kaos at BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival

 kaos at 
 BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival 


There hasn't been a lot to get excited about at this year's London LGBT Film Festival, where I've found myself mired in impenetrable shorts, near misses, and sheer masochism. Could Tattoo be this year's saving grace?

"This is a dramatic recreation of a group of larger-than-life characters who performed at an outrageous cabaret throughout the late 1970s period of the dictatorship in Brazil. The central character of Clécio is the leader; he represents a boldly anarchic whirlwind of energy, both artistic and sexual. When his lover brings home his brother-in-law Fininha, an 18-year-old policeman, Clécio falls in love and things begin to get out of control. How sexual provocation, nudity, drugs, glitter and hard-hitting satire managed to survive as an outrageous beacon of sanity in Brazil’s dark days is a near miracle. You won’t forget the asshole song or the loves and upsets of these indefatigable troupers in the sexual revolution, cocking a snook at the authorities with delirious polysexual abandon."

I saw Tattoo on the same night as the interminable Hawaii, which left me feeling so mentally drained I wanted to go home. But I was with a friend, so I couldn't, and so we dived back into the BFI for a trip back to 1970s Brazil. And what a trip.

Hilton Lacerda's film is a nutty, sexy, dangerous mess, full of unhinged performances by the picture's avant-garde cabaret act, the Star-Spangled Floor. "You won't forget the asshole song," BFI Flare say, and they're right. You really, really won't. Irandhir Santos is brilliant as the troupe's leader, and Jesuita Barbosa is just delicious as conflicted soldier boy Finhina.

Tattoo is a triumph - encore, please.

Next: Last Summer

kaos at BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival

 kaos at 
 BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival 


"Eugenio is a young man residing at his uncle’s deserted house in rural Argentina. One day he encounters the homeless Martin, whom Eugenio realises he knew as a child. Charitably employing Martin to help around the house, Eugenio rediscovers his friendship with him, and as time progresses, new and unexpected feelings begin to emerge. What might initially appear as simply an exercise in prolonged sexual tension, soon blossoms into a rich and delicate tale of self discovery and the redemptive possibilities of love."

"Some gay audiences might describe the film as a 100-minute cock-tease while others might find Hawaii's earnest tone laughable or pretentious, or both, but Berger has to be commended for taking a set-up that would normally be associated with the first minute or two of a porno and spinning it into something of feature length," Boyd van Hoeij writes about Marco Berger's Hawaii in The Hollywood Reporter, neatly summing up the premise, and some of what's wrong, with this film.

Somewhat charitably, he doesn't mention how agonisingly slow this film is. It's the sort of movie that features long (endless) lingering shots of people doing things like eating cereal, staring into space, or nothing much at all. The friend with whom I saw the movie said afterwards, "You just don't like slow movies," with the ignorance of someone who doesn't know that my favourite director is Tsai Ming-Liang, the master of slow cinema. It's also the kind of comment only someone who has turned up half an hour late for the movie, thereby seeing a truncated version of the yawnfest, could make. Perhaps if I'd only seen an hour of Hawaii, I might have liked it better, too.

The picture isn't all bad. It's beautifully shot, and Mateo Chiarino is convincing as drifter Martin. But Manuel Vignau's beardy weirdy Eugenio is just creepy. If I were Martin, I'd have run a mile, not fallen for him. But running would require picking up the pace, and Berger's film never does that.

Next: Tattoo

kaos at BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival

 kaos at 
 BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival 


There's a lot to like about Chris Mason Johnson's 1985 San Francisco time capsule Test, but it has its faults, too. (San Francisco. Fault. See what I did there? ... Tough crowd.)

"A wonderfully evocative period drama that explores the telling details of gay life in San Francisco in 1985 with a fantastically upbeat 80s soundtrack. Frankie is a young performer in a modern dance troupe and is constantly berated by his coach to ‘dance like a man’. This mild homophobia is replicated in the wider world beginning to panic over HIV. He grapples with the pleasures and pain of promiscuity and the desire for a relationship. But when the chance to take the first test for HIV comes along, it brings with it a host of issues."

