Frameline 42’s Closing Night Film “Studio 54” looks at the legendary titular 1970s
nightclub for the Beautiful People. Matt Tyrnauer’s lively documentary shows how Steve Rubell
and Ian Schrager transformed a decrepit CBS studio into a nightly racial and sexual
boundary-free paradise. Accompanied by period footage and a still sizzling disco soundtrack,
Schrager recounts the sometimes legally dubious methods used to run the nightclub. Until
someone successfully creates a VR Studio 54, Tyrnauer’s film will offer a very intriguing taste.
What will be the next black art form to be co-opted by white people? Jamal Sims’
dynamic dancing documentary “When the Beat Drops” suggests bucking might have that
Bucking originated with the Jackson State J-settes band majorette team routines at
college games. The coordinated twisting and moving of bodies resembled the movements of an
untamed horse. The incredible physical flexibility on display so impressed more than a few gay
men that they started performing the same routines in private dance clubs. Film subject
Anthony first learned of bucking after watching a performance of J-setting (the other name for
bucking) at the old Traxx nightclub,
J-setting is far more than the body movement version of lip synching. Wearing male
versions of a majorette costume during performance matters far less than seriously bringing
showmanship and discipline to the dance floor.
Ironic mockery won’t be found in a bucking competition. A shoe that falls off or a
post-performance split in a shorts’ rear serves as a kiss of death for a competitor. The judges
are actual majorettes who have little tolerance for simple mimicry. A J-setting team’s dedication
pays off as one or two competition judges admit to admiring a bucking team’s far better
Taking seriously its cinematic responsibility as the first look at bucking, Sims’ film shows
that many of those in the J-setting underground happen to be very responsible members of the
community bonded together in chosen families. The rotund Anthony leads the legendary
bucking team Phi Phi. Music teacher and non-profit CEO Napoleon keeps a schedule that
would exhaust a far less active man. Community Web radio broadcaster Flash of ATL Suave
has a butch lesbian junkie mother who regularly cycles in and out of prison.
Despite the homophobia that keeps bucking performers from being accepted by the
mainstream, the bucking teams don’t let that prejudice deter them from giving back to the
community. The Martin Luther King Jr. weekend competition Living The Dream is an occasion
to reflect on the legacy of the slain civil rights leader. Napoleon’s bucking activities don’t
compromise his dedication to teaching disadvantaged kids.
The visual heart of “When The Beat Drops” obviously lies in its bucking performances.
Seeing these dances challenges the idea that men are inherently less flexible than women. The
speed at which arms fly and bodies flip would give a Shaolin kung fu master pause. Some
unexpected leg twists will cause a viewer to gasp.
Devoting the last third of the movie to The Big Buck J-setting competition tempts viewer
eye-rolling. But Phi Phi wants revenge on the competitive dance floor against the equally
talented Sundari. Given the variety of musical and performance styles seen during the
competition’s phases, boredom will only befall those who don’t find anything entertaining in
The only plausible reason for bucking to remain culturally underground is homophobic
hostility to seeing men imitating women’s physical moves. For those men willing to experiment,
J-setting pushes hard against the perceived boundaries of male physical possibility.
The “Worldly Affairs” shorts program takes viewers from Brazil to Canada and back
again with varying results in entertainment..
“Top 10 Places To Visit In Sao Paulo” from Akira Kamiki lacks full monty moments.
Such moments are admittedly unlikely to occur when its Argentine photographer lead is neither
fluent in the local language nor in possession of a plan for touring Sao Paulo. But as Kamiki’s
short shows, the language barrier doesn’t bar a man from either appreciating a male jogger’s
trim body or developing a tenuous friendship with someone more familiar with Sao Paulo.
“Set Me As A Seal Upon Thine Heart,” the Omer Tobi short, tells of a young gay man
escorting a confused older man out of an Israeli gay sauna. One could read the film as an
Alzheimer’s sufferer reliving the fateful youthful moment when he went firmly into the closet.
However, reaching that interpretation requires enduring an unambiguously boring journey.
Toronto International Film Festival award-winning short “Pre-Drink” brings some much
needed life back to the program. Marc-Antoine Lemire tells the story of a pre-night out meeting
between transwoman Alexe and gay best friend Carl. A few glasses of wine leads the duo to
speed out of the friend zone. The film sweetly renders the slow transition from physical curiosity
to physically finding out more about a person you thought you knew well. Knowing the
motivations behind Alexe’s transition doesn’t really matter. It’s a film that entertainingly refutes
the belief that only sex between heterosexual men and women can be considered normal.
