Karen Ocamb

The Wrap: Outfest History [Photos, Videos & Other Notes]

Filed By Karen Ocamb | July 29, 2012 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, Marriage Equality
Tags: Gay & Lesbian Media Coalition, gay movies, history of OutFest, HIV/AIDS, Larry Horne, Los Angeles International Gay & Lesbian Film & Video Festival, OutFest, Vito Russo

(Outfest Film Festival in Los Angeles 2012 – Photo by Karen Ocamb)

I met Larry Horne in 1989, six years after he founded the Gay and Lesbian Media Coalition, sponsor of the Los Angeles International Gay & Lesbian Film & Video Festival that eventually became Outfest. I had just started freelancing for the gay media and went to see a film at the Vista Theatre in Silver Lake. The place was packed, the air conditioning was off and the projector failed repeatedly. There were times we sat waiting in the dark, fanning ourselves, grumbling, annoyed – but truthfully, at the height of the second wave of AIDS, we were just so anxious to see positive portrayals of LGBT people that we put up with the inconvenience and the often poorly acted films.

Indeed, the gay films themselves, the very act of producing and showing them, seemed like a middle finger to the horrific, inculcated homophobia pervading society and infecting our collective unconsciousness.

(Vito Russo in the Castro for the 1981 screening of The Celluloid Closet)

Gay activist Vito Russo knew this. Through a monumental effort, he uncovered pre-1930 clips of same sex attraction, which – Russo notes in the extraordinary HBO documentary Vito that opened the Outfest film festival this year – were incorporated into films as just another part of Americana before the 1930s Hays morality code was imposed. In his popular 70s Celluloid Closet lectures, which became a book and which his friends Lily Tomlin and Rob Epstein later turned into a film, Russo opened our eyes to how crassly Hollywood depicted homosexuals and how dangerously subtle those images of LGBT people as sexual perverts, deviants, craven mad child molesters and soulless vampires hid insidiously in the back of the brain informing everyday stereotypes of gay people in society. The ending was never good: the gay person had to be punished, killed or commit suicide. But Russo also keenly pointed out how the morality code sparked a subversive coded creativity of its own – such as the ever sunshiny Doris Day singing "Secret Love" as a bow-tie and pants-wearing cowgirl in Calamity Jane.

The morality code was shredded by 1968 - but stereotypes of gays still remained, mutating as society's attitudes towards gays changed. There were some stellar efforts to reflect reality – such as the 1982 film Making Love that showed gay men - one of whom was in a straight marriage – romantically and sexually involved without having to be beaten up or die. Indeed, in a fashion, the film stands up today. The repercussions to the actors, however, might not be as severe. Here's star Harry Hamlin talking with Renee Sotile and Mary Jo Godges of Traipsing Thru Films.

In honor of the 30th year Outfest screened a number of films that played at the very first Outfest...Making Love was one of them, Outfest Executive Director Kirsten Schaffer told Renee Sotile. "There are a lot of films that deal with family and they deal with sort of the complexity of families both the families we create as LGBT people and then the families that we are born into.”

Shortly after that Vista catastrophe in 1989, the film festival moved to the Directors Guild of America on Sunset Boulevard on the border with West Hollywood. Everything seemed to change. The association with the DGA coincided with greater anger among people with AIDS and the steadily growing visibility of gay professionals, many of whom started making more direct financial contributions to LGBT non-profits and political causes - such as backing presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1991. Straight actors and producers starting showing up at Outfest screenings to see such films as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and more media covered panels on LGBT images and the role they played in conditioning societal attitudes.

In 1995, the smart and sweet-tempered Morgan Rumpf took over Out on the Screen, the name that replaced the Gay & Lesbian Media Coalition for the sponsoring organization. And John Cooper, who'd spent five years as a programmer at the Sundance Festival, brought another level of artistic professionalism as Outfest's new film programmer. “We may not be having a feast just yet,” Rumpf told the LA Times, “but we’re at the table.”

