A Critical Roundup Of The 27th BFI LLGFF
The 27th edition of the BFI’s Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, which came to a close yesterday, kicked off with a veritable crowd-pleaser – Jeffrey Schwarz’s entertaining documentary I am Divine, a portrait of the drag superstar who died all too early in 1988. The film sets out to explore the contradictions between the brash public persona (as one contributor puts it, “was she gonna screw me or eat me?”) and the private man behind it.
Born plain Glen Milstead, his mother Frances and high school girlfriend Diana Evans outline his early years in touching, matter-of-fact contributions. The film makes extensive use of a wealth of archive, some of it breathtaking, such as footage of a 1965 drag ball, and interviews with Divine himself that reveal him as the gentle soul he really was. The rise to fame with the schlock-horror high camp of John Waters’ early movies might be a well-worn story, but it’s told with brio – we hear Divine’s mother saying “I always said to Glen, don’t do anything to embarrass us” over a scene of the actor being ‘raped’ by a giant lobster in 1970’s Multiple Maniacs.
Though Schwarz’s film frequently slips into E! Channel celebrity profile mode, with a story this great it can’t help transcending those limitations. Particularly revelatory is the section devoted to Divine’s New York off-Broadway stage career, in the plays Women behind Bars and Neon Woman. By the 80s Divine was touring the world as a particularly unforgettable disco diva, though one gets a sense of discomfort that at heart he wanted nothing more than to be a respected actor – something for which, perhaps more than anything else, this film makes a convincing case.
The festival’s closing night also featured a documentary about a spectacular reinvention – Dan Hunt’s Mr. Angel, an intimate profile of the transgender porn star and activist Buck Angel. Hunt spent years following the self-styled ‘man with a pussy’, who as a young girl dreamed of becoming “more like G I Joe.” We see Angel attending a porn convention in Berlin, bemusing a Dutch TV audience, and living in domestic contentment in Mexico with his partner, Elayne, and their collection of adoring dogs.
Home movie footage brings to life the unique human experience that is really the heart of this extraordinary film. Testimony from Buck’s sister Tracey and, especially, his parents, is at times uncomfortably raw but always utterly compelling. Scene by scene the uber-confident porn star we first meet is revealed as a tender and incredibly likable guy, whose life story demonstrates how prejudice comes in all shapes and sizes. When the man who is now Buck had previously been a successful female model he was asked, “why would you become an ugly man when you were such a beautiful woman?” The answer is plain to see from this brilliant, touching film – because it made him happy.
Jules Rosskam’s Thick Relations is also concerned with questions of gender, sexuality and identity. Abandoning conventional narrative structure, this semi-improvised drama features a group of queer people in Chicago playing semi-fictionalised versions of themselves, unflinchingly acting out the hopes and fears of a loose network of artists, escorts, and musicians. The film occupies a curious middle-ground between Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls and ITV’s Made In Chelsea. Between poetic intertiles about love and loss, its characters make coffee and pancakes, sweep the floor, eat pasta, go to bars, take singing lessons, and have sex – the latter shot in intimate, artful, grainy abstract close up.
Thick Relations is to be applauded for its risks and experimentation, though it must be said that there are moments that will try many people’s patience. But it’s worth sticking it out for Rosskam has something to say about the shifting fluidity of sexuality and intimacy, and the stasis and melancholy are punctuated by uplifting scenes where members are brought together in song.
Jun Robles Lana’s wonderful tragicomedy Bwakaw was the official Filipino entry for last year’s Oscars, and that it didn’t make the final shortlist is nothing short of scandalous. In the director’s own words, it is about “the fear of growing old and growing old alone, and friendship – particularly friendship with a dog.
Eddie Garcia – a huge star in the Phillipines – gives his all as Rene, a cantankerous retired post office worker, so lonely and bored that he is still turning up for work every day. His only real friends are a couple of bitchy queens who run a theatrical hairdressing salon, and Bwakaw, faithful stray dog he appears to tolerate rather than love. When all the lights go out in his home he can’t even be bothered to replace them; Rene is not so much a bitter old man raging against the dying of the light as simply waiting for death itself. It took him almost all his life to come to terms with being gay. He feels unloved and unlovable.
And yet, when he visits a woman named Alicia living with dementia in old people’s home, we see that Rene truly has a heart, and the emotional thrill ride of Bwakaw takes off as Rene begins, finally, to find himself. Sure, there’s something of an inevitability about how the story passes from comedy to tragedy and back again, but it is told with no cloying sentimentality, and the pacing is flawless. Assured and quite subtly heartbreaking, this is a film worthy of comparison to the early gems of Pedro Almodovar.
Finally, a film that played on the opening night of the festival but was still being talked about up to the end: Animals, a striking debut by Spaniard Marçal Forés. From the enigmatic, otherworldly title sequence it’s clear that this film abounds with artistry and imagination, continually blurring the line between fantasy and reality.
It’s centred around a group of outsider misfits attending an English-speaking college, in particular Pol (Oriol Pla), a seventeen year old nerdy music lover, who still talks to his imaginary friend, a toy bear named Deerhoof. His classmate Laia has romantic designs on him, but Pol is more interested in a moody new boy in his art history class. When his policeman brother decides its time for Pol to grow up, he buries the Deerhoof in the garden, and Pol’s life becomes a strange, terrifying whirlwind.
Animals blends Angela Carter’s magic realism with the styles of early Jane Campion and Gus Van Sant – indeed, it’s let down by an ending that bears such ludicrous similarity to Van Sant’s magnificent Elephant as to be actionable. That said, overall I adored it. It wears its symbolism and self-consciousness with pride, and I imagine how much it will please the average viewer will depend on their tolerance for a film whose opening dialogue features an animatronic bear saying “I like it when characters have to deal with the limits of their desires.” Give into it, and its exquisite, dreamlike imagery will linger in the mind for quite some time.
Words: Ian MacMillanJump to comments