Film: The straight and narrow minded

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With a growing catalogue of quality films, why is gay cinema still kept in the art-house closet? By

James Mottram

While Hollywood might constitute its contribution to progressive thinking as outing Kevin Kline in In and Out, industry support for true gay cinema is proving ever harder to come by.

Not because of a lack of product, mind. In what is beginning to rival the output of the New Queer Cinema movement some six years ago, a collection of cross-continental gay films, increasingly displaying the most radical film-making currently being created, will be shown here over the spring - if you know where to look.

Forthcoming is Sean Mathias' harrowing Bent (March 6), the pre-war struggle of three homosexual men, condemned to detention camps for their sexuality in Fascist Germany. Mid-March to mid-April then sees Tsai Ming-Liang's The River, an extraordinary allegorical tale of family dysfunction in modern-day Taipei. With Les Voleurs, a heist movie with a lesbian twist, starring Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil, and Happy Together, Wong Kar-Wai's eagerly-awaited Hong Kong love-letter from two gay men resting up in Buena Aires, soon following, the scene seems strong.

Yet with most receiving only limited distribution, few outside of London will get to see these works. While the ICA recently afforded several days to Ira Sachs' remarkable first film, The Delta, depicting teen-closet activities in Mississippi, most will have been denied the opportunity to see Sachs' minimalist experiments, a style arguably induced by the leftfield subject matter.

Typical of this is situation is that of All Over Me, the debut of the gloriously named writer-director team, the Sichel Sisters, released today. Not that you'd know it unless you regularly visited the National Film Theatre (its only host in the country). More Out of the Blue than Pretty in Pink, the film is teen-angst par excellence, detailing the long hot summer as girl falls for best girlfriend via an unobtrusive drop-in style that is distinctly un-Kids with its European leanings. It gets just a week on one screen.

Admitting disappointment at not securing UK theatrical distribution, after triumphs at Sundance and glowing reviews from the likes of Variety, thirty-four year old director Alex Sichel could only put it down to sensibilities: "I assume there's a different understanding of gay subject matter in terms of commercial viability. The only reason that we're getting these big releases in the States is that investors saw that films with lesbian characters make money. If the film is cheap enough, and you can get it to its niche audience, then that whole marketing strategy allows for that possibility of a niche film, one of which is Queer subject matter."

Whereas Rose Troche's trailblazing Go Fish and Maria Maggenti's The Incredible Adventures of Two Girls In Love became moderate US box-office takers, Sichel's film did not, partly due to distributor Fine Line's approach to the film. "They saw the core audience as lesbian, and marketed the film as a lesbian movie," said Sichel. "I was always like `It's more complicated than that'. We always felt it was not just for gay women, but for any woman who had had that sort of friendship."

Robin Baker, co-programmer for the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival fortnight in March, sees the opposite problem in the UK, despite successes such as the Channel 4-supported Beautiful Thing. Having recently experienced films being pulled from the festival because UK distributors had no wish for their product to be labelled as gay, he laments the industry's short- sightedness: "I think some are scared of the subject matter. But it comes down to missing out on niche marketing. The gay audience is one of the easiest markets to find." With the festival having sold over 20,000 tickets last year, it appears Baker and Sichel have done their homework.

Yet opening with Canadian Thom Fitzgerald's first film The Hanging Garden, another examination of the fractured family through the eyes of the gay son, is a clear example of why lesbian and gay cinema has developed on and off screen the way it has. Remaining in Variety's top 40 list, even when just open in its native country, and the first English language Canadian film ever to win the People's Choice prize at the Toronto Film Festival, the picture was funded while Fitzgerald lived on his mother's Mastercard. Add this El Mariarchi tale to box-office draw Kerry Fox (she plays the bitchy sister), and enough cachet is scored for a spring-set UK release.

But the film's inherent complexities do prove that the gay movie is becoming increasingly difficult to pop-in a convenient marketing hole for distributors. Baker explained his reasoning behind choosing the film for the gala: "It doesn't deal with staple Queer cinema themes. It is much more interesting from a wider perspective. Though it's not coincidental that the character is gay and comes from this background, the film has a larger remit." As with All Over Me, a film which Sichel vehemently steers away from categorization - "it's not a genre just because there's a lesbian character in it' - gay cinema has gone beyond camping it up.

Not forming, as Baker puts it, "a given unified aesthetic", as seen with integral films to the Queer Cinema brigade such as Todd Haynes' Poison and Greg Araki's The Living End, the current crop of gay cinema is broadening horizons beyond simple AIDS dramas, or coming-out stories. No longer is the audience to be confined to small gay pockets, or content to watch marginalised Hollywood gays (a la film noir) or indeed Queer reactions against positive gay images. Rather, an integration of gay and straight concerns are being universally attempted by both gay and straight film- makers. Film-goers may still be subjected to images of a Kevin Kline clinch with Tom Selleck, for the purposes of profit and loss, but, increasingly, the gay character is not gratuitously on display.

With China and Africa's first gay films, East Palace, West Palace and Dakan respectively, both showing at the festival, it bodes well for a freeing-up of further gay material from less liberal countries. What doesn't is a lack of mouthpieces for all the voices.

As Fitzgerald told me, subsequent to the London Film Festival press screening for his film - a reaction carefully monitored by distributors: "There was only one gay journalist cackling all the way through; the rest all sat there stoically."

`All Over Me' is released today. `The Hanging Garden' opens in the spring and is the gala film for the 12th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, held from 12-26 March at the National Film Theatre.

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