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QFest steps out with 60 films and a Divine opening-night attraction

I Am Divine head shot QFest
I Am Divine plays at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Raquel Welch in Myra Breckenridge QFest July 2013
In 1970, Gore Vidal’s sexually explicit novel Myra Breckinridge was filmed with Raquel Welch in the title role.
Crusing with Al Pacino QFest July 2013
Al Pacino plays a police detective who goes undercover in the underground gay world of New York to catch a serial killer in Cruising.
I Am Divine QFest July 2013
Divine in San Francisco in the early 1970s, with makeup and wardrobe by Van Smith. Photo by Clay Geerdes/I Am Divine/Facebook
Harris Glenn Milstead and John Waters I Am Divine QFest 2013
Harris Glenn Milstead, aka Divine, left, and John Waters. Photo by Bob Adams/I Am Divine/Facebook
I Am Divine head shot QFest
Raquel Welch in Myra Breckenridge QFest July 2013
Crusing with Al Pacino QFest July 2013
I Am Divine QFest July 2013
Harris Glenn Milstead and John Waters I Am Divine QFest 2013
AuthorPhoto_Joe Leydon_head shot_column mug_USE THIS

They’re here, they’re queer – and on opening night, they’re absolutely divine.

No kidding: The 17th annual edition of QFest, the Houston GLBT-Q International Film Festival, officially kicks off Thursday with a 7 p.m. screening of I Am Divine, filmmaker Jeffrey Schwartz’s celebration of the drag-queen diva who served as John Waters’ muse, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The documentary is just one of 60 films that will be featured through Monday in 30 programs hosted at nine venues in and around Houston. This year, says festival programmer and board president Kristian Salinas, QFest is boldly going where no QFest has gone before, which he sees as “an exciting reflection of the expansion of the LGBT community throughout the Houston area.”

QFest is boldly going where no QFest has gone before, which Salinas sees as “an exciting reflection of the expansion of the LGBT community throughout the Houston area.”

Other QFest ’13 highlights include H-Town premieres of:

  • Sophie O’Connor’s Submerge (9 p.m. Friday, Rice University Media Center), an Australian drama about a competitive swimmer who’s drawn to her college professor’s seemingly indifferent girlfriend;
  • Yen Tan’s Pit Stop (7:30 p.m. Sunday, Alamo Drafthouse Mason Park), an acclaimed indie drama about two gay men destined to find each other in a small Texas town;
  • Houston native Patrick Hancock’s P.D.A., an 8-minute short -- about a gay couple at a possible crisis point in their relationship – that Hancock will introduce when it’s shown Thursday with the opening-night feature at MFAH.

“My family has lived in Houston for over 30 years,” Hancock says. “Even though I now live in Los Angeles, Houston has always been my home base. I actually wrote the first draft of P.D.A. while I was home visiting my family for Christmas, so to now be screening it at the Houston QFest means that the project has come full circle.

“I’m honored to be part of this festival.”

Revival screenings

QFest ’13 also has some revival screenings in the mix, with features that run the gamut from Myra Breckinridge (4 p.m. Sunday, MFAH), the notoriously campy 1970 sex comedy with Raquel Welch, John Huston, Mae West and, fleetingly, Tom Selleck, to Cruising (6 p.m. Sunday, MFAH), William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 thriller about an undercover cop (Al Pacino) seeking a serial killer of gay men in New York’s Greenwich Village.

And speaking of Cruising: QFest has programmed as a kinda-sorta companion piece Interior. Leather Bar. (7 p.m. Saturday, Rice University Media Center), a 60-minute oddity in which the multitasking James Franco and co-director Travis Mathews “re-imagine” the 40 minutes of S&M activity that Friedkin claimed he had to trim from Cruising back in the day in order to avoid an X rating.

 It’s hard to imagine that anything on view in Interior. Leather Bar. would have a shock value equal to the unforgettable moment in Pink Flamingos, John Waters’ legendary 1972 black comedy. 

It should be noted that Interior. Leather Bar. was deemed worthy of showcasing by programmers at both the Sundance and Berlin film festivals earlier this year. It should also be noted that most critics attending those screenings were, ahem, underwhelmed.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that anything on view in Interior. Leather Bar. would have a shock value equal to the unforgettable moment in Pink Flamingos, John Waters’ legendary 1972 black comedy, when Divine…

Uh, OK: If you’re eating right now, you might want to wait a bit – or maybe even longer – before you read the rest of this article. No, really: Go finish your snack, then come back.

All done? Good.

Divine dines on dog excrement.

As Waters notes in I Am Divine, he filmed the purposefully repulsive scene in a single take. (“I wouldn’t make her do it twice. I’m not a sadist.”) But that one take was more than enough to confirm Divine’s credentials as “the filthiest person alive” (a title her character obsessively sought to retain throughout the movie) and, for better or worse, indelibly establish her pop-culture image.

So indelibly, in fact, that, years later, as Divine tried to branch out into mainstream roles, she was met with varying measures of skepticism and resistance. To his credit, maverick filmmaker Alan Rudolph was inspired to cast Divine against type – way, way against type – as an effete gangland chief in Trouble in Mind (1986). Much more often, however, casting directors couldn’t see past their preconceptions.

“Hollywood has a tendency to pigeonhole everybody anyway,” film critic Alonso Duralde explains in I Am Divine. “For Divine, it was like, ‘You are the guy in the big fishtail dress who eats poop and shoots people. And we’re not really looking for that for Fantasy Island this season.’”

Even so, despite its frank consideration of Divine’s professional frustrations – and, yes, despite the fact that it’s the story of a life that ended all too soon, when Divine suffered a fatal heart attack at the ridiculously young age of 42 – I Am Divine is too upbeat to ever be a downer. Indeed, this affectionate ode to an overweight and socially graceless misfit (born Harris Glenn Milstead in Baltimore, Maryland) who reinvented himself as a swaggeringly uninhibited entertainer (with a little help from neighborhood buddy John Waters) is surprisingly sweet and infectiously amusing.

Even when we see a vintage film clip of Divine as Jacqueline Kennedy in Waters’ surreally tasteless dramatization of the JFK assassination. And, yes, even when director Jeffrey Schwartz gives us the inside scoop on the excrement chomping.

As Schwartz writes in the movie’s press notes: “Like the John Waters protagonists he portrayed in numerous films, Divine was the ultimate outsider. Spitting in the face of the status quos of body image, gender identity, sexuality, and preconceived notions of beauty, Divine still succeeded in becoming an internationally recognized recording artist and screen icon. He gives courage to anyone who’s ever been mocked, ridiculed, and ostracized, and gives us all hope that anything’s possible.

“His story is about fame. It’s about the quest for the spotlight and artistic respect. And in the end, it’s a story of a man estranged from his family and their beautiful reunion. It’s also the ultimate ‘it gets better’ story about a bullied fat kid who had the last laugh on his tormentors.”

All of which makes it an apt choice as the opening-night attraction of QFest ’13.

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