In Living Color 

Vivid portrayals of life and love on screen at the Pikes Peak Lavender Film Festival

click to enlarge Southern Comfort  the must-see film of this years Lavender Film Festival
  • Southern Comfort the must-see film of this years Lavender Film Festival

Who would have thought 10 years ago that in 2001, Colorado Springs would be host, for the second time, to a gay and lesbian film festival, held at the venerable Fine Arts Center?

Pikes Peak Lavender Film Festival organizer Alma Cremonesi says the timing is right, even if Colorado Springs seems an unlikely setting for such an event.

"It's a good time for a festival, and I think it's a brave thing to do in this town," said Cremonesi. "If we'd started it 10 years ago, we'd have had a hard time finding good films. Now there's a lot of good work to choose from."

In spite of the popularity of Will and Grace on television, gay films haven't exactly hit the Hollywood mainstream yet. But a growing number of films with gay and lesbian characters, focused on gay issues and themes, are being made and are receiving critical attention in spite of limited distribution. There are about 90 gay and lesbian film festivals throughout the world annually, the biggest being in London, San Francisco, Turin, Hamburg, Miami and Los Angeles. The Pikes Peak Lavender Film Festival, says Cremonesi, tries to cull the best films from the San Francisco and London festivals.

But why a gay and lesbian film festival?

Because movies, for better or worse, are the most powerful medium of our time, reflecting and illuminating our cultural obsessions, defining our collective desires, fantasies and ways of being. And good movies, like good books, validate our experience as humans.

"I was talking recently to a PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) group," said Cremonesi. "There are a lot of women in that group in their 50s and 60s, and they spoke about how hard it has been to find any images in popular culture that validate their children's experience of their sexuality."

The Lavender Film Festival should adequately meet that need with this year's stellar lineup of films. There are films from every continent, 10 features and 12 shorts, a critically acclaimed documentary about transsexuals, a wry look at the bisexual experience, a striking adolescent coming-of-age tale, a savvy romantic comedy, even a noir crime thriller featuring a pair of mysterious gay gangsters. And the finale of this year's festival is what's sure to be the movie event of the year, the wildly praised and much awaited Hedwig and the Angry Inch, by John Cameron Mitchell, formerly of Colorado Springs. (Mitchell's parents, who live in the Springs, will be at the screening.)

Here are just a few highlights of the festival. For information on all the films showing, visit www.lavenderfilms.org.

Iron Ladies

This giddy export from Thailand tells the true story of the 1996 national championship volleyball team, made up for the most part of gay, transvestite and transsexual men. Directed by a former television commercial director, Iron Ladies suffers at moments from Attention Deficit Disorder and pushes the envelope of sentimentality, but the story and the good nature in which it's told make it a worthy entry.

What's most striking is the way the theme of discrimination and prejudice is treated. There are predictable confrontations between macho straight volleyball players and the "ladies," but there are no snarling bad guys, just arrogant, ignorant men accustomed to being on top who can't quite believe the nature of their comeuppance.

I couldn't help think that this true story could never have happened, or at least not yet, in the United States where our brand of homophobia is so much more virulent and paranoid. Strongly recommended for adolescent boys who are trying to sort out their feelings of discomfort with diverse sexuality while being fed a constant diet of hatred and venom.

Southern Comfort

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at Sundance, this is one of the most striking documentaries of this or any other year. Utterly original in content, scope and presentation, Southern Comfort chronicles the last year in the life of Robert Eads, a scruffy, pipe-puffing country boy from backwoods Georgia who used to be a woman and is dying of ovarian cancer. In his matter-of-fact way, which you will grow to love over the course of the film, Robert ironically observes, "It's funny. The last part of me that's female is killing me."

Filmmaker Kate Davis, who directed, photographed and edited the film, heard about Eads and literally camped out in his double-wide trailer home to document his story. In doing so, she quietly captured the essence of the man who, it turns out, was father figure to a motley family of transsexuals, all living quiet lives in rural isolation. Davis doesn't succumb to freak show mentality, but simply shows what it means to go from female to male, male to female, in a world where sexual identities are generally seen in black and white with little room for variety or ambiguity.

We see Eads romancing his love, Lola Cola, a strapping male-to-female transsexual who is not quite as comfortable with her transformation as Robert is with his. Lola does contracting by computer for a living as a male while cross-dressing and undergoing hormone therapy in her private life. Robert, meanwhile, quietly but assuredly counsels her to be true to the self she has chosen, as he has.

