Spider Lillies
Spider Lillies

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At 17, Reel Affirmations is almost legal. That doesn’t mean the annual gay and lesbian film festival has lost interest in tales of adolescent yearning and first love, whether traumatic (Eternal Summer) or giddy (Love My Life). Those are staples and surely always will be. Instead, the fest’s near-adulthood is expressed by its growing range, as it encompasses movies from around the world and by such established directors as André Téchiné, whose The Witnesses is one of this edition’s best, and Dai Sijie, whose The Chinese Botanist’s Daughter is certainly the prettiest.

Shorts, documentaries, and low-budget comedies filled the program in the early years, and they’re still integral. Among this year’s most interesting nonfiction films is Emile Norman: By His Own Design, the biography not of a crusader or martyr, but of a gay man who spoke through his art. Two of the best comedies are considerably more outrageous: Straight Story imagines a Greece where heterosexuality is aberrant and most straights hide in the closet, while Out at the Wedding is a farce about a straight woman who pretends to be a lesbian to avoid revealing her real life to her family. This kind of role-bending is not brand new, as is demonstrated by the year’s most outrageous entry, Manji, a new adaptation of Japanese author Tanizaki Junichiro’s kinky 1931 novel. Such movies suggest that, as Reel Affirmations expands, it will just find more territory to explore.—Mark Jenkins

Emile Norman: By His Own Design
Directed by Will Parrinello

Bob and Jack’s 52-Year Adventure
Directed by Stu Maddux

Emile Norman’s crushed-glass mosaics and wood-and-epoxy sculptures are utterly gorgeous, so any film about the unheralded octogenarian California artist will have inherent visual appeal. Director Will Parrinello stocks Emile Norman: By His Own Design with affectionate looks at not only the art but also Norman at work in the rustic Big Sur home he built with his late partner, Brooks Clement. Their love story, however, is just as remarkable: Norman and Clement had an uncommonly productive relationship, one that turned the household into a monument to creative and personal freedom. Parrinello’s doc isn’t flashy, but it clearly does them justice. The dapper World War II vets in Bob and Jack’s 52-Year Adventure aren’t quite as magnetic, but they’re no less pioneering as a couple.—Joe Warminsky

At 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, at Goethe-Institut; $10

FtF: Female to Femme
Directed by Kami Chisholm

Wrong Bathroom
Directed by Shani Heckman

Bandage, Socks & Facial Hair
Directed by Maria Takacs

Gender duality is the theme of this program of three short documentaries about lesbians and their appearances. Bandage, Socks & Facial Hair records a Hungarian drag-king workshop, in which a group of women take one day to study male mannerisms, acquire stubble and the kind of jewels you can’t display in public, then take their alter egos for a test drive out on the town. The casually filmed doc does address the more serious reasons that prompted these women to try cross-dressing—“I have complexes that are ameliorated by a mustache,” one grandmother confesses. But the tone is mostly playful, especially when the trainers are pointing out the (admittedly stereotypical) attitudes behind a guy’s physical movement: “Only take the space you need?” one woman says while demonstrating how to sit. “No! Take all the space you want!” Less successful is FtF: Female to Femme, which addresses the struggles of lipstick lesbians not only to be accepted by peers who shun what they consider sexist ideals of beauty but to accept themselves: “I tried so hard [when I was younger] to have the trappings of ‘dyke-iness’ to prove I was gay,” actress Guinevere Turner says. FtF’s lighthearted approach to its subject fails: Too-long footage of mostly terrible gay burlesque frequently kills momentum, and scenes from a histrionic “femme support group” that are meant to be satirical are instead just irritating. Wrong Bathroom likewise mars an interesting issue—which bathroom does a woman use when she looks more like a man?—with cheesy dramatizations, but at eight minutes, its faults don’t detract from its message. —Tricia Olszewski

At 2:45 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, at Goethe-Institut; $10

