Bright Lights Film Journal

Queer Quickies: Random Short Reviews from The Slaughter Rule to Frida to Hell House

Hits and misses from the arthouse to the grindhouse

The Slaughter Rule (Andrew and Alex Smith, 2002)

“My father told me if I was hard enough, I’d never break. He lied. Everything breaks.”

So says Roy Chutney (Ryan Gosling), a depressed teenager whose father, an abuser whose recent death is not mourned by Roy or anybody else, was better at dispensing bad advice than hugs. Roy has just been cut from the football team, has an estranged mother and an indifferent girlfriend. Living in a nowhere rural town in snowbound Montana, he appears ready to break himself.

Enter Gideon (“Gid”) Ferguson (David Morse), a smiling, bearish middle-aged guy who delivers papers and is trying to cobble together a six-man bush-league football squad. He picks Roy as his quarterback, and then Roy’s best friend, Tracy Two Dogs (Eddie Spears), a Blackfoot Indian who also has an abusive father. Gideon becomes a kind of father figure to his boys, especially to Roy. But there’s a twist. Rumors swirl around this lovable, charismatic guy. It’s said that he caused the death of another young football player he befriended in another town, and that he’s “queer.”

It doesn’t help that Gid refers to himself as a “mother hen” and uses every opportunity to expand his presence in Roy’s life. Gid is emotionally direct and demanding in a way that increasingly disturbs Roy and encourages the charges of gay and “Roy’s fuck buddy.” One of the most powerful scenes occurs when Gid grabs the boy for a lingering bear hug calculated to break down his inhibitions and to show him that, in a world of missing or abusive fathers, Roy has one ally who offers unconditional love. Gid’s character here and throughout is a bracing mix of raw self-exposure and tantalizing mystery, beautifully realized by actor David Morse. Just who is Gid? “I ain’t a man that wants other men,” he says, with what sounds like absolute honesty. “I just like bein’ in their company.” Yet when he talks about his “other boy” who died while they were boating, Gid wrenchingly refers to his loss of “my boy, my beautiful boy!”

Directors Andrew and Alex Smith, twin brothers, based this fine first feature on their own experiences on a rural Montana “men’s league” run by an overly devoted coach “renowned for doing ‘cup checks.'” They recall their relationship with him as “fleeting — but haunting,” precisely the mood that pervades The Slaughter Rule. The film succeeds superbly by making Gid a mass of complexities rather than the usual chickenhawk stereotype, and by its compelling treatment of Roy’s struggle to trust, to accept love even from an unlikely source.

Keep the River on Your Right (David and Laurie Shapiro, 2000)

The subtitle of Keep the River on Your Right is “A Modern Cannibal Tale” but perhaps “Cannibal Queen” might have been more appropriate. Not that star and subject, gay painter and anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum, is really a cannibal. During a foray into Peru in the 1950s, he did sample a morsel of human flesh after a murderous raid by the tribe he was living with. (And no, it didn’t taste like chicken; it was more like pork, according to Schneebaum.)

This intermittently intriguing, sometimes tedious documentary shows Schneebaum, now in his late seventies, returning to the scenes of his “crime” — Papua New Guinea, where he lived with, was adopted by, and had boyfriends among the natives; and Peru, where the infamous event occurred.

Schneebaum is a charismatic personality, an unapologetic eccentric whose reunion with people whose lives have changed dramatically since his early encounters is quite moving. Scandalous clips show him on ’60s talk television explaining his adventures to shocked host and guests. There are amusing scenes where Schneebaum lectures boatfuls of bourgeois travelers on tribal art and customs and homosexuality — during a slide show he pointedly indicates “These men are lovers, these men are lovers, these men are lovers.” Still, the documentary is ultimately as languid and aimless as Schneebaum’s quest for “something” that is never really defined. Extras on the DVD include photo galleries, samples of Schneebaum’s art, and biographies of the participants.

