Films about the queer experience are front and center in the 2016 Washington Jewish Film Festival.
This year’s festival includes 69 films and a variety of special events that will be staged throughout the D.C. area. The festival continues through March 6. The full schedule can be found at wjff.org/2016.
A sidebar called “Rated LGBTQ” showcases nine extraordinary narrative and documentary movies that “provide a forum for diverse perspectives within the queer spectrum including (LGBT) and intersex stories.”
Festival Director Ilya Tovbis says that the “Rated LGBTQ” sidebar emerged spontaneously from this year’s screening process. He and a small army of volunteers looked at more than 1,300 films. Their first criteria is films that deal with Jewish or Israeli identity. After that, Tovbis says, “we look for quality, originality and diversity of voice. Once we get through all of that, every year we end up with certain trend lines.”
This year, one of those trend lines was films that explore the breadth of the queer experience.
“We didn’t say, ‘Let’s look at gay voices in cinema,’” Tovbis says “It was really the other way around. We saw we had a number of films on this topic, so the sidebar came together rather organically.”
He says it’s hard to pick favorites.
“I love them all,” he says. “By the time we get to the final selection, I’m in love with all of them.”
Among the selections are the North American premiere of “Marzipan Flowers,” a new Israeli film by director Adam Kalderon. The film centers on Hadas, a middle-aged widow who forges a connection with her new roommate Petel, a transgender woman with a mysterious past.
“It’s an incredible film, not just for the transgender content which is wise and smart and funny, but it’s also a tremendous example of independent Israeli cinema,” Tovbis says. “It was shot on a shoestring budget and uses green screen in a really clever way. The screenplay is crackling with energy that is both recognizable and something you haven’t really seen before.”
The sidebar also includes “Compared To What? The Improbable Life of Barney Frank,” a documentary directed by the husband-and-wife team of Sheila Canavan and Michael Chandler.
“The film reveals a Barney Frank you only thought you knew,” Canavan says. “It is an intimate and entertaining look behind-the-scenes at the public and private life of one of America’s greatest legislators. The film follows Frank from the halls of Congress to the streets of Boston and to the side of his loving partner Jim Ready as they take their vows and he becomes the first member of Congress to enter into a same-sex marriage.”
While making the film was exhausting (Frank typically worked seven days a week from 8 a.m.-11 p.m. most nights and Canavan and Chandler followed him everywhere), the filmmakers were unexpectedly energized by what they found.
“While everyone was asking why Barney was leaving, we wanted to know why he’d stayed,” she says. “We assumed that we would find a discouraged, even cynical, politician. Instead we discovered a fully engaged optimist who still saw as his role as fighting for those who could not fight for themselves.”
“Compared To What?” will be screened twice during the festival. After both screenings, there will be a question-and-answer session with the filmmakers, along with Congressman Frank and his husband, Jim Ready.
“Rated LGBTQ” also includes the lesbian romantic comedy “Portrait of a Serial Monogamist.” Christina Zeidler, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with John Mitchell, says the movie “is a romantic comedy centered on the charming Elsie, the perfect girlfriend who also happens to be a serial monogamist with a long history of broken hearts. When Elsie breaks up with her girlfriend of five years to pursue another woman, she faces her Jewish mother’s disapproval, conflicting advice from friends, and the nagging suspicion that she may have made a big mistake.”
When creating the film, Zeidler and Mitchell wanted to offer a fresh spin on the traditional rom-com formula. The idea for the film was spawned when the two were having beers after one of her hockey games.
“We started talking about the movies that we love, specifically romantic comedies, and how the protagonist is often an emotionally immature guy, who is kind of a jerk, but charming enough that you like him anyway,” Zeidler says.
Zeidler thought it would be refreshing to see a woman in that role and Mitchell jumped on board.
“I was drawn to the idea of doing something totally original,” Michell says. “I thought it was a great starting point.”
