Everything gay — the recognition of gay marriage, the plethora of gay characters on television, the coming out of gay celebrities — is a sign of rapid cultural shifts. Paradoxically, top-echelon Hollywood stars who may be gay are still petrified to reveal themselves.
That is reason enough for the existence of gay cultural seeding grounds like the annual NewFest. This lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender film festival begins its 24th season today Friday, July 27, 2012, at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center and runs through Tuesday, with 14 narrative features and 4 documentaries.
In moving to Lincoln Center, the venerable but struggling NewFest has finally come in from the rain. There is no underestimating the importance of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s imprimatur as it brings the festival under its wing. It is a natural, if overdue, embrace by an organization whose commitment to diversity is evident in its longstanding celebration of world cinema from the farthest corners of the earth.
The Film Society paved the way for this official welcome last year when it presented NewFest’s opening- and closing-night selections. Rose Kuo, the Film Society’s executive director, offered the invitation after she met with NewFest’s executive director at the time, Lesli Klainberg, who has since become the Film Society’s managing director.
Another major development is NewFest’s coming merger with its more financially robust Los Angeles counterpart, Outfest, which this month celebrated its 30th anniversary. The pooling of resources, the details of which have yet to be worked out, will be especially helpful to NewFest because Outfest, located at the center of the film industry, has a higher media profile and more generous donors.
These events would never have happened if movies with gay material hadn’t infiltrated independent film culture and even Hollywood (“Brokeback Mountain”), beginning two decades ago with what was labeled New Queer Cinema. Paradoxically, New Queer’s groundbreaking auteurs Todd Haynes (“Poison”), Tom Kalin (“Swoon”) and Gregg Araki (“The Living End”) had posited L.G.B.T. cinema as a defiant, outsider platform for deconstructing gender roles and sexuality without apology or shame.
New Queer Cinema also reflected the militant spirit of Act Up, the AIDS protest organization born in 1987 whose history is told in two recent and essential documentaries: “How to Survive a Plague” and “United in Anger: A History of Act Up.”
An overriding theme in this year’s NewFest is family, Ms. Kuo said, citing three films: “Petunia,” “Young & Wild” and “My Brother the Devil.” She is right to the extent that family interaction plays a larger role in many of the films than it did in the past, when anguished stories of coming out and self-discovery were more common.
One thing that hasn’t changed about NewFest, however, is the centrality of sexuality in the work and the willingness to confront taboos without hysteria.
That is certainly the case in “Four,” the opening-night film, directed by Joshua Sanchez. This screen adaptation of Christopher Shinn’s well-regarded play, first seen in New York in 2001, observes the mating rituals of two couples on a Fourth of July evening. One pair — Dexter (E. J. Bonilla) and Abigayle (Aja Naomi King) — is relatively conventional. The secret meeting of Abigayle’s married, closeted African-American father, Joe (powerfully embodied by Wendell Pierce of “The Wire” and “Treme”), and June (Emory Cohen), a much younger white teenager he meets on the Internet, is not. The film’s unblinking, nonjudgmental focus on this illegal relationship, and its extremely articulate and pointed dialogue, put it squarely in the post-New Queer Cinema tradition.
The closing-night selection, the Chilean director Marialy Rivas’s “Young & Wild,” also focuses on a sexually rampant teenager. In the opening scene Daniela (Alicia Rodríguez), a 17-year-old Chilean girl from a Christian evangelical background, is shown discreetly masturbating while surrounded by friends.
Under the name Young and Wild, the highly sexed Daniela describes her fantasies and adventures in an explicit blog. Once exposed, she is expelled from school and forced to work for a Christian television station, where she meets other young people and develops a fraught romantic triangle with a boy and a girl. This sexy, freewheeling movie is more comedy than high drama.
Travis Mathews’s “I Want Your Love” blurs the line between narrative storytelling and pornography as thoroughly as any movie I’ve seen. The story focuses on a gay San Francisco artist in his 30s who is moving back to his Ohio hometown after a decade. At his farewell party he and his friends have casual, explicit sex, much of it filmed in close-up.
“I Want Your Love” seems a conscious effort to take back gay sex on film from the pornography industry and show comfortable, nonperformance-oriented lovemaking among men who have genuine affection for one another.
Kieran Turner’s “Jobriath A.D.” is an exceptional documentary about a pop phenomenon that never happened. In the mid-1970s Jobriath, a k a Bruce Campbell, was hyped in a relentless marketing campaign as the next step in pop androgyny, beyond David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. He and his Svengali, the promoter Jerry Brandt, imagined themselves to be a team akin to Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker. But the extreme hype backfired; his two albums didn’t sell. Audiences turned on Jobriath, and in two years his recording career was finished.
This plaintive portrait of an entertainer who more than once changed his appearance and his name (as a cabaret performer, he called himself Cole Berlin) reveals a lost soul with prodigious talent as a pianist and composer who just missed grabbing the golden ring.
Jobriath, who died of AIDS in 1983, embodied a concept that goes to the heart of contemporary L.G.B.T. culture: the still radical notion of sexuality and gender identity as constructs that are more malleable than is commonly thought. Fluidity is the thing. The festival’s films with transgender themes — “I Am a Woman Now” and “Born Naked” — signal further shifts as familiar roles are increasingly relaxed.
For Ms. Klainberg, NewFest and Outfest (for which she also worked) are as vital as ever. “The film industry is so constrained and in some ways very conservative,” she said. “That’s why I believe the film festival is still the place to create community.”
She has a point. Until people of every sexual persuasion can find true reflections of themselves in Hollywood movies, the organized push for inclusion will continue.
More information on NewFest, which runs through Tuesday, is at filmlinc.com.