SXSW Film Festival 2013 | Day 3

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SXSW2013FilmLogoIt’s great to hear some of New York’s old guard recall the good old days before nameless sex became so closely associated with death.

 

In the years before AIDS, bathhouses were a basic fixture of gay life in many cities. The most famous of all was the Continental Baths, located in the Ansonia Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (2109 Broadway, if you’re planning on making a pilgrimage). Malcolm Ingram’s documentary Continental celebrates the glory years of the Continental Baths, and the hero of his tale is Steve Ostrow, who operated the Continental from 1968 until it went bankrupt in the mid-1970s. Much of the film consists of Ostrow narrating an apparently well-practiced tale, as Ingram can cut between obviously different interviews without missing a beat, story-wise.continental-poster

Focusing on Ostrow was a wise directorial choice, because he has the kind of life you wouldn’t believe if you read it in a novel. Originally trained as an opera singer, he was unable to pursue an international career because he faced multiple charges of mail fraud due to a loan-by-mail scheme he invented and operated (the charges were later dropped). Ostrow bought the Continental as an investment opportunity and put his theatrical sense to work, creating a clean and welcoming environment; adding a dance floor and many services, from a hair salon to a public health clinic; and, most famously, adding live entertainment. You probably know that Bette Midler and Patti LaBelle performed at the Continental, but did you know that Metropolitan Opera soprano Eleanor Steber not only performed there (a “black towel” occasion if ever there was one), but that the event was recorded live and released on an LP? To top it off, Ostrow resumed his operatic career after closing the Continental, and also founded an organization in Australia to help older gay men.

Ostrow is forthcoming about the difficulties of running a bathhouse, including the need to bribe both the police and the Mafia, but is less insightful about the reasons his club was popular (he thought it was the entertainment and amenities, but the gay men interviewed on camera are clear that they went there for sex, sex, and more sex). Ingram is not terribly concerned about checking out the accuracy of Ostrow’s version of events, which is sometimes frustrating, but still, it’s great to hear some of New York’s old guard recall the good old days before sex became so closely associated with potential death.

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Loves Her Gun, directed by Geoff Marlsett, takes a look at a timely topic: people who inappropriately rely on guns for psychological security. After being robbed and beaten up by masked assailants in Brooklyn, Allie (Trieste Kelly Dunn) decides, almost on a whim, to move to Austin, packing into a van with a friend (Ashley Spillers) and the friend’s indie band. The well-known transformative effects of a road trip in good company seem to be setting Allie on the path to healing. In Austin, she bunks with a band member (Francisco Barreiro) and finds a landscaping job with a friend of a friend (Melissa Bisagni). But this is not a fairy tale, Allie’s problems can’t be solved by just a change of location, and you know what Chekhov said about guns.

Loves Her Gun uses many devices familiar to anyone who has seen a few indie features, so time passes through the courtesy of time-lapse photography, and we get the obligatory music montage, the skinny-dipping scene, and the multi-culti characters brought in for one scene and then dropped. The characters and their interactions are mostly familiar (the script is by Lauren Modery and Marslett, with improvised dialogue), and while guns make an early appearance, it takes over an hour to get around to what is most interesting about the plot: Allie’s initiation into gun culture, and her psychological response to the power that comes from pulling a trigger. Even from that point forward, the film can’t seem to find its pace, so it feels rushed one minute and padded the next, and ultimately like a wasted opportunity to explore an important phenomenon.

It’s against the law to ride dirt bikes within the Baltimore city limits, but the police are not allowed to chase the riders, and police-baiting has become something of a sport with a particular group of young men and adults. What’s more, these riders like to show off and do tricks on their bikes, in the same city streets where ordinary traffic is passing. The greatest prestige is conferred on those who can maintain control of their bike while tilted perpendicular to the ground, a position known as “12 o’clock” in reference to the position of a clock’s hands at that time of day.

Anyone with an ounce of common sense could tell you that this situation will not end well, but it certainly is exhilarating for the bikers, and the conflict with the police seems to add an extra charge to the buzz they get from riding. Lotfy Nathan’s documentary 12 O’Clock Boys captures the joy and exuberance of the riders and downplays the dangers involved, not only from the police, but also from the possibility of falling or losing control of one’s vehicle. It focuses on a charismatic young rider, 12-year-old Pug, who is clearly attracted not only to the riding itself, but also to the attention he receives from the men involved (Pug’s father is not part of his life, and his older brother dies during the three years over which the film was shot).

Nathan’s approach is observational and reminds me of the way Steve James constructed Hoop Dreams, following the emerging story while creating context by including footage of Pug and his mother, Coco, at home, and seldom inserting himself into the picture other than to ask questions from off camera. It is implied that Pug is smart (he says he wants to be a veterinarian) but we have to take that on faith, as we do assertions that a particular rider’s death was caused by police activity. Although Coco berates Pug for his attraction to biking, he’s clearly used to ignoring her, and becomes more belligerent as he gets older. The story behind the story here is how the situation got so out of control—not only for this young man, but for an entire community—so that the best energies of countless people are spent in activities that are likely to come to no good end. | Sarah Boslaugh

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