Some of the other films in the “Rated LGBTQ” series include the iconic “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” the historic 1971 John Schlesinger movie about a bisexual love triangle; “Third Person” and “The Good Son,” two moving Israeli documentaries about intersex and transgender issues; and, “Yona” and “Feelings Are Facts,” documentaries about two lesbian artists, the Hebrew poet Yona Wallach and the legendary dancer Yvonne Rainer.
The sidebar will also include a special collaboration with Story District (formerly known as Speakeasy DC). On Saturday Feb. 27, the two groups will present “God Loves You? True Stories about Faith and Sexuality,” an evening of true stories about belief and identity that will be performed live. Complete details at wjff.org/rated-lgbtq.
Other festival highlights include “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” the directorial and screenwriting debut of Natalie Portman (who will introduce her film), a screening of the classic Barry Levinson film “Avalon” to accompany the presentation of the festival’s Visionary Award to actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, the sixth annual community education day about Arab Citizens of Israel, the world premiere of “Black Jews: The Roots of the Olive Tree,” and “Demon,” a chilling contemporary retelling of the Dybbuk legend.
“None of the films can be boxed in to say it’s only a film for or about Jews,” he says. “It’s about many things. In the case of the sidebar, it’s about being gay and it’s about being Jewish.”
The ‘Spoiler’ is you’re going to cry
Love is worth it even when you know it’s going to end badly
It’s been a refreshing year for LGBTQ love stories on the screen. From “Fire Island” to “Bros,” from “Crush” to “Anything’s Possible,” we’ve seen narratives that offer up hopeful and positive alternatives to the gloomy outcomes presented by movies of the past. Instead of stories that reinforce the tired trope of doomed queer romance, we’re finally seeing ourselves get the same chance at a happily-ever-after ending as everybody else.
It’s been a welcome change – but just when Hollywood finally seems to have finally figured out that all our relationships don’t have to end in tragedy, “Spoiler Alert” has come along to remind us that sometimes they still do.
Based on the best-selling memoir by Michael Ausiello (“Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies”) and directed by Michael Showalter from a screenplay by David Marshall Grant and gay blogger/author/pundit Dan Savage, it’s the true story of a couple (Ausiello and his eventual husband, photographer Kit Cowan) who find love and build a relationship over the course of more than a decade only to face the heartbreak of Kit’s diagnosis of – and his (SPOILER ALERT, hence the title) premature passing from – a rare form of terminal cancer. Though It’s not exactly a rom-com, it does try to keep things light-hearted, and it aims for the uplift despite its foregone tragic conclusion.
That’s a tough tightrope to walk. The book, penned by veteran television and entertainment journalist Ausiello, pulled it off successfully, becoming a bestseller – and not just among queer readers – with its warts-and-all celebration of what it truly means to commit to love. After all, we may adore our fairy tale fantasies, but we all know that even a couple’s best-case scenario is guaranteed a sad ending; Ausiello’s first-person written narrative managed to get the point across that it’s all worth it, anyway.
Sometimes, though, a literary device that works on the page doesn’t translate easily to the screen, and on film, Ausiello’s “we-already-know-the-outcome” approach faces a more resistant challenge.
In the first act of the film, which details the meeting and early romance of its two lead characters (Jim Parsons and Ben Aldridge as Michael and Kit, respectively), our knowledge of the ending becomes an obstacle. This may be particularly true for more jaded viewers, who are apt to be keenly aware of the emotional payoffs being set up in advance. Heartwarming moments can easily come off as deliberate, even manufactured, and one might sense an obvious bid to force our identification with the characters in the movie’s deployment of all the standard “new gay relationship” tropes. In reading, it’s easy to personalize such universal moments through our own imaginations, which can fill in the spaces (and the faces) in a way that rings true for us. On film (this film, at least), such communally identifiable experiences run the risk of feeling manipulative: a little too perfect, a little too pat, a little too “meet-cute,“ and a little too… well, precious.