Frida (Julie Taymor, 2002)

Given Frida Kahlo’s (1907-1954) iconic status, it’s surprising that her story hasn’t been told in a feature film before now. Or maybe not, considering she was not only a gifted painter but also an aggressively bisexual, alcoholic, violent-tempered, crippled communist who had an affair with Trotsky and the Soviet flag draped over her coffin. Not exactly Lifetime Channel material.

For Salma Hayek, Frida — aka the Unibrow for that cuddly caterpillar stretching artfully across her lower forehead — was a lifelong fascination, so much so that she battled the likes of Madonna and Jennifer Lopez to get the role. Hubby Edward Norton helped with the screenplay and plays Nelson Rockefeller, dour patron of Kahlo’s hubby Diego Rivera, and Julie Taymor directs. The result is a colorful, lively dual biography — it’s as much about Diego Rivera as Frida — that collapses into cliché too often to be ultimately much more than glorified soap opera.

The film certainly moves briskly, sampling the high and low points (there were probably more of the latter) of Frida’s stormy life. First we see her as a scandalous student, running with a pack of intellectual boys and terrorizing the teachers. Then comes the famous bus crash that left her in a body cast for a month and began her slide into disability and chronic pain. Still, she forges ahead, becoming a central figure in the rich arts scene in Mexico City in the 1920s and ’30s. Along the way she cultivated a seductive personal style that included surrounding herself with peacocks and monkeys, and forging a powerful, quite individual kind of painting in which she appears as a kind of stoic lab specimen occupying surreal landscapes.

Much of Frida tracks her on-again off-again relationship with Diego Rivera (a predictable Alfred Molina), whom she alternately adores and denounces as a “fat womanizer,” the latter habit extending even to Frida’s sister. Their scenes are standard histronics, Frida screaming and hurling things and then Diego screaming and hurling things. Scenes like the cantina brawl resurrect every stereotype of “those hot-blooded Latins.” Still, Hayek seems made for the role, and her excessive embrace of the character has definite moments of pathos.

Queer viewers will appreciate a red-hot tango, complete with lingering kiss, between Frida and her new pal Tina Modotti, played with sizzle by the gorgeous Ashley Judd. And the look of the film can’t be faulted. It’s shot in vibrant colors that give an immediate feel of Mexico in the early twentieth century. Director Taymor enlisted the Brothers Quay to devise a series of bizarre animated scenes, including a wonderful Day of Death tableau vivant to express Frida’s nightmare in the hospital, that helps boost the too-often sagging energy of the surrounding melodrama.

The Lawless Heart (Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger, 2002)

This ensemble drama by Brits Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger (makers of the charming 1996 queer indie Boyfriends) has been variously called a “gem,” a “jewel,” and “heartfelt.” But gems can be cloudy, jewels can be paste, and heartfelt might mean it’s time for a trip to the cardiologist. The Lawless Heart is a well-intentioned, well-acted drama that slips too often into cliché and bathos to be effective.

The film reverses the old trend of killing off the homo at the end by doing it at the beginning. Much-loved gay restaurateur Stuart (David Coffey) has kicked, and a disparate group of friends, relatives, and lovers show up at his funeral, in the process trying to figure out the messes in their own lives.

His lover Nick (Tom Hollander) is understandably upset. His brother-in-law Dan (Bill Nighy) is understandably bored with his hetero life and family. His ne’er-do-well childhood pal Tim (Douglas Henshall) is understandably — well, you get it. They’re all in quiet crisis mode but terribly civilized. Even the homophobe, Dan, isn’t exactly virulent on the issue, contenting himself with making sotto voce catty remarks about queer promiscuity and flightiness, traits he seems poised to embrace himself. (I know, I know — that’s the point.) Complicating matters is a calm struggle over Stuart’s money, with Dan convincing his homo-simpatico wife to keep it for them rather than giving it to Nick, despite her impulse to do the latter.

