There shouldn’t be a need for a Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, but there is. Gay and lesbian characters are more absent from commercially released films than almost any other group of people, and–at least for now–a festival concerned exclusively with such characters seems to be the only way to offer the public the opportunity to see a number of films by and about gays and lesbians.

But in order to really succeed, the films at the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival have to do more than simply display gay characters. Whether documentary, short, or feature narrative, films at GLFF fail when they behave as if, in order to be noteworthy, it is enough to contain gay subject matter. We have perhaps reached the point where, ironically, a queer film must succeed on cinematic terms if it is to succeed on social or political terms. There’s just nothing progressive about a bad movie.

As with any festival, there’s no shortage of bad films here, but sorting through the chaff will eventually yield rewarding enough work to warrant the effort. As is usually the case at film festivals, the most mixed bag contains the film shorts. They range here from intriguing (Basement Girl, Drawing Girls) to amusing (four P.M., Her Urge) to altogether unwatchable (The Tell Tale Vibrator, Coming to Terms). Huge is an hour’s worth of three-minute videos that offer nothing but surface; there is no room for interpretation. One or two stand out as somewhat experimental, but only by comparison. Basement Girl–a Canadian video written and directed by Midi Onodera, then translated into French and subtitled in English–was the best short available for screening. The “basement girl” is a depressed girl coping with a breakup, but this short works not because of its subject matter, but because of its treatment of time and boredom–in the space of 12 minutes, it captures the passing of months using slow motion, superimposition, and well-written voice-over.

The documentaries are the most lackluster group of films at GLFF this year: Essentially, a subject is presented, a number of interview clips are patched together, and the surface of the subject is scratched, but little is really investigated or revealed. Sex Becomes Her: The True Life Story of Chi Chi LaRue, Straight Down the Aisle, On The Bus and Queen of the Whole Wide World serve as passable entertainment, but they are interesting only as documents, not as films.

The problems with most of the features are similar. For the most part, the feature films are low-budget conventional narratives that struggle to complete even a pedestrian narrative arc. While stilted acting and technical problems (bad sound, poor lighting) can be overlooked in low-budget features, lack of funds is no excuse for artistic bankruptcy (it can, in fact, force creativity’s hand). Most discouraging is the lack of any atmosphere or unique mood to most of the features.

The great number of night exteriors in the feature Swimming gives the film a distinct feel, but this seems to be incidental rather than the result of an intentional filmic aesthetic. Swimming is a conventional narrative about Frankie, a homely girl who is enamored of a new girl in town named Josee. Between Josee’s arrival at the town diner and the final shot (a ghastly freeze-frame of a close-up of Frankie), we’re treated to a lot of yelling in fake Southern accents, more crying, and superfluous voice-overs. In the end, the film doesn’t judge Frankie’s lesbian interest, but obviously embraces her implicit return to heterosexuality.

The three-girl triangle is also present in Weeki Wachee Girls, a far more intriguing short that uses available light and relatively unaltered settings. The grimy, 16mm aesthetic of Weeki Wachee Girls is infectious, and captures that grass-in-the-toes feeling of unromanticized youth. The girls’ hair is always damp and seems permanently damaged from an overly chlorinated pool. In the most winning shot of the film, Emily, a girl forced to the outside of Katie and Maura’s heterosexual friendship, sits on a power generator behind the pool, her knees pulled up to her chin while she watches the other two swim and discuss the lesbian relationship between her and Maura. Weeki Wachee Girls is about sexual curiosity, and successfully parallels homophobia with pre-adolescent sexual ignorance.

A similarly quiet, personal film is Revoir Julie, which is unlike anything else at GLFF. Revoir is a highly original melange of mockumentary, romantic comedy, and pop philosophy talkathon. The title comes from what is apparently the aim of the protagonist: The film begins with her making out a “Things To Do” list, the last item of which is to say goodbye to Julie. Julie is, apparently, a lover whom the film’s protagonist never got over, but audiences have to be patient, as nothing is spelled out here.

