January 26, 2001
BY JOHN MONAGHAN
FREE PRESS SPECIAL WRITER
"Red Dirt," has been praised for its painterly Southern landscapes, the welcome return of Karen Black to the big screen and its sensitive handling of gay issues. According to filmmaker Tag Purvis, "the major criticism I get is that it's not gay enough."The 37-year-old writer-director, appearing with his film tonight to kick off the 8th Annual Michigan Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, speaks comfortably from the center of a debate over what gay film truly is. "I want the audience to relate to the characters first," he says. "And then, whatever grows to exist between them, I want to be taken as secondary."Shot in his hometown of Meridian, Miss., "Red Dirt" finds a young man stifled by his clingy aunt (Black) and cousin before forming a deep emotional bond with a free-spirited drifter. Think Tennessee Williams meets Eudora Welty, with a touch of "God's Little Acre" tossed in for spice.The biggest surprise is that it doesn't follow the usual gay movie scenario. Yes, there is a shy, handsome guy who meets a more experienced, handsome guy. But their initial awkward exchanges don't lead to the ubiquitous -- usually graphic -- sex scene."I deliberately took the sex out to draw the focus away from that aspect," Purvis says of his debut feature. "Many people wrongly assume that being queer is all about sex.... If the boys aren't having sex, then what do you call the love that exists between them? And for that matter, what is love? Where is the line?"The men do engage in a kiss, which Purvis considers an image as strong as all-out sex. He should know. His "America the Beautiful," a 3-minute film loop of men kissing, caused controversy when projected on the sides of buildings in Miami, where he lives. It has since screened at worldwide film festivals, including Ann Arbor's.For Michael Lary, who organizes the Michigan Lesbian & Gay Film Festival through South East Michigan Pride, "Red Dirt" is a perfect kickoff to a series that has grown more diverse over its eight years. "Films are going in a direction where they just happen to be gay, not that they have to push the issue," he says.Of the 17 titles shown over the eight-day program, only "Trois" has already played on area screens. The festival, which presents only works in 35mm, drew a record audience of nearly 3,200 last year, according to Lary."Our first priority is, of course, that the film represent some aspect of gay and lesbian life," Lary says. "But it also has to be of good quality. We want the films to have messages that empower people, or that people can relate to."For the last three years, flying directors in for the opening and closing night "gaylas" has become a festival staple. Purvis has already appeared with "Red Dirt" at a dozen such events, and while he enjoys the question-and-answer sessions following screenings, watching his movie with an audience can be grueling. "At this point it's like 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show.' I know the next line that's coming," he says.While gay-themed films find themselves more in the mainstream, Purvis says festivals like Michigan's remain important. With big studios releasing independent films under smaller subsidiaries, he says, "it has made it difficult for the more guttural films to get through and find an outlet."There are always going to be stray filmmakers out there that are going to make a film out of a primal need for expression. And they're always going to need a place to show them."
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