We see him romping with his beloved grandson, the only person in his life who has known him only as a man and who loves him purely for himself. We watch a clumsy and confusing encounter with his grown son who can't stop calling him Mom, and we see the grief in his parents' eyes as they watch their son/daughter grow weaker and sicker.

Robert Eads' humor and easy manner set the tone for the film, which exposes the normal pitfalls of his unusual extended family, complete with petty jealousies, some misunderstandings, a lot of the usual boring details that make up a lifetime, and plenty of love to go around. He is plain and ordinary, wise and charismatic all at once, a true working-class hero who puts the question of gender identity into a focus as sharp and clear as an early Georgia winter morning. If I had to choose one must-see film of this year's Lavender Film Festival, Southern Comfort, a truly unique movie-going experience, would be the one.

All Over the Guy

Smart, slick and clever, All Over the Guy plays like a particularly well-written television sitcom. Directed by Julie Davis and adapted from a stage play by Dan Bucatinsky, who also stars, All Over the Guy is the story of two couples, one straight and one gay. Bucatinsky is Eli, a slightly neurotic but thoroughly lovable and entertaining single gay man whose best friend, Brett (Adam Goldberg) hooks him up with Tom (Richard Ruccolo) in order to play up to Tom's best friend Jackie (Sasha Alexander). Brett and Jackie fall in love while Tom and Eli stumble through the beginnings of a conflicted relationship. Eli's a perfectionist and a romantic; Tom's a slob, a binge drinker and a slave to one-night stands. The movie's charm lies in the development of their friendship and a genuinely affecting transition to romance. The ensemble cast is superb, especially Bucatinsky and Ruccolo, and flashbacks to Tom's and Eli's upbringing in their distinctly different families are hilarious. All Over the Guy is classic romantic comedy, well done, easy on the eyes and good for more than a few chuckles.

click to enlarge Hedwig and the Angry Inch  starring John Cameron Mitchell, formerly of Colorado Springs
  • Hedwig and the Angry Inch starring John Cameron Mitchell, formerly of Colorado Springs

Julie Johnson

This Shooting Gallery picture starring Lili Taylor and Courtney Love tells the story of Julie (Taylor), a New Jersey housewife who got married right out of high school and is slowly smothering to death in her unchallenging married life. When she registers for a computer class at the local community college and discovers an innate talent for math, science and physics, her husband freaks out and demands that she quit. Julie refuses and the two separate. Now a single mother, Julie invites her best friend Claire (Love) to move in and share the upkeep of the house. Eventually the two women discover an affection and sweetness in each other that neither of them has experienced with a man. They become lovers and eventually grow in different directions, but the bulk of the film is concerned with their personal growth during the time when they are supporting one another emotionally, physically and spiritually.

Taylor is superb, and this is Love's best work to date. There are some missteps in the storytelling, but there's no mistaking the truth at the heart of this story -- whether we are women loving men, women loving women, men loving women or men loving men, it's the quality of loving and giving that allows us to grow and flourish.

Dark and Lovely, Soft and Free

A fascinating documentary from South Africa, this film is framed by "the queer tour," an inquiry by a group of gay intellectuals into the history of the gay and lesbian community in Johannesburg, pre- and post-apartheid. Interviews with key participants reveal a thriving and constant subculture comparable to the gay community in San Francisco. The documentarians set out to identify the thread of gay life that runs through the "tapestry of South African life," and to help the people of South Africa "catch up with their own Constitution," the only one in the world that expressly forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Lost and Delirious

A beautifully filmed coming-of-age tale, Lost and Delirious tells the story of three teenaged girls, boarding school roommates, two of which are romantically involved in the all-consuming way of adolescent love. When they are caught and the more traditionally inclined of the two denies their involvement, the scorned lover retreats to a dark place, drawing the third roommate, a quiet observer, into her world of pain and abandonment. What could be a lurid drama is instead a compelling work of art in the hands of director La Pool and young actors Piper Perabo, Jessica Par and Mischa Barton. Filmed on location in Quebec, Lost and Delirious is lush and mysterious, a fine film.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

This, you can be sure, is as original a story as we're going to see on film this year. John Cameron Mitchell, writer, director, producer and star, calls his film a "post-punk neo-glam rock musical." In other words, it's a reaction to everything that's come before. The music -- which is fantastic if you have the taste for it -- is forged from the ashes of two loud, overbearing rock genres (1970s punk and 1980s glam rock), and the story and characters are the culmination of decades of arguments about sexuality and identity.