Initially, the performances in Revoir come across as stilted, but eventually the actors warm up to each other and the audience. In fact, the awkwardness of the first 20 minutes of the film gives way to a warm dynamic shared between the two main characters and the viewer. Revoir Julie‘s idiosyncrasies are charming rather than problematic, and its understated tone should not be mistaken for mediocrity.

The Weekend is an ensemble actors’ piece about a close middle-aged couple and an odd mix of friends and family who end up having dinner together at their country home. There is nothing noteworthy about The Weekend cinematically; the filmmakers’ lack of formal ability is demonstrated most glaringly by the use of superfluous black and white flashbacks that serve as shorthand explication devices. Gena Rowlands delivers the same one-dimensional performance that she has been dishing out since the death of John Cassavettes, which is to say nothing of Brooke Shields, who is the thespian equivalent of black and white flashbacks. The potential in the quiet drama about family tension and a new relationship between two young men who aren’t sure if they love each other is compromised by lackluster acting and the filmmakers’ lack of attention to form.

Lea Pool, whose mediocre Set Me Free was shown at last year’s festival, this year presents Lost and Delirious, a teen movie about a girl named Mary, who arrives at an upper class boarding school and rooms with two longtime residents–lovers Pauline (Coyote Ugly‘s Piper Perabo) and Victoria.

What happens when Victoria dumps Pauline for fear of being ostracized plays more like one of the “serious” episodes of The Facts of Life than an investigation into repression. Most of the films at GLFF do not buy into the straight paradigm of beauty, but all three girls in Lost and Delirious are the personification of a conventional white straight man’s fantasy. In the finale, Pool conveniently kills off the lesbian character to clean things up, as Pauline jumps off of a roof and a raptor flies toward the camera–apparently representing her everlasting spirit.

Even further down the ladder is All Over the Guy, a feature about two guys who get fixed up, have sex, and then may or may not have a relationship. One is a nerdy neurotic who digs Planet of the Apes. His potential mate is a chiseled alcoholic with commitment problems. The one-dimensional leads are not the only shortcuts taken in the film: It is a veritable catalog of clichés, framed in flashback by the recollections of the two main characters–the nerdy one waiting for the results of an AIDS test (because that’s what gay guys do), the chiseled one talking to a new acquaintance after an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

On their first date, they don’t get along. But the second time they meet, they talk about their parents because, you know, gay people have issues with their parents. When the buff alcoholic admits he hasn’t seen Gone With the Wind, the nerdy neurotic says, “Oh my God, you are scaring me,” because that’s how gay guys talk. While a conversation about films that also includes In & Out and The Birdcage might be trying to point to the lack of good films about homosexuals, All Over the Guy is just as stereotypical and predictable, but not nearly as watchable as the two mediocre “gay” films it mentions.

The references to such mainstream films as Gone With the Wind, Planet of the Apes, In & Out and The Birdcage highlight what may be the problem with most of the filmmakers at GLFF. Namely, they don’t care about cinema. There is an undeniable dearth of good films with homosexual characters, but they do exist. Unfortunately, little here follows in the pioneering steps of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho or Todd Haynes’ Poison and Velvet Goldmine, much less the more esoteric Happy Together by Wong Kar-Wai or Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s Je Tu Il Elle. Haynes and Wong are two of the most remarkable filmmakers alive right now, and the gay content of their films is part of a cinematic fabric that innovates in terms of content, narrative and image.

Perhaps one entry that may follow in these directors’ footsteps is John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which is being shown at the festival in its North Carolina premiere (it opens nationwide at the end of August). Hedwig was, unfortunately, deliberately made unavailable for screening before the festival, as part of the filmmakers’ campaign to build buzz. Adapted from the off-Broadway rock theater hit, the film promises to be either a summer cult favorite, or a breakaway hit a la The Crying Game (Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers has suggested that Hedwig “may just reinvent the rock musical.”)