The dance pieces are fantastic, as is the '80s music, but lead Scott Marlowe (Frankie) left me stone cold. Marlowe is a dancer, so although he doesn't miss a step in the dance sequences, he lacks the charisma to really hold the screen. His character is another example of an overused gay film trope: the nervous, introverted boy. I think we've seen all we need of those.

Much has been made of the film's "period piece" status, but it doesn't really feel much like 1985 a lot of the time. Test didn't have a huge budget, but Johnson missed a trick or two for really selling the era. Katherine Wells' Molly has a very 2013 'do, that ought to have been permed, you know, like girls in the '80s did.

Test is interesting, it's the story of the guys who somehow didn't get AIDS back then. And that's kind of a new angle on the story. But the film is at its best with the dance sequences, where dancer Marlowe and former dancer Chris Mason Johnson are most at home.

Next: Hawaii

kaos at BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival

 kaos at 
 BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival 

Age Of Consent

I'm a pretty vanilla sort of guy. Leather, fisting and watersports just don't do it for me. So Age Of Consent, a film about The Hoist - London's legendary leather venue - ought to have been a turn-off.

Instead, Charles Lum and Todd Verow's cum-spattered love letter to The Hoist fired me up. It's a call-to-arms of sorts, against the creeping influence of the heteronormative, aka the "new gay cure": keep the sodomy, but live like a breeder!

Back to The Hoist. You might not like what goes on there, but it's fantastic that it does. I mean, being gay means making your own rules, right? Wrong. In 2014, being gay means conforming, being a "good" gay. Getting married. Having kids.

Tied up (as it were) with the narrative of The Hoist's history, is the history of gay equality in the UK, with a particular focus on the inequality of Thatcher's Section 28, and the battles over the age of consent. We hear from soldiers like Peter Tatchell. The film addresses trans issues (trans people want to visit this men only venue, but it's not easy for them), drugs (they're not what they used to be), and gentrification (Vauxhall is the last "Zone 1" area to have its heart and soul ripped out, and the poor moved out). The future of The Hoist is threatened by all of that, and by technology. Gay bars - what's left of them - are now full of straight women, and the straight men they attract, and that's the fault of gay men who encourage them. Consequently, these venues are less attractive to a large number of gay men (this one included), who chose Grindr instead. (Are lesbian bars packed out with straight men? No, I didn't think so.)

Age Of Consent also addresses the issue of inclusion on the gay scene, which is rarely very inclusive. BFI Flare itself is indicative of that; its audience seems to be comprised of well-off, sneery white (and to a lesser extent non-white) queens dressed by The Gap. I never feel welcomed or embraced by this horrible crowd; thank God for the festival's lesbians, who eschew the attitude of their male counterparts. But that's another story.

Age Of Consent gifts many wonderful surprises: who would have thought that, amidst this Sodom and Gomorrah hell of fisting, we'd get a detailed plot description of the 1976 Doctor Who story The Pyramids of Mars. We did. My heart leapt.

The Q&A session afterwards left me despairing. The lesbians (lesbians at a film about gay men and their quest for casual sex - that's how awesome these women are) asked intelligent questions of the filmmakers. The gay men in the audience acted like braindead harpies. One moron asked why the issue of drugs on the gay scene hadn't been addressed by the film. It had been, decisively. Another, a heavy-set Asian man, decided to have a dig at Peter Tatchell ("for someone slagging off respectable gays, he looks very respectable himself". Several people in the audience laughed. I wanted to die). After the screening, I saw him and another guy nursing a couple of toddlers. They had brought their respectability with them.

For now at least, kids aren't allowed in The Hoist, although one wonders how long it will be before the good gays start demanding a crèche - or the venues' closure.

Next: Test

kaos at BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival

 kaos at 
 BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival 

The Last Match

Warning: This article contains spoilers that some readers may prefer to avoid.

Director Antonio Hens' picture - the festival's midpoint gala - came with high expectations, and it doesn't disappoint. This is a love story about something; too often, gay cinema isn't about anything much at all.