That year seemed to be the Year of the Lesbian with two stunners from Canadian director Patricia Rozema – I Heard the Mermaids Singing, which opened Outfest, and the visually stunning and magical romance When Night Is Falling. Outfest also featured Nancy Meckler’s incredible, jaw-dropping Sister My Sister, which was actually based on a true story. Additionally, Outfest screened the late filmmaker Marlon Riggs’ powerful final film Black Is... Black Ain’t - his first film since Tongues United premiered at the festival in 1989.

Also in 1995, Outfest supporter and producer Bruce Cohen, who worked for director/producer Steven Spielberg, and then-DreamWorks executive Nina Jacobson – along with other entertainment professionals such as producer Leslie Belzberg (who often worked with director John Landis) – created a monthly gay entertainment support group called "Out There" that talked politics, helped LGBT non-profits, and enabled those closeted in the entertainment community to find a safe home base.

Pretty soon, gay Outfest participants were walking hand and hand down Sunset Boulevard at the gateway to the famous Sunset Strip to find places to eat and go to other gay-related movies playing at the nearby Laemmle theater, which was capitalizing on the LGBT movie boomlet created by Outfest. You could feel attitudes change - it was in the air. Outfest expanded and stretched the safe boundaries of West Hollywood and with it, the limits of the LGBT movement: people felt validated, uplifted and free to create their own images.

In advance of Outfest's 30th anniversary this year, the LA Weekly's Chuck Wilson interviewed Larry Horne, who now lives in New York City. Horne recalled those early days:

Horne began working for the festival full-time, and for several years screenings took place at the infamous Four Star theater in Mid-Wilshire -- an on-again, off-again porn theater that rented cheap.

“Can you believe it?” Horne says happily. “A porn theater! It was perfect.”

The setting may have been appropriate for a renegade festival, but it helped draw the ire of skittish public officials. Horne and the festival received a threatening letter from an L.A. County lawyer, warning of prosecution if the festival showed “obscene material.” Horne was delighted. “My response was, ‘This is juicy. Let’s call the press! Let’s call the ACLU!’?”

Things escalated to the point where Horne appeared in front of the L.A. City Council with a petition demanding it reinstate county funding that had been pulled. “It was all pretty crazy,” he recalls, “but it was fun, too. We had always wanted to place the festival within a political and cultural context, and here they were, doing it for us.”....

Horne credits the association with the DGA, dating from 1989, as solidifying Outfest’s legitimacy. “By being there, on the border of West Hollywood, we found an audience early,” he says. “The festival had a central place to develop, to grow.”

(Outfest Executive Director Kirsten Schaffer and writer/director/actor Ash Christian – Photo by Karen Ocamb)

And grow and develop is essentially what actor/director/writer Ash Christian said happened to him. In introducing his new film Petunia to the sizable Outfest audience. Christian said winning his first award for Fat Girls at Outfest in 2006 - when he was 20 years old - served as inspiration. "[That] made me want to make my next movie," said Christian. The young director said he was wrapping up editing for his next film Mangus as he was casting Petunia.

Christian said that Petunia, which he co-wrote with actress Theresa Bennett, is loosely based on his first love "and how incredibly horrible it was." It is described as a "dark comedy" in a synopsis provided by New Films International:

BRITTANY SNOW and THORA BIRCH star in Ash Christian's must-see DARK COMEDY about a family of New Yorkers coming to terms with the chaos and misgivings of life. From pregnancy to sex addiction to overbearing parents, Petunia is a film about the unpredictability of life that is sure to have you laughing the whole way through.

Indeed, it is funny, in that "OMG! I didn't just laugh at that, did I?" way. The lead character Charlie Petunia (Tobias Segal) is scary naïve, a contemporary gay descendent of the anxiety-obsessed Woody Allen of yore. There's eye-candy, too. Already gay men (including entertainment reporter Greg Hernandez) have developed little crushes on (Frontiers cover model) Jimmy Heck, who plays sex addicted artist Adrian.

For me, Petunia was a stunning Woody Allen-esque rendering of urban self-absorption, a modern-day period piece about New York City. And yet oddly, Christian has created characters - especially the two psychotherapist parents (Christine Lahti, David Rasche) – who both cling to their well-worn narcissism while also awkwardly coming to terms with their own fumbling failings. It humorously explores that old saying "sometimes you need to have a breakdown before you can have a breakthrough."