The three men’s stories intersect and refract off each other in the film’s ambitious parallel structuring. Dan meets a zany Frenchwoman who tries to convince him to get more “joie” out of his “vivre” by forsaking convention. Tim moves in on Nick, turning his house of mourning into a raucous party palace, complete with thieving guests and strangers fucking in Nick’s bedroom. And in a trope that will annoy some viewers while reassuring others, Nick becomes a heterosexual — sort of.

The film has quiet — what else? — moments of humor and charm, as these characters falter toward and away from each other, trying to make that crucial human connection. But these moments are fatally undercut by the film’s cheesy impulses. There are endless Kodak moments, montages of brave, stoic, teary faces framed against dramatic beach backdrops or, in a scene that screams for the scissors, adults romping giddily through a playground. Wheeee! And was it really necessary to show the faithful gathering to watch “poignant” home movies of the dead queen and Nick running along the beach? Please.

Queer viewers may find Nick the most unsettling character here. It’s a little much in 2003 to see a gay man so passive and disengaged, hovering around the action, accepting any kick in the head — whether Tim’s takeover of his house or the attempted theft of his money or a rude worker at his restaurant that he’s too much of a doormat to fire. Even when he stands up to somebody, he apologizes later for it. Nick is the apotheosis of the silent-suffering homo of pop mythology, more comforting to nervous heterosexuals than he will be credible, or even interesting, to homos.

P.S. Your Cat Is Dead (Steve Guttenberg, 2002)

P.S. Your Cat Is Dead began life in 1972 as a novel by James Kirkwood, coauthor of A Chorus Line. Kirkwood adapted it as a play in 1978, and it’s been revived occasionally but only recently turned into a movie, thanks to Steve Guttenberg, who co-wrote, directed, and stars in it. The results are mixed, with some noticeable problems balanced by effective performances by the two principals and unexpected undercurrents of real emotion in their over-the-top interplay.

The story, set in Los Angeles and updated to the present, begins as a portrait of a loser. “It’s New Year’s Eve,” says actor-writer Jimmy Zoole (Guttenberg), “and it’s been the worst year of my life.” Zoole, a hopeless kvetch, has good reason to complain. His girlfriend is leaving him, his apartment (which one of his acquaintances tells him is a “shithole”) has been burgled twice, and his beloved cat Tennessee is in the hospital.

And then there’s his career, which is as weird as it is unsuccessful. It seems audiences aren’t buying his “One Man Hamlet” show, Shakespeare with sock puppets. To add insult, the only copy of the manuscript of his treasured novel, handwritten, was a casualty of the last burglary.

Zoole’s woes kick into high gear when gay thief and hustler Eddie (Lombardo Boyar) decides to revisit his apartment and clean out whatever was missed previously. But this time the victim turns the tables, discovering the bandido under the bed and, in a twist that must have looked especially kinky in the early ’70s, hogtying him face down along the kitchen sink, whereupon an increasingly complex and ultimately rather moving relationship develops between Zoole, trying to get control of his life, and Eddie, who turns out to have problems of his own.

Guttenberg does better as actor than as director. The film screams “play!” with no attempt to make it cinematic. Most of the action is shot straight in the claustrophobic apartment set, which looks more like a set than an apartment. And attentive viewers will notice the things the film forgot to update, like references to Dexedrine (does it even exist anymore?) and Zoole’s handwritten novel, which surely would have been typed on a computer if this were really set in the modern era. Also problematic are the minor characters, who add little to the story. The gifted Shirley Knight, a prominent actress in the 1960s, is entirely forgettable cameo as Zoole’s rich aunt, and A. J. Benza, a straight New York gossipteer in real life, looks and acts like an idiot as a butch queen in leather and loads of mascara.