Love My Life
Directed by Kawano Koji

Bubbly Tokyo language student Ichiko is besotted with Eriko, who’s pre-law. (Quick Japanese lesson: ko as a suffix means girl.) The lovers worry about what will happen when they come out, but they’re not in the most hostile of environments. Ichiko’s best friend is a gay male classmate, and when Ichiko tells her dad, he reveals that he’s gay and so was her late mother. (They married only because they wanted to have a child.) Even Ichiko’s favorite customer at the CD store where she works part-time is a lesbian. Adapted from a manga series, this sweet if shallow romp struggles to find some conflict; all it can locate is Eriko’s strained relationship with her arrogant dad, and the two paramours’ brief separation while Eriko studies for her law-school entrance exams. Ichiko and her easygoing father, a translator of English-language fiction, live happily in an impossibly big apartment, and the resolution to Eriko’s career conflict is absurdly auspicious. Director Kawano Koji’s film is less drama than fairy tale, but it offers appealing characters, brisk pacing, and the amiable J-pop-punk score that ultimately propels Ichiko as she makes her long sprint toward happily ever after. —MJ

At 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, at the Lincoln Theatre; $10

Eternal Summer
Directed by Leste Chen

Shy, bookish Jonathan befriends two of his rural Taiwanese high school’s leading rebels, rough-edged basketball star Shane and willful newcomer Carrie. It’s Carrie, an outsider thanks to her Hong Kongninflected Chinese, who soon perceives what Jonathan won’t say: He’s in love with Shane. When the three move on to college in Taipei, Shane and Carrie become an item while Jonathan tries to keep his distance. Ultimately, there’s a showdown on a beach. Leste Chen’s stylish film seems to take its cue from Jonathan’s reticence, showing more than telling: The three characters meet, mesh, and separate, seldom resolving anything. Yet maybe it’s unthinking, impulsive Shane who’s the movie’s muse. The story is true to his free-floating aggression but shortchanges adolescent musing. You’d think Jonathan and Carrie would have more to say, at least to each other.—MJ

At 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, at the Lincoln Theatre; $10

Black White + Gray
Directed by James Crump

In 77 minutes, you can tell the life story of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Or you can profile his lover, curator Sam Wagstaff. Or you can focus on the relationship between the two. But first-time director James Crump tries to accomplish all of the above in Black White + Gray, and while the film is at times interesting and informative, it’s mostly a dull mess. Crump’s documentary travels in time from the ’50s to the ’80s, touching on everything from Wagstaff’s youth as a closeted, high-society dreamboat to his discovery of Mapplethorpe to both artists’ deaths from AIDS in the late ’80s. Wagstaff’s bio is all over the place: At times it’s told chronologically, but then the director will offer insights into the kind of men he preferred or, more trivially, what his apartment was like. Just as abruptly, the film will shift to Mapplethorpe, though he’s portrayed mainly as a pretty, drug-addled young thing who took advantage of Wagstaff’s wealth. Fascinating figures from New York’s old art scene are interviewed, including Patti Smith, John Richardson, and Dominick Dunne, but overall the commentary is less than enlightening. (“It must have been very wearying for Sam,” someone says of Wagstaff’s closeted years.) Photographs both of and by Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe paper the film, as do pieces from Wagstaff’s extensive art collection, and the images are mesmerizing. Better to enjoy Black White + Gray’s pictures and tune out its thousands of words. —TO

At 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, at Goethe-Institut; $10.

The Witnesses
Directed by André Téchiné

Although this is director André Téchiné’s most gay-centric film since 1994’s The Wild Reeds, it’s hardly a break from his customary style or concerns. Near the movie’s end, narrator Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart) explains the structure of her novel-in-progress: “The hub keeps shifting. Like in life.” That’s also a fine description of the filmmaker’s approach. It’s the early ’80s, and handsome young Manu moves to Paris to live with his sister, an aspiring opera singer. The openly gay youth is soon involved in a sexless relationship with Adrien, a middle-aged doctor, and a sex-only one with Mehdi, an aggressive Franco-Arab vice cop. Adrien is Sarah’s friend, and Mehdi is her husband, so things get complicated. And then Adrien notices that Manu is showing symptoms of a mysterious new disease associated with gay Americans. As usual with Téchiné, the film is intricate but fluid, shifting deftly between urgent and discursive passages. There are moments that evoke the confusion, panic, and rage of the early AIDS era, but the story is more about love and friendship than death.—MJ

