Shades of Gay

Last year, the Houston Gay & Lesbian Film Festival had its coming out -- in more than one sense. Not only was the fest's first year a debutante's curtsy, it was also a (long-overdue) declaration of presence and pride for Houston's gay community. "It seems like every other city had [a similar event]," says Marian Luntz, film curator for the Museum of Fine Arts and one of the HGLFF organizers. "It's undeniable that people get excited about a festival."

Judging by the schedule, year two should be no sophomore slump. With more than 15 films to be presented in the next three weeks at four venues (the Landmark Greenway 3, DiverseWorks, the MFA and the Rice Media Center), the HGLFF appears to offer something for just about everyone: features leaning toward the centrist and the offbeat, shorts, videos and local premieres (Steven Diller's zany comedy Peoria Babylon and Monte Bramer's Paul Monette: The Brink of Summer's End; the latter won the Best Documentary award at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival).

There are also filmic examinations of gay meaning within the Hollywood tradition (Mark Rappaport's The Silver Screen / Color Me Lavender) and the struggle of gay youth and its relationship to gay history (Out of the Past, which uses a Utah high school student's attempt to start a gay/straight alliance as a window on the age-old search for gay identity).

The festival, presented by the four venues with support from the Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP), reflects the current vitality and diversity of gay cinema. I Think I Do -- which opens the fest and its own run this Friday at the Greenway 3 -- offers proof, post-Ellen, that a film with a gay theme can appeal to the commercial mainstream. It's the tale of two college roommates, one gay and the other straight, and how they come to terms with their affection for one another five years after graduation. I Think I Do is a charming, affecting independent feature that sweetly twists the conventions of the screwball comedy into a love story that almost anyone can relate to, thanks to a delightful cast, a subtly wacky script and the sort of happy ending that filmgoers love.

American Cowboy, screening June 6 and 7 at the MFA, is a documentary about Texas gay rodeo cowboy Gene Mikulenka by University of Texas at Austin film student Kyle Henry. At its core, the movie's about the life transitions everyone goes through -- specifically, in this case, 39-year-old Mikulenka's final competitive rides and his highly public cinematic decloseting (Mikulenka notes, "The horses don't care if you're gay or straight"). American Cowboy offers a telling glimpse of one gay life combined with a heady whiff of cowboy lore, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the documentary process.

Between the yuppies of I Think I Do and the kickers of American Cowboy, one sees how gayness has become a simple fact of life in many (though not yet all) quarters of modern culture. These two films, like the fest proper, reflect the boom in gay filmmaking in recent years, and offer further indications about how gay cinema is being incorporated into the larger cultural landscape. For film lovers, whatever their sexual affiliation, that's something to appreciate and celebrate.

-- Rob Patterson

The Houston Gay & Lesbian Film Festival opens with a reception from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, May 22, at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, Suite 101; admission is $15, which includes a ticket to that evening's 9:30 screening of I Think I Do. The HGLFF continues through June 14. Info: 914-5037.

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Rob Patterson