The dissonance between formulaic fantasy and genuine lived experience is sometimes made even more obtrusive by occasional flashbacks to Michael’s childhood, framed as excerpts from an imagined ‘90s sitcom, which distance us further from the story – a stylistic ploy that seems intended to keep the tone of the narrative as far from tragic as possible.
When it’s time to get real, however, Showalter’s film lands on more solid ground. Once the blissful “happy-ever-after” couple-hood of the two men is established, the movie takes us into deeper, more mature – and therefore, less predictable – territory. Things don’t end up being perfect in Michael and Kit’s ostensible lover’s paradise: jealousies, self-esteem issues, and the inevitable individual growth that sometimes drives wedges between us in our relationships take their toll. As any successful long-term couple – queer or otherwise – is bound to discover, relationships take a lot of work, and seeing the two protagonists confront that seldom-told part of the story goes a long way toward making their experience more relatable for those who are looking for more than mere aspirational fantasy.
So, too, does the acting from the two leads. Parsons, who struggles against the obvious artificiality of playing against being two-decades-too-old in the film’s earlier scenes, blossoms once the story moves ahead in time to deliver an emotionally brave and affectingly authentic portrait of a man overcoming the baggage of his awkward and socially isolated youth (there’s a Smurf addiction involved, need we say more?) and finding the resilience to weather a battle for his lover’s life. Aldridge, a Brit flawlessly playing American, is perhaps even better – not that it needs to be a competition – as Kit, whose easy-going self-esteem masks a world of unresolved insecurities and makes an almost-too-good-to-be-true character endearingly real; perhaps more importantly, the emotional journey he’s tasked with portraying requires an absolute dedication to unornamented truth, and he delivers it impeccably.
It helps that the two actors, who carry most of the movie’s running time, have a convincingly natural chemistry together that gradually persuades us to invest in these characters even if we had resisted becoming invested in them before. Bolstering the emotional solidity even further is the presence of seasoned pros Sally Field and Bill Irwin as Kit’s parents, who deepen this not-as-clueless-as-they-seem pair beyond the familiar stereotype they represent and raise them above the easy sentimentality they might otherwise have carried into the story’s already-poignant mix.
These considerable advantages are enough to help us forgive the movie’s contrived expository beginnings, though its ongoing sitcom conceit for childhood flashbacks – as well as its occasional fourth-wall-breaking interruptions from Michael’s TV obsessed imagination – continue to feel a little gimmicky, especially after the plot has passed the point where such amusements are welcome or even necessary.
Still, the movie’s fortunate choice to play against its tearjerker underpinnings – such as when it undercuts a particularly histrionic scene of hospital drama by calling itself out on its own shameless nod (which any gay movie buff will surely already recognize) to an iconic moment from a cinema classic – keeps the tears which finally come from feeling as though they’ve been shamelessly manipulated out of us. It’s this quality that marks the best entries in the tearjerker genre; the thing that movies like “Terms of Endearment” and “Steel Magnolia” have in common (besides Shirley MacLaine) is their ability to lean fully into the artifice of their own weepy, sentimental style without sacrificing the sincerity of their emotional payoffs. Films like these don’t play their big moments for drama, or even for laughs, to keep us involved – they play those moments for truth. “Spoiler Alert” clearly aspires to the same standard.
It mostly succeeds, after an awkward start; though some viewers might find its quirkier narrative conceits to be an overcompensation for its weepy ending, its characters are real enough to get past all that and win us over. And though it’s hard to deny that it’s ultimately another tragic gay love story, it manages to remind us that love is worth it even when you know it’s going to end badly.
After all, just because a romance is doomed doesn’t mean it has to be a downer.
A queer screen roundup for the holidays
Hotly anticipated films like ‘The Whale’ and a Whitney biopic are just around the corner
Thanksgiving is less than a week away, and we all know what that means.
No, we’re not talking about digging out all those saved recipes for using leftover turkey. We mean, of course, that it’s time for the Blade’s annual Holiday Entertainment Preview, when we round up all the new LGBTQ viewing options coming our way during the upcoming season. No, they’re not all themed for the holidays (because, let’s face it, sometimes everybody needs a little escape from all that seasonal cheer), but they’re all definitely worth spending a couple of hours’ worth of your time in between shopping, planning, partying, and going to the gym to work off all those giant meals and decadent sweets.
