All About My Mother:
2005 New York Film Festival Has Mommy Issues

by Tony Phillips

“I smoke pot. I’ve tried cocaine. And I am gay. Now does anybody want to talk about my movie?” Imagine a young unknown with the cojones to open a foreign press conference at one of the world’s premiere film venues with those immortal words. Layer a thick Spanish accent and dark shock of upswept hair, with dual Bride of Frankenstein white streaks, and there’s director Pedro Almodovar’s address to the New York Film Festival (NYFF) when Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown opened the 26th edition.

The year was 1988. Outting was at its peak, and press conferences saw directors shouted down while festival brass decided if 86-ing offending parties would only exacerbate the problem. Then Almodovar came out and did his thing. His comments made him a festival darling. It didn’t hurt that he also told the audience he “wanted to marry us all.” What followed was a fruitful relationship with the Film Society of Lincoln Center (FSLC) who produce this annual, non-juried showcase.

“The Film Society is very proud of its close relationship with Pedro,” FSLC Program Director Richard Peña enthuses, “Almodóvar has afforded us the rare privilege of watching a major artist evolve his art in new, exciting and unpredictable directions. In terms of influence, his work holds up a standard against which we inevitably compare much of what we show.”

Though not technically a gay festival, NYFF has programmed so many landmark gay films since its 1963’s inaugural screening of Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel that even a partial list reads like a queer studies film syllabus. Or Christine Vachon’s resume. Techine’s Wild Reeds, Schnabel’s Before Night Falls, Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, Araki’s Totally F***ed Up, Pasolini’s Salo, Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry and Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho to name just a handful.

Almodovar’s prior two NYFF entries went on to win Academy Awards. 1999’s NYFF opener All About My Mother won Best Foreign Film. His friend and star Penelope Cruz had to drag him off-stage still blathering as America wondered, “Who was that man?” Those who knew watched him return in 2002 with festival closer Talk to Her and fretted his impending English language debut. He did go Hollywood after that, but only to collect Talk to Her’s Best Original Screenplay statuette. That Oscar speech captured a more demure Almodovar, but just how does one compete with Michael Moore?

Two Oscars secured his autobiographical coming of age film Bad Education in this year’s centerpiece slot. Almodovar jokes about casting three-time NYFF veteran Gael Garcia Bernal because he looks good as either sex. And it’s true the 25-year-old actor nails multiple roles, even in drag, but he was an Almodovar leading man waiting to happen since his debut.

Steering clear of the cheeky title Talk to Her, NYFF will host a live, Inside the Actor’s Studio type interview with Pena in the Lipton chair. The penthouse party called Viva Pedro! afterward has a tequila sponsor. And Almodovar is only one of many gay highlights punctuating a month of not only NYFF’s seventeen-day sprawl, but also local festivals in the Hamptons and Woodstock, New York.

The Siegfried and Roy alert bumps to orange with Apichatpong Weerasethakul NYFF screening of Thai homoerotic myth Tropical Malady detailing the “how” in a soldier whose lover becomes a tiger. A NYFF alum and heterosexual with claws returns with the weirdly self-referential Palindromes in which 12-year-old Aviva wants a child, but mom Ellen Barkin wants to abort. After the MPAA battles and portrait of a pedophile that marked his last two films; preteen abortion should be a cakewalk. Philadelphia Gay News recently described this NJ native as “openly gay writer/director Todd Solondz.” Perhaps in some kind of twisted revenge, Solondz player Heather Matarazzo, who debuted unforgettably as Dawn Weiner in the film Solondz wanted to call Faggots and Retards, gets snuffed in Palindromes first reel. Matarazzo recently came out to The Daily News, but home video footage of her funeral in Palindromes says Weiner dog, we hardly knew ya.

Like Solondz, 2004’s Woodstock Film Festival is not gay, per se, but has the two snaps pluck to employ “fiercely independent” as the tagline celebrating their fifth anniversary. Gay highlights are a toss up between Brett C. Leonard’s searing two-character prison drama Jailbait starring Hedwig’s Michael Pitt and Leonard’s Labyrinth Theater Company compatriot Stephen Adly Guirgis and Lisa Cholodenko’s adaptation of Dorothy Allison’s Cavedweller for Showtime. Labyrinth will mount Jailbait as a future play at The Public, so let theater and cable subscriptions decide.

