Gay Culture in Focus
By Russell Smith, Fri., Aug. 22, 1997
"Maybe I should get out more," mused Dobie Theatre owner Scott Dinger. "I spend a lot of time at work, so I've tended to buy the standard wisdom about how, yeah, it's the Nineties, it's fine and groovy to be gay these days..., Ellen's a big hit on TV, attitudes are changing, blah blah blah. Doesn't take much to remind you how wrong those assumptions are."
No double meaning was intended by that "getting out more" business. Dinger, the founder of the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival (aGLIFF), has been openly gay for some time now. It's just that, until several recent encounters with what he interprets as veiled (and sometimes overt) homophobia during preparations for the festival's 10th anniversary event, he'd developed an unrealistically sanguine attitude about straight Austin's level of tolerance for queer culture. Dinger, who's seen aGLIFF grow from a shoestring, four-film festivalette in 1988 (Pedro Almodovar's Law of Desire was the first-night opener) to last year's blockbuster event that drew 8,500 viewers, handed over event operations to an independent board in 1993. But the festival is still his greatest passion (he continues as the festival's artistic director), and a rare intensity creeps into his high-velocity speech when he defends the continuing relevance of gay and lesbian film fests.
"If you believe this is a basically mainstream event -- and I admit I was beginning to think that way myself -- just consider some of the things we've experienced lately."
First, says Dinger, a large sign company refused to accept a proposed aGLIFF billboard unless its tagline, "Baptist Fundamentalists Welcome," was changed or omitted. Shortly thereafter, a local printer refused to produce a festival program which included several mildly racy photos, one of which showed a beefy nude man (with legs coyly positioned to conceal The Package) reclining in a director's chair. Spokesmen for both firms disavow any anti-gay motivations. The billboard company says it viewed the caption as a gratuitous shot at Baptists which would be ultimately blamed on the company, not the festival. The printer cites a longtime policy of avoiding all potentially controversial projects.
In yet another setback, a potential organizational sponsor backed away after apparently developing wet feet about supporting a gay- and lesbian-oriented event. But perhaps the most depressing recent event was one which, though not directly connected to the festival, serves as a blunt reminder of the poisonous atmosphere that still presses constantly against the arts community's sheltering bubble.
"This happened before all the publicity stuff," Dinger said. "We'd all been working pretty hard, so one Sunday I decided to invite the board members over to my house. We'd hang out, I'd barbecue or whatever, and we'd all just forget about work for a while. So we do that, and the evening goes just fine, as far as I can tell. But later, one of my board tells me that, as he's getting back in his car [to leave], one of my neighbors across the street mutters, just loud enough to be heard, `fuckin' faggots!'."
Dinger leaned back in his chair, shaking his head and running his fingers through his hair. "That stuff eats away at you. Any one of the things I've told you about is bad in itself... but put them all together and you can't help feeling very discouraged and paranoid."
As Dinger implied, most gay people face specific forms of anxiety and paranoia in their daily lives which even sympathetic straights can only vaguely imagine. It's this gradual erosion of confidence, self-esteem, and basic joie de vivre that events like aGLIFF seek to counteract. The point is explicitly made with the choice of topics for the second annual public symposium, which will address the rationale and cultural relevance of gay and lesbian film fests. "Into Focus: The Past, Present and Future of Gay/Lesbian Film Festivals" will be held Saturday, Aug. 30 at 1:30pm on the fourth floor of UT's Harry Ransom Center; admission is free to the public.
The symposium's panel will include, among others: Dinger; Michael Lumpkin (a Longview native who produced The Celluloid Closet and now runs the 21-year-old San Francisco Film Festival); Dennis Poplin (festival coordinator for the San Antonio Lesbian/Gay Film Festival); Francine Rzeznik (director of One Nation Under God) and Marjorie Baumgarten (Austin Chronicle senior editor).
Other events designed to expand the festival beyond the Dobie's darkened screening rooms include a Filmmakers' Brunch Sunday, Aug. 31 at the Zilker Clubhouse (a meet-and-mingle event for fans and directors) and a Saturday, Sept. 6 Closing Night Party and Awards recognition ceremony at the Sheraton. The Dobie will host an Opening Night Film and Party, at which stars of festival movies will be on hand to greet fans. After the opening feature (Kelli Herd's Texas-made It's in the Water), the party cranks up at Twist (505 Neches).
All of this, says aGLIFF board president Sandra Martinez, helps enhance gay folks' sense that, "For two weeks, there's a place where you can be yourself completely and be fully at ease. In other cities that have big festivals, like New York and San Francisco, [gay people] have districts to gather. We don't have that, but by making the festival larger and adding events, we try to create a venue that has a similar feeling of comfort."
Martinez, an Austin resident for the past 25 years who was a longtime clubowner (Chances) before joining the festival board four years ago, favors the idea of working with other lesbian/gay cultural and political events to schedule them jointly or concurrently, thus creating a focal point for community pride. Dinger concurs, observing that even though a film festival can indeed be a "safe space" for fully or partially closeted homosexuals, it can also foster the courage to face issues such as the wrenching inevitability of outing oneself to friends, co-workers, and family. The targeted consumer may not be much of a cinephile, just a closeted ad-tech, lawyer, or warehouse manager with a portfolio of friendships and achievements that all feel shaky and provisional because of the fear that they may depend, at least in part, on a fundamental misunderstanding of who they really are.
