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My Own Private Idaho (#110 of 6)

50 Essential LGBT Films

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50 Essential LGBT Films
50 Essential LGBT Films

You’ve sported a red equal sign on Facebook, watched Nancy Pelosi show Michele Bachmann her politically correct middle finger, and read some of those other lists that have compiled lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) films, hailing usual suspects like High Art and Brokeback Mountain as gay equivalents of Vertigo (oh, don’t Citizen Kane me; we’re talking regime upheaval here). Now, as you continue to celebrate the crushing of DOMA and Prop 8 (and toss some extra confetti for Pride Month while you’re at it), peruse Slant’s own list of LGBT movies you owe it to yourself to see. Curated by co-founder and film editor Ed Gonzalez, this 50-wide roster is a singular trove of queer-themed gems and classics, spanning the past eight decades and reflecting artists as diverse as Kenneth Anger, Derek Jarman, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. You won’t find The Birdcage among our ranks, but you will find Paul Morrissey’s Trash, Ira Sach’s The Delta, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy. Consider the list a hat tip to what’s shaped up to be a banner LGBT year, particularly on screen, with lesbian romance Blue Is the Warmest Color taking top honors at Cannes, and Xavier Dolan releasing the masterful Laurence Anyways, which also made our cut. R. Kurt Osenlund

Summer of ’88: Mala Noche

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Mala Noche</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>Mala Noche</em>

What Woody Allen is to New York, Gus Van Sant is to Portland. A longtime Oregonian, Van Sant demonstrates in his films an almost preternatural synchronicity with the city’s various shades, contours, and general atmosphere. The films in the top tier of his oeuvre, such as Drugstore Cowboy (1989), My Own Private Idaho (1991), and Paranoid Park (2007), are all set in and around Portland. Even when the city doesn’t take center stage (his best film, Elephant, was shot and is set in the suburb of Tigard), its mossy, tree-laden ambience seems to pervade the action, imbuing it with an allusive, almost otherworldly quality.

It’s often said that Allen treats New York City like a character unto itself; indeed, what is Manhattan if not a literalist ode to NYC? Conversely, the Van Sant film in which Portland feels the most “alive” is his debut feature Mala Noche, a stunningly photographed 16mm drama about a gay store clerk’s infatuation with a young Mexican drifter. It’s perhaps his most Allenesque treatment of Portland, favoring a more faithful representation over the abstract, ethereal nature of later films like Paranoid Park. The rain-soaked streets, looming streetlamps, and gray skies are shrewdly rendered in the film’s stark black-and-white cinematography, and the cast is peppered with local eccentrics and non-actors playing bit parts; Don Chambers and George Conner appear, most notably.

Filmfest Munich 2012

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Filmfest Munich 2012
Filmfest Munich 2012

One of the girls in front of me asked aloud, “So, who’s that old lady with the red hair?” They didn’t know it was Ingrid Caven, one of the great German actresses, once married to Rainer Werner Fassbinder and now passing by us on her way to give a talk at this year’s Filmfest Munich. The girls had come to see James Franco, who was at the festival to present three of his “weird artsy films”—films they would watch in spite of never understanding. This is what Filmfest Munich, the eclectic, hyperactive little sister of the Berlinale, is about: Focused mainly on being an audience-pleaser, it provides no real leitmotif or focus, leaving plenty of room for personal interpretation, and sometimes wonder.

One of those controversial festival choices this year was the Cinemerit Award that was given to Melanie Griffith for her lifetime achievement. And as Isabella Rossellini rightfully mentioned in Late Bloomers, once you start receiving lifetime achievement awards, it means you’re done. We’ve heard little from Griffith in years, at least on an international level, not since her notable performance in John Waters’s Cecil B. Demented 12 years ago, so eyebrows were raised (metaphorically speaking, as Munich is also a hot spot for Botox injections) when it was announced that she would be this year’s recipient, succeeding John Malkovich. But Griffith brought some glamour to the boiling hot Bavarian city and added to the festival hype. As did the perpetually sleepy-eyed Franco, who drew quite a crowd when introducing and talking about his films. His audience mostly consisted of fangirls, but his heartthrob persona admirably drew people to films that are normally only of interest to the nerdiest of cineastes.