The opening song of the film is immediately recognizable: "America, America, God shed his grace on thee." The tune is played mournfully but jokingly, coming from a soulful, wailing electric guitar. We then see red, white and blue, but it's not our country's flag waving beautifully in the wind; it's the enormous cape of Hedwig, lead singer of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and they're playing dramatic glam rock in a middle-America family restaurant.

Hedwig and her band hail from Germany, and they're on a tour of American cities for one reason -- to follow around the world's biggest rock star, Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt). Hedwig claims that she wrote the songs that made Tommy famous, so her band is tracing Tommy's tour city for city in order to drum up publicity and sympathy. When Tommy plays at a major arena, Hedwig books herself across the street at any restaurant that will have her and makes her case from the stage.

But with antics like Hedwig's, sympathy is not forthcoming. She howls at the audience about her wrecked life, stomping on tables, ripping off her clothes, grabbing her crotch and demanding attention. As the movie's title suggests, Hedwig is not only pissed at Tommy; she is also pissed about the inch of flesh that is the result of a botched sex-change operation. We learn in flashback that, years ago, Hedwig was a young East German man named Hansel. He fell in love with a United States master sergeant who agreed to marry Hansel if he had the operation. Hansel agreed, adopted his mother's name, "Hedwig," and went to the surgeon. But the operation went awry, and a year later the marriage went awry, too, and the sergeant stranded Hedwig in a trailer home in the middle of Kansas.

With subjects like this, you can see why the patrons of America's finest family cafeterias are a tad put off. But Hedwig's complaints -- about both the operation and Tommy -- are valid. Through flashback, we learn that Hedwig and Tommy met when Tommy was a high-schooler. Hedwig taught Tommy about music and love, but Tommy soon left and became famous with the songs Hedwig wrote. So, now Hedwig is on a mission -- to get her due from Tommy and, more importantly, to find some semblance of personal peace.

Of all the things Hedwig addresses -- among them Faith, Gayness, Performance, Popular Culture, Separation and Commitment -- perhaps the most important is the intense struggle that comes with standing in the middle, with being ambiguous and uncertain. Hedwig, who is neither fully male nor fully female, sings about a time before history when the world was one -- no male, no female; no you, no I -- and that, to her, is a perfect time. She's hoping for that unity to be reborn, for an eternal and undying love among humankind, but she seems to know that it's an unrealistic hope. Separation is inevitable; salvation is fleeting.

In one of the final scenes, "America, America" is played slowly once more. It's a musical coda, but it's a thematic one, too, offering an ironic but heartfelt prayer over this whole American mess.

For those who are unable to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Lavender Film Festival, be patient. It opens at Kimball's on Sept. 21.

Review of Hedwig and the Angry Inch by Patton Dodd

Schedule of films and events:

Friday, Sept. 14: opening night party, 6:30 p.m.; introductions, 7:30 p.m.; Monkey's Mask, 8 p.m.; Iron Ladies (Thai with English subtitles), 9:45 p.m.

Saturday, Sept. 15: Southern Comfort, 11:30 a.m.; Burnt Money, or Plata Quemada (Argentinian, in Spanish with English subtitles), 1:30 p.m.; The Girl, 4 p.m.; All Over the Guy, 6:15 p.m.; Julie Johnson, 8:15 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 16: Dark and Lovely, Soft and Free, 11:15 a.m.; Love=ME3, 1:30 p.m.; The Adventures of Felix or Drole de Felix (French with English subtitles), 3:30 p.m.; Lost and Delirious, 5:45 p.m.; Hedwig and the Angry Inch, 8 p.m.; closing night party, Branding Iron at the Hide 'n' Seek, 10 p.m.


Passes to the Pikes Peak Lavender Film Fest, covering all events including opening and closing parties are $70, $50 for students, seniors or low-income participants (no proof of income necessary), and can be purchased at Wag 'N' Wash, the Fine Arts Center box office, or KRCC. An opening night ticket is $25 and includes hors d'oeuvres at the opening party and two films. Day passes for Saturday and Sunday are $25 each day (Sunday includes the closing party at the Branding Iron in the Hide 'n' Seek complex). Tickets to individual films are $8, available the day of the show at the Fine Arts Center box office.


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