One of my favorite moments in celebrity-interviewing came when Cloris Leachman teased me about my lust for one of her sons: “If you think —- is hot, you should see —-”; and she whipped out a photo of the latter, another son, to prove she was right.
Sadly, she passed away in January at the age of 94, so she won’t be appearing in person at the 34th Out On Film Festival – happening September 23 through October 3 – unless Zoom comes up with an online séance feature in time; but she’ll be represented by one of her final films, Jump, Darling.
Directing a festival like Out On Film may sound glamorous and exciting, but there are easier ways to make a living, especially during a pandemic. Just ask Jim Farmer, who’s preparing to launch his second Out On Film of the COVID era, this time at various physical locations as well as online.
“It’s much harder this year,” Farmer said. “We had to learn how to do virtual last year but we were able to. But doing a physical festival as well as a virtual one is basically two festivals in one. The guidelines tend to change a lot, so we are planning a physical event but can switch to an all-virtual one if need be.”
The theatrical engagements, mostly at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, are still scheduled for most films, but proof of vaccination will be required for admission.
While the virtual aspect expands the festival’s reach without requiring travel, many of the films will only be streamed to the tri-state area of Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. Each will stream for seven days after it goes online, but once you start watching one you’ll have 24 hours to finish it.
The virtual aspect makes it easier to get filmmakers and other special guests to attend, if they only have to spend an hour at a computer instead of a couple days traveling to Atlanta. “Filmmakers are typically busy and getting them to come down can be challenging,” Farmer said. “Nothing beats the experience of having a filmmaker in person, but it’s true that many filmmakers/performers are much more receptive to virtual interviews.”
Even the recipient of the festival’s 2021 Trailblazer Award, actor/activist/director and former Atlantan Amanda Bearse, will receive it virtually. The virtual festival will unveil an “In Conversation” with her on September 23.
More information is available at the Out on Film website, outonfilm.org, where you can buy tickets for in-person, virtual events or both.
Here are reviews of ten films I was able to preview.
In some ways we weren’t so different from our Russian enemies during the Cold War. Firebird is a true story of forbidden gay love in the military, specifically an Air Force base in Soviet-occupied Estonia. Sergey (Tom Prior, who also co-wrote) is a private, weeks away from discharge in 1977, when he’s assigned as aide to a newly arrived lieutenant, Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii), a fighter pilot. They bond over a mutual love of photography and the arts, and time being limited, it isn’t long before the lieutenant gets into the private’s privates. A secretary, Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), seems destined to serve as a beard for gay airmen. Sergey’s best friend, she becomes even more to Roman after he’s threatened by a homophobic major. The story continues over five more years and many changes. It’s beautifully filmed, with the international cast speaking Russian-accented English. The attitude toward gays took me back to my days in the U.S. Army, but I never found my Roman there.
SEE YOU THEN
Sept. 24 virtual
The idea of eavesdropping for an hour on a conversation between two women I don’t know is not a big selling point for me. But that hour is the heart of this first feature by director and co-writer Mari Walker, and her execution sold me. Kris (Pooya Mohseni) and Naomi (Lynn Chen) were lovers for three years in college, before Kris transitioned. Knowing they wanted to transition, Kris left Naomi without a word 16 years ago and they haven’t seen each other since. Now Kris, in L.A. from Phoenix for a conference, invites Naomi, who’s married with two kids, to get together and catch up. Of course, their catching up catches us up on their story, their time together, and their lives since. Chen indicates subtly that Naomi’s holding something back, so we know the reunion won’t remain so smooth to the end; but the actresses hold our attention even without conflict. Walker changes the background occasionally, from a restaurant to deserted streets, etc., but mostly leaves the focus on the characters. The drama, when it arrives, is less satisfying than the more casual moments, perhaps because we’ve become attached to the women and don’t want unhappiness in their lives. In the end, Walker finds an arty way to wrap things up, but we’ve been warned that Naomi is a performance artist so we shouldn’t be too surprised.
