Valley Art Theatre in Tempe opens the Second Annual Gay and Lesbian Film Festival on Friday. The festival consists of four features and a collection of shorts, all of which are more intriguing than anything new you're likely to see at the multiplexes this summer. Here, briefly reviewed, are this year's selections:

Split--William to Chrysis: Portrait of a Drag Queen--This sad, gritty-looking documentary is about the astounding International Chrysis, a boy from the Bronx who became an imposingly sexy chanteuse in the New York drag world and a darling of artist Salvador Dali, then died at age 39. Watching the performance and interview footage, it's impossible to think of Chrysis as a man, and equally clear that "she" (I can't avoid pronouns anymore, so that's the one I'm settling on) wasn't a woman, either--and didn't want to be.

Chrysis constantly injected herself with female hormones and somehow obtained enormous breast implants--the seepage from which eventually gave her cancer--but she retained the anatomy of her former gender from the waist down. One of the witnesses interviewed in the film remarks that remaining in a pre-op state isn't uncommon for transsexuals, even when the operation is financially feasible, because they don't want to become "just another woman."

After a lifetime of self-invention, of making herself one of a kind, this was clearly the case with Chrysis. She wasn't about to give up the part of her that was, for all her flawless, bombshell looks, the center of her mystique. As a performer, she was powerful--a fine, raw torch singer (though a rather indifferent dancer)--but she achieved stardom less through talent than through an almost frightening intensity of commitment to her own persona. She wasn't feminine (she was quite butch, in fact), but she was womanly in a way that made most notions of femininity seem petty and limiting.

Directed by Ellen Fisher Turk and Andrew Weeks (and originally shot on video), Split isn't a great movie. It's rather cheesy to look at, and the filmmakers' fringe attempts at artiness are pitiful. But there's no doubt it has a fascinating subject--a person whose whole life was a grandly dismissive (and self-immolating) gesture against the idea that one body couldn't accommodate both genders. "Somebody's gotta do it," Chrysis was known to say in her deep, croaking voice. Maybe she was right.

Split plays Friday through June 23.
Coming Out Under Fire--Last year's festival included Paris Poirier's documentary Last Night at Maud's, which centered on the closing of a beloved San Francisco lesbian bar, but which was more interesting as a thumbnail chronicle of lesbian socializing in the decades following World War II. Poirier is listed as a researcher in the credits of Coming Out Under Fire, which provides another, darker chapter in the long-secret history of gays and lesbians in this country. This quiet powerhouse of a documentary, based on the book by Allan Berube, tacitly serves as a reproach to the cowardly hypocrisy of the U.S. military with regard to its official policy on homosexuals and lesbians.

A brief, simple, black-and-white film, it employs some remarkable archival footage, but draws most of its power from the dignified, never-hysterical testimony of a number of men and women who served in WW II. Some of them successfully hid their orientation; some did not, and paid dearly for it.

One man claims that it never occurred to him to conceal his preference for men, but his induction examiner phrased the questions so that it didn't come up. Those who came out (or were informed upon) were often subjected to shocking persecution, followed in most cases by dishonorable discharges.

Director Arthur Dong opened the film with recent footage of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testifying to a congressional committee that "open homosexuality is incompatible with military service." Then we're shown the stories of these men and women who served their country, often voluntarily and often valiantly, and in return got only abuse. The arc is completed at the film's end, when we're given another bit of congressional footage which makes naked the panicky motive of the "don't ask, don't tell" school--the desire to cling to a pretense about the military (and society in general) that was never true to begin with. The revolting Senator John Warner baldly lays the opposition's offer out to an openly lesbian former servicewoman (a National Guard colonel!): "Give up the right to openly profess your sexuality among your fellow soldiers. Give it up. Then we'll let you serve quietly and patriotically in every other way." How very generous. Coming Out Under Fire plays Friday through June 23. (Also on the bill: the propaganda cartoon Private Snafu, Censored.)

For a Lost Soldier--Another, very different take on gays in the military during World War II. Jeroen (played as a boy by Maarten Smit and as a grown-up by Jeroen Krabb‚), a 12-year-old from Amsterdam, goes to live with a kind family in a small town in the Netherlands. The following year, the Nazis are routed, and the town is full of liberation soldiers. One of them, a Canadian named Walt (Andrew Kelley), strikes up a friendship with the kid, and eventually initiates him in sex.

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