On the up side, both Boyar and Guttenberg are quite effective in their roles. It couldn’t have been easy for Boyar to act most of the film hog-tied on his belly with his ass and thighs exposed. His skill at shifting from cockiness to contrition helps viewers forget some of the story’s contrivances. Guttenberg is equally good as the powerless schlemiel whose life is collapsing all around him, and who takes his power at the expense of his captive. He looks the part of a physical and emotional wreck, disheveled and grim, and perhaps should, since the actor’s own career has been in decline for some time. His sometimes sadistic, sometimes simpatico interplay with Boyar has an almost romantic feel that keeps the viewer intrigued — is Zoole really the closet case that Eddie says he is? — and makes the film worth watching.

The Perfect Son (Leonard Farlinger, 2000)

The dreary “AIDS drama” of the late 1980s and 1990s resurfaces with The Perfect Son. Leonard Farlinger directed this first feature supposedly to honor his brother who died on AIDS, but Bro’ may be rolling in his grave at this anemic, retrograde film.

Conservative, closeted gay lawyer Ryan (Colm Feore) meets up with his estranged brother, hunky junkie Theo (David Cubitt), fresh out of rehab. Theo learns of Ryan’s promiscuous homosexuality and allegedly declining health due to AIDS. I say allegedly because, despite the film’s insistence on Ryan’s illness, and his histrionics, he’s the picture of rosy health, jogging on the beach, sprinting up and down stairs. (In other simply awful scenes, he balefully drags an IV around the room and pukes his guts out, all the while looking gym-trim.) The film is less interested in Dying Queen’s Dilemma than in the rise of Theo from clueless wreck to devoted boyfriend, expectant father, and presumably, inheritor of Ryan’s hefty estate. (Why are there so many overachieving wealthy queens in movies?) Ryan performs the traditional queer role of self-sacrificing vehicle for a straight man’s personal growth, thoughtfully taking his bow and leaving the stage at just the right moment. Point of comparison: black characters’ similar function for white characters in too many movies to mention. The DVD includes a commentary by director Farlinger and actor Feore, a separate musical score, and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Hell House (George Ratliff, 2001)

Texas has always produced more than its fair share of oddities, from executions of mentally retarded prisoners, to a felony charge for possession of six dildos (five’s okay), to lawsuits against Oprah for dissing beef, to that nuke-happy scamp we call our President. Joining this august company is Hell House, a fascinating cinema verite look at the Lone Star State’s fundamentalist Christian spookhouses featuring Grand Guignol tableaux of botched abortions, dying AIDS patients, rave rapes, and that perennial Christian fave, the everlasting fires of hell, rendered in high-school variety show style with colored fogs and gold foil.

Run by the Cedar Hill, Texas’s Trinity Church, one of those Assembly of God operations that specialize in babbling in tongues and denouncing abortion and homosexuals, Hell House claims 75,000 visitors over the past 10 years of operation, with 15,000 “scared straight” souls instantly converted to the joys of the Christian lifestyle. And what inspired this success rate? Perhaps it was the “Hospital” sequence. Sitting in adjacent beds are “abortion girl,” a screaming teenager lying in a pool of blood, and “dying AIDS guy,” another screaming teenager whose “choice” of homosexuality and denunciation of Christ assures him a prime place at Beelzebub’s knee.

These hokey productions combine the latest technology (video monitors etc.) with homely old-school effects: corny dialogue, scream-acting, Disneyland Haunted House sound effects, and boilerplate messages of dire consequences to any behavior that deviates from an exceedingly narrow norm. It’s easy to laugh off this stuff as yet another wacky phenomenon from the heartland. Heck, it could even be read as naïve art. But the uneasy parade of little kids and young teens through what look like outtakes from Texas Chainsaw Massacre may make you want to dial the child abuse hotline. The religiosos running these shows talk a lot about the “susceptibility” of youth to the horrors of Satan, queerness, sex before marriage, drunk driving, etc. But they’re surely equally guilty in trying to induce trauma in their young audiences, indifferent to the impression these chambers of horrors have on impressionable minds.

