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Programming Within the Vernacular of Cinema: 
Milwaukee’s LGBT Film/Video Festival


Joe Riepenhoff

“This is a story:  There is isolation and brotherhood.  Desperation and hope.  A heart is laid bare.  There is blood.  A man leaps from an airplane…”

The words still echo in my memory.  A black-and-white 16mm image becomes clearer, a man is walking down the street sometime in the 1950’s and my mind goes back to a rainy fall afternoon from years ago where I am standing in the UW-Milwaukee Union Theatre projection box, focusing the lens for the beginning of a short film.  I am captivated by the monotone narration telling surreal and heartbreaking lines of disparate origin, code unknown, thoughts about living in the world.  Accompanied by antiquated found footage, the work seems long ago and far away, but also urgent and relevant somehow.  I hear a knock on the projection booth door and Carl Bogner steps in to ask how things are going.  “Oh this?” Carl says humbly in regard to the film, “I had to go into the school collection for some filler.  It’s Michael Wallin’s Decodings.  I think it’s about AIDs.”  He’s kidding, of course, the obscure film is screening precisely because Carl thought it a valuable addition to the program.  And through this kind of faux-cavalier nonchalance, Mr. Bogner’s programming is able to haunt you. 

Still from Michael Wallin’s Decodings, (1988)
I worked as a projectionist at the Union Theater when I was in college at UW-Milwaukee.  While there I had the opportunity to project films and videos for the various festivals hosted at the University.  The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Film/Video Festival was always the hardest work.  It is always packed with a large number of screenings in a wide variety of formats and includes at least two programs of short works.  It also seems to be the most well attended festival (I remember seeing standing room only available at the 2006 screening of Another Gay Movie; that kind of attendance is a rare occurrence for the Union Theatre).  For these reasons the LGBT Festival could easily be a nightmare for a projectionist, but I enjoyed it.  The complexity and diversity of the programming guaranteed that there would, without exception, be an interesting or even enlightening piece of cinema in store.

I would like to think that Carl’s relationship to the projectionists for the LGBT Film/Video Festival is similar to his relationship to the viewing public at large.  In my case that was played out as overly cautious and accommodating (i.e. Carl would enter the projection booth to make sure all was ok and also to see if you needed a break); generous and inspiring (he got the Union Theatre staff pizza and would be self deprecating in light of compliments); he was also nervous and stressed out (I don’t think he sleeps much during the Festival, but he is notably responsible for bringing intelligent and articulate artists and their work to Milwaukee that would otherwise have no reason to ever be here).  Basically, Carl, in my impression, had the demeanor of someone who has put their time and energy into something they care about and are not sure how it will fair.

Three years ago Carl was somehow able to get a print of the then-unreleased John Cameron Mitchell feature Shortbus to show at the LGBT Film/Video Festival.  I remember going to the midnight screening, feeling lucky to have the opportunity to see this film before it came out.  In the film, parallel stories are told of young people in New York City attempting to meaningfully connect, their lives intersecting at an underground salon where the picture gets its title.  Sexuality is not used in Shortbus as the climax of drawn-out emotional melodrama, nor as an excuse for plot development, nor even as a distraction from underdeveloped aspects of the narrative.  Sexuality is conveyed out in the open from the beginning to the end of the film.  Sexuality in Shortbus is honestly portrayed as the currency by which it operates in our world: it is another ordinary form of communication whereby humans can relate to one another or fail to.  The perspective was refreshing.  It showed a freedom and vitality.  It was not ashamed and it didn’t shame the viewer.

Last year I asked Carl what he recommended out of the festival’s schedule.  Usually if there is a film that incorporates musical numbers or martial arts, ideally both, it will top his list.  Carl told me about a new French filmmaker’s first feature called Water Lilies.  I went to the screening at the Oriental Theatre with my brother and his girlfriend.  We were drawn into the world of adolescent girls’ synchronized swimming in suburban France where a coming-of-age story played out as tender, delicate, and earnest as any I have I seen since. Sounds and environment conveyed intimacy as honest as being uncomfortable in your own body, and affection as awkward as youth itself.  The film culminates in a breathtaking final sequence where the images and score swell to a lush and fluid movement that continues to reverberate somewhere deep inside of me.  We left the theater speechless, not quite knowing what to say about the expression of humanity we had just witnessed.

Still from Céline Sciamma’s Naissance des pieuvres (Water Lilies, 2007)

Wild Combination
, a documentary about the musician and composer Arthur Russell, also played at last year’s LGBT Film/Video Festival.  The movie was introduced by Union Theatre program manager David Dinnell.  David, as part of his job, introduces a good number of movies at the theater but this was the first time I heard something more than a formal opening, it was the first time I learned something personal about him.  David spoke of being a young man and hearing the beautiful, echoing cello melodies and droning vocals of Arthur Russell on a late night college radio station and of then searching record stores throughout the Midwest until finally finding the “World of Echo” LP.  The documentary was just okay, interesting and informative, but viewing it within the context of David’s story opened up a nostalgic perspective from which to explore the subject, of days when finding offbeat music was an adventure.  Seeing Wild Combination in that context was a unique and enjoyable experience.

Still from Matt Wolf’s Wild Combination, (2008)

What amazes me, and what facilitates these kind of viewing opportunities, is the variety of content the LGBT Film/Video Festival offers.  From—in my few examples—short experimental found footage film to a big budget feature, European independent to documentary, there is something in the schedule for all audiences.  Even if your sexual orientation or proclivities fall within the more conventional standards of our current society, you are likely to find a movie that will enthrall you.  If we look in the right place, I like to think that we might even be redeemed by the right work of art, in the right environment, at the right time in our lives.  Carl Bogner, as a Senior Lecturer in the UW-Milwaukee Film Department, is able to create a varied enough festival to permit just that kind of prospect.

This year I am looking forward to a few titles on the schedule.  Particularly intriguing to the kind of movie I long to see right now, or maybe just what I long to believe in seeing, are John G. Young’s Rivers Wash Over Me, playing October 17 at 9:00pm, and Morrer como um homem (To Die Like a Man) by João Pedro Rodrigues, playing October 21 at 7:00pm.  I am not quite sure what either of these viewing experiences will hold, but I can only hope that if they don’t meaningfully engage the world I personally live in, they will at least give me a more complex portrait of a world I would do well to better understand.

Every so often, if I allow myself to sit back in the dark of the theater and let my experience be dictated by the authority of the director, if I am open to a new experience, a unique and subtle point of view that is just imperfect, complex and fragile enough to be human, the festival affords me the rare opportunity to see a piece of film or video that has the power to alter my conception of what the medium of the moving picture is capable of achieving.  The programmed work doesn’t have to be about how we are each different or even how we are all similar.  It is conversing with the language of the movies and if you attempt to speak it, if you are open, it will say something to you.  Good programming facilitates this kind of broadening of horizons.  If handled with care, the subject of any film festival—be it LGBT, Asian, French, Latin American, African American, etc.—acts as simply the vernacular by which film or video communicates, the clay out of which meaning is formed.  The scope of a festival should not expose limitations of the subject, but engage the viewer through a certain lens of being.  Under the care of a good programmer, a festival can do just that.  The power of cinema, after all, cannot be constrained by any lens through which we choose to see the world; it reaches out in many directions at once.

The 22nd Annual Milwaukee LGBT Film/Video Festival runs from October 15th  to October 25th 2009.  For more information about the schedule and where to buy tickets, visit www.arts.uwm.edu/lgbtfilm.

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