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Gay cinema climax delayed

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

Suppose someone who pulled a Rip Van Winkle in the mid-90s, woke up today, turned on the television and went channel surfing. What would be the most immediate reaction? Probably a stunned assumption that most of the television networks and cable channels had been taken over and reorganized under the banner of the Gay Broadcasting Corporation.Will & Grace busted down the door in 1998. With the awards and ratings success that accompanied the sitcom about a gay man and straight girl who shared an apartment came, in quick succession, Queer As Folk, Six Feet Under, Oz, Boy Meets Boy, Queer Eye For the Straight Guy, that Madonna-Britney Spears smooch, the new The L Word and a host of other shows that, if not quite as focused on gay characters and issues, at least touched on them.The cinema, however, has not seen such an explosion. It is telling that Angels in America, perhaps the most acclaimed gay-themed film ever made, bypassed the movie house and went straight to the small screen. With few exceptions, mainstream cinema is far behind mainstream television in the embrace of gay culture and characters. I havent seen any greater number of characters or films dealing with gay issues, said Jon Busch, a local film programmer. Not that its worse, but I havent seen any change. Which means that the upcoming Aspen Gay & Lesbian Film Festival is made up primarily of foreign-language films, indie productions and, interestingly, a pair of films that debuted on foreign television.The quantity of gay-themed shows on TV has not necessarily meant that gays are being treated with any more honesty than in the past. Certainly a lot of distance has been covered since the first gay character Billy Crystals Jody, on the soap opera spoof Soap in the 1970s appeared on television. But Busch thinks that television, especially broadcast television, has a long way to go in its depiction of gays.Its interesting that everything Ive seen on broadcast TV is sexless, said Busch, a past programmer of the AG&L Film Festival and a programmer for this years event, which has screenings at the Wheeler Opera House Monday through Wednesday, Jan. 26-28, in conjunction with Aspen Gay and Lesbian Ski Week. (The festivals director is Zander Higbie.) Its gay, but its not gay. Which is the opposite of Europe. Queer As Folk, the original that the Showtime version is based on, was on broadcast TV in Europe, and it was far more open in its representation of sexuality. The gay content on [American] TV is basically neutered sexuality. Its safe.In the world of gay-themed films, Busch has at least seen progress in content over the decade-plus he has been programming the AG&L Film Festival. Subtly, there is a change, he said. Theyre less angry. Theyre more about interhuman relationships, as opposed to fighting the establishment, as opposed to straight versus gay. A number of these films are just love stories.In many instances, those love stories involve the element of keeping that love hidden from plain sight. From this years program, Yossi & Jagger, a Hebrew-language film that premiered on Israeli TV, and Latter Days, a new American film, fit that description. Yossi & Jagger is the story of two boyfriends, very much in love, struggling to keep their relationship a secret from their fellow soldiers at the border between Israel and Lebanon. Latter Days, about a hot Los Angeles stud who falls for a Mormon missionary, is a very different sort of film. But much of the film is about the practical necessity of keeping a homosexual relationship hidden from family and friends.Not only has the gay boom on television not translated to a gay-cinema surge, but there is now greatly increased competition among festivals for the films that are made. Whether its a gay film festival or not, there are so many that film handlers pick and choose, said Busch, who also programs the Wheeler Film Series. There was a time they would want their film to play, and now you have to pay because there are many festivals.Still, Busch believes he has assembled a strong field for the festival, which in past years has had hits with The Crying Game, The Sum of Us and Its In the Water. Yossi & Jagger earned critical raves in Israel, and Latter Days was the Audience Award winner at the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. Twist, a retelling of Dickens Oliver Twist, was a selection of the 2003 Toronto Film Festival.Busch is particularly enthused about Blue Citrus Heart. Winner of a top award at the Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival, it is hailed by Busch as a rare example of genuine indie filmmaking. The film, about romance and friendship in Memphis, was shot with a consumer-grade video camera with nonprofessional actors and edited on a Macintosh computer.What we think of as independent filmmaking today is so highly polished, so totally professional, that you have a hard time understanding that there really is an independent-film movie now [by] people who max out their credit cards to make a film, said Busch. These films are out there, but they dont get seen.Following are reviews of select films from the Aspen Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.Latter DaysQualitywise, Latter Days is as extreme as its central characters: Christian, a sexy L.A. predator, and Aaron, a cute, innocent Mormon missionary. Latter Days, the first directorial effort from screenwriter C. Jay Cox (Sweet Home Alabama), has you cringing at its 1980s-era, music-video-style sequences think the worst part of St. Elmos Fire one moment. Then come scenes of such genuine emotion, its almost hard to realize this is the same movie.First, the bad stuff. Jacqueline Bisset overacts horrifically as the queen bee restaurateur who looks over her hive of singing, acting waiters. There are lines that are so stagey that, if this were a mainstream film, theyd go down in history. When Christian (Wesley A. Ramsey) and Aaron (Steve Sandvoss) have one of their early chance meetings at the communal laundry room, Aaron warns Christian away from a friendship by looking down at his dirty underwear and sadly observing, Colors and whites dont mix.On the positive side, some of the jokes are great: one gay waiter, dismissing the idea that sex for career advancement is a terrible thing, says, Ive given blow jobs just to get a guy out of my apartment. Sucking for my career would be noble.More important, Latter Days has a kind heart and affection for its characters. And it is not just simpleminded goodness. When Christian begins to fall in love with Aaron and decides to change his shallow ways, we buy the emotions that fuel the transformation. When Aaron tells Bissets Lila how life is like a comic strip in the newspaper a bunch of tiny colored dots that come together to have meaning it is poignant rather than silly. The genuineness of these moments help make the cheese easy to swallow.Yossi & JaggerIn Yossi & Jagger, Israeli director Eytan Fox intertwines two tense situations. Yossi (Ohad Knoller) and Jagger (Israeli soap star Yehuda Levi) are not only lovers trying to keep their affair clandestine; they are also soldiers stationed together in an underground bunker at the desolate, dangerous border between Israel and Lebanon.Fox handles the story with a naturalistic style that gives the film its solid grounding. With his camera casually wandering around the confines of the bunker, Fox lets the characters reveal themselves bit by bit, and each one become very real in the process.Yossi, the company commander, is a vocal leader when he has to be, and an understanding caretaker of his young troops when he can be. With his lover Jagger so nicknamed for his effeminate good looks Yossi is adoring, but not as open about his affections as Jagger would like. The film follows as the two switch modes, from lovers to soldiers, and observes how they handle the situation.Just as good are the films two women: the slutty Goldie, who has an affair with the unpleasant, hard-ass colonel, and the virtuous, stunning Aya Steinovitz, who has a mad crush on Jagger.Yossi & Jagger reaches boldly for a grandly meaningful conclusion, and it just about pulls it off. Even without hitting that bulls-eye, however, the film is a treat. About the only complaint is that one wishes it were longer than 65 minutes.TwistA retelling of Dickens Oliver Twist, Jacob Tierneys Twist has more in common with Midnight Cowboy than Dickens tale. Certainly, Tierneys version has little in common with the 1968 musical Oliver!In Twist, the Dickens story is transported to present-day Toronto. The pickpockets are now heroin-shooting street hustlers, overseen by the nasty Fagin, who is himself overseen by the nastier, unseen Bill. Oliver (Joshua Close) is a fresh-faced orphan pressed into service by Dodge (Nick Stahl).Unlike the original, Twist doesnt force a happy ending. A story of degradation, shame and lost hope, it is grim to the end. Well-acted and stylishly produced, Twist is not for the weak of heart.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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