Sunday, March 4, 2012

QWFF Day 3: A gay-all time

The Queens World Film Festival is a four-day event which showcases films from around the world at venues within the New York City borough of Queens. Throughout this weekend, I'll write about select films from the show, as well as highlights from the presentation. For more information about the festival, visit the website.

The Roosevelt Avenue/Broadway bus and subway hub in Jackson Heights is all renovated and modern now, but I can't help but see it the way I remember it, when it was a little less sleek. Five trains pass through this junction, including the ever-popular 7 train, plus it's a major bus terminal. The underground section used to have a few small, scuzzy looking shops, including the video arcade I've written about before (and still miss!). As a kid, 12, 13, 14 years old, I suppose I should've been more cautious about this part of the station than I was, but that never occurred to me. This wasn't during the really bad old days of the 70s, but the poorly-lighted passageway, combined with the questionable characters that tended to hang around, made for an unhealthy atmosphere, one not too far removed from most well-travelled stations in the five boroughs back then.

Now the hub is better lit, the shops have been replaced with an expanded stairway, an elevator, an escalator (which keeps breaking down!), a streamlined passageway for the buses, countdown clocks to tell you when the trains will arrive, and a renovated outdoor facade. Cops patrol the platforms regularly. As a vital connection to important Queens locations like Citi Field, the National Tennis Center, Flushing Meadow Park, and LaGuardia Airport, these upgrades were absolutely necessary, yet even after all this time, the changes still seem strange and... "wrong" to me. In my mind, it's still 1987 and I can still play Jungle King in the arcade before getting on the 33 bus to go home.

'The Woods'

The third day of QWFF began for me with lunch at a Spanish grilled chicken place on 37th Avenue, where the fellow behind the counter saw my QWFF badge and talked to me about the show for a bit. Even he was aware that the show had made a big leap in size from last year. Then it was on to the Jackson for a film that played at Sundance earlier this year, The Woods.

This is one tough movie to pin down. One part Lord of the Flies, one part Apocalypse Now, with a large dose of social satire and a hint of the spirit of the Occupy Wall Street movement (though this precedes that), it's a twisted, funhouse-mirror play off of Henry David Thoreau's Walden - "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately... to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life" - for the Facebook generation. To sum up: a bunch of twenty-somethings live in the woods, spurred on by a charismatic leader who convinces them they're out to establish a new community free of society's rules, yet they bring all the accoutrements of their old lives with them - laptops, cellphones, microwaves, motorcycles - as well as their old attitudes.

'The Woods' director Matthew Lessner

It's remarkably subversive. The characters come across like 60s hippies, but they're not out to change the world, simply escape from it, but they're bogged down by not just modern conveniences, but modern luxuries as well (Mountain Dew? Wiis? Freakin' jet skis?!), even as Daniel, their nominal leader, continues to spout political rhetoric that has less and less relevance to the lives they're actually living. I've never seen a story as audacious and ambitious as this.

The Woods is also relevant as having been funded through Kickstarter, the quickly-growing site than enables artists to raise moneys for their projects. I know only the basics about it, but it appears to have become a remarkably effective marketing and promotional tool.

P.S. 69 auditorium

Then it was back to P.S. 69 for two more films: Letter to Julia, another Spanish-language short, about a wife whose husband may be losing his marbles, but she doesn't think so (it was no Take Shelter), and an Italian feature-length film, The Duck Hunter, about life amongst a group of pals in a small village during World War 2. This one struck me as the kind of film that the Weinstein-era Miramax used to specialize in: sentimental European films with a mix of low comedy and high drama, featuring colorful characters and a life lesson or two (think Il Postino, Chocolat, Life is Beautiful, The Full Monty, etc.) This was a little more on the serious side, but I could see it finding a niche in the art house circuit.

Finally, I returned to the Jackson that evening for the LGBT block, one I was eagerly anticipating, and there was a large crowd for that one. I can't recall the last time I've seen the Jackson this busy. Regrettably, it was also the most talkative audience I've encountered at the fest so far; I had to shush someone a few rows behind me at one point and there was a chronic case of the giggles in what should have been dramatic moments in a few movies. Plus, the Jackson was still playing their regular lineup of films across the hall, and Ghost Rider 2 (ugh) was blaring through the walls. The films were a real mixed bag, but the good ones were really good.

82nd Street, a little further down from the Jackson

Rain in Summer portrayed a bizarre love triangle between a hetero guy, a lesbian, and a bi-curious girl. Uniformadas, yet another Spanish-language short, was about two very young girls at a Catholic school. Slate was about a young gay hustler trying to break free from his pimp. The Perfect Man, also in Spanish, was about a woman who goes on an Internet date with more than a relationship on her mind. Really liked the twist ending in this one. Coffee & Pie was about a lesbian couple going through a breakup.

Anecdote featured another gay hustler and the john he meets with whom he shares a secret connection. I loved the way the ending played out once the secret was revealed: no words said, and absolutely none needed. Rites of Passage was a deeply moving doc following an Indian male-to-female pre-op transgendered person on the road to becoming a full-fledged woman. She speaks very frankly about the struggle against her family she's had to endure, and it is heartbreaking.


And then there was Queen. Once more it was the film that got the biggest applause. It's about a drag queen singer who wants to adopt a baby. She befriends the bouncer at her nightclub and tries to get his help. Star Ryan Eggold is fantastic. Not only does he bring tremendous depth and sensitivity to the role of Nikki, but he does all his own singing - and he actually sounds like a woman when he sings. He makes for a pretty good looking woman despite his broad shoulders (though I still think John Cameron Mitchell is sexier).

My favorite scene is with Jesse, the bouncer, in Nikki's apartment. As I watched it this second time, I tried to put myself in Jesse's shoes. He had just saved her from a beating from a gay-basher and she's still pretty shaken up. She doesn't want sex, she wants companionship, but Jesse's not sure of that, so he's still a bit cautious. Under these circumstances, would I find myself attracted to a gay man in drag? Don't know. Maybe. I doubt I'd do anything too different from what Jesse ends up doing. 

At the same time, though, I could totally relate to Nikki's need for someone, anyone, to be there for her in a time of high stress. The scene plays out beautifully, with just the right amount of tension, and sexual tension, as well as hope mixed with sadness, not just from that one night either. Queen is such a beautiful, heartfelt movie. I hope it finds a huge audience.

QWFF Day 1: Things to come
QWFF Day 2: What's up, doc?

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