For valentines — or anyone who loves classic queer films — BAM Film is offering three great features as part of its “Long Weekend of Love” program of nine offerings February 14-17.
Donna Deitch’s “Desert Hearts” (February 14, at 7 p.m.) was an instant classic of lesbian cinema when it was released back in 1985. The film, set in 1959 Reno, compassionately depicts the love that develops between Vivian (Helen Shaver), an English professor waiting out a divorce, and Cay (Patricia Charbonneau, in a remarkable debut), a smoldering beauty who works at a casino and lives on the ranch where Vivian is staying. Deitch said in a 2017 interview with Gay City News that she admires the fact that the film is “a love story between two people who initially have absolutely nothing in common except that they are the same sex.”
Vivian is prim and proper and wants to “be free of who I’ve been,” while Cay is reckless; the sultry young woman is seen driving backward when she first meets Vivian. Their slow-burn attraction heats up when the women kiss in the rain, but their relationship soon has tongues wagging. The tender love scene between Vivian and Cay is the centerpiece of the film and quite sexy.
Deitch’s film was a milestone of independent film when it was made, and it still holds 35 years later. Moreover, it absolutely benefits from being seen on the big screen.
Andrew Haigh’s excellent, intimate gay romance, “Weekend” (February 15, 4:45 p.m.) from 2011, invites viewers to eavesdrop on the budding relationship between Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New). Meeting at a club one evening, they spend the night together. And then the next day, and the next night, and the next day.
Glen is an artist and has a queer political bent. Russell is more subdued, an everyman who just wants to be happy. Their conversations are often poignant — Chris explains how he was outed in school—and sometimes heated, as when Russell argues a position about gay marriage. Haigh films these men in a neo-realist style in Russell’s apartment, or chatting idly on public transit.
Although the story has the typical romantic trajectory (meet-kiss-argue-make-up) the film is incredibly affecting because it is so achingly real. Haigh’s observational approach chronicles Russell and Glen’s palpable attraction. Their physical closeness — watch the guys’ body language as they chat in the kitchen or on the couch — adds depth to their developing emotional attachment. It makes their sex, when they have it, even hotter.
“Weekend” may seem like a two-hander better suited to the stage, but the film’s intense, personal style draws viewers in; audiences become invested in the relationship to the same degree that Russell falls for Glen (and maybe Glen for Russell). This approach gives the film its passion and emotion that is felt in the film’s very moving finale.
The performers are fantastic in their roles. Handsome without being too pretty, they seem comfortable and natural together. Cullen nicely underplays his part; a scene at his goddaughter’s birthday party belies his desires to be with Glen. New is particularly charismatic and irresistible. Watching these men connect one cannot help but fall in love.
“Go Fish” (February 17, 7 p.m.) was a watershed release in 1994. It was part of the New Queer Cinema movement and helped launch the careers of writer/ director Rose Troche and writer/ actress Guinevere Turner. This charming romance, set in Chicago, has Max (Turner) a “carefree single lesbo looking for love,” being unexpectedly set up with Ely (V.S. Brodie). Their first date is filled with promise, but Ely confesses that she has a girlfriend — albeit one who lives thousands of miles away in Seattle. As their relationship develops slowly, their mutual friends meet up and discuss the would-be couple’s progress, acting as a Greek chorus.
While the narrative thread about whether Max and Ely will couple up is slight, Troche fleshes out the story with insight into queer representation, sex and gender roles — including butch/ femme dichotomies — and even the best terms for female genitalia. A lengthy scene features a “tribunal,” where a lesbian who slept with a man has to defend her actions and her sexuality in front of a judgmental group of women. Another key moment has a young woman outed to her family and then kicked out of the house. The film also has some experimental sequences, such as one featuring Max in a wedding dress imagining a heterosexual life.
Part of the appeal of “Go Fish” is its scrappy indie vibe and mixed race cast; it was shot in 35mm black-and-white on a tiny budget ($15,000). An extended phone call between Max and Ely is as enchanting as a dinner party where the guests play “I never.”
Turner is charismatic as Max, and while Brodie is a bit stiff initially, her performance and her character become quite likeable. A scene of Ely walking home after a night out with Max is particularly winning.
“Go Fish” captured magic in a bottle back in the day. It’s worth rewatching.
LONG WEEKEND OF LOVE | BAM Film, Peter J. Sharp Building, 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Pl., Brooklyn | Feb. 14-17 | bam.org/film/2020/long-weekend-of-love