Five days with Iris

15 Oct


Since 2007 Cardiff has played host to the Iris Prize, an annual competition to find the best LGBT short film from the last year. The shortlist of 30 or so films are put forward by partner festivals around the world (New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv etc) and from open submissions. I’ve been lucky enough to attend every Iris Prize Festival since its inception, writing a blog for their official website (which you can read here).

LGBT cinema has come a long way in the last three decades, and even within the 5 year time-span of Iris I’ve seen the films get better and better. Obviously, the winning films from each year would still stand a very good chance of winning now, but what I’ve noticed is the overall quality of the films improve, making the jury’s job harder each and every year. In its infancy LGBT cinema was almost invariably political, issues-driven, and though there’s nothing wrong with that it meant that there was often very little variety on show. In recent years there’s been a noticeable shift, particularly in European cinema, away from coming out stories, or stories about bigotry, towards films (dramas, thrillers, horror films, science fiction, rom-coms) in which characters are gay, but in which sexuality is not the driving force of the plot.

A great example of this is writer-director Till Kleinert’s film Cowboy, which scooped the Iris Prize in 2008. Here we have a film that owes as much (if not more so) to films like The Wicker Man and The Hills Have Eyes as it does anything in “Queer Cinema”.

Till Kleinert’s ‘Cowboy’

In fact, since it began only one of the Iris-winning shorts (Dee Rees’s excellent Pariah – adapted into a feature film in 2011) could be described as a “coming out” story. Elsewhere we’ve seen small, intimate dramas and bizarre tales of the unexpected and sweet coming-of-age stories and this year a violent drama set in an young offenders’ institute (Grant Scicluna’s brilliant ‘The Wilding’). And no one country or culture has the monopoly on LGBT cinema right now. Winning films have come from the US, Germany, Israel, Norway, Brazil and Australia.

I’ve gone into some detail about the individual short films I enjoyed on the festival blog mentioned above, but really wanted to talk a little about my favourite feature film shown this year. Though there were seven features shown during the festival, I was able to catch only three of them, having been pressganged blackmailed forced given the wonderful opportunity to join the jury and help pick the winning short. The audience award for Best Feature went to Xavier Villaverde’s film Sex of Angels, which sadly I missed, but of the features I did watch, my favourite has to be Matthew Mishory’s Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean.This was a biopic with a difference, focusing only on the period of Dean’s life immediately before his meteoric rise to fame and premature death. There have been a number of previous films about Dean, including one starring James Franco and another featuring beefy Starship Troopers star Casper Van Dien. The former chooses to play James Dean as if he were being played by James Dean (and not how James Dean would have been off camera), while the latter movie could only have been more miscast if they’d chosen Whoopi Goldberg for the lead.

Mishory’s film gives us a fragmented, dreamlike vision of the actor as an enigmatic young man in the process of becoming an icon; a conflicted character one minute extolling the virtues of getting by on talent alone, the next going to bed with whichever lecherous mogul will offer him a role. Here, Dean is a Rimbaud-like figure (a comparison made explicitly in the film’s opening minutes), wandering through a bleak and desolate California. Sexually ambiguous, extremely masochistic, and virtually incapable of reciprocating genuine tenderness, this is less Dean the matinee idol than Dean the existential anti-hero.

‘Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean’

While he’s not quite a dead ringer for Dean, star James Preston manages to convey something of the actor’s mystery, and thanks to some stunning make-up, lighting and photography there are shots that border on the uncanny. Much of the film is shot in a gorgeously authentic black and white, with occasional scenes in Super 8 and Technicolor, but often feels as if it owes as much in tone and look to David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch as it does Nicholas Ray or Elia Kazan.

I’m not sure if Joshua Tree, 1951 has a DVD/Blu-Ray release date for the UK yet, but I’ll be clearing some shelf space (and you know what I’m like about shelf space) when it does.


8 Responses to “Five days with Iris”

  1. Lisa Power October 15, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

    This was the most aesthetically beautiful film I’ve seen for ages. Thanks to Iris duties, I only caught the last half and am desperate to see the rest.

    • thedaillew October 16, 2012 at 10:42 am #

      It’s definitely worth seeing from beginning to end. Possibly the most visually and tonally ambitious feature I’ve seen at Iris in the last 5 years.

  2. psychedk October 16, 2012 at 8:01 pm #

    Very interesting to read the Iris blogs you did. I remember last year how you also mentioned the development in LGBT movies, how they’re not solely about gay issues anymore but that the characters are allowed to be their character first and their sexuality second (I think I mentioned to you on Twitter way back when how fond I was of The Kids are Alright for that exact reason). I’m always on the lookout for some good movies that can do this because honestly? There are only so many coming out movies that are interesting. And unfortunately many of the “gay” movies on the market lack both good production and acting too. So, I’m noting down some titles and hope they will be available on dvd some day.

    The James Dean documentary sounds particularly interesting, I’m so getting that when it’s out. Right now there’s a gay film festival going on in Copenhagen, and my friend wants me to watch a movie with him, which is great, but the selection of movies, not so great. Again, it’s basically 60 movies with the same theme. The few documentaries featured there are definitely more interesting, though, so maybe I should look at those. No James Dean, though.

    Also, it’s Dawn from Twitter here. Hi 🙂

    • thedaillew October 16, 2012 at 8:58 pm #

      Hi Dawn! Let me know what films are showing in Copenhagen, and if they’ve screened in Cardiff I can tell you if they’re worth seeing!

      • psychedk October 17, 2012 at 10:28 am #

        That would be great! I did glance at the Iris list but there were so many it was a little overwhelming. The list of the films showing is here They are mostly feature length, and not shorts, though.

      • thedaillew October 17, 2012 at 10:52 am #

        I caught ‘Yossi’ at this year’s Iris, and that’s a lovely film. It’s a sequel to a 2002 movie called ‘Yossi & Jagger’, but I haven’t seen that, and I think ‘Yossi’ works pretty well on its own. Of the older films they’re showing, ‘The Hunger’ and ‘The Celluloid’ closet are both very good. The latter is a documentary about how Hollywood dealt with homosexuality over the years, and ‘The Hunger’ is a very stylish vampire film starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie and Susan Sarandon. Both worth seeing.

  3. psychedk October 17, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

    Fantastic, that’s very helpful! I guess that Celluloid Closet is based on the book of the same name. I have had that lying around for years but never got around to reading it but always intended to. I’ll take the easy way out and watch the documentary instead, then, haha.


  1. And while we’re on Oxford Street- The Bookshop | Ms Peacock Escapes - October 18, 2012

    […] females, whether role models or otherwise. By coincidence I also stumbled on a blog by author David Llewellyn, very witty by the way, who was a judge at the Iris Prize, an annual competition to find the best […]

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