Pier Kids (Elegance Bratton, 2019)
Statistical research estimates that a high number of homeless youth are LGBTQ+ and almost half are People of Colour, which The Inspection director Elegance Bratton examines through footage taken over years at Manhattan’s Christopher Street Pier. Focusing on a handful of individuals as the film’s protagonists, Bratton finds a great deal of struggle and tragedy but also the creation of chosen families and a sense of solidarity with the many other young people who have found themselves there thanks, in many cases, to having been rejected from their homes for who they are. Krystal LaBeija wants to keep up a relationship with her family but they refuse to accept that she is female. Desean and Casper are struggling on the streets and are navigating the vulnerabilities that come with it to vastly different outcomes. It’s a reality check for those who have never known the uphill battle faced by those who tell their stories on camera, but it’s not all noble suffering. Bratton allows the few who find a happy end to enjoy it without applying the slightest cynicism.
Monsieur Le Butch (Jude Dry, 2022)
This short quasi-documentary has Dry moving back in with their mother, who is free with feedback about the “trans thing” that she doesn’t quite get. People participating in online conversations about what’s good and right when it comes to definitions and terminology find it easy to tell everyone else to cut off friends and family who don’t accept them for who they are. What Dry displays in a series of funny, often warm conversations is that if you want to get somewhere with the people you love, you’re going to need to celebrate the small victories and give them time to catch up.
FOR THE CURIOUS
Je tu il elle (Chantal Akerman, 1975)
In the world of genius artists whose films always feel like homework, Akerman is among the most gifted and conceptually inspired, setting a standard in her uncompromising first feature. Divided into three parts, the begins with her alone in an apartment eating from a bag of sugar and struggling over her writing. In the middle, she enjoys an adventure with a trucker (played by Niels Arestrup), then caps it off with a visit to the lover she was mooning over in the beginning and they enjoy some lovely afternoon sex. To describe it is to celebrate the arrival of a kind of post-modern filmmaking that would become more prevalent in the arthouse in the years to come. Akerman skilfully presents raw sexuality and her naked body without giving into the cinema’s habit of appealing to a male gaze. She stretches the concept of cinematic time with her focus on the moments between dramatic experiences (which would be developed more in later features). It’s daring, bold and brilliant and also incredibly boring, so watch it because it’s good for you but don’t bother me if you don’t like it.
Querelle (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982)
Marko Djurdjic: Fassbinder’s meandering, melodramatic adaptation of Jean Genet’s Querelle of Brest is an uncompromising vision of homosexual desire and lust. His final film before his death at the age of thirty-seven, it examines the absurdity of homosexuality as an inherently criminal act while simultaneously embracing this decree as a mark of rebellion and nonconformity. The tense, loose narrative concerns a young, wandering sailor, thief, murderer, and drug runner named Querelle, who arrives in Brest, a French sea port town, and causes all sorts of chaos. Stylized and glowing, it is a theatrical tour de force filled with poetic narration, intense gazes, and relentless sexuality. To emphasize its theatricality, Fassbinder employs a number of Brechtian embellishments: French intertitles break up the action to provide cryptic quotes about love, war, death, and even the narrative itself; watchtowers are unambiguously shaped like giant dicks; the sun is a barely glowing and perpetually sinking prop; and the performances, fights, and choreography are all purposely stilted. These juxtapositions are inherent to Fassbinder’s films, but in Querelle, they are taken to the extreme. It feels like eroticism on speed. Through it all, control reigns supreme: in Querelle’s (and Querelle‘s) world, sex is not romantic or tender: It is a game, a transaction, a way to dominate an opponent. Sex, like violence, is power, and Fassbinder shows both in graphic, detached detail. Although Querelle embraces the fury and passion of illicit love (one of the filmmaker’s favourite themes), it does so with a humourless indifference, a stark contrast to some of his other, more notable works (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul; The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant; Fox and His Friends; The Marriage of Maria Braun). While some of the dialogue and intertitles are seemingly aware of this distance, the dispassionate tone grows wearisome, and the film’s thin plot causes it to drag tremendously in the second half. For those uninitiated in Fassbinder’s work, one of the aforementioned films would be a better introduction; for those well-acquainted with the filmmaker’s more popular works, Querelle is an odd, inconsistent swan song that some may find enticing, and others thoroughly bland.
Stafford’s Story (Susan Muska, 1992)
This brief short, less than five minutes in length, features the titular performer who relates an experience at a lesbian sex club on camera. The video quality is hopelessly dated; the tone is charming and wry.
Shinjuku Boys (Kim Longinotto, Jano Williams, 1995)
A bar in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo employs exclusively trans men as hosts, who seat and entertain the mostly heterosexual female clientele during fancy dinners and events. Three hosts of the New Marilyn Club are the focus of this short, sensitive documentary: Kazuki, Tatsu and Gaish. Their relationships with their partners and their experiences living their true identities are glimpsed between sequences on the job (including a training session with a rookie). There’s a deeper layer to the story that isn’t really touched on here: the fact that the clientele enjoys their experience at the club because they are flirting with what they see as safe versions of “real” men. This perspective is at odds with the way either of the film’s subjects see themselves but, at the same time, the job allows them to live without compromising their identities. A more in-depth film exploring these themes would have been appreciated, but what we have here is still worth the effort.
