Selected titles screening at Reeling 31

Thu. November 7, 2013 12:00 AM
by Gregg Shapiro

"A film of the theatrical experience," Southern Baptist Sissies (Beard Collins Shore Productions) might feel like a bit of a letdown after the Sordid Lives movie and subsequent TV series. But the strength of Del Shores' writing and the performances of the talented cast go a long way in convincing the viewer to overlook the limitations of the stagey presentation.

Honoring the piece's theatrical roots, Southern Baptist Sissies is presented in two acts. In the first, amidst the fire and brimstone pews of the Calvary Baptist Church in Dallas, we meet Mark (Emerson Collins), who functions as the narrator. Fellow sissies at the church include his best friend Andrew (Matthew Scott Montgomery), his crush TJ (Luke Stratte-McClure) and Benny (Willam Belli, of RuPaul's Drag Race renown), described as "the biggest sissie of all." According to Mark, it is in this church that they "learned to hate themselves."

Across the stage, in a gay bar setting, Peanut aka Preston (the inimitable Leslie Jordan) and Annette Odette (Dale Dickey), who has had a series of unfortunate events, act as an unofficial Greek chorus, either commenting on the action or relating their own sordid tales. Peanut and Annette Odette's scenes are a potent blend of laugh out loud comedy and tear-jerking tragedy, like those involving the sissies, which is something that speaks to Shores' flair for dialogue.

Southern Baptist Sissies provides the details of the young sissies' formative years as well as glimpses of them as adults (at least those who survived). Benny, who was the most at ease with his sexuality, is now a drag performer known as Iona Traylor. TJ, however, the most devout of the bunch, became a fanatical preacher in adulthood. That doesn't erase his intimate relationship with Mark, nor Mark's feelings for him. But in the dramatic conclusion to the first act, it becomes clear that while Mark is ready to embrace who he is, TJ (who obviously has strong feelings for Mark) can't discard his faith.

The second act also incorporates both comedic and dramatic situations. Gay realization comes to Andrew who admits to masturbating to pictures of N*Sync, but he struggles with being gay. When his mother discovers Andrew's personal gay stash, things go rapidly downhill and the first tragedy occurs. Benny who embraced his identity early at bible camp, keeps in the loop with Mark through Mark's column in a gay publication. Meanwhile, TJ, who desperately tried to wash away his attraction to men, and Mark do get to have a final confrontation. And, in spite of having had a crush on Jesus and "allowing" the Baptists to fuck him up, Mark is a survivor, taking the God is love message to heart and waking up daily with hope. Strongly recommended, Southern Baptist Sissies will make you cry (Annette Odette's confession is one example) and laugh so hard that you'll cry (practically anything Peanut says). ( Reeling 31: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival screens Southern Baptist Sissies at The Logan Theatre at noon on Nov. 9.)

The doc short The Battle of amfAR (HBO Documentary Films/Telling Pictures), co-directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet), is an important addition to the AIDS docs of recent years including We Were Here, How To Survive a Plague and United In Anger. Honing in on one of the most influential and relevant organizations, it offers a personal history of the charity and its valuable contributions to the fight against AIDS.

Incorporating vintage newscast footage featuring Bryant Gumbel (reporting on the "fatal disease spreading rapidly among homosexuals"), John Chancellor (a report on how AIDS, "that fatal disease spreading rapidly among homosexuals" was beginning to effect non-homosexuals), Tom Brokaw (doing a report about researchers trying to track down the virus) and others, the doc gives the viewer historical perspective. These broadcast clips function as reminders of the fear that was rampant through all aspects of society when it came to AIDS and its incurable status. As one doctor put it, "No disease has ever been eliminated through treatment" and a cure (in the early days) "wasn't even on the radar."

Of course, when research scientist Dr. Mathilde Krim entered the picture, she would play an invaluable role in bringing awareness about the "worldwide epidemic" for which "everybody was in danger." In 1981, while doing research on viruses in New York, Dr. Krim was contacted by her friend Dr. Joseph Sonnabend regarding the gay patients in his practice with the same troubling symptoms. From that point on, her advocacy, research and wisdom would become indispensible. However, Krim wasn't alone in the lifelong war she waged to replace "stupidity with facts, real knowledge."

Unlikely partnerships included meetings with gay singer Michael Callen and sex worker turned safe sex advocate Richard Berkowitz, in which Krim said she "got an education." Krim's most successful pairing occurred when she teamed up with legendary movie star Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor, who said in a speech at the National Press Club that she was "aware of the huge, loud silence regarding AIDS" and thought to herself, "bitch, do something yourself." Taylor leveraged her fame to affect dynamic social change after her good friend Rock Hudson admitted that he had contracted the virus and subsequently died. Together with Dr. Krim, she started amfAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research). Like the activists who stepped in where the government failed, these amazing women were relentless in their cause. Taylor said, when testifying before the House, she would "not be silenced, will not be ignored." And she wasn't.