When I read that Invisible was about lesbians who had written hits for country music stars, I thought it would make an interesting article – but a film? No way. Was I wrong! Not only has gay filmmaker T.J. Parsell made the topic cinematic, but he’s found enough interesting material to fill a book. Most of his subjects are little-known, and he overwhelms us by introducing seven in the first few minutes. They eventually become old friends after we hear their stories in more detail and see them interacting with each other and the artists they’ve worked with, such as Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. Omitted is any mention of Brandi Carlile, a top-selling out lesbian country artist. This is about the old Nashville, mostly before Carlile was born, when it was hard for any woman to get work in country music, other than as a singer. A few lesbians managed to get their songs recorded as long as they stayed closeted. It’s mentioned that Nashville wasn’t kind to k.d. lang, who quickly crossed over to pop after starting her career in country. More recently, Chely Wright had some #1 hits until she hated the closet so much she almost shot herself. Instead she shot her career by coming out. Dianne Davidson ended a promising career at 21 when she wrote a love song to a woman, but she’s restarted it decades later, thanks to independent record producers. Cidny Bullins was androgynous rocker Cindy Bullins at a time when men could be androgynous, but women couldn’t. After raising a family they transitioned at the age of 61. Of local interest is Pam Rose, often partnered with Mary Ann Kennedy as Kennedy Rose, who sang at Dante’s Down the Hatch in the ‘70s. Their stories and many others make this a treasure trove of detail for country music fans and LGBTQ activists with an interest in the arts.
Those of us who have been showbiz queens forever are always surprised to hear new stories about old favorites or a new twist on an old story. Leave it to Jeffrey Schwarz, whose documentaries about gay celebs and icons include I Am Divineand Tab Hunter Confidential. He reveals how a gay couple, Dick Hughes and Richard Stapley, hooked up with the iconic Gloria Swanson and almost beat Andrew Lloyd Webber to Broadway by 40+ years with a musical version of Swanson’s Sunset Boulevard. (It gets a little confusing because Dick is often called Dickson and Richard changes his last name to Wyler.) Hughes was a singer-composer-pianist and Stapley a bisexual English actor coasting on his looks, who could also write lyrics. By the mid-‘50s, Stapley’s MGM contract had run out and Swanson, who hadn’t made many films since the birth of talkies, had only made one since her signature role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. It was her idea to bring Norma to the stage in a musical, and she proposed it to the young men when they offered her a role in another show they’d written. Like Norma, Gloria couldn’t have young men around without developing a crush. Stapley’s failure to return her interest was one of two nails in the project’s coffin. We follow Schwarz as he plays detective in search of the details, including old interviews with the principals, who are all dead. Clips from Sunset Boulevard and other films are worked in cleverly to illustrate common points and Swanson’s granddaughter is one of many who were glad to talk about the actress and the men she almost made famous.
I used to think Dykes on Bikes were badass, but they’re pussies compared to the (mostly English) women in Rebel Dykes. These are lesbians who came out during or shortly before the reign of Margaret Thatcher (1979-90), who rained on the parade of LGBTQ people despite being Britain’s first female prime minister. The feminist movement had made some progress, but they weren’t ready to publicize that some women not only enjoyed sex but enjoyed it with other women, sometimes using dildos and S&M paraphernalia. That these things were once secret was as big a surprise to me as their revelation was to the conservatives of their day. The rebel dykes, many of whom met at the Greenham Common Peace Camp, were the most active of activists and partied hard at Chain Reaction, where there were live sex shows and mud wrestling, as well as dancing to punk music, some from all-female bands. It was also the rare club where trans women could mix with lesbians. This documentary combines the recent memories of many of the women involved with some clever animation and film and video clips of the era, some psychedelicized with rainbow filters and such. Though some pioneering claims sound dubious (“Sinead O’Connor nicked our hairstyle”), there’s plenty of good information amid nostalgia that will be revelatory for many.
POTATO DREAMS OF AMERICA
Oct. 2, 8 p.m., Out Front Theatre Company; Oct. 3 virtual
For over half an hour, I kept wondering whether Potato Dreams of America would just be my favorite film of the festival or my favorite of the year. It’s bright, creative, satirical and full of surprises. Potato (Hersh Powers) is obviously gay as he approaches adolescence in 1985 Vladivostok, when the Soviet Union is beginning to crumble. Liberals like his mother, Lena (Sera Barbieri), exult at the possibility of new freedoms, while conservatives like his grandmother (Lea DeLaria) prefer things the old way. Potato brings home Jesus Christ (Jonathan Bennett), who acts gay but doesn’t act on it, as an imaginary friend. Lena signs up with a mail-order bride company and is eventually chosen by John (Dan Lauria). She (now Marya Sea Kaminski) and Potato (Tyler Bocock) move to America, the source of movies they’ve loved, even when they had to watch them in secret. Suddenly it seems as if writer-director Wes Hurley, who is telling his own life story, has been replaced by someone far more bland. The film descends into melodrama, eventually echoing the Gershwins’ “more clouds of gray than any Russian play could guarantee.” Not terrible, just ordinary, it wouldn’t be so bad if our expectations hadn’t been raised so high. Fortunately, Hurley #1 returns in time to salvage the ending, because we’ve been told from the outset that American films always have happy endings. The midsection may not be as disappointing now that you’ve been warned the initial exhilaration won’t last, and the beginning and end are definitely worth seeing.
