For the last 21 years, Outfest has been doing its part in the culture wars, exhibiting a huge pageant of films primarily aimed at a gay and lesbian audience but also relevant to the larger society. This year's event arrives Thursday at what organizers and participants consider a particularly gratifying moment in gay history.
"We have a lot to celebrate this year," said Outfest honoree Jane Anderson. "After the Supreme Court's decision abolishing sodomy laws, it's a fascinating time to be seeing and discussing gay films."
"You can't help wondering how much of an effect the media had on that Supreme Court decision," said the writer-director of the HBO movie "Normal." "The more gay films and gay television programs are visible, the more willing society is to consider gay people in a different light. Somehow it all gets into the fabric of the culture."
Even if straight audiences never see many of the films shown at Outfest, these fringe offerings inevitably infiltrate the mainstream. A few years ago one of the hits of Outfest was a low-budget comedy, "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss," that starred a then-unknown actor, Sean Hayes, who now stars in NBC's popular "Will & Grace."
Gay and lesbian film festivals have become a staple across the country, but the Los Angeles version has also become one of the most successful of the growing cavalcade of film festivals in town (including the recently concluded IFP Los Angeles Film Festival, the upcoming Hollywood Film Festival and AFI Film Festival, as well as Latino, Pan African, Jewish and Asian film festivals). Outfest and AFI are the most popular, each with attendance of about 40,000. The anticipation surrounding this year's Outfest, which runs Thursday night through July 21, transcends the quality of the films. Most observers agree that last year's Outfest was a disappointment, partly because of the dearth of top-notch gay movies made in America. The opening-night gala didn't even present a feature film, settling instead on shorts from earlier festivals.
Festival directors hope this year marks a definite upswing. They promise an event dominated by upbeat, celebratory films. "The American films in this year's festival are fun, lighthearted and campy," said Kirsten Schaffer, who took over as director of programming for this year's Outfest. "Of the 19 American features, I'd say three or four are serious. The international films tend to be darker, but even they are more fun than they have been in past years." She cites as an example the Italian film "Little More Than a Year Ago," a comedy about a gay porn star.
Among the American movies in the same impudent vein are the closing-night film, "Mambo Italiano," which is being billed (perhaps overoptimistically) as the gay answer to "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"; the lesbian romantic comedy "April's Shower"; the film version of Charles Busch's parody of '50s melodramas, "Die Mommie Die"; and even the opening-night feature, "Party Monster," which does end with a grisly murder but brings considerable humor to its chronicle of figures of the New York club scene of the '80s.
The festival's other lighthearted offerings include a "Chicago" sing-along screening at the outdoor John Anson Ford Amphitheatre and a 20-year anniversary screening of "Flashdance." "There's a certain transformative power of a gay audience," Outfest Executive Director Stephen Gutwillig said of the "Flashdance" event. "We showed 'Grease' two years ago, and although it was a popular movie when it came out, it played differently to a gay audience. I think that same thing will happen with 'Flashdance.' Jennifer Beals does all these insane, campy dances that I think our audience will love."
The programmers make no apologies for this year's breezy, even silly tone. "There are so many fluffy straight movies," Schaffer observed. "I think we deserve to have our own fluffy gay movies."
Gutwillig added, "Besides, even ostensibly frivolous films can challenge mainstream ideas about queer identity. 'Girls Will Be Girls' is about three drag divas, and I would contend that it is just as much at the barricades of social change as the heaviest documentary."
To improve the lineup, Gutwillig and Schaffer made a conscious decision to reduce the number of films by 20%. The program encompasses films from 26 countries, experimental shorts, documentaries on Gore Vidal, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, lesbian poet Audre Lorde, and a Bay Area lesbian punk band called Tribe 8, as well as eagerly anticipated features from gay writers and directors, including Jason Schafer, the writer of "Trick," who makes his directorial debut with "Totally Sexy Loser."
What you won't find are many high-profile titles with well-known actors. Outfest must deal with the realities of today's film business, where gay movies once again have been relegated to the margins of the business, chiefly because their grosses aren't big enough to lure larger studios or even medium-sized companies to bankroll them.