Stonewall was a travesty, and Looking was canceled to many gay men’s dismay, but gay pop culture is thriving in 2015, provided you know where to find it. This year gave us Peter Strickland’s brilliant The Duke of Burgundy. (On the trans side of things many would also use the word “brilliant” to describe Sean Baker’s trans sex-worker comedy Tangerine, though the love people profess for that film boggles my mind.) Uptown, MoMA is currently running Stephen Winter’s exploration of race, sexuality, and exploitation, Jason and Shirley, while downtown at the IFC Center, Sebastián Silva’s gay-not-gay Nasty Baby opens tomorrow.
And starting tonight through next Tuesday at Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas is New York’s annual LGBT film festival NewFest. The lineup this year is strong, which is particularly impressive given the dearth of mainstream LGBT stories and the compromises that are usually required in getting them made and seen. I’ve briefly rounded up five particularly impressive entires in this year’s festival below.
I saw Todd Haynes’ latest movie Carol about a month ago at a press screening for the New York Film Festival, and barely a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about it since. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, this simple melodrama about a ‘50s housewife’s burgeoning romance with a younger shopgirl is simply enthralling—often even though it shouldn’t be. It repeatedly shows you how good cinema can transcend good sense. There’s a moment when Carol (Cate Blanchett) asks Therese (Rooney Mara) to embark on a road trip with her, clearly in the interest of making their budding romance blossom. They’re outside, it’s just before Christmas, and after Therese accepts the invitation, the music swells and it starts snowing. A heavier hand would have rendered this cheesy. And even as it is, you see the movie manipulating you, and yet it works so well. It’s a beautiful moment. Carol has those in spades.
This may all sound familiar to you. What may initially seem like the lesbian counterpart to Haynes’ Douglas Sirk-referencing 2002 melodrama Far from Heaven, was actually more inspired by Ruth Orkin’s photography and film work like Lovers & Lollipops, at Haynes revealed at Cannes, where Carol played to a rapturous response.
What is it about this movie? The flawless performances? The lush sets and elegant costumes? The inherent tension in watching two characters whose relationship seems doomed, whose truest selves they’re in the process of manifesting? All of these things and more. I feel like I’m being haunted by Carol, whose final shot is among the most indelible I’ve ever seen. Blanchett does more with her eyes in this movie that many actors do in their entire careers.
The couple above—Nykia and Mickey—report that they sometimes get called “faggots” for being two studs (which is to say masculine-presenting women) in a lesbian couple. Their pairing is simply rejected by many in their community. That’s a small taste of the incredibly intricate identity politics Nneka Onuorah explores in her documentary about black lesbians called The Same Difference. Onuorah’s subjects have liberated themselves from greater societal expectations to live openly, only to find a more specific set of rules within their gay culture that they’re expected to abide by. Onuorah breaks these rules down explicitly via title cards (“No stud on stud,” “No bisexuals,” “No pregnant studs”) and on a molecular level via terminology (“femmes,” “AGs,” “aggressive women”).
Highlights include The Wire’s Felicia “Snoop” Pearson attempting to walk in heels so as to make herself a more versatile actress, and a stripper named King Kellz, whose dares to rock a weave even though she identifies as a stud. Kellz and Jordan Diaz-Cross, a pregnant stud, both confront online haters, and while you imagine that doing so on a daily basis would simply be exhausting, Onuorah is out to illustrate the wide parameters of community and the stress that comes from judgment from within. The Same Difference consistently blew my mind. It’s a very specific study of a very specific group, and yet the bigger picture of individuals negotiating societal expectations couldn’t be more universal.
Spanish director Marçal Forés creates a hook-up scenario that’s about as nightmarish as the real-life Grindr serial killer story. Centered on a co-ed cruising ground (sort of the Tinder of cruising spots, if you will), things go predictably downhill in unpredictable ways after a daddy teacher at a university hooks up with his eager student. Like Stranger By the Lake but way more pointed about the generational divide, what plays out is a scenario in which an older man comes to a sex-based scenario flaunting his pigishness openly, and ultimately is taken advantage of as a result. Everlasting Love works well as a thriller, but even better as a polemic exploration of how young queers devour the culture (and as a result, lives) of those who came before them. It’s bleak as hell, and rightly so.
The newest movie from Peter Greenaway (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover) is like a biopic that’s been chopped up by Brian DePalma and snorted by Russ Meyer. It breathlessly tells the story of Soviet Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein’s sexual blossoming during a work trip to Mexico in the ‘30s, and features more soft dick than I’ve ever seen in a major narrative feature (Gaspar Noé’s upcoming Love takes the award for the most hard dick I’ve ever seen in a major narrative feature). Its centerpiece is the hilarious and legitimately hot scene in which Eisenstein (Elmer Bäck) loses his virginity to his guide Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti). Eisenstein in Guanajuato can’t quite keep the frenetic pace it sets for itself in its first half (Greenaway has so much to show and tell that rolls out scene after scene of split screens), but it’s still fun to watch it try.
If you don’t anything about prolific German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, To Love Without Demands is probably not a good place to get acquainted. Organized by theme as opposed to chronology, Christian Braad Thomsen shares previously unseen footage of interviews he conducted with Fassbinder, mostly in the ‘70s (Fassbinder died in ‘82 of a drug overdose). There’s some terrific footage here, like Fassbinder getting booed at the Berlin Film Festival after screening his first feature, Love Is Colder Than Death, as well as an extended musing by Fassbinder on his Oedipal fantasies (it begins, “Incest with my mother could certainly be a major experience in my imagination,” and only gets wilder from there). In less than 15 years, Fassbinder made 40 movies, and many of them were unbelievably good (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fox and His Friends, and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, among them). I feel like I could talk about his work for the rest of my life and not get bored. To Love Without Demands presents about two hours worth of conversations with and about this great man. It’s just that simple.
Newfest runs tonight through Tuesday, October 27.