Oct. 3, 2 p.m., Out Front Theatre Company; Oct. 4 virtual
No one speaks in haste in Landlocked, a very Georgia film directed and co-written by Macon-born Timothy Hall. Nick (Dustin Gooch) hasn’t seen his father – now a woman, Briana (Delia Kropp) – in 23 years. Unable to continue living as a husband and father, she left her wife and son when Nick was a teenager. They haven’t spoken since, but when his mother dies, Nick contacts Briana and, at his wife’s urging, invites her to go along to St. Simons Island to spread his mother’s ashes. Since he’s not too enthusiastic about the idea, it’s hard to believe Nick will drive 545 miles to pick Briana up in Arkansas instead of telling her to get her ass on a bus and meet him in Atlanta. This is during the early part of Landlocked, when Hall seems to be trying to stretch an hour TV drama into a feature-length film. Once Nick and Briana get together on their road trip, the pace appears to pick up (or my metabolism had slowed down) and the rest of the film moves reasonably, though certainly not hurriedly. Suspense continues to the very end about whether Nick will come to accept – or perhaps even love – Briana. Delia Kropp won me over a lot faster, making my feelings toward the film do a 180 and helping me understand why awards groups are starting to drop the gender restrictions for their acting categories.
I wouldn’t have missed one of Cloris Leachman’s last performances, and she doesn’t disappoint as the nonagenarian grandmother of Russell (Thomas Duplessie), who is 60 years younger but has no idea what to do with his life. The script stacks the deck against Russell, making him difficult to like. He walks out on his longtime lover, who’s apparently been supporting him, to visit Grams and collect the car she’s offered to give him. While there, he forges a check on her account for spending money. But he’s also sympathetic toward Grams, who can hardly take care of herself but refuses to go to the assisted living facility Russell’s mother wants to put her in. Russell, who once hoped to be an actor, works occasional drag gigs as “Fishy Falters.” The film is as ambiguous about drag as it is about Russell, featuring several numbers that are highlights, yet looking down on what Russell’s lover trashes as “gay variety show shit.” Both lead actors rise above the material but make you wish it was better. It’s not a challenge to play old when you’re over 90, but few could do it as well as Leachman does here.
When you hear there’s a documentary about a company that made gay fetish videos between 1985 and 1997, does it pique your interest because: 1) it may be well made artistically; 2) it could be of value historically and nostalgically; or 3) PORN!!!? I’ll admit I went into Raw! Uncut! Video! as a three, but I came away a two. To each their own, but BDSM/Leather has never been my thing. So, even though the film shows more cocks than I’ve seen in one place since a party decades ago, because of the context the only thing they aroused was my curiosity. Former Drummer editor Jack Fritscher and Mark Hemry, his husband of nearly 40 years, formed Palm Drive Video to make videos that not only appealed to fetishists but also portrayed safe sex (at least in terms of a lack of exchange of fluids; there appear to be other dangers involved in some of the practices shown) at the height of the AIDS crisis. Comments from former “models” in the videos and others make some good points about the need to preserve even the least easily assimilated aspects of our history; and one notes that the videos showed “you didn’t have to be perfect to be sexy,” which all us imperfect but sexy guys can applaud.
THE SIXTH REEL
Sept. 24 virtual
Cinephiles and bitchy queens may be drawn to this new film starring Charles Busch, who co-wrote and -directed with Carl Andress. They should leave disappointed. Jimmy (Busch) is “a small-time dealer in movie ephemera…more notorious than admired,” who discovers the last reel of a “lost” Lon Chaney film amid the hoarded junk of a deceased author and film critic. The man’s niece, Helen (Julie Halston), is with Jimmy when he finds it; and soon there’s a fight to decide whether to preserve the film and show it to the world or sell it for a profit to a collector who might lock it away forever. Michael (Tim Daly) romances Jimmy and Helen for a shot at the film. A serious story could be written about this preservation vs. capitalism topic. Busch has decided to go for comedy instead, but for all the laughs he elicits he needn’t have bothered. Many in the cast reveal Busch’s stage background by playing to the balcony instead of the camera. He should have hired a more screen-savvy director. Best known for female impersonation, Busch dons drag for a couple of sequences that should please his fans; but I can’t imagine them being pleased with the film overall.