"Rey and Yovsani are two young men trying to get by as best they can in contemporary Havana: one uses his physical charms to make money as a rent boy for rich tourists, the other works for his girlfriend’s father selling a wide range of clothing and general goods but dreams of escape. They meet on the slum football ground where they regularly play; and a chance encounter at a cruising ground shows to each their hitherto nonrevealed sexuality. A passionate affair ensues. They both have girlfriends and rely heavily on family members for help with the basics (home comfort, food and affection) but their focus increasingly and dangerously becomes each other. Rey feels emboldened by easy money and splashes out on clothes but gambling drives him deep into debt. An increasingly desperate search for money makes them both take risks. When Rey is scouted for a major football team he jeopardises everything by continuing to indulge in late-night activities."

The Last Match reminded me of Midnight Dancers (Philippines, 1994) which also follows the lives of young men put out to stud by their impoverished families. Hens' Havanna tale unfortunately also shares the dispiriting trajectory of that picture: Rey and Yovsani's love story ends in tragedy. Similar fates befall the Romeos in Cal, and Children of God; it isn't enough that these young gay men have to suffer through the movie: they must also pay the ultimate price. Killing your leading lady (as it were) might look like an impressive sacrifice on the altar of realism by filmmakers seeking to avoid a fairytale ending, but for the audience, it's often a kick in the teeth.

It's a real shame, because until the disappointing finale, The Last Match doesn't miss a beat.

Antonio Hens had been due to appear for a Q&A at Tuesday's screening with his two young stars (Milton García and Reinier Díaz), but visa problems scuppered that. Instead, programmer Brian Robinson spoke to them over Skype, with Hens translating for the boys. Unfortunately, they had to endure such blistering questions from the audience as "why did you not hire gay actors instead?" There'd be equally moronic questions asked by gay men at Age of Consent the following day. Thank God for lesbians.

Next: Age Of Consent

kaos at BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival

 kaos at 
 BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival 

Big Words

I'm a '90s kid, one who grew up with the sounds of 2Pac, Warren G, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, The Pharcyde, Jungle Brothers, and De La Soul. So director/writer Neil Drumming's Big Words - about the members of a promising (but short-lived) '90s Brooklyn hip-hop group - was bound to be dead cert hit with me. It almost is.

"John aka Big Words was once in hip hop crew DLP. Years later, while trying to impress a girl, he awkwardly confesses that he was in the Down Low Poets but 'there was nothing gay about that, it was the '90s'. In fact while John and Terry, who is still trying to make a living as DJ Malik, are indeed straight, James (aka Jaybee Da Mac) has come out and is living an affluent life with his partner in Brooklyn, filled with fine wine and nice white lesbian friends."

The best thing about this picture is the cast. Firstly, Darien Sills-Evans (as the obsessive DJ Malik, who's literally stuck in a groove) steals every scene he's in. Dorian Missick - as the titular Big Words - also puts in a strong performance, ably assisted by the lovely Yaya Alafia as Annie. Gbenga Akinnagbe is good too, in the pretty thankless role of James, the group's gay member. (Akinnagbe was due to be at the screening for a Q&A, but was otherwise engaged shooting the new series of 24 elsewhere in London.)

It's with James that the film stumbles. We never really believe he's gay, despite meeting his boyfriend Eddie (Amir Arison). I'd have found it easier to believe Akinnagbe's character was a Martian living amongst us to learn our ways. It takes us back years - to the '90s, perhaps - to a time when you could just say a character's gay, but you didn't have to show it. I guess the filmmakers wanted to avoid offending the straight black audience.

Drumming's direction is a bit flat, too, although maybe that's apt for an exercise in middle-aged navel gazing. Watch it for Sills-Evans: he's superb.

Next: The Last Match

kaos at BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival

 kaos at 
 BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival 

Cross My Heart

After the complete abortion that was Saturday's Close Encounter mélange, I approached Sunday's shorts with some trepidition. Would these films also be made primarily for the amusement of the filmmaker, and not the audience?

