Trio of Film Fests Serves Up Intriguing Fare

by Sura Wood

For moviegoers seeking relief from the sound and fury of summer blockbusters and comic book sequels, a trio of specialty film festivals opening this month provides a range of intriguing alternatives.

From silent film classics and offbeat documentaries about unusual people to one of the richest and most varied programs of LGBTQ cinema in the country, June’s film fare is rich and varied.

Now in its 41st year and the largest event of its kind, Frameline is the granddaddy of queer film festivals. It kicks off with Jennifer Kroot’s “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin,” an admiring profile of the author and creator of “Tales of the City.” An ode to San Francisco’s diverse inhabitants and the loves, losses, joys and tribulations of a cast of colorful, astutely drawn characters, “Tales,” which was adapted for television in the 1990s, started as a newspaper serial in the San Francisco Chronicle. Maupin, a charming, witty raconteur with a courtly manner, is at the center of the film, which traces his journey from his conservative Southern roots to gay rights activist and adored storyteller. Neil Gaiman, Sir Ian McKellen, Laura Linney and Amy Tan are among the friends who offer insight and anecdotes.

Two other documentaries here highlight charismatic female vocalists. “Whitney. ‘Can I Be Me,’” a collaboration between veteran documentarian Nick Broomfield and music video director Rudi Dolezal, is an illuminating backstage portrait of Whitney Houston, the spectacular singer with a muscular voice who was undone by a troubled personal life. The film interweaves rare footage and interviews with those who knew the superstar best as it charts her meteoric rise from inspirational gospel singer to music industry sensation and her fall into drug addiction that led to her death in a Beverly Hills hotel in 2012.

Mexican torch singer Chavela Vargas, a muse of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar and, reputedly, the one-time lover of Frida Kahlo and Ava Gardner, is the subject of Catherine Gund’s “Chavela.” Mixing excerpts from her passionate performances with a traditional artist profile enriched by photographs and contributions from assorted talking heads, the doc is a tribute to the lusty, notoriously hard-partying, tequila-drinking Vargas, who lived her life in the open long before officially coming out as a lesbian at the age of 81. Not as famous but every bit as bold, Maria Toorpakai, the top-ranked squash player in Pakistan, was forced to disguise herself as a boy to participate in sports. She has overcome religious condemnation and death threats from the Taliban since she was 16. “Girl Unbound” chronicles her courage and desire for personal freedom despite the risk to herself and her family.

A retrospective section features “Looking for Langston” (1986), an erotic meditation on African American author Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, directed by Isaac Julien, a major figure in British visual art and queer independent cinema. A first in its willingness to address Hughes’ ambivalent sexual identity, the impressionistic black and white tone poem explores repressed gay black desire, combining Hughes’ poetry, archival footage and fictional scenes. “I never meant to make a life of Langston Hughes,” recalls Julien in his book “Riot,” but the film remains his signature piece, informed by Roy DeCarava’s pictures of 1920s Harlem, the homoerotic male nudes of fashion photographer George Platt Lynes, and James
Van der Zee’s baroque, staged portraits of the dead, which the filmmaker discovered at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

June 15 → 25,

Departing from the polished, expensively produced documentaries on HBO and other
prestige platforms, SF DocFest often favors scrappy, low-budget, inventive films about underground subcultures, outsiders and music, all of which are represented in the opening night feature, “Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk.”
In a cacophonous 35-year dive into the history of the Bay Area punk scene, narrated by Iggy Pop, director Corbett Redford focuses on Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street music collective, which spawned the band Green Day. Marginalized men pursuing their true calling figure in both Jamie Meltzer’s “True Conviction,” about three exonerated prisoners, brought together by a shared sense of injustice, who established a detective agency in Texas that works to free the wrongly accused, and in “Gip,” whose protagonist, Henry Gipson, spends his days digging graves in Bessemer, Alabama, and his nights drinking and wailing the blues in a ramshackle juke joint he built in his backyard in 1952.

There was a time when the idea of electing an entertainer to the nation’s highest office would have been considered preposterous. Now, Pacho Velez’s “The Reagan Show” reaches back to the 1980s for the true story of an actor who landed the role of a lifetime. Built entirely from news clips and internal videos compiled by Ronald Reagan’s administration, the film reveals a media-savvy president who often had difficulty distinguishing between reality and the parts he played in movies. And if real life gets too complicated, there is Rory Kennedy’s “Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton,” the saga of the blond big-wave surfer who found solace from an abusive childhood in the ocean’s embrace. A gifted athlete, self-promoter and innovator in the sport, Hamilton has scaled the tallest walls of water on the planet and lived to tell the tale.

May 31 → June 15,

During the first weekend in June, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival rolls out a marathon of screenings partnered with live music. This year’s program includes the debut of hip hop musician DJ Spooky, who provides a sound collage for “Body and Soul,” Paul Robeson’s breakout film role. Alloy Orchestra, the three-man ensemble that uses found objects and electronic gizmos to produce its thrilling original scores, accompanies “The Lost World” (1925), a fantasia that unfolds deep in the Amazonian wilderness. There, prehistoric creatures, engineered by Willis O’Brien (“King Kong”), rule the earth. Alloy also performs at the screening of the modernist psychological thriller “A Page of Madness” (1926), an eerie voyage into mental illness. Through rapid editing and evocative imagery and without intertitles, Japanese director Teinosuka Kinugasa tells the story of a man who volunteers at an asylum where his wife has been confined for years after attempting to drown their baby. If a lighthearted swashbuckling adventure is in order, then “The Three Musketeers” (1921), in which the comrades embark on a mission to save the Queen’s honor, is just the ticket. The lavish 1921 production is enhanced by Douglas Fairbanks as the dashing young D’Artagnon and bouts of swordplay. Lancelot, the main character in Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Doll” (1919), finds himself in a quandary: he’s allergic to matrimony but must marry if he is to inherit his uncle’s fortune. So what’s a skittish scion to do? This one flees to a monastery where surprisingly accommodating monks approach a doll maker and voilà: a mechanical bride, followed by a wedding and a large bequest. But unbeknownst to Lancelot, the robot has been replaced by a real girl. In “Silence” (1926), a man waits to be hanged for murder, though his lawyer suspects his client is protecting the culprit who actually committed the crime. This Cecil B. DeMille production, once thought lost, was recently restored to its full glory after a complete, original 35mm nitrate print was unearthed at the Cinemathèque Française. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra plays at the film’s world premiere the last day of the festival.

June 1 → 4,