Summer of ‘86: Stand By Me, Take Two

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Summer of ‘86: <em>Stand By Me</em>, Take Two
Summer of ‘86: <em>Stand By Me</em>, Take Two

During the summer of 1986, my friends and I all thought Stand By Me was the greatest movie ever made, and we were sure it had been made for us, because though the characters in the film were a year or two older than we were, and though the story was set during our parents’ teenage years, we could all see ourselves in one of the four main characters. No film had ever seemed more real to me, more true, more beautiful. I was ten years old.

I know I saw Stand By Me in the theater, but I don’t remember with whom. Probably a couple of friends and at least one of our parents, because it was rated R and we were years away from being able to go to R movies on our own. How did we ever convince a parent to take us to a movie in which kids swear, smoke, and talk about sex? I have no recollection, but I expect it had something to do with the music.

The summer of ’86 for me was the summer of Stand By Me’s songs. Before seeing the movie, I scrounged up some money, or wore my parents down with whining, and got the soundtrack on LP. I remember my father’s delight with the album. He took a big cardboard box of 45 rpm records out of the closet and showed me the original singles of some of the songs on the album, singles he had bought at a record store when he was the age of Gordie and Chris and Teddy and Vern. I think I wanted the soundtrack because I had seen the music video on MTV, and I had certainly seen the trailer, which was ubiquitous on every channel. The title song was inescapable that summer, and though the brief scene with Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell lipsynching “Lollipop” is not in the trailer, I’m sure it was used in promotional materials. That song and Buddy Holly’s “Everyday,” also used prominently in the film, were two my father was especially nostalgic for.

Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche on Criterion

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Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche on Criterion
Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche on Criterion

“I wanna show him that I’m gay for him,” Walt (Tim Streeter) says early on in Mala Noche. He’s in love with a fresh-off-the-train Mexican named Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), but of course that isn’t true. In writer/director Gus Van Sant’s world, love is a sad, funny whimper, spoken for affect, as when River Phoenix huddles next to Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho, trying to express feeling in a hustler’s cold language: “I really wanna kiss you, man.” Real love is never satisfied, and sex is always painful, which is Van Sant’s tragic-poetic view of gay culture condensed into an image, from the two disillusioned youths soaping each other up in Elephant to the anxious physical encounter between two friends lost in the desert in Gerry. You can’t find love until you find home, and none of Van Sant’s characters can even find themselves.

Armond White recently wrote that Mala Noche “unabashedly romanticizes Walt’s gay attraction to Johnny.” To be sure, it’s Van Sant’s most picturesque work: Shot in stark black and white, the movie plays like a reverie to Walt’s white, privileged lust. A simmering pot of water and the dewy surfaces of Portland become wistful metaphors for Walt’s unrequited crush. His daydreaming voiceover is echoed in the textures of city life, a la Woody Allen’s Manhattan, but while, almost 30 years later, Allen’s best film still feels like a pretty paean to his own ego, Mala Noche packs intellectual honesty. Van Sant understands how Walt’s presumptuous come-ons—offering Johnny $15 for a night’s fuck—are wound up in the destructiveness of the gay underclass, and so his story moves with the cyclical motions of a bad night (mala noche) or, more appropriately, a bad dream.

On the Circuit: Paranoid Park

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On the Circuit: <em>Paranoid Park</em>
On the Circuit: <em>Paranoid Park</em>

In Paranoid Park, his fourth feature film chronicling the morbid dispositions of the youth of America, Gus Van Sant finally crawls out from under his Béla Tarr-inspired long-take detachment and dares to explore an interior landscape in ways not seen since My Own Private Idaho.

Indeed, the privacy of this film—a reflection of its insular protagonist—is what puts the shockingly violent death that haunts its sinuous narrative a league apart from those in Van Sant’s most recent work. Lacking the portentous topicality of a notorious high school massacre or a grunge celebrity’s suicide, Paranoid Park may seem less “important,” but the relative anonymity of the characters and incidents it depicts appears to have enabled Van Sant to achieve a higher degree of creative engagement. The film fully occupies the persona of a confused adolescent whose feckless shrug towards the world barely conceals the storm of activity brewing inside.