“She Said” (in theaters Nov. 18)
Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan star as New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in this true-life drama about the investigation that led to the bombshell 2017 report exposing Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long history of sexual misconduct against women. There’s no direct LGBTQ connection here, per se, but the #MeToo movement inspired by the revelations is cause enough for us to include it on our list, simply in the name of solidarity. The fact that it’s female-written and female-directed (by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Maria Schrader, respectively) bodes well for the messaging in this one, which also stars Patricia Clarkson, Andre Braugher, Jennifer Ehle, and Samantha Morton.
“Wednesday” (Netflix, Nov. 23)
Again, there’s no direct LGBTQ connection within the content here (at least as far as we know, yet), but surely none is needed to explain why this new supernatural comedy/mystery series from Executive Producer Tim Burton and creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar – detailing the crime-solving adventures of now-teenaged Wednesday Addams as she navigates her high school years at Nevermore Academy – has our recommendation. The goth daughter of Gomez and Morticia has long been a queer fan favorite, after all, and there are plenty of other reasons to look forward to this new iteration of “The Addams Family” and its “creepy and kooky” world. Starring Jenna Ortega in the title role, with Gwendoline Christie, Riki Lindhome, and Jamie McShane – and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Luis Guzman, and Fred Armisen making guest appearances as Morticia, Gomez, and Uncle Fester, respectively.
“The Holiday Sitter” (Hallmark, Dec. 11)
This one not only has LGBTQ appeal, it’s an actual holiday movie. From the notorious-but-beloved Christmas universe of the Hallmark Channel comes the network’s first holiday rom-com about two men (a queer couple was featured in 2020’s “The Christmas House,” but it wasn’t about them falling in love) starring out “Mean Girls” star Jonathan Bennett as a workaholic bachelor who finds himself overwhelmed while babysitting for his out-of-town sister and her husband and recruits a handsome neighbor to help him. We’re sure you’ll know where things will go from there, but it should be a cozy seasonal watch, anyway. Also starring George Krissa and Chelsea Hobbs.
“Spoiler Alert” (in theaters, limited Dec. 2 / wide Dec. 9)
December’s awards season push kicks off with this adaptation of Michael Ausiello’s bestselling memoir, in which a young gay couple meet, fall in love, and build a life together for over a decade – only to be faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis for one of them. We know it doesn’t sound like holiday cheer, but it takes as light an approach with the subject matter as possible; that doesn’t mean you won’t cry, of course, but this Michael Showalter-directed tearjerker is hoping you’ll get the point that love is worth it even when you know there’s going to be a sad ending – and you can’t ask for a more appropriate seasonal message than that. Starring Jim Parsons, Ben Aldridge, Sally Field, and Bill Irwin.
“Framing Agnes” (in theaters, limited Dec. 2/Dec. 9)
Not quite a documentary, not quite a fictional narrative, this innovative cinematic exercise from director Chase Joynt takes the story of Agnes – a pioneering transgender woman whose participation in an infamous UCLA gender health study in the 1960s allowed her to gain access to gender-affirming healthcare – and blends it with other stories from long-shelved case files to “widen the frame through which trans history is viewed.” Promising “vividly rendered” re-enactments of vintage trans history, collaboratively created by an all-star cast of trans performers, artists, and thinkers, this one is only getting a limited theatrical release, for now – but even if it doesn’t screen near you, keep your eyes open, because it looks like it’s worth waiting for. Angelica Ross, Jen Richards, and Zackary Drucker are among the featured stars.