Fortunately, programmer Michael Blyth's selection didn't leave me wanting to gouge my eyes out in protest. First up was Mathilde Bayle's The Swimming Trunks (France), a bittersweet film about a prepubescent boy's (non-sexual) crush on his friend's father. Films that rely on child actors can be crippled by an effective or precocious kid; fortunately, Roger Manning is neither. 

We're back in high school for Phil Connell's Kissing Drew (Canada, again!) for the (overly) familiar tale of a shy gay kid and his bully. It's accomplished enough, but we've seen this story way too many times before. Please, no more kids in high school!

Julián Hernández's Wandering Clouds (Mexico) will feel familiar to anyone who's seen his work (the mind-blowing Raging Sun, Raging Sky, or Broken Sky [one of the kaos Top 30 Gay Films of all time], or earlier festival entry Bramadero). It features Mexican boys in speedos - need I say anymore?

Laura Scrivano's The Language of Love (Australia) is an accomplished solo piece, written and performed by Kim Ho. It's short and sweet, even if the privileged boys' school setting calls to mind Ja'mie: Private School Girl.

Mark Pariselli's Monster Mash (Canada. Again! WTF? Really?) is a fun love letter (blood-spattered, of course) to horror. Fans of that genre will enjoy it more than the wider audience, but it holds its own, regardless. The shower scene got a big laugh.

Finally, Alex Bohs' Mum (USA) covers new territory, taking us away from the tired tropes of high school and bullying, and the twist is touching.

Both sets of shorts at Flare suffered from a lack of variety: too much high school, too much unrequited love, too much Canada (was it a job lot?) The world - the gay experience - is a much bigger place than we're seeing here. Disappointing.

Next: Big Words

kaos at BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival

 kaos at 
 BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival 

Close Encounters

Veteran programmer Brian Robinson's selection of shorts (for the "connoisseur", he said in his intro) was largely a disappointing, deeply frustrating collation of pretentious film school bollocks. Opening was Stephen Dunn and Peter Knegt's Good Morning (Canada), a fairly slight - yet cute - rumination on gay men and age. It was downhill from there.

David Ealing's What Do We Need? (Spain) wasn't witty, clever, nor, despite some cute boys, sexy. Someone spunks on a crucifix. If you think that's clever, this might be the film for you.

Things perked up a bit with Venci Kostov's The Son (Spain, again), an eventful melodrama (props to Fanny de Castro for her touching performance as a put-upon Spanish mama) which ends up in a depressing cul-de-sac.

The afternoon took a sharp dive with Drew Lint's interminable Rough Trade (Canada, again) an exercise in pointless, self-indulgent w**k. I wanted to curl up on the floor in a ball and pretend I was somewhere better; swinging on a hook in an abattoir, for example. The rapid cut flashes gave me a headache, too. Cheers for that.

Brian had one final gift for us, Christophe Predari's Human Warmth (Belgium). Brian describes it as, "An exquisite poetic short about conflicting emotions where two young men confront unresolved desire at the end of a relationship." It wasn't exquisite.

You don't expect to like everything in a programme of shorts. You can expect to be challenged. But this selection was, simply, f**king atrocious.

Next: Cross My Heart

Looking for something better

HBO's Looking has been renewed for a second season, news that comes as a huge relief to this fan. But not everyone gets the show, with critics and the audience divided over this tale of sex, love and friendship in San Francisco. It's been branded slow and boring, but if, say, Noah's Arc is your yardstick for gay TV drama, then Looking's slow-burning, nuanced, and unforgiving take on gay men's lives will inevitably disappoint.

Some will cry "but Noah's Arc represents us! Those white shows don't" but I wonder how many black gay men live the kind of life the characters in Noah's Arc live. Noah's Arc is many things (fabulously entertaining, for one) but no one could ever accuse it of being realistic or deep. It's pure T.V. bubblegum fantasy, as true to life as Lost In Space is representative of space travel, and some of its tropes (gay boy falling for straight boy) were tired and played out even in 2005.