Sex also becomes a communication medium in the Travis Mathews (“Interior Leather
Bar”) closing short “Just Past Noon On a Tuesday,” Tiago hangs around ex-lover Marco’s
well-appointed apartment. Marco is dead from a drug overdose. In a fog of possible what-ifs
regarding their now lost emotional connection, the younger man is unexpectedly joined by
Marcelo, another of Marco’s former lovers. The two men are strangers to each other, Yet the
sexual encounters that result between them provides both emotional bonding and a means of
physically grieving their mutual loss. Equally importantly, through the touch of skin and smell of
body sweat, each man learns something new about Marco and his desires. For those who
wonder how gay one-night stands can help forge emotional connections, Mathews shows the
answer in great detail.
Most of the selections in this year’s edition of the Frameline wlw comedy shorts program
“Fun In Girls Shorts” may have leaned a little too heavily on familiar if solid ideas. Aside from a
mold-breaker or two, a particular short’s success depended more than anything on execution of
Kicking the cinematic festivities off is the Zoe Lubeck coming out tale “Grace And Betty.”
23-year-old Grace is finally working up the nerve to tell her wealthy conservative grandmother
Betty that she’s a lesbian. A gag-inducing Nicholas Sparks quote nearly derails the fun. But
what ultimately makes Lubeck’s story work so well is its mirrored emotional structure. While the
younger woman struggles to come out of the closet, the older woman goes to inept lengths to
hide her own lesbian relationship from Grace’s eyes. Grace’s nervous self-absorption helps
Betty temporarily pull off her attempted closet dive. But as Lubeck warmly shows, emotional
backup does wonders for easing the coming out process.
Confessing one’s true feelings goes spectacularly less smoothly in Nate Trinrud’s
affecting “Pop Rox.” Iranian-American high schooler Jesse figures tonight’s the night she’ll
finally tell best friend Roxanne that she loves her. But the baby lesbian has to improvise when
Roxanne brings along Evelyn, a new girl who happens to be prettier than Jesse. Kimia
Behpoornia’s performance as Jesse is sympathetic enough to spur two viewer wishes: that
Jesse has the opportunity to express her feelings and for Roxanne to reciprocate Jesse’s love.
Trinrud’s short eventually leaves the viewer wanting more to the story.
By contrast, Lauren Garroni’s “Dick Sisters” could not end fast enough for this viewer.
Tessa and Alli are two ex-friends who both dated the now dead Dick. The man’s untimely
demise eventually causes the two women to rebuild their friendship and take it to the next level.
Garroni fails to bring out the absurdities that would make the short work as dark comedy. Nor
does the script display any wit or the performances any cleverness that would make this story
Matching Garroni’s short for unfunny tediousness is Jana Heaton’s “Lesbehonest: I’ll Be
All Right.” The central plot of womanizing Blaire rebounding from a break-up by bringing three
different dates to the same party could have worked as a comic farce. However, Heaton’s
leaden pacing and the actors’ flat performances kills any joy in either comic set-up or payoff.
Sibling rivalry provides the starting point for Julia Bostrom’s“Children Alike.” During the
preparation for a birthday dinner for their parents, Johannes introduces his new girlfriend Wilma
to his sister Hanna. However, the two women aren’t strangers to each other. The fun starts
from knowing how competitive Johannes and Hanna are with each other. Is Hanna’s renewed
interest in her former one-night stand a second romantic chance or yet another opportunity to
one-up Johannes? This delicious ambiguity makes Bostrom’s short a fun ride to the final penis
Another possible social turnaround plays out in Sekiya Dorsett’s “Ice Cold.” Katie’s
locked herself in the bathroom on the day of her wedding to a well-off man. Can former college
roommate/lover Sam talk Katie down and even re-kindle their old relationship? The short’s
flashback structure may puzzle some viewers, but it touchingly pays off by capturing the details
of what Katie will lose by marrying the guy. However, a little of Todd the fussy wedding planner
goes a tediously long way.
The shorts program wraps up with Stacy McKenzie’s excellent music video “Dyke Bars
Never Last.” Bay Area electropop artist Sapphic Lasers’ song mourns the loss of lesbian bars
such as The Lexington Club as well as the preciousness of their existence. But she also
catchily celebrates the diversity and resilience of Bay Area lesbians, which ranges well beyond
the narrow femme look mainstream culture is comfortable with.
Equally lacking in bourgeois glamor yet bristling with life is Brazil’s Porto Alegre. This is
the setting for Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon’s Teddy Award-winning film “Hard
Emotional loner Pedro lives in Porto Alegre. Thanks to an unfortunate college fight
which ended with another student losing an eye, his employment prospects are limited to his
NeonBoy performances. The onscreen name comes from the neon paint that Pedro daubs over
his body to perform online gay erotic performances for money. Competition arises in the form of
Boy25, who’s more successfully using Pedro’s neon paint shtick. When the two competitors
meet, Pedro slowly starts facing his fears of emotional abandonment.
