News Column

The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn., John Beifuss column

September 5, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 05--Those unfamiliar with the Out-flix Film Festival might assume the event -- which begins Friday at the Malco Ridgeway cinema -- is a recent addition to the Memphis cultural landscape.

After all, isn't Memphis, as the so-called buckle on the Bible belt, supposed to be disapproving, even intolerant of "alternative" lifestyles?

And isn't general acceptance of "marriage equality" and other gay civil rights issues a new phenomenon, even on a national level?

In fact, the Outflix Film Festival -- a celebration of movies with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters and themes -- is perhaps the city's most established showcase for new cinema. It predates the On Location: Memphis International Film & Music Fest by a couple of years and is at least as old as the Indie Memphis Film Festival.

Both Outflix and Indie Memphis claim 16th anniversaries this year. And like any teenagers, they're all but unrecognizable from their infancies.

Indie Memphis traces its origins to a screening at a Cooper-Young coffeehouse, while Outflix began as the Twinkie Museum Gay and Lesbian Film Festival at the

University of Memphis. (The name was a reference to the infamous "Twinkie Defense" used at the 1979 trial of the assassin of San Francisco's gay city supervisor, Harvey Milk.)

The Outflix Film Festival was previewed Aug. 29 at Midtown's Evergreen Theatre with a sold-out party and special screening of "Interior. Leather Bar.," a film directed by and featuring James Franco. The festival proper begins its weeklong run Friday at the four-screen Ridgeway Cinema Grill (formerly the Ridgeway Four), where it will occupy an auditorium amid such popular draws as "Blue Jasmine," "We're the Millers" and "The Way, Way Back."

A fundraiser for the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center, the festival has become a big draw for filmgoers and filmmakers alike, according to Outflix director Ben Helm.

The 2012 Outflix fest drew about 1,500 patrons, he said, while some 150 films were submitted for this year's event.

About 40 films were chosen, from the U.S., Israel, Denmark and Canada. These include 11 narrative features, eight documentary features and numerous shorts. The lineup includes romantic, sometimes sexy comedies; serious dramas; and documentaries dealing with such headline issues as same-sex marriage, bullying and gun violence. Fun documentaries also have been scheduled: "I Am Divine" looks at the life and times of the drag performer who became a star in such John Waters movies as "Pink Flamingos," while "Continental" remembers New York's infamous Continental Baths, a famous sex club and disco of the 1970s.

The diversity of film styles is evident on opening night, which pairs an activist documentary, "Bridegroom," with a wisecracking teen comedy, "G.B.F." (which stands for "Gay Best Friend").

Directed by "Designing Women" creator and Clinton family friend Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, "Bridegroom," which screens at 7 p.m. Friday, is a heart-rending documentary about the hardships facing a young man whose longtime partner is killed before the couple can be married in California.

A movie with a similar theme is director Travis Fine's "Any Day Now," set in 1970s Los Angeles and based on a true story. Alan Cumming and Garret Dillahunt star as a gay couple who try to adopt a neglected Down syndrome child, but find the courts are more sympathetic to the boy's mother, a drug-addicted prostitute, than to their "open homosexual" lifestyle.

Helm said these movies are "poignant reminders of what we're fighting for and why it's important for our relationships to be treated equally under the law."

Another intense documentary is the HBO-produced "Valentine Road," about an effeminate 15-year-old boy who was shot to death by a classmate in Oxnard, Calif. The film touches on issues of bullying (both boys were victims of abuse) and gun control.

Said Helm: "There's something about a movie and about art in general that can really transport you and help you understand issues and ways of life you might not have thought about before."

All is not heavy, however. "Bridegroom" is followed at 9 p.m. by Darren Stein's broad, colorful comedy "G.B.F.," in which a trio of sassy high school "mean girls" vie for the attentions of their first "out" classmate, Tanner (Michael J. Willett), after reading in their style magazines that gay sidekicks are "the hottest new trend" for teen queen bees.

Another likely festival highlight is "The Rugby Player," a documentary about Mark Bingham, who was among the passengers killed on 9/11 in the crash of United Flight 93.

Bingham and the more famous Todd Beamer (credited with uttering the words "Let's roll") are among the passengers believed to have stormed the terrorist-controlled cockpit, causing the plane to crash in a field instead of hitting its populated target.

"We really feel our film is stereotype-shattering," said director Scott Gracheff, 41. "It tells the story of a man who, in terms of the popular media, would not fall into the untrue and outdated stereotypes of what a gay man is. Mark was into sports; he was aggressive."

What's more, Bingham was an amateur documentarian who filmed much of his life's activities, making his story well-suited for a movie memorial.

Gracheff said Outflix represents his film's eighth festival screening. Next, "The Rugby Player" will make its New York debut -- on Sept. 11 at Lincoln Center.

Outflix Film Festival

Friday through Thursday, Malco Ridgeway Cinema Grill, 5853 Ridgeway Center Parkway. Tickets: $10 per screening. Bargain-price festival passes and multi-ticket packages available. For a list of films, complete schedule and more information, visit outflixfestival.org.

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(c)2013 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

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