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November 3, 2003

Homosexual filmmakers deal with AIDS, female musicians, and relationships

Documentaries are not for everyone. It's a rare few that garner critical acclaim, like Capturing the Friedmans, and even fewer that captivate the public's imagination, like Hoop Dreams. But I've never described a documentary to a friend before and been stopped with the incredulous question, "Are you joking?"

Such is the case with The Gift, a terrifying real-life drama about "bug chasers" and "gift givers" that is one of the featured films in Reeling 2003—the Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival. To use the film's own terms, bug chasers are those who deliberately become infected with HIV, and gift givers are those who are willing to give "the gift" of HIV. The film is a startling portrayal of a surprisingly large subculture, filled with guys who proudly display "biohazard" tattoos on their backs and throw parties for their own preplanned HIV infections.

Unfortunately, the documentary feels amateurish, and because this is a relatively new phenomenon (thank God), there's really not much in the way of footage. I have a feeling the film's inclusion in the festival owes more to the timeliness of the topic than to the actual quality of the material.

A much better documentary is Radical Harmonies, which chronicles the birth of the women's music movement. Sure, you may have heard of Ani DiFranco, but have you heard of Bernice Johnson-Reagon from Sweet Honey in the Rock? How about her daughter, Toshi Reagon? This is the touching story of women who had to fight everything to get their music heard—from the myth that beating on a drum would fry a woman's ovaries to the record executive who refused to sign an all-female band because, "You just have to pay for their abortions." The material never gets dull, and the anecdotes dug up from the archives are amazing.

The great thing about Radical Harmonies is that a complete novice on the subject could walk into the film and not feel lost. The filmmaker, Dee Mosbacher, has just the right amount of reverence for the topic and dodges any possible hints of pretension. The fictional Blind Spot, on the other hand, nearly drowns in its self-importance. James Franco (you know him, he was Spiderman's best friend) plays Danny, a prep-school boy who skips out on school for some afternoon delight and finds that his lover, Darcy (Morgan Margolis), is missing. He sets off on a road trip to find Darcy with the grating April (Shawn Montgomery) and Wayne (Mark Patrick Gleason), a walking cliché.

Their story is told almost exclusively in voice-over, which is a mistake. Then again, this does spare us from the frustratingly weak dialogue. Characters make stultifying statements like, "And this is where my life took a turn in ways I could never imagine."

In fact, the whole film suffers from an aesthetic that wants to tell us everything and show us nothing. When the characters talk about "the Darcy I knew," it means nothing to the audience, because Darcy isn't even seen until at least an hour in. Danny is obviously supposed to remain a "man of mystery," but since he is the crux of the entire journey, this lends us little insight into anyone's motivations, least of all his. The few twists at the end are pretty dopey, and the characters are supposed to have bonded through silly dialogue in which they discuss whether it's better to kiss with eyes opened or closed. Still, there are some interesting things here visually (even if they don't have much of a point outside of looking cool) and Blind Spot earns bonus points for being so ambitious, even if it does fail.

Julien Baumgartner plays another schoolboy-in-love in You'll Get Over It. The program is described as a "sweet, thoroughly enjoyable French coming-of-age tale," but I appreciated how it didn't shy away from the bigger issues in high-schooler Vincent's life, even if that did leave some storylines unresolved at the end. I have a sinking feeling, though, that some of the film may have been lost in translation, as you'll see in this exchange between Noémie (Julia Maraval) and Benjamin (Jérémie Elkaïm). Noémie, Vincent's ex-girlfriend, is upset because Benjamin has outed Vincent to the entire school. The subtitles are as follows:

Noémie: Don't play games with me. You don't know what he's going through.

Benjamin: I didn't grass him up. A few careless words. How come I get no stick?

Noémie: Nobody cares about you.

I can think of several meanings for the words "grass" and "stick" in Benjamin's line, but I haven't been able to come up with anything conclusive. It's also a little jarring when, in a tender scene between Vincent and his best friend, the best friend assures Vincent he's going to be cool with the whole gay thing because he isn't a "dork." Even the title provides some confusion: is it simply You'll Get Over It, as the festival maintains, or You'll Get Over It, You'll See, as it's translated in the opening sequence? But these kinds of mistakes are few and far between, and it would take a far more curmudgeonly person than me to pretend that they seriously hindered my enjoyment of the film.

Let's save the best, then, for last. Liz Gill's Goldfish Memory is a small masterpiece, a true charmer, and one of the best films about modern relationships I have ever seen. Red (the irresistible Keith McErlean) has a theory: ten percent of us are gay, ten percent of us are straight, and everyone else falls somewhere in between. The characters in Goldfish Memory certainly prove that theory: Angie's seeing Clara, who just got over a fling with her English professor, Tom; Red himself is dating David, but has some moments of mutual attraction with Angie; David has a girlfriend, Rosie, but isn't sure how long he'll be able to fool around with Red behind her back, and so on.

The title refers to, well, the memories of goldfish (duh), which are only three seconds long. Tom and Clara liken this to falling in love, because every time we're head over heels, we forget about the hurt, pain, and heartache of the last relationship. This sounds gimmicky, and I suppose, at first, it is: there are a few too many shots of goldfish bowls—in case we missed the point?—and one character even has a goldfish pattern on his shower curtain. But what a story! Imagine an Irish version of NBC's Coupling, except instead of purporting that sex is the meaning of life, Goldfish Memory simply treats it as a fact of life and makes sure we fall in love with the characters first. The ending is great, and Richie Buckley's score is gorgeous and suits the action perfectly. Of all the films I saw this year from Reeling, it's the real must-see, and I hope we'll be hearing from writer-director Liz Gill again soon.

You'll Get Over It plays at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema (2828 N. Clark St.) on Fri., Nov. 7 at 9:15 p.m. Radical Harmonies plays at Chicago Filmmakers (5243 N. Clark St.) on Sun., Nov. 9 at 7:15 p.m. Blind Spot: Landmark; Sun., Nov. 9; 9 p.m. Goldfish Memory: Landmark; Tues., Nov. 11; 7:45 p.m. The Gift: Landmark; Wed., Nov. 12; 6 p.m. followed by a panel discussion.