One of the things that The Battle of amfAR does well is mix scientific fact and history. Traversing a more than 30 year period, beginning in 1981, the doc offers both a historical perspective (i.e. Reagan and his administration's lack of caring and compassion, as well as the way communities organized to care for the sick and dying) with the science of the virus. It includes Taylor's 2011 passing (bordering on being a tribute to her), as well as Timothy Brown, the "Berlin patient," who has been HIV free since 2012. With 30 million dead, 34 million living with AIDS, Dr. Krim and amfAR continue their work following Taylor's 2011 death, to "find a cure, find a vaccine, bring it to a close." ( Reeling 31: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival screens The Battle of amfAR at The Logan Theatre at noon on Nov. 9.)

Before You Know It (Untitled Films/ITVS), filmmaker PJ Raval's second full-length doc (his first was the trans doc Trinidad), introduces us to Dennis, Robert and Ty, three seniors navigating the bumpy landscape of being gay and gray in America. All three men live in different parts of the country and their experiences are as unique as they are. Raval creates a patchwork quilt of their stories, interweaving their lives over the course of the doc.

Dennis, in his late 70s, lives in a Niceville, Florida trailer park with, as he puts it, "retired people and meth lab operators." In his younger days he was on the cover of a racquetball magazine and had a 28 inch waist. His closet contains not only his old air force uniform, but also his array of women's garments. A cross-dressing widower (he was married to a woman), Dennis goes by Dee in drag.

Seeking more of a community, Dennis divides his time between the LGBT Rainbow Vista senior living community in Portland, Oregon and Niceville. In Florida, Dennis is not out to his family and is afraid of being disowned, even at his age. In Orgeon, he can be more himself, taking part in a group discussion at Rainbow Village, going on a gay cruise, riding on a float in drag in the pride parade at 78.

Although he had planned to keep his house in Florida, his trailer is ruined by water damage and mold, forcing him to cuts ties there. But with his newfound community at Rainbow Village, Dennis has found himself to be valued. As he puts it, "everybody wants to be loved and appreciated" at every age.

Ty lives in New York, in Harlem to be precise. He works as an Outreach Manager at SAGE, a job that gives him purpose as assists gay men over 60 who wanted some community in Harlem. Ty and his partner Stanton are old friends who became a couple. Their relationship gets some extra attention as the passage of the New York marriage bill occurred during the making of the doc.

Ty talks about the changes that have occurred within the gay community in Harlem. The attitude towards LGBT folks, for instance, has changed for the worse. The devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on the LGBT community in the '80s also figures prominently. But there are also plenty of reasons to celebrate, including the marriage of Gary & James that Ty and Stanton attend, not to mention the celebratory mood of the first Pride parade following the passage of the marriage bill. If anything, Ty's story illustrates that being gay and grey in a big city is easier than elsewhere.

Robert, 73, in Galveston, Texas is a good example of that. AKA Robert The Mouth, the Ugliest Girl in the South (he has an opinion about everything, wrong or right), Robert owns the bar Robert's Lafitte, which has been in business for more than 40 years and regularly features popular drag shows. Robert shops at garage sales to feed his addiction to Hawaiian shirts. A pillar of the community, Robert hosts a thanksgiving potluck at his bar.

Robert's health is in decline and he has his gay nephew running the bar for the most part. Hal, Robert's partner of 35 years died of a stroke at 65 and Robert has been alone since then. Also weighing heavily on his mind is a drunk driving accident and lawsuit involving one of his patrons that could cost Robert Lafitte's. Nevertheless, Robert makes sure to celebrate Mardi Gras with his staff and patrons. The good news for Robert, who is not content to sit at home and waste away, is that he survives the lawsuit. As Robert puts it, most people don't think about getting older when they're young, but as the title says, it creeps up on you "before you know it." ( Reeling 31: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival screens Before You Know It at Block Cinema/ Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art at 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 9.)

Ira Sachs' Leave The Lights On was last year's gay drug drama and Meth Head (Film McQueen/Triangle Road) is this year's model. But where the superior Leave The Lights On took a less judgmental approach, Meth Head comes off like one of those anti-drug movies they show to school kids (but with a lot more gay sex).