At 9:15 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, at the Lincoln Theatre; $10

For the Bible Tells Me So
Directed by Daniel Karslake

For many generations, paleo-Christians have used a few arbitrarily culled scriptural verses as a club against same-sex love, but what happens when they have to swing the club at their own kids? In Daniel Karslake’s cautiously hopeful documentary, mothers and fathers struggle to reconcile love with the admonitions of their faiths. Some succeed. (You’ll think better of Richard Gephardt.) Some fail. (One mother’s rejection ends in her daughter’s suicide.) The film’s climax is the consecration of openly gay Episcopalian bishop Gene Robinson, whose Bible Belt mother says of him: “If anyone would go to heaven, he would.” —Louis Bayard

At 2:45 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14, at the Lincoln Theatre; $10.

Straight Story
Directed by Efi Mouriki and Vladimiros Kiriakidis

Straight Story is about a young man pining over a female co-worker. But this Greek comedy’s inclusion in the festival wasn’t a mistake. Instead, writers-­directors Efi Mouriki and Vladimiros Kiriakidis turn an otherwise common tale into satire. At first, we meet a gay couple who are teasing their son, Yiannis, about his flirtation with a neighborhood boy while they get dressed for a lesbian wedding. A newspaper article reads, “The mayor and her wife….” And one of Yiannis’ friends has just been fired from a teaching position because the school found out she was heterosexual. At this point, the filmmakers’ intention becomes clear: What if homosexuality were the norm and straight people were considered “perverts?” It turns out that Yiannis isn’t gay, but he’s hiding his true sexuality from his parents and friends for fear of rejection. He can’t stop himself, though, from hitting on Sofia, especially when her girlfriend, assuming Yiannis isn’t a threat, keeps insisting they spend time together. Straight Story is only passable as a comedy, its humor mostly a weak knockoff of Pedro Almodóvar’s dialogue- and slapstick-heavy style. (As is its colorful settings and good-looking cast.) But the perspective shift it provides is not only fresh but invaluable, so plainly communicating the absurdity of sexuality-based discrimination that even the audience’s most open minds should end up pried a little wider. —TO

At 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14, at the Lincoln Theatre; $10

Directed by Noboru Iguchi

Those who know Tanizaki Junichiro only from The Makioka Sisters—either the novel or film adaptation—may think of him as Japan’s Jane Austen, scrupulously observing bourgeois marriage arrangements. Yet erotic obsession was one of Tanizaki’s principal subjects, and his writing doesn’t get much kinkier than Manji, a 1931 novel first filmed in 1964. This campy 2006 remake seems to be set in the ’60s, but it’s hard to tell. Director Noboru Iguchi constructs a cinematic hothouse in which hardly anything exists save the four central characters. “Manji” is Japanese for “swastika,” and the title is meant to evoke the four arms of that ancient symbol. But the movie’s two men are much less crucial than the two women, bored Osaka housewife Sonoko and impish seducer Mitsuko. They meet at a life-drawing class, and soon private nude sketching sessions yield to near-carnivorous lovemaking. This isn’t anything so simple as forbidden passion, however. Mitsuko is manipulative and perverse, and the women’s relationship comes to involve blackmail, blood oaths, three-ways, and a suicide pact. It’s hard to imagine that anyone ever took Tanizaki’s scenario seriously, but this telling retains the story’s outlandish entertainment value.—MJ

At 9 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14, at E Street Cinema; $10

Spider Lilies
Directed by Zero Chou

Eating spider lilies supposedly causes memory loss, which is the central affliction in this flashy, elaborately plotted Taiwanese melodrama. Half-Japanese Taipei tattoo artist Takeko has a spider lily tattooed on her arm, since that design is all her brain-damaged brother remembers of their dead father. Now soft-core webcam star Jade (Rainie Yang) wants the same tattoo, as a permanent mark of her longtime crush on Takeko (Isabella Leong). Jade’s parents have forgotten her, and all she has are rapt memories of Takeko—and the admiration of a cop who’s monitoring porn Web sites in preparation for a crackdown. Director Zero Chou’s film is something of a hyperlink exercise itself, connecting old myths to modern technology and cutting frequently between Jade, Takeko, and their respective reminiscences. The effect is energetic but not particularly involving; structural devices overpower emotions, and the major characters are little more than the sum of their complicated backstories. Leong and Yang are engaging, but the movie depends more on their attractiveness than on developing the people they play.—MJ