“Hard Paint” is divided into three sections, each referencing a person that Pedro is
emotionally attached to. These people are: his journalist sister Luiza, Leo (Boy25’s real name),
and NeonBoy. Matzembacher and Reolon show over the course of this involving drama that
only when Pedro loses all these people will he be able to find himself.
Then again, as the directors (also Porto Alegre natives) show, loss seems baked into the
town’s very fiber. Time and incoming waves of water physically eat away at its buildings. Those
who can leave do. Those who stay seem to have no choice given lack of money or opportunity.
Pedro admittedly lacks money and opportunity to leave Porto Alegre. But it feels as if
Pedro’s real reason for staying in the city (and resenting those who leave) is a continual denial
of decay’s existence. Despite the continually leaking kitchen faucet, Pedro rationalizes staying
in his crumbling apartment building by claiming the rent is cheap.
More tellingly, Pedro lacks self-awareness that his NeonBoy persona would ultimately
fail. His trim muscular body distracts the undiscerning from noticing that he lacks anything
resembling dancing talent or even imagination. Leo’s able to easily eat Pedro’s online lunch
because he does have dance training experience. Equally importantly, as shown by such
moments as neon paint running out of Leo’s mouth, the dancer also has erotic imagination to
The neon paint performances are never less than visually arresting. They possess an
erotic otherworldliness to them which comes from the artfully applied paint streaks highlighting
partial glimpses of the sexy bodies that’s their fleshly canvases.
Wonderfully complementing the beautiful images is an electrifying soundtrack. Even if
English lyrics or translations are lacking, the insistently heavy beats of many songs hypnotize
the viewer into being swept up by the music despite language differences.
“Hard Paint” is not a film for those who prefer gay film comfort food. It offers no easily
won victories or lovable heroes. At its realistic best, its small emotional changes suggest the
possibility of a new start.
Jeremiah Zagar’s adaptation of Justin Torres’ “We The Animals” takes the
coming-of-age story into new visual realms. Youngest brother Jonah belongs to a barely
scraping by working class family. The three brothers’ childhood is shadowed by their violent
tempered Pops. Simple animation dramatizes Jonah’s larger emotional interior. In particular,
the boy expresses rudimentary gay desire for a neighbor’s son. Suspense comes from hopes
that Jonah’s psyche doesn’t succumb to the behavioral brutality already being embraced by his
Alex Chu’s heart-warming and heart-breaking “For Izzy” turns out to be Frameline’s
sleeper hit. This Grand Jury Prize winner at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival is a tale
of chosen family and second chances.
Drug addiction has caused Dede’s life to implode. Her photojournalism work has dried
up. Her engagement to Chloe has ended badly. Retired investment banker Anna flies in from
Hong Kong to intervene in her addict daughter’s life. A house is rented in Los Angeles so Dede
has a chance to get clean under the eye of her divorced mother.
One of Dede and Anna’s neighbors notice the new additions to the ‘hood. Peter is a
widowed accountant. Laura is his adult autistic daughter. The father may love this daughter
who resembles his dead wife, but he’s over-protective of the young woman.
Peter and Anna slowly become romantically involved. But Laura’s fascination with
“Dede with the blue hair” and Dede’s willingness to help the autistic woman discover life outside
her father’s home leads to changes in both families’ lives.
Chu’s film shows itself unafraid to wear its emotional heart pinned to its chest. But rather
than devolve into sentimental glop, the film makes all four of its main characters into complex
characters who reside at various points along the morally flawed spectrum. This approach is
particularly refreshing since Dede, Anna, Peter, and Laura are all Chinese, and this sort of
emotional complexity is not something mainstream Hollywood usually bestows on Chinese
characters. To their credit, the four central actors make full use of the rich acting opportunities
provided by Chu’s script.
Two particular moments bring out the essential goodness of the main characters. An
evening conversation between Peter and Anna involving old Chinese songs and the challenges
of being a responsible parent will strike a sympathetic chord with parents who have self-doubt
about their parenting abilities. Dede’s change of mind in making Laura her photojournalism
assistant shows that the addict is not as self-centered as she seems and that she has the
capacity for empathy.
The film’s unusual structure of home video mixed with interviews and very simple cel
animation will keep viewers a little off-kilter. Why is the story told in this manner? The
interviews allow the characters to be candid about their feelings for the camera. But who’s
doing the interviewing and why is kept a mystery for much of the film.
The many animation sequences turn out to be the principal way in which the viewer sees
the world through Laura’s eyes. Crowds of people become swarms of geometric shapes. City
traffic transform into blurred lines. A side benefit of the animated sequences is its obviating
some location shooting and set building expenses.
It’s not until the very end that the viewer will understand the meaning of the film’s title.
But when that insight comes, a final warm smile will reward this very touching and affecting film.
(“When The Beat Drops” took the Outstanding Documentary Jury Award. “For Izzy” took the
Audience Award for Best Feature.)
Filed under: Arts & Entertainment