Cute couple Kyle (Lucas Hass) and boyfriend Julian (Wilson Cruz) take their first bump of crystal at a meth recovery fundraiser. It's supplied to them by flirty photog Dusty (Blake Berris), who is said to be there covering the event, when in reality he's in attendance to score new customers. Heavy-handed irony, no?

It doesn't take long for insecure Kyle, struggling to make a go of a career as a designer in Los Angeles, to become a full-fledged addict. Kyle's choosing to spend more time with Dusty than with Julian (for example, Kyle goes missing for three days) causes Julian to threaten to leave him. But Kyle promises to change, to quit. After a home-based withdrawal, Kyle appears to be on the straight and narrow. He even keeps it together when he doesn't get the promotion he wanted at work, where he's employed by brother-in-law Pete (James Snyder).

However, a trip home for the holidays with sister Carolyn (Victoria Profeta) and Pete, where his homophobic politician father Hank (Scott Gordon-Peterson) lays into him, is enough to cause Kyle to relapse. Needless to say, Julian throws Kyle out of the house. The always helpful Dusty secures Kyle a room in the house he shares with girlfriend/dealer Maia, along with the other inhabitants, including the sassy Pinkie (Candis Cayne), the damaged Bobby Blue (John W. McLaughlin, the inspiration for the film) and the elderly, senile woman who owns the house.

Naturally, things go from bad to worse. Kyle and Dusty start hooking to make the cash to support their habit. There is a massive amount of drama taking place behind the closed doors of the house, including a battle between Maia and Sonny (Tom Sizemore), the son of the woman who owns the house. An intervention with Kyle doesn't have the desired effect and Dusty gets so sick he ends up in the hospital. The downward spiral depicted in Meth Head rings true. It's just that it feels unnecessarily overwrought. The gay community is well aware of the meth epidemic, it doesn't need a lecture. ( Reeling 31: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival screens Meth Head at The Logan Theatre at 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 9.)

In First Period (Falling Anvil), Cassie (Brandon Alexander III), the new girl at school (relocated to her mother's hometown), writes in her diary about the major milestone of her approaching Sweet 16, bemoaning the bad timing of it all. But Cassie is nothing if not self-assured, which is good because she's going to need every bit of personal fortitude she can muster to get through the school year.

If Cassie's middle name isn't "Inappropriate" then it should be. Confident in spite of everything, Cassie makes enough bad first impressions on her first day, with everyone from classmates to counselors, to mark her for life. Her "totally rockin' superstar extraordinaire (you're welcome!)" persona is the only thing she has to sustain her as she comes up against mean girls Heather (Lauren Rose Lewis) and the Other Heather (Karli Kaiser), and their hot but devious boyfriends Dirk (Lance Bass's fiancée Michael Turchin) and Brett (Leigh Wakeford).

With five days to become popular (before her Sweet 16), Cassie devises a plan incorporating new BFF Maggie (Dudley Beene) and the school talent show. Maggie has mad rap skills and Cassie... well, Cassie is just her "totally rockin' superstar extraordinaire" self. Of course, the execution of the plan won't be easy, with conflict arising at pool party leading to the Heathers' revenge and comeuppance. The resulting comedic circumstances that lead to the finale are as funny as they are flaky.

Writer/star Brandon Alexander III took some big risks here that actually pay off, beginning with the wordplay of the title. Cassie and Maggie, the drag characters, could have grown tiresome (and come close!), but eventually grow on the viewer (like the body hair Cassie's mother mentions to her). Incorporating references such as Heathers, John Hughes, Square Pegs, Girls Will Be Girls, and even Revenge of the Nerds, the colorful First Period keeps the laughs coming at a friendly pace. Supporting players, including Judy Tenuta (as psychic Madam Mulva), Jack Plotnick (as pervy teacher Mr. Klein), Cassandra Peterson (as Cassie's double-talking mother) and Diane Salinger (as a whacked out art teacher), each add something to the story. ( Reeling 31: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival screens First Period at The Logan Theatre at 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 9.)

It's no exaggeration to say that groundbreaking gay porn filmmaker Wakefield Poole had "many lives," as is stated in the title of the doc I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole (Gorilla Factory) by Jim Tushinski (That Man: Peter Berlin). Separated into three acts, the doc features vintage interview footage (including Poole on the David Susskind Show in 1972) and current interviews with Poole, writer Felice Picano, artist Robert W. Richards, actress Jill O'Hara, Mary Rodger Guettel, poster artist David Edward Byrd (Follies), director Joe Gage, actress Georgina Spelvin, critic John F. Karr and others.