The film concerns an “internationally ignored” rock singer, Hedwig, who was born a boy but later had a botched sex change operation that left her with the titular “angry inch.” Hedwig manages to escape East Berlin by marrying an American G.I., but ends up high and dry in a trailer park in Kansas. She eventually forms a rock band, and takes a lover named Tommy Gnosis. Tommy later leaves her, steals her songs, and becomes the huge rock star that Hedwig always dreamed of becoming.

It remains to be seen whether Hedwig can meet the standard set by Todd Haynes’ musical Velvet Goldmine, or by the work of the other directors mentioned above. The films of Van Sant, Haynes, Wong and Akerman are films first. They just happen to sometimes concern homosexuality. Velvet Goldmine–which is about gender-bending in the years of glam rock–is no more a gay film than Haynes’ earlier Safe–superficially about a woman in an unfulfilling marriage who leaves her family to go to a new age environmentally safe retreat–is a straight film. Homosexuality is allowed to exist as a social reality in the work of these directors. In Happy Together, there is no obvious comment about the fact that the two characters are homosexual lovers. Wong, who has made the most romantic films of the past fifteen years (Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, The Mood for Love), respects his audience and his characters enough not to wear their (or his) sexual orientation on his sleeve. The filmmakers at GLFF, if they want to be artists, should begin to think about cinema as well as sexuality and marginalization.

This year’s GLFF also hosts the North Carolina premiere of Gohatto, perhaps the best film at the festival. Gohatto, which translates as Taboo, is the first American-distributed film by Japanese auteur Nagisa Oshima in 16 years.

Oshima has never received his due as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. Like fellow countryman Shohei Imamura, the West has unfairly kept him in the shadow of Akira Kurosawa for most of his career. Oshima is an entirely fearless filmmaker, as can be seen in his unflinchingly deadpan portrayal of the ability of a monkey named Max to break up a bourgeois family, in Max, Mon Amour, his last feature film. Max has a penetratingly somber realism that makes the initially laughable premise resonate as much as any other love story; the perfectly eerie performance by Charlotte Rampling doesn’t hurt, either.

This makes the subject matter of Gohatto, a story about gay samurai of the Shogun era, seem relatively tame by comparison. The film concerns Kano, a young, very effeminate samurai prodigy who is recruited for the militia. He’s recruited alongside the much more masculine Tashiro, who falls in love with Kano. It seems that Tashiro–who forces himself on Kano–is his first male love interest, even though a couple of characters state how common the practice of gay sex is in the samurai ranks.

The love affair causes trouble that has to be sorted out by Captain Hijikata, who is masterfully played by Japan’s answer to Robert Mitchum, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, delivering another fascinating performance. It seems that the beauty of Kano mysteriously attracts almost everyone who comes into contact with him. Even though homosexuality is secretly accepted for the most part, Kano’s radiance brings the taboo to the surface.

Oshima is not concerned with runaway homophobia as much as the way social taboos play against social norms–in this case the Samurai Code, which he spells out in an intertitle near the beginning of the film. As it turns out, Kano is perhaps the most devoted of any character to the code, and never intentionally seduces any of the lovers he takes in the film. The more masculine characters force themselves on Kano, and even one of the higher-ups takes to him. Kano cannot refuse him, seemingly because of rank. While the Samurai Code is not criticized in Gohatto, it is paralleled with current homophobic sentiment. While the samurai live by the code, there is a repeated willingness on the part of every character to discuss homosexuality in private, even though it is forbidden publicly.

Like other Oshima films, Gohatto does not have one central theme, as Oshima prefers to investigate a story and let it play out on its own terms, often indulging in long tangents and intertitles explaining the motivations of the story and characters. Most admirably, he respects his audience enough not to overtly evoke sympathies for any of the characters, as he seems to find morality much more slippery than traditional rules about central themes and narrative allow. This is precisely why Oshima has, in his sporadic 40-year career, brought audiences as many insightful and innovative works of cinematic social criticism as any other filmmaker of the last 50 years. EndBlock