“The Whale” (in theaters, Dec. 9)
Another award contender surfaces with this buzzy new drama from the ever-intense Darren Aronofsky, adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own play and featuring the long-anticipated return of former Hollywood hunk Brendan Fraser – who stars as an obese middle-aged man trying to reconcile with his estranged daughter after abandoning her and her mother to be with another man. It’s won awards already, at Venice and other film festivals, and if the advance praise we’ve been hearing – both for the film and for Fraser’s comeback performance – is to be believed, it’s probably going to get several more. But that’s not why we recommend it; we just know you love Brendan Fraser as much as we do. Also starring Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, and Samantha Morton.
“Babylon” (in theaters, Dec. 23)
“La La Land” filmmaker Damien Chazelle returns with this original period epic set in 1920s Los Angeles, and he doesn’t skimp on the star power. With Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Diego Calva leading an ensemble cast, this lavish look at early Hollywood traces the rise and fall of several intertwined characters to spin a tale of “outsized ambition during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity.” We’re told there’s a queer storyline involved, though there are no details yet – but regardless of that, we’re in based on that description alone. Also starring Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, P.J. Byrne, Lukas Haas, Olivia Hamilton, Tobey Maguire, Max Minghella, Rory Scovel, Katherine Waterston, Flea, Jeff Garlin, Eric Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Samara Weaving, and Olivia Wilde, this is bound to be another awards favorite, and probably a whole lot of opulent fun, too.
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (in theaters, Dec. 23)
Finally, this eagerly awaited biopic of Whitney Houston – directed by Kasi Lemmons and written by Oscar nominee Anthony McCarten – shows up just in time for Christmas to deliver “a no-holds-barred portrait” of the iconic pop star, following her life and career from New Jersey choir girl to one of the best-selling and most awarded recording artists of all time. Starring BAFTA winner Naomi Ackie as Houston, it promises to take us on “an inspirational, poignant – and so emotional – journey” through the late singer’s “trailblazing life and career,” with “show-stopping performances and a soundtrack of the her most beloved hits as you’ve never heard them before.” That’s a lot of hyperbole, but frankly, we’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t get real about Houston’s long-obscured sexuality. Even so, it gets our tentative recommendation on the basis of diva interest alone.
‘Far From Heaven’ still packs a punch 20 years later
Queer classic a merciless deconstruction of American identity
One of the joys of great movies – as any real cinema buff can surely attest – is the ability to revisit them through a new set of eyes. Though the images they show us are frozen, unchanging from the day they were first captured, you the viewer and the world you live in are different each time you watch them.
This shift in perspective becomes even more apparent when the movie in question is one you haven’t seen in many years. There’s a risk involved, of course: re-watching a favorite, you may find it doesn’t live up to your fond memories. On the other hand, you could discover previously unappreciated layers that make you love it even more than you did before. Either way, you’re likely to experience the movie as if it were completely new.
Sometimes, though, the power of a movie over time can be deepened by just how much watching it feels the same – and that’s why queer filmmaker Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven,” which turns 20 years old this month, speaks even louder to us now than it did in 2002.
Even then, of course, it was a look back at a faraway past. Set in the upper-middle-class world of Hartford, Connecticut, in the late 1950s, it transported us into a seminal period of our history and forced us to take stock of just how much things have changed – and just how much they haven’t – in our own time.
Borrowing more than a page from the glossy Technicolor melodramas of the era in which it takes place – in particular, the work of Douglas Sirk, a German immigrant whose outsider’s eye tinged the soapy escapist films he directed with a subtle undercurrent of social criticism that would only come to be appreciated by a later generation – “Far From Heaven” is both a painstaking homage to a classic genre and a merciless deconstruction of American identity.