Christian was ebullient after the show, proud and yet humbly grateful for having been given support by friends - and the remarkable crew who apparently had to endure some very difficult circumstances. And he was grateful to Outfest for showcasing his first film and for the appreciation that inspired him to continue his filmmaking career.

If there was an overriding ineffable theme for Outfest's 30th anniversary - it was that deep, authentic sense of gratitude. Yes, there were the filmmakers' hopes of winning an award, some official recognition. But buzzing through the lobby, lining up for a drink in the back party scene, or waiting for a seat in one of the DGA theatres, the feeling was much like that in the Vista Theatre so many years ago - the excitement of getting to see yourself reflected back in a mirror created by an LGBT artist.

(Wildness cinematographer Michelle Lawler and writer/director Wu Tsang – Photo by Karen Ocamb)

"I'm extremely nervous," director Wu Tsang said before her wildly-acclaimed impressionistic documentary Wildness was to be screened in the DGA's largest theatre to a standing-room only audience. "I feel like I've waited my whole life for tonight."

Wildness, a film about the Silver Platter bar in the MacArthur Park area near LA, premiered this spring at MoMA's Documentary Fortnight in New York, then did the Hot Docs, SXSW and Frameline circuit before Outfest. So what made tonight in LA so special? Perhaps because this screening was before his hometown crowd, many of whom, like JT Anderson, had been to the Silver Platter bar in the 70s.

"It was all Latino gay men at the time," Anderson told me. "They didn't pay any attention to us white guys."

Since 1963, the Silver Lake provided a safe space, a home, to LGBT immigrant Latinos, many of whom were transgender. With as much loving care as director Michael Mann takes in reflecting the neighborhoods of Los Angeles in his films, so, too, does director Wu Tsang provide an emotional and environmental context for the Silver Platter: driving streets surrounding the city’s core, looking at Latino store fronts and gatherings of families through dirty car windows as if symbolically exposing the “underbelly of LA," then parking and jumping out of the car on Ramparts Blvd, excitedly rushing to get into the bar.

The Silver Platter is an intimate, long and modest bar with Mexican décor and a curious picture of Elvis on the wall – but big enough for mini-runway shows and dancing. There is a sense of insidious violence pervading the film, lurking in the darkness outside, waiting to spring out and commit hideous hate crimes, and in the almost too casually conversation about fear, the hate they've escaped, and the murders and suicides of friends – including Paulina Ibarra. But the nondescript gray walls on the street protect the bar, blocking prying malevolent eyes from intruding on the splendor of the gay/trans Latino immigrant world within.

Into this world, Wu - playing the performance artist character Wu - and friends DJs NGUZUNGUZU & Total Freedom bring an Andy Warhol-type Tuesday night techno/performance art experience called "Wildness." The party becomes extremely popular, leading Wu and others to conceive of other ways to bring a better life to trans immigrants - including opening a legal clinic next door to help with identity-change paperwork and other public safety and economic issues.

The Silver Platter's growing popularity leads to a write up as LA Weekly's "Best Tranny Bar in LA." Wu wanted to protect the bar and sent a letter to writer Sam Slouck asking him not to write the piece because it might change the bar patrons' safety and the party's authenticity. But the Slouck published his review anyway, arrogantly using offensive terms such as "he/she" and "she-male" and "tranny" as if he was too cool to abide by rules of decency and self-identification. And indeed, outsiders did invade the party. Wu got depressed – and then got even with a “Fuck Slouck” campaign. Later the writer agreed to finally meet with Wu, if he would stop trying to ruin his career. He professed to be surprised by his own stupidity and tossed off an apology – but he had no real idea of the depth of harm he caused.

But “sooner or later, we all get caught by the tide,” says the Silver Platter bar, a co-narrator. Family infighting surfaced and the nature of the space changed after the LA Weekly notice and with the death of gay co-owner Gonzales Ramirez, during which Wu took sides. Indeed, the news of his death foreshadowed Wildness winning Best Documentary at Outfest. When Wu called for a moment of silence among the party-goers during the last Wildness party at the Silver Platter, over 600 people in the DGA theatre remained silent, too. Dead silent. Not even a whisper, as if there was an unspoken inter-connectivity, as if there was respect for all that Wu and the family and the party-goers and Silver Platter itself endured and had given voice to. Wildness was “about trying to create a movement.” Wu said, “I didn’t realize we were already a part of one.”

