Pink eye

If this weekend's first-ever GayOrlando Film Festival seems like an obvious idea, it took a few years to turn that no-brainer into reality.

"I thought it was time for Orlando to have something like that," says Chris Alexander-Manley, vice president of sales and marketing for event co-producer Through his work with the Internet-based concern, which is determined to "educate, entertain and inform" Central Florida on gay issues, Manley has long been hearing positive feedback from folks who have attended one or more of the gay film festivals held around the country. In Florida alone, success stories have been registered in Miami and Tampa (the latter for 12 years running).

For the past decade, Manley's group has (with Maitland's Enzian Theater) co-produced the GayOrlando Film Series, which brings viewers together one Sunday every three months to watch a film with a homocentric focus -- and to toss back a few imbibables. Though he longed to augment the series with a full-fledged festival, the Enzian's schedule didn't allow it until this year, Manley says: With the Florida Film Festival now a March affair, GayOrlando was able to move into its old June slot.

Manley worked with Matthew Curtis, the Enzian's director of programming, to select the films for the event's debut edition. But he also relied on word-of-mouth from the aforementioned network of gayfilm-festival veterans, who could offer informed opinions of movies they had seen. From a viewing pool of "about 20 to 30 films," four features were chosen that could reflect the varying interests and dispositions of the queer audience.

Of all the moods indulged, the yen for comedy is served best. Like a sly takeoff on Michael Ovitz's infamous "gay Mafia" comment, the delightful "Friends and Family" shows a pair of male lovers trying desperately to conceal their dirty little secret -- not their homosexuality, which is well known to just about all of their loved ones, but their day job as soldiers for a Sicilian crime family. It's a wicked empowerment fantasy, with gay stereotypes simultaneously lampooned and posited as a behavioral ideal. You haven't lived until you've seen a bunch of straight goombas taking a crash course in swish history, the better to pose as employees of a catering company. And devotees of second-tier show biz will find plenty to hoot about in a cast that includes Tony Lo Bianco, Tovah Feldshuh and Anna Maria Alberghetti (!).

Filling the festival's love-story quotient is "The Trip," an alternately brassy and weepy romance that follows another couple through 13 years of personal heartbreak and social activism. It's not every day that you can say a movie contains elements of "Longtime Companion" and "Forrest Gump," yet both are valid touchstones for this occasionally didactic picture, in which characters are less important for who they are than what they represent. (Oh, and there's a semi-major role for Jill St. John. Take that, Anna Maria.) Manley hopes for a festival visit from Larry Sullivan, the Kissimmee-bred actor who plays the more reticent half of the couple. Even if the actor doesn't make it, an appearance is expected by his mother, Cheryl, who has no overt connection to the film.

"`But` she's seen it, like, eight times already," Manley chuckles.

Programming a "woman's film" was also a given, though it'll be intriguing to see what audiences make of "The Politics of Fur," a stylized erotic drama that shows a clean-living music executive developing a fatal attraction to an opportunistic riot grrl. From a tonal standpoint, the movie is played (pardon the expression) straight, but the scripted material revels in absurdities that suggest a lesbian send-up of your typical Cinemax thriller. And that just may be how the movie is received (and perceived) by a crowd that's already enjoyed one of the one-hour champagne socials that will precede every screening.

The final category, documentary, is one that GayOrlando almost passed on, Manley says. But "The Cockettes" made the cut by dint of its sheer quality: "It was probably the best choice of the documentaries that are out there that hadn't been shown `in the area`." An alumnus of the Sundance Film Festival, the film uses archival footage and modern-day interviews to reconstruct the drugged-up, seminude outrages of the title troupe, a wildly uninhibited San Francisco performance collective that bridged the gap between flower power and glitter in the late '60s and early '70s. Their anarchic re-creation of Tricia Nixon's wedding alone is worth the price of admission.

Manley is already planning for Year Two, which he hopes will be bigger and better. He's even mulling the possibility of a date change -- perhaps to fall -- so the festival won't coincide with GayDays, which his organization also oversees. He'd also like to allow for more "cutting-edge" fare, including foreign and youth-oriented pictures; this time, the goal was to "keep the films more mainstream." Like the Jewish and South Asian festivals also presented at Enzian, the GayOrlando event has to meet the twin agendas of serving its own people and representing them to the general public. Hetero viewers, Manley says, bring in 10 to 15 percent of the Gay Film Series' business; the festival offers them just as many reasons to pay attention.

"Straight people will hopefully see another aspect of our lives than they otherwise would have been aware of," he foresees. But do they get starter points for knowing who Jill St. John is?