From his humble beginnings in Florida and North Carolina to the discovery of his artistic talents in music and dance, Poole was off to a good start. Getting a taste of fame after winning a series of amateur talent radio contests, Poole's interests shifted to dance and choreography, precipitating a move to NYC and work on Broadway and television. He even found time to marry (and later divorce) actress Nancy Van Rijn.

Following a bitter Broadway-related lawsuit, two life-changing events occurred in Poole's life. He started going to the baths, leading to a relationship with Peter Schneckenburger (aka Peter Fisk) and he became mesmerized by the power of looking through the lens of a camera. On Fire Island Pines in 1971, Poole began to channel "creativity into a new way of bringing it out." It was there that he filmed the tastefully pornographic Boys In The Sand, starring Casey Donovan (aka Cal Culver), an all male film that attracted both gay and mainstream audiences.

Poole, who continued to make films with varying degrees of success throughout the seventies and eighties, added even more chapters to his life story. He relocated to San Francisco where he opened the renowned Hot Flash gallery/retail space, mingled with Harvey Milk, began a new relationship and became addicted to drugs. But, like a cat with multiple lives, Poole survived it all, re-emerging as a professional chef, cooking for the likes of Calvin Klein. Tushinski's Poole documentary is well worth diving into for its wealth of fascinating and educational details. ( Reeling 31: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival screens I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole at The Logan Theatre at 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 10.)

For the past few years, gay filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz has been making some of the most enlightening (and entertaining) documentaries to hit the screen. 2008's Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, about the late gay porn star Jack Wrangler, and 2011's Vito, about the legendary gay journalist, cinema expert (he wrote the seminal The Celluloid Closet) and AIDS activist Vito Russo, are a couple of Schwarz's most recent and well-regarded titles. His latest, I Am Divine (Automat), is about the iconic star of some of John Waters' most enduring films.

Opening in February 1988 in Baltimore at the world premiere of Hairspray, a mere month before Divine's sudden death, I Am Divine does a simply divine job of telling the drag-actor's story. What's more, Schwarz makes us laugh and cry throughout the movie, sometimes at the same time.

"Cinematic terrorist" Divine was born Harris Glenn Milstead. Interviews with his late mother Frances (she passed in 2009) are emotional and touching. Their turbulent relationship, which alternated between support and banishment, led to a lengthy period of estrangement which was eventually resolved.

In addition to Divine's mother, and John Waters, of course, Schwarz does a marvelous job of including interviews with an exhaustive array of people. Longtime friends such as Pat Moran, Sue Lowe and childhood friend Diana Evans, are augmented by interviews with Ricki Lake, Mink Stole, Tab Hunter, Michael Musto, photographer Greg Gorman, Lisa Jane Persky, Mary Vivian Pearce, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Beat, Bruce Vilanch and members of the performance troupe The Cockettes. Additionally, through a number of interviews with Divine himself (including one with Larry King and one with Regis Philbin), we get to hear his own words about his life and career.

Schwarz makes excellent use of a multitude of period footage (including Waters' films) and stills. Equally remarkable is the way that new information (to some) is delivered about Divine. Examples include the role of drugs (he was pothead who loved Quaaludes) and alcohol, Divine's early obsession with looking like Elizabeth Taylor, triumphant appearances at DC drag balls, the way Divine made fun of drag, how Divine got his name (it was given to him by Waters), the way food filled a void, how he parlayed his film career into theater and dance music and that Divine was a very sexual person. ( Reeling 31: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival screens I Am Divine at The Logan Theatre at 4:45 p.m. on Nov. 10.)

Directed by Greg Sirota, Matt Alber With Strings Attached is a short (24 minutes) film featuring out musician Matt Alber and chamber musicians The Cello Street Quartet (Matthew Linaman, Andres Vera, Adam Young, Gretchen Claasen). Introduced to each other by musician Nicholas Pavkovic, Alber and the San Francisco foursome created, learned and performed new arrangements of Matt's songs. Filmmaker Sirota captured the experience on film.

Filmed at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Matt Alber With Strings Attached features interviews with Alber, Linaman and Vera, talking about the process of working together, offering insight into the way chamber musicians work and how it differs from that of Alber's. Alber, the son of a concert pianist also speaks about the differences between recording music and playing live.

But the real heart of this doc beats in the performances of Alber's songs. Alber, whose voice is reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright's, is a talented songwriter with three full-length albums to his credit. Performing his original compositions, "End of the World" (a hit on Logo), "Old Ghosts" and "Tightrope," with a string quartet elevates them to another level entirely, revealing the sophistication and complexity of each tune. ( Reeling 31: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival screens Matt Alber With Strings Attached at The Logan Theatre at 7:15 p.m. on Nov. 12.)