Awash in rich fall colors and adorned down to the smallest detail with pristine replication of the period’s iconic clothing, architecture, décor, and automobiles, its aesthetic – breathtakingly beautiful from start to finish – was accomplished by team effort. Haynes wrote a screenplay ripe with the familiar over-the-top style of the vintage films he wanted to recreate and directed with an eye toward emulating the visual conventions – framing, camera angles, editing choices – with which they were composed, even to the point of using old-fashioned rear projection process shots for driving scenes; cinematographer Edward Lachman captured it all on film utilizing the same lens filters and lighting techniques used by his 1950s forebears; Elmer Bernstein, who composed the music for many of the same classics that inspired the film, envelops the narrative in the lush romantic strains of his final major score, adding an even more tangible layer of authenticity to the package; and an impeccable cast of gifted screen actors, led by Julianne Moore in a performance that won her the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival (and should have won her an Oscar, according to many awards-show pundits who consider her loss to Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball” one of the Academy’s most egregious snubs), play out the drama with all the skill required to honor the movie’s mise-en-scène while still making each moment feel palpably real.
Yet as impressive as the film is as a technical achievement in style, it’s not defined by that measure alone. Rather, the style functions entirely in service of a larger goal, in which the myth of “the good old days” is lavishly rendered onscreen only to be torn down by a narrative that asserts all the reasons why they weren’t so good after all.
First and foremost, our identification is imprinted upon Moore’s character, Cathy Whitaker, a housewife living within a picture-perfect existence as an ideal and dutiful homemaker. Her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), is a higher-echelon executive at a television manufacturing company – the 1950s equivalent, perhaps, of a tech bro – whose paycheck she spends in the daily running of the household she shares with him and their two young children, a job made considerably easier by the presence of hard-working housekeeper Sybil (Viola Davis); her personal time is filled with the obligatory demands of her class position – organizing fundraisers, car-pooling kids to school and extra-curricular activities, and planning parties designed as much to show off her family’s position of status and privilege as for anything else. Her idyllic existence, however, is about to be disrupted.
Frank, as she discovers in the most awkward way imaginable, turns out to have long-repressed homosexual desires, upon which he has begun acting by delving into the hidden underground world of closeted 1957 queer life and which have put an even greater emotional distance into their already-perfunctory marriage. At the same time, she begins a friendship with her Black gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), a widowed father raising a daughter on his own while operating a successful landscaping business that serves the prosperous white community. Naïve but good-hearted, she clings to the hope that psychological conversion can “cure” her wayward husband, while denying her own feelings toward Raymond and remaining willfully dismissive of the “Karen-ish” outrage and salacious gossip that infects her social circle – even her closest friend (Patricia Clarkson), whose loyalty ends up extending only as far as her own prejudices will allow – about the nature of her relationship with him. Even in a real 1950s melodrama, she would be in for a hard lesson.
That lesson might be entirely predictable from our contemporary point-of-view – most of us have long acknowledged the homophobia and racism hiding behind the cheery domestic bliss of the Eisenhower years, and the punitive stigma levied against anyone who dared defy that social order is sadly still an oft-told tale. It’s easy for us to foresee how wrong things will go for Cathy as she persists in going against the grain to follow the yearnings of her heart – but what makes her story resonate with modern audiences has nothing to do with any expectation of a happy ending.
Instead, the power of “Far From Heaven” lies in the uncomfortable realization that sexuality and race are still, decades later, a great divider within the American social order, and the melancholy chill which comes from watching Cathy (and Frank, too, for that matter) fall inevitably from grace into ostracized “other” status. Haynes – who rose to prominence as one of the architects of the “new queer cinema” of the ‘90s by exploring the traumatic memories of Boomer childhood in films that questioned then-dominant assumptions of established norms and illuminated the crushing isolation of being someone you’re not “supposed” to be – crafts his film with a heightened reality that feels more like a sedative-induced hallucination than a tranquil dream; in paying tribute to the Hollywood tearjerkers that influenced his youth, he re-imagines them through the lens of hindsight, revealing the “American Dream” that reinforced our preconceived assumptions about the “natural order” of things to be nothing more than a cruel and manipulative lie. That message was clear two decades ago; now, it rings truer than ever.
In 2002, it was a quietly devastating assertion that only the privileged few had reason to look back fondly on mid-20th-century life in our country. In 2022, in the wake of a disastrous conservative push to “make America great again” by regressing to the strictures of a long-tarnished fantasy, it’s a chilling reminder of just how much we have to lose.
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