The film is refreshingly neutral in treating this material. It simply records, in painstaking detail, the complicated process of choosing actors, building sets, rehearsing, and the show itself, leavening it with glimpses of the sometimes pathetic lives of the people putting it on. But one thing that shines through is the organizers’ enthusiasm for what they’re doing. It wouldn’t be overreaching to conclude that these supposedly devout folk are a little too excited at their bloody tableaux. You can almost see them getting off on images of date-raped teenagers, spreadeagled abortion “victims,” and the other hapless denizens of this kitsch-drenched hell.

Girls Will Be Girls (Richard Day, 2003)

The 2003 San Francisco Indie Fest’s opening night entry, Girls Will Be Girls made some noise at the 2003 Sundance Festival, no small feat considering the tsunami of queer material there that included Macauley Culkin as a murderous disco queen and Gina Gershon as a bisexual rocker. But this stone-funny drag send-up of Valley of the Dolls and All About Eve would stand out in any cinematic crowd.

Drag comedies can be as much of a drag as the tired queens who usually populate them. But Girls outstrips the competition thanks to a snappy, imaginative script, pop-art playhouse sets, and commanding performances by the three principals.

Evie (Jack Plotnick) is the archetypal Evil Queen, a Kay Thompsonish hatchet-faced hag who presides over a collapsed acting career and a candy-colored apartment the size of a football field. Evie’s in a perpetual drug n’ sex dreamworld, from which she emerges to skewer her earnest lawyer son (a hunk with a micropenis) or her beleaguered roommate Coco Peru (Clinton Leupp). Into this dysfunctional little world comes Varla (Jeffrey Roberson, aka Varla Jean Merman), a younger roommate who’s also the daughter of Evie’s late rival, an equally cheesy actress named Marla.

Writer-director Day’s fearless, vehemently un-p.c. script makes mincemeat of every target. When Evie sets up a phony accident for her son to litigate, she romances the guy who hit her: “You rammed me today and I want seconds!” she screams into the phone. When she gets the guy in bed, he sticks a porn magazine over her face and starts kissing it while he’s screwing her. Peeved at his lack of interest, she inquires, “What’s wrong? Did my glass eye roll back?” (Kudos to what must have been a shoestring special effects budget for convincing us that Plotnick has a glass eye.) Some viewers will remember the actor as the queen reporter who strips to his tighty-whities in Gods and Monsters. Here he employs an improbably effective Paul Lynde imitation for much of his delivery. Or perhaps he’s channeling Lynde’s doppelganger Alice Ghostley. Either way, it works.

Equally strong is Coco, as rendered by Clinton Leupp, who turned Trick into something watchable as the “acid queen” in the celebrated bathroom scene. Here she’s a hopeless romantic who falls in love with her abortion doctor, then continues to get pregnant in order to have more abortions so she can date him. Coco is the main target of Evie, who does everything but set her on fire. (Well, she does shove her into a barbecue pit.) When Coco tearfully inquires whether Evie has ever had an abortion, Evie replies, “I’ve had more children pulled out of me than a burning orphanage.”

Varla is a camped-up Eve Harrington to Evie’s Margo Channing. She comes to Hollywood to “make it” and ends up literally doing so when a sleazy pimp puts her on the street. But Varla finds success in informercials hawking a space-age toxic frozen dinner. Varla’s appearance at La Casa de Evie is not coincidental, but we won’t spoil that for you here.

While some of the momentum fades during the middle, Girls picks up speed and moves in a surprisingly poignant direction by the end, as that literary trope beloved by high school teachers — character development — kicks in. Yes, in this world there’s hope even for the most evil of queens. Despite the endless stream of brilliantly bitchy aphorisms (Coco: “Happy people always make such a racket”), this brittle comedy also has satisfying moments of pathos. Girls deserves a wider audience than the film festival circuit, and it will get one later in 2003 courtesy of IFC Films.

Note: These “stabs” are affectionately dedicated to — and modeled on — the pithy capsule film reviews pioneered by Calvin T. Beck’s deservedly legendary Castle of Frankenstein magazine in the 1960s. Thanks, Cal, wherever the hell you are!