Valencia (Radar), the multi-director, multi-actor adaptation of Michelle Tea's award winning queer cult novel of the same title is as frustrating as it is exhilarating, at turns daring and experimental and amateur and leaden. Like a variety show or anthology, featuring multiple acts or writers, Valencia is alternately rewarding and pretentious.

Set in San Francisco's Mission district during the pre-dotcom boom of the 1990s, Valencia has a narrator/main character named Michelle whose social/sexual escapades are the foundation of the story. Michelle's failed relationships with Willa, Iris and Cecilia is an unending source of comedy and drama. The characters, played by an assortment of actors, both male and female, struggle with issues including sex work, drugs, fidelity, alcoholism and sobriety, sexual experimentation, violence, personals and dating, family, making art and queer pride.

The most successful segments in Valencia are the ones that include innovation and experimentation without sacrificing quality and entertainment value. The shrooming section, which incorporates claymation, is a good example. Comedy is an important component and the funniest segment, involving Iris's sister's wedding and a mishap with Daisy the dog, is laugh-out-loud funny. Also very humorous is the portion where movies starring Angelina Jolie (including Hackers, Gia and Girl, Interrupted) are overdubbed with new dialogue and animation. Not surprisingly, the closing section, directed by Jill Soloway (Afternoon Delight), probably the most accomplished filmmaker of the lot, is the most successful part of the movie. ( Reeling 31: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival screens Valencia at The Logan Theatre at 9 p.m. on Nov. 12.)

Movies about poets can be a risky proposition. There's the good, as in the case of Stevie starring Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith. The fair, such as Howl, starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg. Then there's the downright dismal, which is the story with Gwynneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath in Sylvia. Reaching for the Moon (Imagen), starring Miranda Otto as lesbian poet Elizabeth Bishop is, gratefully, in the good category.

Based on a true story, Reaching for the Moon, begins in 1951 in New York, with Bishop (Otto) reading an early version of her poem "One Art" to poet and confidant Robert Lowell (Treat Williams) in Central Park. Declaring herself the "loneliest person who ever lived," Bishop decides to take a trip and travel to Brazil to visit Vassar classmate Mary (Tracy Middendorf). "A long way from Vassar," Mary lives in Brazil with her lesbian lover Lota (Glória Pires), a renowned architect. Mary doesn't speak to her parents back in the States because she lives with a woman.

What starts out as an uncomfortable three day visit, mainly due to Elizabeth's alcoholism and social awkwardness (she's described as "imperious, aloof") and Lota's abruptness (she's the one doing the describing), becomes a prolonged stay when the allergic Bishop comes into contact with nuts. Pretty soon Lota starts coming on to Elizabeth which in turn makes Mary so jealous she departs for Rio. Elizabeth feels bad but that doesn't stop her from having sex with Lota.

In an unusual turn of events, Mary returns and the three women set up house together, although it is clearly Elizabeth in whom Lota is interested. Lota constructs a stunning studio for Elizabeth and the poet is grateful and prolific. But there are complications including Lota's plan to adopt a baby for Mary. Nevertheless, while in Brazil, where she says she's never felt more at home in her life, Elizabeth completes the manuscript for North & South: A Cold Spring, a book for which she receives the Pulitzer Prize.

Brazilian director Bruno Barretto also interweaves the political upheaval of the time into the story which enriches and grounds the film. Like the country, Elizabeth and Lota's relationship takes a sudden turn for the worse. When Elizabeth accepts an offer to teach at NYU, Lota goes into a tailspin, compounded by the worsening political situation and the military coup in Brazil. Hospitalized following a breakdown, Lota writes letters to Elizabeth and even sends her a sizable lock of her hair. But Mary, still in love with Lota, never mails the letters or package.

When Elizabeth and Lota are finally reunited in New York, where Elizabeth is now involved with a woman named Margaret, the story reaches a tragic conclusion. For all the drama, Reaching for the Moon is not overwrought, but rather respectful of its subject matter. The performances, particularly those from Otto and Pires, are riveting. Reaching for the Moon isn't just one of the best movies at Reeling, it's one of the best movies of the year. ( Reeling 31: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival screens Reaching For The Moon at The Logan Theatre at 6:45 p.m. on Nov. 14.)

Reeling: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival opens Thursday, November 7 and runs through Thursday, November 14. Unless otherwise noted, tickets are $12; passes are $50 (five screenings), $80 (ten screenings), $125 (all screenings excluding special events), and $175 (all screenings and events). For more information visit