Several of the shorts in this new collection of films screened at the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival seem to take place just outside of reality, in worlds familiar but slightly askew. Of course, this is something film has always employed. Often the differences between our world and a film’s are slight – like a world in which Captain Richard Phillips looks just like Tom Hanks. Other times the differences are more considerable, and men can fly. This technique is often employed by all kinds of fiction, to better explore themes and simplify scenarios.
But something about the distorted worlds of these shorts seemed more fundamental and organic. There’s the universe of Unanimated (Dir. Emilio Martí López), in which a cartoon character struggles with life in an unanimated world. Or take Skallamann (Dir. Maria Bock), where people spontaneously burst into song and dance, yet the biggest factor in judging one’s sexual preferences has nothing to do with gender, but instead hairstyle. A young man is scrutinized not because he kissed a man, but because he kissed a bald man. I mean, who cares if you want to snog a bald dude, so long as he’s sexy?
The reason for these discrepancies is that the gay experience (or any minority experience for that matter) has often been the experience of outsiders. The only way to level the playing field — at least, as far as these shorts are concerned — is to change the playing field. By skewering the world of the normal, these films project what it feels like to live in a lopsided, nonsensical world of judgment and disproval.
Unfortunately, the films in the anthology that don’t use this technique are the least interesting ones. Housebroken (Dir. Wade Gosque) is the story of a clingy man who moves to L.A. following a shaky breakup, only to begin an open relationship with a straight couple who turn out to be crazier than he is. Despite the attractiveness of the lead actors, the film never achieves the sexiness or humor it seems to aim for. PDA (Dir. Patrick Hancock) is a straightforward portrayal of a man who struggles with public displays of affection… until its not: the “twist” ending, which is more of a throwaway joke, is an uninspired moment to end the collection with. I had hoped Alaska is a Drag (Dir. Shaz Bennett) would explore what it’s like to be gay and black in a small town. But it’s only another version of the familiar story of the nerd (except this time it’s an effeminate gay man) who gets beaten up every day after class (this time it’s work) until he’s befriended by the love interest who takes up for him. Alaska is a Drag also contains the most blatant instances of the collection dipping into gay stereotypes — the references to drag culture and disco seem more like laziness than essential characterization. (Although the use of song and dance in Skallamann could be a deliberate aesthetic choice to complement the theatricality of that ridiculous world, making it better at ridiculing our own value-based, judgmental society.)
But then there’s Sabbatical (Dir. Glenn Kiser), one of the more progressive films I’ve seen with regards to homosexuality. In fact, the short has nothing at all to do with it. The film is an examination of a relationship immediately following a hiatus, and it just happens to be a relationship between two men. While it doesn’t have much new to say, Sabbatical makes up for it and distinguishes itself as the only homosexual story in the anthology that is not defined by sexuality.
My personal favorite from the collection was Spooners (Dir. Bryan Horch), a goofy story of a couple who goes mattress shopping. They encounter a “smart bed,” which grills them about sexual preferences and habits. The bed, along with the gathering crowd of straight, social justice-types, are fantastic critiques of a society that is so willing and pushy in its support that it offers no privacy to the gay community. Sure, the interactive, talking “smart bed” is silly, but this is forgiven since it’s a good tool for exploring those themes, a feat the film manages to do better than some full-length features.
Despite this compilation’s overwhelmingly lighthearted tone, some of the strongest presences throughout are the potentially judgmental thoughts and opinions of others. It’s astounding how often themes of isolation, groupthink, otherness, and us vs. them mentality recur, even in these comedic shorts. Five of the seven films are from the US, but the other two are from Spain and Norway. So while the collection isn’t exactly a well-rounded global representation, it does at least attest to how universal those feelings are amongst gays from all across the Western world. If that doesn’t reveal how askew this planet is, nothing can.