Frameline does more than hold an annual film festival to promote queer filmmaking. Its Completion Fund provides grants to help filmmakers make their LGBT-themed films theatrical reality. The previously reviewed “Big Joy
” was one such recipient. Another recipient is “Valencia,” an adaptation of Michelle Tea’s classic novel of young lesbian life in San Francisco.
The film version of Tea’s book consists of eighteen 5-7 minute vignettes adapting specific chapters from the novel. Its loose storyline concerns “Michelle’s” life of unsatisfying minimum wage jobs, zine-making parties, excessive drinking, and heartbreak. Tying the vignettes together is the tortuous course of Michelle’s relationship with fellow zinester Iris.
“Valencia” is an amazing hybrid of anthology film and deconstructed film adaptation. The eighteen vignettes come from twenty-one different local filmmakers, each of whom worked with their own cast and crew. Some of the filmmakers involved include Cheryl Dunye, Cary Cronenwett, and Samuael Topiary. The segments employ storytelling techniques ranging from naturalism to claymation to in-your-face provocation. But “Valencia”’s most unique element involves using actors displaying a wide variety of genders and body types to play the central character of Michelle.
These different versions of Michelle don’t count as stunt casting. Traditional fiction uses a single central character as a reader surrogate for capturing the feel of the story’s milieu. “Valencia”’s Michelles both nod to and transcend this tradition. Instead of having Michelle represent just Tea’s viewpoint, the film assembles the twenty-one directors’ interpretations of Tea’s fictional creation to deliver an aggregate impression of S.F. young lesbian life.
The variety of storytelling techniques gives “Valencia” a delightfully anarchic energy. Individual viewers will disagree on favorite segments from the film. For this writer, personal favorites include a magic mushroom trip involving claymation and Mission District murals, a recollection of a zine party, a quietly disastrous Thanksgiving dinner, and an uncomfortable trip to a strongly hostile sister’s wedding.
Questions about how much of Tea’s novel is autobiographical feels gratuitous. The wonderfully picaresque nature of Tea’s stories is entertainment enough.
What keeps Bruno Barreto’s drama “Reaching For The Moon” merely watchable? Gloria Pires’ performance as wealthy butch architect Lota de Macedo Soares certainly dominates the screen, as does Lota’s magnificent home. But the characters’ interior architecture feels created out of inferior materials. Miranda Otto particularly fails to capture the right blend of emotional vulnerability and artistic talent that would eventually claim the architect’s heart. The film’s emotional grasp eventually proves less ambitious than that of the columns Lota builds.
“C.O.G.,” Patrick Alvarez’ adaptation of a David Sedaris essay, partly refers to the worker culture its lead spectacularly fails to comprehend. Alvarez’ depressing portrait of manual labor distinguishes it from “The Simple Life.” David’s privileged background blinds him to understanding other workers’ resentment of him, fed in part by his treating this dead-end work as a lark. Even if David is mistakenly believed to be gay, LGBTs can empathize with having one’s difference being treated as cause for permanent ostracism.
“Test” is another Frameline festival film with a double entendre title. Sponsored in part by the San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation, Chris Mason Johnson’s film portrays life in 1985 San Francisco during the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
Boyish Frankie (Scott Marlowe) is an understudy in a modern dance troupe. AIDS paranoia has sparked mass fear of casually contracting the disease and open talk of punitive quarantining of AIDS sufferers. Manly fellow dancer Todd (Matthew Risch) lacks Frankie’s fears of getting infected by a sexual partner. The possibility of decisively knowing his status through a new blood test does little to assuage Frankie’s fears of dying.
Johnson’s powerful film is a portrait of rising to the challenge of living in the midst of a mysterious pandemic. The disease is rarely mentioned by name in conversation as if to name it is to leave one susceptible to contracting the illness. Yet it’s clearly on the mind of the film’s characters. Johnson allows small telling gestures such as intense study of skin blemishes or a request to wipe off excess sweat to illustrate the banality of the fear of infection.
Frankie’s anxieties are so acute that he can’t conceive of finding a way to desire men despite the disease’s existence. One could call the New Wave tunes the dancer listens to on his Walkman an attempt to temporarily escape a cultural climate where a homophobic graffiti writer sees AIDS as a good thing. His apparent lack of emotion may actually be a display of self-control.
Sidra Bell’s choreography of such dance sequences as the “After Dark” performances render in the movements of the dancers’ bodies the sexual tension that’s a subtext in the story. For those to whom dance is a set of alien hieroglyphs, the nuances of the performances may escape their understanding. Yet one doesn’t need deep knowledge to appreciate the spectacle of the dances.
There’s an irony in seeing the beautiful flexibility displayed by the dancers in rehearsals and in actual performance. The bodies toned to create such beautiful movements can also be media for harboring and spreading the lethal disease that has caused mass hysteria.
Frankie faces several tests over the course of the film. Taking the AIDS blood test is the most prominent example. Another challenge is delivering an excellent performance when he’s called in to substitute for an injured dancer. The unstated assumption that AIDS is not going away raises the question of whether the dancer can change his sexual practices so he can stay alive. Finally, Frankie’s challenged to find the courage to love another man again instead of succumbing to fear-induced celibacy. How this San Francisco artist deals with these tasks makes for a moving tale.
(“Reaching For The Moon” screens at 6:45 PM on June 28, 2013. “Test” screens at 6:00 PM on June 29, 2013. Both screenings take place at the Castro Theater (429 Castro, SF). For tickets and further information about the films, go to www.frameline.org