AFTER 23 years, Outfest, the gay and lesbian film festival opening this evening at the Orpheum Theatre, has become such a summertime fixture that it's easy to take it for granted. And yet this year there's a renewed sense of urgency to the festival. In the nation's headlines, gay rights issues regularly jostle aside the Iraq war, while in the financially shaky world of indie film, it's once again tough for gay-themed films to find theatrical distribution. Last week, four Outfest alums gathered to mull the state of the gay image, on screen and off.
Actor-writer Craig Chester's directorial debut, "Adam & Steve," premieres at the festival Wednesday, but as the star of such seminal 1990s films as "Swoon," "Frisk" and "Grief," he's already Outfest royalty. Coming off a six-year run on Showtime's controversial gay soap "Queer as Folk," actor Peter Paige is also premiering as actor-writer-director, in "Say Uncle," screening Sunday.
In 2004, director Angela Robinson expanded her satirical lesbian action short "D.E.B.S." into a feature for Sony, which led to her latest gig, directing the Disney comedy "Herbie: Fully Loaded." Screenwriter ("Boys on the Side") turned director Don Roos ("The Opposite of Sex") screens his new film, "Happy Endings," starring Lisa Kudrow, at Outfest on Monday, four days before it opens in major cities.
Some 232 films are screening at this year's Outfest, yet the only gay-themed movies that seem to land in theaters these days are sex comedies featuring perpetually shirtless young men in compromising positions.
Don Roos: But don't you wish you'd had those movies when you were a kid? I think they're wonderful for teenagers in Kansas. They're not for us. We're out; we have more complicated relationships. A lot of that stuff is wish fulfillment, but it's really important for a teenager or young person to see. They can order it secretly and it comes in the mail. I wish I'd had it.
Angela Robinson: That's why I made "D.E.B.S.," to fill in the blanks of my childhood, so someone else would have one, that girl in Kentucky or somewhere who wanders into Blockbuster. No one came to see it in the theaters, but it'll have a much longer life on DVD. All these films do.
Craig Chester: They're hungry for images.
Does it worry you that gay audiences aren't supporting gay movies as they once did, not even the occasional good one?
Chester: They've never gone to see them, not really. In the '90s, the gay cultural elite made movies for the gay cultural elite. Now there's been a shift. Queer cinema in the '90s came out of AIDS. A lot of the people making those films were AIDS activists. You can't separate the AIDS crisis from the first wave of queer cinema. They're intertwined. So you have "Swoon" and "Poison," and Gregg Araki making "[The] Living End," all those movies about how we were outlaws basically, outsiders.
Now you have a second wave of queer films that aren't fueled by the AIDS crisis but the issues we're dealing with today, like marriage, relationships.
Roos: And sex. You can't have cinema without sex. So now we can have beach blanket movies for gays. In a way, gay cinema has grown up. Our movies have become just as tedious as theirs. [laughter]
Robinson: "Queer as Folk" and HBO and "The L Word" are doing what movies used to be responsible for. Complex relationships -- intimacy -- are being played out on TV. Gay people don't need to come to the theater to see a gay movie because it's going to be on video in two months, and besides, they can stay home and watch "The L Word."
So the news is good?
Roos: In Hollywood, the news is terrible. I don't want to say the real world, but in the world of films that Hollywood produces, it's just as lousy as ever.
It's not as bad as it is for black actors, black filmmakers. People of color suffer enormous discrimination in Hollywood. It's impossible to get a movie made that actively depicts that experience, its complexities. It's the same for gays.
Peter Paige: We do three things on screen: We suffer, we delight, we decorate.
Roos: The prevailing culture is so anti-female. It's bred and taught into every young boy in America -- to be gay is to be female. So we suffer, in a sense, from misogyny.
Robinson: The misogyny of Hollywood actually helped me get "D.E.B.S." made because so many young women were desperate to be in the movie. Desperate! Because I had five good parts for girls. They were all up for the babe opposite Vin Diesel in "Chronicles of Riddick." That was the part.
But they didn't know what I was talking about when I asked if they'd be freaked out to be playing gay. They thought it was cute that I was worried. They were like 22 years old, and it was already so ingrained in their lives.
I'm 10 years older than them, but I didn't even know what gay was until I was in college.
These are very conservative times. Do you feel there's pressure to return to the stereotypes of the past?