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 17, at E Street Cinema; $10

The Chinese Botanist’s Daughter
Directed by Dai Sijie

The latest film from Chinese emigré Dai Sijie, who wrote and directed 2002’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, is another tale of innocent passion and brutal punishment. Sino-Russian orphan Min (Mylène Jampanoï) is sent to take a six-week course in herbal medicine from an imperious expert, Professor Chen. When Chen’s not barking orders, his garden is a paradise, complete with an angel: Chen’s daughter, An (Xiao Ran Li). Min and An are soon in love and making plans to prevent Min’s return to the orphanage. They decide on marriage between Min and An’s brother, who’s stationed in Tibet and thus won’t be around after the honeymoon. This is the women’s first mistake, and they’re soon to learn that post-Maoist China remains patriarchal and prudish. Shot in Vietnam, this beautifully framed and lighted film depicts rural southern China as lushly beautiful. Jampanoï and Li are also fetchingly displayed, although not explicitly; their caresses are usually staged off-center in cluttered compositions. The movie is a pleasure to behold but is more compelling visually than emotionally. As with Balzac, Sijie has made a movie that’s so pretty its horrors don’t fully register.—MJ

At 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18, at E Street Cinema; $10

Out at the Wedding
Directed by Lee Friedlander

In Lee Friedlander’s likable farce, New York gal Alex (Andrea Marcellus) prefers to let her conservative Southern family think she’s dating a lesbian (Cathy DeBuono) than getting engaged to a black pilot (Mystro Clark). Why? On that single question the whole movie threatens to teeter, but the action is frisky enough to forestall any further queries. Note to underground aficionados: The pilot’s Jewish mom is played by Mink Stole, charter member of the John Waters School of Deviancy. Note to M*A*S*H fans: Mike Farrell is still, against all odds, working. —LB

At 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19, at the Lincoln Theatre; $10

Directed by Sean Abley

There may be a dearth of gay-themed horror films, but that’s not a good enough reason to sit through Socket. Its premise, for one, just isn’t scary. Surgeon Bill Matthews (Derek Long) is struck by lightning and wakes up in a hospital bed, tended to by a gruff associate (who’s “surprisingly not a lesbian”) as well as an intern named Craig (Matthew Montgomery). Craig expresses a special interest in the patient, which Bill, not completely in error, assumes is sexual. Really, though, Craig also once met a lightning bolt, and he tells Bill of a group for “people like us.” It’s kind of a support group—led by Socket’s writer-director, Sean Abley—but that’s not what keeps members coming back: After a bit of chat, they stand in a circle and give themselves an electric jolt. Then they party. Similarly, Socket uses its main idea as an excuse to titillate. There is a serial-killer subplot, but not only is it senseless, Abley doesn’t seem nearly as interested in developing it as he is showing Bill and Craig making out and getting undressed—with all the full-frontal going on here, the movie’s more soft-core than slasher. The acting is terrible (though Montgomery is more tolerable than the leaden, slimy Long), and the direction is no better, with Abley relying heavily on strobe effects and quick cuts to mask the story’s gaping logic. —TO

At 11:15 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19, at the Lincoln Theatre; $10

The Walker
Directed by Paul Schrader

Sun-drenched interiors, wide residential streets, operas at the National Theatre: Yep, another movie about Washington that bears zero relation to the actual city. Openly gay Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson) makes a living by squiring D.C. dames to fancy events—until someone tries to pin a murder on him. Director Paul Schrader fleshes out the homoerotic implications of American Gigolo, but the moralism is as simplistic as ever. Washington folks are—get this—not very nice, a message that is no fresher coming from a cast that includes Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin and (the lone note of humanity) German actor Moritz Bleibtreu. —LB

At 8:15 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, at the Lincoln Theatre; $40 (includes access to closing-night party)