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Review: New Orleans Film Festival

Will Coviello on Bettie Page Reveals All, Gayby and Starlet



The New Orleans Film Festival concludes this week with more features, documentaries, short films and some special screenings. The closing night features are The Sessions, starring Helen Hunt as a sex surrogate hired by a paralyzed man, and The Iceman, which was filmed in Shreveport. A couple of additional screenings follow the festival. Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds will be screened outdoors in the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The event also includes live music, food vendors and more. The Talented Mr. Ripley screens at midnight Friday at The Prytania. The event is part of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra's 10th anniversary celebration, and Irvin Mayfield will perform.

  Below are reviews of three films opening at the festival this week.

Bettie Page Reveals All

(8 p.m. Tue., Oct. 16, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St.; 8:30 p.m. Thu., Oct. 18, Chalmette Movies, 8700 W. Judge Perez Drive, Chalmette)

  Legendary pinup girl and fetish model Bettie Page narrates her life story in Mark Mori's excellent documentary Bettie Page Reveals All. Page died in relative obscurity in 2008, and this is the only thorough account of her entire life that she gave to the public.

  Tens of thousands of pictures were taken of Page in the 1950s, but beginning in the very late '50s she quietly slipped from public view, though that fact was obscured by the continued release of unseen photos through the early '60s. When her iconic image of black bangs, fetish photos and bikini shots became popular again in the 1980s, Page had no idea why anyone was interested in the old pictures, Mori says. She refused to appear on camera for him, but between 1996 and 1999 she recorded interviews that Mori uses as a narrative for the film.

  An early scene sets up the film's true challenge. Mori attends a Los Angeles art show featuring works depicting and inspired by Page, and a gaggle of celebrities gush about what they think Page represents. Perez Hilton blandly calls her a "strong woman," Todd Oldham talks of "star quality," Dita Von Teese says she has a "sexy timeless look," Rebecca Romijn calls her a "glamour icon," and Mamie Van Doren says Page "opened doors." None of them are old enough to personally remember Page during the height of her career, and it's easy to see how they project onto her what they want to see. Page didn't hold any of those mythologized views of herself in the 1950s. Mori's film presents Page's account and the impressions of others, including photographers and Hugh Hefner, and reveals the bizarre events of her reclusive years.

  Page was born into a very poor family in Nashville, Tenn., in 1923, and she spent a year in an orphanage with her sisters when their mother couldn't care for them. She worked very hard in school and almost won a full scholarship to Vanderbilt University (it went to her high school's valedictorian, and she was salutatorian).

  Page married, moved to California and had an unsuccessful Hollywood screen test. Later she moved to New York and began her modeling career at about the age of 27. A photographer suggested she try bangs, and they immediately became part of her iconic look. She had big hips and a curvy body, and everyone noticed she was very comfortable in front of a camera, naked or clothed. In an interview with Gambit, Mori called her the "world's best actress for still shots."

  Page posed for thousands of pictures, often wearing bikinis or lingerie she had sewn herself. She was one of the most successful pinup girls, and she was very popular with "camera clubs." Ostensibly the clubs were for amateur photographers, but mostly the all-male groups hired nude models for daylong shoots. Playboy featured her as Miss January 1955. She also did many bondage photo shoots for Irving Klaw, and she's almost synonymous with the rise of bondage and fetish photography, which was a closeted enterprise and one in which nudity and male-female scenes were not allowed. Mori says he reviewed 60,000 photos while working on the documentary, and he shows many in the film, including famous leopard skin bikini shots, Klaw bondage shots with ropes, whips and lingerie and many nude shots. Page and Klaw started doing bondage films, and eventually she appeared in a trio of burlesque movies featuring Tempest Storm and other striptease queens, but Page didn't actually strip and wasn't a burlesque performer.

  In the early 1960s, Page was living in Florida and doing photo shoots with Bunny Yeager. But at about 34 years old, she thought it was time to stop modeling. She had been attending an evangelical church and became interested in doing missionary work. The church rejected her — not because of her nude modeling but because she was divorced. That prompted her to reunite with her long-estranged first husband, and her life took many odd turns after that.

  Page is very open and comfortable about all aspects of her life. She chose to let the public remember her as she looked in the 1950s — regardless of how people label that image.

