Hollywood comes over all queer...

...and gay movies hit the big time. Paul Burston on the 11th London Gay and Lesbian Film Festival

Last year was the year that gay movies made it big. Ironically, this was all down to a remake of La Cage Aux Folles, a film that was itself something of a museum piece when first released in 1978. Still, never mind the quality, just feel the bank balance. Thanks in no small part to the presence of Robin Williams, The Birdcage raked in $120m in the US alone, making it the highest grossing gay-themed film ever, and giving major Hollywood studios an incentive to back a number of projects that focus on the lives of gay men. Among those currently in production are In and Out starring Kevin Kline and Matt Dillon, Old Friends starring Jack Nicholson, and Independence featuring Dean Cain in his first major film role. Those still in development include Nicholas Hytner's The Object of My Affection and Craig Lucas's Dreamboys.

Part of the fall-out from this mainstreaming can be measured at this year's London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, which opens at the National Film Theatre today. Now in its 11th year, the festival is a showcase for the best new lesbian and gay films and videos from all around the world. There are films about what it means to be a lesbian in New York, Berlin or a remote mining town in northern Canada. There are films about what it means to be a transsexual in Bombay, Rome or Florida. But there are very few films about what it means to be a gay man. Unless you happen to be a rent boy, or a porn star, or have Aids, or be dead.

I'm exaggerating, but only slightly. There are films by and about gay men that don't involve anyone dying of Aids, paying for sex, or having an enema before giving their all on a porn set. Among those worthy of a special mention are John Greyson's visually stunning Lilies, Duncan Roy's deliciously acidic Clancy's Kitchen and Ela Troyano's hysterically horny Latin Boys Go to Hell. But these are in the minority. Compared with last year, when romance was the order of the day, this year's festival is remarkably short on rosy glows for the boys in the back row. Last year, we had Beautiful Thing, Jeffrey and Boyfriends to swoon over. This year, we have Life and Death on the A-List, Johns and Shooting Porn.

Directed by Jay Corcoran, Life and Death charts the fast life and slow death of Tom McBride, a straight-acting male model who went from being one of the most intensely desired gay men in America to little short of a pariah as his body was ravaged by Aids.

Structured around a series of interviews with McBride, right up until the point where he was no longer capable of speech, it's a sobering film, full of insights about such topics as gay self-hatred and sexual compulsiveness. So too is Johns, John Silver's bleak tale of two hustlers on Santa Monica Boulevard, one of whom dreams of spending Christmas day at the plushest hotel in town, only to end up dead in some seedy motel. Compared with these two, Ronnie Larsen's look at the US gay porn industry, Shooting Porn, which includes an interview with top director and drag queen Chi- Chi LaRue, comes as light relief.

On the whole, this year's festival is one for the girls - whatever genital arrangement they happen to have been born with. On opening night there's Alex Sichel's baby-dyke coming-of-age movie All Over Me, which won an award for Best Lesbian and Gay Feature from the Berlin Film Festival. Then there's Tilda Swinton in Susan Streitfeld's slick and witty Female Perversions, and later as the subject of an adoring retrospective in Tilda Swinton: Celebration of an Icon. Julia Dyer's Late Bloomers is a feel- good romantic comedy about two middle-aged women who suddenly discover they have the hots for one another, while Rachel Reichman's Work is a bittersweet tale of inter-racial lesbian love. If that's not exotic enough for you, why not try Isle of Lesbos, which the programme describes as The Rocky Horror Show meets Oklahoma!, or You Don't Know Dick, which offers a more serious account of the lives of a group of people, many of whom used to identify themselves as lesbians, but who are now part of an emerging community of female-to-male transsexuals.

Transsexuals are also big news this year - a reflection of their increased visibility and role in determining the shape of lesbian and gay politics in the Nineties (witness last year's controversial decision to change the name of Britain's annual Lesbian and Gay Pride festival to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride). Sadly, most films about transsexuality still look as though they were made in the Seventies. Endless footage of male-to-female transsexuals applying make-up does nothing for anyone, particularly when the finished results aren't a patch on Raquel Welch in Myra Breckenridge. Thankfully, Rosa Von Praunheim's Transsexual Menace dispenses with the usual cliches and brings us bang up to date with a profile of the new generation of politically-active transsexuals who aren't simply interested in glamour and don't plan to get married and disappear into the suburbs, as Jean Genet once suggested.

Finally, there are two films I'd like to draw special attention to - both about gay men, both involving Aids. The first is I Shall Not Be Removed, Karen Everett's powerful documentary on the life of the US black gay film- maker Marlon Riggs. Best known for the censorship battle that surrounded his landmark film Tongues Untied, Riggs died of Aids in 1993. Everett's film weaves together interviews, archive footage and clips from Riggs's own work to create an intimate portrait of an extraordinary man.

The impact of Aids on a group of six gay Londoners is the theme of Kevin Elyot's critically-acclaimed play, My Night With Reg. Adapted for the screen by Elyot himself, with Roger Mitchell directing his original cast, the film version is every bit as successful a transition as last year's Beautiful Thing. My Night With Reg receives its premiere as part of the festival tomorrow. The only problem facing the programmers is that you can have your own night with Reg the following night on BBC2. I guess that's what they call being the victim of your own successn

To 27 March, NFT, London SE1.

Booking: 0171-928 3232

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