"When you're gay, you constantly have this underlying awareness that many people hate you for what you are," observes Dinger. "That makes it all the harder to come out. Gays have all kinds of ways of dealing with that, and none of them are easy. The festival gives you a period when it's okay to be totally out, hold hands with your date, do whatever. You can let your guard down. And maybe you can feel good enough about yourself that you can come out as a gay person. It's no coincidence that so many lesbian and gay films have the coming-out process as a theme.
"Speaking for myself, I didn't come out to my parents until I was in my early thirties. They're pretty religious, so it was tough for them to understand. The experience was as hard for them as it was for me. What art can do is give you strength and courage to deal with those situations."
In fact, much of the festival's history has overlapped with the development of the relentlessly ballyhooed New Queer Cinema, characterized by aggressive, stylistically bold, and (as it were) cocky representations of the gay experience. Whereas the original San Francisco Film Festival took place in a time when La Cage aux Folles was considered a fairly daring mainstream film, aGLIFF has come of age simultaneously with such New Queer darlings as Gregg Araki, Bruce LaBruce, Jennie Livingston, Todd Haynes, and Tom Kalin.
These shock troops have expanded the boundaries of what is permissible and commercially viable to a point at which it's now possible for a openly homosexual filmmaker like Neil Jordan to draw steady paychecks from mainstream projects, some gay-themed, others not. Out actors like Rupert Everett, David Arquette, and Anne Heche are likewise defying the conventional wisdom that even one toe tentatively extended from the closet equals professional suicide.
In keeping with this liberating trend toward artistic glasnost, many 1997 aGLIFF films eschew protest/disease/repression themes and come at the viewer with airy, playful attitudes that cloak their "serious" subtexts -- if any -- in brash primary colors (Ela Troyano's heavily promoted soap opera homage, Latin Boys Go to Hell; Alessandro De Gaetano's farcical Butch Camp; and Kelley Sane's ultra-campy musical, Franchesca Page). Others (Ronnie Larsen's on-the-set documentary, Shooting Porn; and Cheryl Dunye's tongue-in-cheek feminist history film, Watermelon Woman) overlay them with ironic satire that keeps excessive earnestness safely at bay. Laughs are also the major focus of I Was a Jewish Sex Worker by Phillip B. Roth (no relation to the novelist).
Of course, several festival features deal straightforwardly with troubling emotional and sexual issues. Richard Natale's romantic elegy, Green Plaid Shirt and Denis Langois' edgy love story, L'Escorte fall into this category.
Adam Rogers' wry story of late-life coming out, Rescuing Desire, was a resounding audience favorite last year and returns in an exception to the festival's general policy against relying on comfy, familiar material.
This year Boy and Girl Shorts, always a big draw, include Yule Caise's Boys' Night Out, about a homophobe who's snookered into running an AIDS marathon -- in spike pumps; Andrea Stoops' claymation dyke romance, Adam; Joel Moffet's dark little coming-out vignette, My Body; and Tommy O'Haver's Sundance-featured Happy Hour, a sociological take on pickup rituals.
There will also be a special program of Regional Shorts, a unique aGLIFF feature that this year will include, among others, Todd Savell's Avant Toi and Double Date; Rachel Shannon's Girlwatcher; Oscar Raul Lopez's The Rest of Your Life; Hey- d Fontenot's music video, Smile; Craig Franklin's SpiritFest 98; Matthew Stenerson's A Sweetheart Neckline; and Daniel Baer's Horse Dreams in BBQ Country.
Feature-length films with the Sundance pedigree abound. There's Su Friedrich's Hide and Seek, a bold story of lesbian adolescence in the Sixties that uses commentary from adult lesbians and vintage "educational" films about homosexuality; John Greyson's prison-themed Lilies, Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold's Out at Work, which documents the story of a Cracker Barrel short-order cook who becomes an activist for gay and lesbian workplace rights; Richard Spence's Different for Girls, about the reunion of two old friends -- one a post-op transsexual; and Kristine Peterson's Slaves to the Underground, a fresh, humorous tale of giddy bisexual adventures in Seattle's art/music scene.
The opening film, Dallasite Kelli Herd's aforementioned crowd-pleaser, It's in the Water, milks laughs from the scenario of a homo-despising little Bible Belt town whose straight burghers mysteriously start experiencing mass inversion.
As the festival gears up for its next decade, Dinger is admittedly straddling a paper-thin line between blatantly cheerleading for lesbian/gay film festivals and encouraging free dialogue about their evolving social role. The obvious question is: Will there be a gradual withering away of gay cultural and artistic traditions as homosexuality achieves broader acceptance, or is there something unique about gay sensibilities and aesthetics which will guarantee continuing significance for events such as aGLIFF?
"What I think of when I confront that question," replies Dinger, "is what a guy who's basically just an acquaintance told me about how he felt when he first saw our banner that said: Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival. He said, `You know, that made me feel so great I was just pumping my fist going, Yes! All Right!'.
"When I hear things like that I'm really gratified, and it makes me believe even more in what we're doing. Like another person told me, remembering the feeling of seeing a gay film for the first time at the festival, `That movie affected me in a way I'd never experienced before. I felt like the film was talking to me.'"
The two-week-long festival runs August 22-September 4 at the Dobie Theatre. More information is available on the festival website (http://www.aGLIFF.org) or the festival hotline (476-2454).