Woodstock gets underway showing off Frank Gehry’s only area building as the Fisher Center at Bard hosts seven-time Grammy winner Bela Fleck. Opening night’s shared program features Laura Linney’s naked Oscar bid #1 as director Dylan Kid remakes Tadpole and calls it p.s. Christian Bale rounds out the bill with a Carpenters-thin turn as a man who hasn’t slept for a year in Brad Anderson’s disturbing Machinist. P.S., eat something! Linney stays on in the picturesque Catskills to toast Vanity Fair’s uber-feminist director Mira Nair who pledges to keep it crunchy as last year’s Maverick Award winner Woody Harrelson passes the baton. Things wrap with Nicole Kassell’s indelible portrait of Kevin Bacon as a child molester trying to re-enter society in The Woodsman.

For those who’d rather be at the beach instead of the mountains while sitting in a darkened auditorium, there’s the 12th Annual Hamptons International Film Festival. Director of Programming Rajendra Roy touts her festival’s “unique ability to launch international films in the U.S. quickly” pointing out Main Street’s tented International Forum in Amagansett returning this year with staples like food, shelter and internet access as filmmakers compete for the “Golden Starfish” and push seasons on Spielberg’s summer address.

Hamptons gay highlights are, again, a toss. Opening night features Academy Award Winner Bill Condon’s bio-pic Kinsey starring Liam Neeson as the notorious 50s sex researcher with Laura Linney making naked Oscar bid #2 as his wife and Peter Sarsgaard as the harried assistant they both bed. Closing night brings Niels Mueller’s debut guiding Sean Penn through a part most recently inhabited by Mario Cantone in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. Everyman Sam Bicke is ready for his close-up, again, in The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

And proving you can eat lunch in this town again, Ellen’s ex Anne Heche, despite abruptly canceling her 2000 appearance at the festival, brings a stack of films to the Hamptons this year including a supporting role in Jonathan Glazer’s spotlight film Birth. Nicole Kidman one-ups Kevin Bacon by believing a ten-year-old boy is the reincarnation of her dead husband and promptly makes out with him.

There are at least one or two moments of drift during the unflinching documentary Tarnation where one contemplates making out with either the filmmaker, his model gorgeous boyfriend David or both. Yet Jonathan Caouette’s groundbreaking achievement remains grounded in an early childhood molestation. Like Almodovar’s script for Bad Education and so many other projects on the fall festival circuit, Tarnation is rooted in child abuse yet manages to revel anyway. Caouette claims Tarnation’s about “youth, art, sexuality, mental illness, America and survival. It’s also a love letter to my mother Renee.”

The film gained NY MIX festival director Stephen Winter as producer after premiering at his gay experimental film festival. And it kept on picking up key production players like some kind of DV Dorothy easin’ on down to Park City. But other than its producer, the film largely leaves The MIX, its queer birth mother, by the side of the yellow brick road. After drawing raves at Sundance and the unlikely champion Roger Ebert, who talked up the $218.32 production budget and called it “a powerful and heartbreaking film,” Tarnation became a Sundance legend. Whatever the case, it looks like exponentially more than $218.32 and is the most visually interesting piece at NYFF.

Tarnation’s incredibly mixed media — from answering machine messages to a Sylvia Miles clip from Andy Warhol’s Heat — were strung together using Apple’s iMovie after Caouette’s boyfriend’s Aunt Vicky gave him a computer, leading Ebert to further enthuse, “Caouette shows himself to be a documentarian of rare skill in the way he uses his materials.” So what does that make Aunt Vicky?

Gus Van Zant, like fellow auteur John Cameron Mitchell, became an executive producer on the film after seeing a rough cut. Van Zant was more direct than Ebert. “Tarnation is the shit,” the Cannes-winner for last year’s Columbine gloss Elephant exclaimed. Still, even with its out, all-star production staff in tact, Tarnation sat out summer’s gay festival gulag before playing Cannes this fall. It was in the south of France that 31-year-old Caouette, documenting his life and mother’s struggle with acute bipolar disorder since he was 11, received a 10-minute standing ovation. He’s retained the good humor to compare it to Mahogany’s final scene.

And while Diana Ross may be a gay indicator for some, others are surprised by Tarnation’s unabashedly queer content. “I read a lot about it,” admits FLSC’s Director of Communications Graham Leggatt, “but only watched it two weeks ago. I had not, in any of the things I read, seen the gay aspect fore grounded. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the film. It’s what most of it is about, but they must be positioning it in a certain way.”

And so what if Caouette isn’t bending over backwards to market himself as a gay filmmaker? That description makes even Almodovar testy. He’s known to rebuke journalists by asking if they qualify our Commander in Chief as “the heterosexual President of the United States.” And he’s right. Film festivals are no place for the strident. One print traffic bottleneck and it’s over. “We don’t have any fluency in identity politics,” Leggatt agrees, “Tarnation is an excellent film, really unusual and chosen right out of the gate. It was on our radar immediately.”