On the other hand, Looking is a genuine attempt to shine a light on the lives of a group of gay men in San Francisco. It is slower than, say, Scandal, and if that's a problem for you, maybe Glee might fit you better? Looking is to gay T.V. drama what The Wire is to cop shows: profound, literary and cinematic (yes, it also looks visually stunning).

The characters hale from a variety of racial backgrounds, and manage to cover age and class, too. Patrick (Jonathan Groff) is the classic whitebread American WASP. His awful friend August (Frankie J. Alvarez) is a spoilt rich (Latino) kid. Their other friend, Dom (Murray Bartlett), is the daddy of the group, a man who's just hit the dreaded forty. Their friends and lovers are Britain's own (black) O.T. Fagbenle; Lauren Weedman, as the best fag hag ever ("he can sit on my face anytime"); and Raúl Castillo's painfully sensitive blue collar Richie.

Patrik-Ian Polk - demonstrating a disappointing grasp of professional courtesy - said of Looking, "It's dull as ditchwater." That's ironic, coming from a guy whose entire oeuvre consists of rehashing the same storyline: a group of conservative gay college dudes, one of whom falls for a "straight" guy. In Polk's world, "racial diversity" amounts to a token (hot slut) Latino dude. There's nothing wrong with being a hot slut, but if I was a gay Latino, I'd question why Polk thinks "hot slut" encapsulates the entirety of my identity.

Some people can't accept the fact the central character is a WASP, and yeah, I'd love to see a gay drama of this calibre about a black dude who is neither a stereotypical thug, or one of Patrik-Ian Polk's pearl-clutching elites. But you know what, in the gay community, there's many, many more dudes like Jonathan Groff's Patrick than there are that smart, blue collar black dude we've yet to see represented on screen. Looking's writers have written about a WASP, but they've written about a WASP who's in love with a blue collar Latino, and who is, at the very least, on the road to recognising that his background doesn't make him a better person. That's infinitely more relevant in 2014 - that juxtaposition of economic background and class - than Polk's tired obsession with the HBCU down low brotha.

Noah's Arc may be about black gay men, yes, but it also happens to be about a particular kind of gay man; that privileged, college-educated, gay man who looks down on blue collar men as, at best, sexual playthings, and at worst, inferior beings. Looking, at least, has the grace to call into question the assumption that class, background and education make a better man. In Noah's Arc, the lead characters consistently use and dispose of "blue collar" men - T-Money, Wade's boyfriend Dre - as if their lives are of less value than those of Noah, Wade, Ricky, Alex and Chance. Noah's Arc flirts with the issue of economic disparity and class privilege, but is terrified to face it head on, and so we end up with scenes where Chance is stranded - terrified - in the ghetto. If Chance had been a white character, the audience would rightly be appalled at his prejudice, but because he's black, it's somehow okay to denigrate the denizens of the 'hood. Looking faces up to it in blistering detail; an entire episode is devoted to Patrick and Richie's first date (none of the other characters appear) and we're allowed to fall in love with the characters as they fall in love with each other. That makes the subsequent car crash even more brutal: Patrick's cringe-inducing snobbery about Richie's job, and rich kid August's stomach-churning snideness towards his fellow papi. Patrick hates that side of him, and fights it. As a working class boy, I love that; the characters in Noah's Arc seem to not only embrace their class privilege, but positively revel in it.

Back to Looking, which ended, beautifully, on a nod to The Golden Girls. Me and my boy were watching together, laughing out loud at Blanche and Dorothy, laughing along with Patrick in the final moments of the surprising and heartreaking season finale. The credits rolled over The Golden Girls theme tune, a genuinely clever and touching move: these guys know what they're doing.

Looking, like HBO sibling The Wire, feels more like a novel, or arthouse cinema, than the conventional network T.V. we're used to. It forgoes intrusive background music and the tedious plot conventions viewers are usually force-fed. It goes deeper, and some people just don't get that. Looking isn't just the best gay T.V. series I've seen in a long time, it's one of the best T.V. shows in recent years. Look no further.
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