(Wildness family portrait – Photo courtesy Wildness)

Wu told the audience afterwards that throughout the four-year “organic” development of the non-fiction narrative, he underwent a transition himself and his own voice changed and deepened. As a counter-point, Wu the filmmaker used the imaginative device of giving the Silver Platter a voice herself to narrate the film. Trans actress Mariana Marroquin, who works at the LA Gay & Lesbian Center and whose colleague turned out to cheer for her, said that at first she didn’t like the sound of her voice. She had graduated from an artists school in Guatemala when she transitioned and the voice on the screen “was not really me.” It sounded, she said, “like someone who knows the struggle, someone who dreams, someone who wants to be protected.” And then she realized that “was beautiful. I like to hear myself now.”

Looking at how many straight people and white gay men were in the audience, I became concerned with how they might later describe their film experience. I suspected many might think the whole episode with the LA Weekly writer was about how he arrogantly refused to listen to Wu – and might have missed the truly awful language, especially since Project Runway winner Christian Siriano popularized the term “hot tranny mess.” I asked Wu how he felt about the use of the word “tranny.” He said he didn’t like it. “The ‘T’ word can be very derogatory.” But he also didn’t want to filter language in the film to “let the audience come to their own conclusion.” When trans activist Ashley Love followed up, Wu indicated he was conscious of the “T” word but would leave the definition of “LGBT” to others.

This year Wu Tsang was named one of Filmmaker magazine's top 25 new faces of independent film. After the film, I asked him if the standing ovation reception had measured up to what he'd waited his whole life to experience. "Absolutely," he said.

Accolades and career achievements in the mainstream world are wonderful signs of success. But nothing beats the first time you are loved and embraced by your own, something that Vito Russo pointed out early on and that Outfest has offered to LGBT filmmakers such as Ash Christian and Wu Tsang for 30 years now. (I’m writing about the two ACT UP films and the documentary on Bishop Gene Robinson separately.) Here are some videos with other filmmakers at Outfest, shot and produced by Renee Sotile and Mary Jo Godges. (Previously posted: interview with STUD LIFE writer/director CampbellX; interview with the director Kyle Henry, actress Danielle Rene and actor Paul Swallow of FOUR PLAY; actress Alicia Witt and writer/director/actor David W. Ross from I DO; Jason Stuart from BEAR CITY 2; VITO director Jeffrey Schwarz; and opening night interviews with John Waters and Ricki Lake.)

Alan Cumming about his film Any Day Now:

Haley Joel Osment and writer/director Coley Sohn on their new film SASSY PANTS:

“The Good Wife” actress Carrie Preston on directing THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID (with Anne Heche):

Ellen Ratner, the longest openly gay journalist at the White House, on being the subject of the documentary A FORCE OF NATURE:

Interviews with Jessica Clark, a lesbian actress, and Barbara Niven who are in director Nicole Conn’s A PERFECT ENDING that Renee and Mary Jo say is “filled with beautiful women, hot lesbian sex, and finding yourself”:

Additional photos:

(Outfest Executive Director Kirsten Schaffer and producer Leslie Belzberg with her daughter Sophie – Photo by Karen Ocamb)

(Petunia writer/director Ash Christian with star Christine Lahti – Photo by Karen Ocamb)

(Petunia star Brittany Snow – Photo by Karen Ocamb)

(Petunia write/star Thora Birch – Photo by Karen Ocamb)

(Petunia star Jimmy Heck – Photo by Karen Ocamb)

(Stud Life writer/director CampbellX – Photo by Karen Ocamb)

(Gay Republicans attorney Carol Newman, LA City Councilmember Dennis Zine deputy Brian Perry, and Box Turtle Bulletin blogger Timothy Kincaid – Photo by Karen Ocamb)

(Wu Tsang wins Outfest Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary – Photo by Mary Jo Godges)

(Alan Cumming and Issac Leyva – Any Day Now wins Best Dramatic Feature and Alan Cumming wins Best Dramatic Actor – Photo by Mary Jo Godges)

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