  • Gayby


(7:45 p.m. Wed. Oct. 17, The Theatres at Canal Place, 333 Canal St., third floor)

  Gayby is a warm, fuzzy romantic comedy about unconventional relationships, and it's made better by director Jonathan Lisecki's attempt to steal his own show.

  There's almost a sitcom-like predictability to the odd couple of Jenn (Jenn Harris) and Matt (Matthew Wilkas). The two were best friends in college and made a pact to have a baby together if they should find themselves single and childless in their thirties. Jenn is a yoga instructor who is treated dismissively by her boss. Her much more attractive and successful sister also finds ways to serially insult her and make her feel inadequate. And Jenn can't find a good man. Matt is a comic book illustrator and comics store clerk. He thinks he found the perfect man, but ever since that guy dumped him years ago, he's moped about and nursed the excuse that he's not ready for a new relationship. Misery loves company and the two are inseparable, especially by cellphone.

  Banal despair progresses to profound angst when Jenn's sister announces she's adopting a child and Matt's friends cajole him into trying online dating. Enter Lisecki as his friend Nelson, a snide and self-assured dating guru. He shares with Matt that his latest dating adventure is a foray into the gay male bear scene, but as sort of a bear cub with an inner femme side. Talk of bears, twinks and other gay male dating niches lightens the film's mood as Matt resists change and drives away his own dates. Nelson is unflappable, and it seems like Lisecki wanted to do more with the character.

  Jenn and Matt start talking about having a baby together, and the comedy of errors starts. Neither wants to pay $10,000 to a fertility clinic, they have all the right equipment at hand and just have to negotiate some orientation obstacles. The logistics of using a turkey baster insemination scheme or having intercourse is an amusing debate, and their efforts are entertainingly awkward. It's not just a sperm donor arrangement; they intend to be co-parents. That seems fine for the old friends, but then new and attractive people suddenly appear.

  The logistics of this modern couple having a child together while living separately and dating others is funny, but there also are a couple of amusing sideshows for those versed in gay dating niches and the scruples of New Yorkers and their regional biases. Not everyone is willing to date across borough lines, and the last lesbian couple that had a gayby didn't realize what they were getting into. They moved to Park Slope. It's a cautionary tale for Brooklyn hipsters and prospective New York parents.

  • Starlet


(7:30 p.m. Tue., Oct. 16, Prytania Theatre, 5339 Prytania St.)

  Starlet explores the possibility and nature of a friendship across generations between 21-year-old Jane (Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel Hemingway) and 85-year-old Sadie (Besedka Johnson). It's set against the dreary suburban California backdrop of the San Fernando Valley. Or at least director Sean Baker invokes a desired bleakness in a series of power lines stretching like a fence across a smog-gray sky. Jane and her roommates scrape by in the lowest rungs of the porn industry (which is well-entrenched in the region just north of Los Angeles) and spend hours getting high on their couch while playing video games.

  Sadie has grown old in the town, but her little bungalow seems a world apart from Jane's drab apartment complex. Sadie is lonely, but manages her life independently and is financially stable. Playing bingo with other seniors is her sole social activity, though the seniors in the hall barely talk to one another.

  Sadie and Jane meet inauspiciously when Sadie has a garage sale, and Jane buys a thermos. When Jane finds cash stashed in the thermos, she drives back to Sadie's home to try to return it, but Sadie thinks she wants to return the thermos and slams the door.

  Jane is not sure what to do next and she both starts splurging with the money and trying to befriend Sadie. The elderly woman is set in her ways and suspicious of Jane but slowly accepts her. It's more companionship between two lonely people than friendship, and it's compelling to watch Hemingway handle Jane's complicated emotional state. She seems to be estranged from her family, and her friends/roommates are as selfish as they are self-destructive. It's not clear what she wants from Sadie, but she becomes more involved and the old woman's cantankerous nature and disinterest don't seem that different from what Jane gets from the other people in her life.

  The issue or implications of the found money seem to disappear conveniently at times, but the film pursues the awkward friendship in often-compelling scenes. Sadie has no desire to change, and being old and alone doesn't look inviting, but the tension hinges on Jane taking something unlikely away from the experience, and it makes the film oddly compelling.

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