By Hook or By Crook (Harry Dodge, Silas Howard, 2001)
Dodge and Howard co-star, co-write, and co-direct this energetic, rebellious feature film. Howard plays Shy, who after losing his father and his house hits the road committing petty crimes before meeting Valentine (Dodge) and they inspire each other’s reindeer games. Valentine was adopted and wants to meet his birth mother, a plot that runs under the mayhem these two cause. As exciting as it is to see a feature film that is competently made featuring trans men in the leads, the experience is all energy without emotion, exploration without introspection, with moments of memorable humour, but in the end, it doesn’t have much of a lasting effect. What hurts it most in retrospect, though, is the technology available to such low-budget filmmaking of the early aughts. The film’s digital cinematography is very difficult to look at by today’s standards.
Maggots and Men (Cary Cronenwett, 2009)
Experimental theatre group Blue Blouse performs the 1921 Kronstadt sailor uprising in a curious and clever tribute to Sergei Eisenstein and Guy Maddin, recreating the look of silent film stock and using purposely antique editing techniques and tableaux presentations. The settings are entirely artificial but create a genuine sense of atmosphere. The events are guided by rebel leader Stepan Petrichenko’s (fictionalized) letters while around him sailors (played by a large number of trans men) perform what was the last significant rebellion against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. It’s an exercise in visual craftiness that doesn’t hit deep, but its accomplishments are memorable.
Shakedown (Leilah Weinraub, 2018)
Weinraub films the good times at Los Angeles’s Shakedown nightclub over a number of years, a space for Black lesbian women to celebrate their sexuality and dance with the very enticing presence of exotic dancers who spice up their evenings. It’s actually an impressive level of comfort that performers and patrons display for Weinraub’s camera. The reveal all their fun activities and the escapism they provide before crackdowns on strippers find the LAPD showing up and handing out citations and arrests, which eventually necessitates the club closing down. The footage veers back and forth between interviews and on-the-floor experiences, and both are memorable.
So Pretty (Jessica Dunn Rovinelli, 2019)
When you read the words “radical act of meta-adaptation” in the description, you know you’re in for a movie where people sit around and do nothing. However, in the world of high art films that challenge your deep, spiritual desire to go get a snack, you could do a lot worse. Rovinelli plays Tonia, who arrives in New York and sets up in a Brooklyn apartment at the nucleus of a group of queer friends and lovers. Spurts of the narrative are read aloud on screen, languid sequences of art installations and days in the park splash out at you in bright colours with a bold, beautiful soundtrack to accompany them and, very subtly, tensions mount between various members of the group as they find intimacy with each other in scenes that never feel forced or performed. How patient you feel for its formlessness is up to the individual viewer, but there’s a great deal of aesthetic potency in its audio and visual beauty.
Pete (Bret ‘Brook’ Parker, 2022)
A charming animated short about a pre-teen who wants to play baseball and go by the name of Pete but encounters resistance to both. In a loving tribute to the caregivers who shape young people’s lives, the film tells us that all challenges can be faced if we have the right person on our side at the moments when it counts the most.
The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (Maria Maggenti, 1995)
The independent boom of the 1990s featured only a handful of options for lesbian representation, which means that this thoroughly inept film received a great deal of attention despite clunky direction and terrible acting. The “adventure” (which is a few minutes at a motel in the film’s final minutes) begins when two teenagers from opposite worlds fall in love. One is a working-class white gas station attendant who is exploring her sexuality through an affair with a married woman, the other a middle-class Black honour roll student who has a boyfriend. Their mutual discovery would make for a sweet and simple affair if it wasn’t for the fact that Laurel Holloman and Nicole Ari Parker couldn’t pull off being in high school if it was an audio drama. Holloman particularly makes it worse by overdoing her attempts to play youthful ticks and mannerisms.
Fresh Kill (Shu Lea Cheang, 1994)
Cheang combines experimental filmmaking of the era with an environmentally conscious message whose many scenes play out like experimental theatre. If it sounds insufferable, that’s because it is. The film is a cleverly conceived bit of underground rebellion whose only appeal is that it is so dated that you might find it nostalgically appealing. Set in New York City and inspired by the now closed Fresh Kills landfill, which at the time was comprised of 2200 acres of solid waste, it depicts a city being poisoned by toxic fish that are turning people green. Those most directly affected include a Manhattan sushi waitress (Emma McMurtry) and her refuse-salvaging partner (Sarita Choudhury) whose daughter goes missing from their Staten Island home after eating contaminated tuna. People begin to glow and start speaking in tongues, and a number of sequences are funky and imbued with the vivid aesthetics of the time. The whole thing is so adorable you might just want to punch your screen in.
Stud Life (Campbell X, 2012)
Low budget romantic drama about a butch lesbian wedding photographer named JJ who falls in love with Elle, a woman she meets at a club. Their relationship explodes when she learns that her new conquest is also a sex worker. JJ’s best friend and co-photographer Seb is a gay twink who pursues his own romantic complications amid their friendship when it’s tested by JJ’s obsession with Elle. The acting by the main cast is sturdy but the supporting cast betrays what is obviously a miniscule-budget and a very quick shoot with uneven sound recording and unappealing cinematography. The relationship drama is contrived and the characters’ professional lives aren’t convincing, but there is a genuine sense of London night life that provides one takeaway from what is otherwise a pretty meagre experience.