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Bold without apology

Since the beginning of the decade, gay film has boldly come out of the closet.

Gus Van Sant's My Private Idaho, Derek Jarman's Edward II and Todd Hayne's Poison have all been proudly _ some say militantly _ gay.

Now come Swoon and The Living End, movies that are controversial not only because they're assertively gay, but because they revolve around remorseless, murderous gays.

They will be shown this weekend at the third annual Lesbian and Gay Pride Film Festival at the Tampa Theater. Other highlights include Hours and Times, an account of a lost weekend shared by John Lennon and Beatles manager Brian Epstein, and Claire of the Moon, one of the few unabashedly lesbian romances to come out recently.

Swoon and The Living End concern gay criminal couples living in a blighted, homophobic landscape.

Tom Kalin's sleekly photographed Swoon recounts the hysteria over the 1924 trial of Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb, wealthy Jewish youths whose contempt for authority led them to plot the kidnapping-murder of a younger boy.

Gregg Araki's The Living End follows a handsome drifter and his film-critic lover as they cross America after one accidentally murders a policeman. Both are HIV positive.

"None of my films are autobiographical," Araki said last week from his home in Los Angeles. "However, my films are personal. They reflect my feelings about being gay, or queer, in a society as virulently homophobic as America."

The Living End has been called a gay Thelma & Louise, a tag which Araki understands even though it displeases him. The Living End revolves around gay men fighting a repressive society; Thelma & Louise concerns women fighting repressive males. Araki says while The Living End is a bad-to-the-bone celebration of gayness, Thelma & Louise's anti-heroes pay for their feminist transgressions by driving suicidally over a cliff.

Araki says his movie is an outlaw romance and a buddy road movie, more like Easy Rider.

"The Living End has the subtitle An Irresponsible Film. It's a playful, self-conscious gag," says Araki, 31, who shot his movie on leftover 16mm color stock given to him by filmmaker friend Jon Jost. "The film isn't meant to be taken literally. There's violence and unsafe sex, which I don't promote."

Swoon recounts Leopold and Loeb's courtship, their arrest and how their claim of innocence by virtue of insanity fueled anti-Semitic and homophobic rage.

"My movie is about an obsessive relationship between two people who are unsuitable for each other," Kalin said from New York. "It depicts their committing a horrible, motiveless crime. But the fact they were Jewish, intellectual and gay became more important to the court and public than the crime itself."

Kalin notes his movie is in the film noir

tradition, like Double Indemnity, only his criminals are gay.

Neither Kalin or Araki want their movies to become embroiled in controversy over over art, public speech and gay rights. Last year, several conservative groups attacked the National Endowment for the Arts for helping to fund Todd Haynes' Poison, a movie that included homoerotic sex.

"My film is meant to be looked at as a work of art. It's not meant to be reacted to as a point of this political hysteria," Araki noted.

Screenwriter-director Nicole Conn concurs with Araki's sentiments. She made Claire of the Moon, a lesbian love story, after being frustrated by Hollywood which had optioned several of her lesbian-themed scripts but never made them into movies.

"All filmmakers have a responsibility, first and foremost, to themselves, their characters and their story. Simply because we are gay and lesbian shouldn't mean we should play by different rules," Conn said from her home in Oregon.

Her movie concerns two women whose grudging respect for one another grows into a mutual attraction during a summer at a writer's camp.

Claire of the Moon has been compared to Desert Hearts, one of the finest lesbian movies of the 1980s. Claire of the Moon is more open and sexually frank, a departure from such closeted mainstream movies as Fried Green Tomatoes and Leaving Normal.

"Claire is a film for the lesbian nation and then a cross-over audience," Conn says. "Desert Hearts was marketed as a mainstream movie, but was successful because of a lesbian core audience."

Conn notes that while gay cinema has recently experienced a resurgence, the lesbian cinema has not been as successful. She said the positive response that her film has received at film festivals might help convince straight producers to back lesbian features.

"This is a niche market that's starving," she said. "It's probably the best risk in the industry."