“The gays they make too much big crazy!”
Queer media is reaching epidemic levels (in the good sense) in the culture, so we decided to forgo our usual brackish stew of all-over-the-map film and TV reviews to take note of some exclusively queer (or queer-inflected) indies and TV series from the last few years.
The Bubble (Eytan Fox, 2006)
The title of The Bubble ostensibly refers to a nickname of the city where it’s set, Tel Aviv, but it’s soon apparent that it also symbolizes the fragile existence of four friends of mixed ethnicities and sexual orientations who are trying to live meaningful lives in an impossible situation. The Bubble opens at an Israeli checkpoint, where a pregnant Palestinian woman’s water breaks and her baby is born dead, starting a chain reaction of violence that will reach far beyond the checkpoint. Among those watching this grim event are two handsome young men: Israeli reservist Noam (Ohad Knoller) and Palestinian Ashraf (Yousef “Joe” Sweid). Noam is gay and works at a record store; his roommates in Tel Aviv are gay café owner Yali (Alon Friedman) and straight female T-shirt designer Lulu (Daniela Virtzer). Into their lives stumbles Ashraf, without identity papers; because of their leftist politics and anti-Occupation activities, they take him in, renaming him “Shimi” to sound more Israeli and giving him a job at the café. Ashraf and Noam fall in love and engage in some steamy sex that the film doesn’t shy away from. In one telling sequence, the camera moves down Lulu’s body as her boyfriend gives head to her; when the camera moves back up, it’s Noam and Shimi, engaged in a similar act, that we see. The Bubble meticulously examines these relationships as they evolve and face frustration and potential catastrophe. Noam and Ashraf are the most threatened, with Ashraf living two lives, increasingly unsuccessfully. As a Palestinian, he would be reviled if he came out; in Tel Aviv, he must pretend to be his enemy, a Jew, in order to survive.
The DL Chronicles (Deondray Gossett and Quincy LeNear, 2005)
Every year Merriam-Webster famously picks a “word of the year.” If M-W were run by queers, the phrase “down low” would be a serious contender for this honor. For any of you readers who’ve somehow missed it, the term refers to straight or straight-identified, married, or closeted black men who indulge in gay sex on the sly. It’s a little puzzling — and arguably racist — that down low has been attached exclusively to black men, as if no whites, Asians, Latins, or men from Bora Bora have ever done this. Tell that to all those married white men kneeling hungrily at the glory holes of their local adult “bookstores.”
Inevitably, in addition to the books, several movies and TV series have popped up exploring the down low theme. In 2006, BET Network weighed in with the documentary The Down Low Exposed. In 2007, experimental filmmaker Abigail Child gave us a more artful version of the story with On the Downlow. Even Oprah devoted a show to the phenomenon via On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of “Straight” Black Men Who Sleep with Men, the 2004 book by J. L. King that popularized the phenomenon.
The show was cast with an eye toward visual perfection — rarely have we seen so many model-beautiful men in one place. But this kind of appeal only takes the viewer so far, and The DL Chronicles too often collapses under the weight of its clichés and acting that ranges from competent to cringe-inducing. Actor Darren Schnase (Wes) makes us forget how gorgeous he is by spending most of his time grimacing and glaring with Norma Desmond-like hauteur, though admittedly his furtive sessions with his brother-in-law are the stuff that (wet) dreams are made of. The “Robert” episode, which occasionally hits the bull’s-eye of authentic emotion, is undermined with numbing touches like a soundtrack ditty that repeats the lyric “I am Mr. Ordinary” so often you’re ready to smash the DVD player (since you can’t get at the singer).
By far the best episode is devoted to “Boo” (Oneil Cespedes), a handsome, hunky gangbanger who leeches off the women in his life while secretly enjoying the pleasures of his pal Deron. In this episode, everything comes together; the believable Boo; his slacker buddies who can’t figure out what to do with their lives besides get high and get laid; and a bitchy, powerful street queen who fearlessly disses them. Even the unavoidable “here comes AIDS!” motif is handled more thoughtfully than might be expected. Unfortunately, second-rate scripts and woefully familiar melodramatics make The DL Chronicles a Netflix “maybe” rather than a “must.” On the other hand, penis-spotters are well served by the “Boo” episode, which features a doozy of a dick belonging to Boo’s ex-girlfriend’s sexy new squeeze. The camera wisely lingers on this image, almost making us forget the show’s shortcomings. The DVD includes outtakes and bloopers, a photo gallery, a backlot featurette, and director commentary.
Eleven Men Out (Róbert I. Douglas, 2005)
For most of us, Iceland conjures up images of, well, ice. But there’s more happening there, according to Eleven Men Out. This infectious (in the good sense) comedy-drama puts a new spin on an increasingly hoary theme: What if one member of a successful, beloved, macho sports team turned out to be gay?
Alas, not everyone is as excited about Ottar’s revelation. His bigoted father suggests a psychiatrist. His teammates vacillate from “who cares” to “that fairy.” His mom moans a lot. His teenage son freaks out, and his drunken ex-wife just wants to give him another blowjob. Inevitably, Ottar is booted from the team but is quickly taken in by an amateur team struggling in the bush leagues. And there’s an extra payoff for Ottar, as the manager tells him “One or two of the players are sort of gay.” Ottar signs up and is soon dating Daniel, a cute twink player who’s apparently been had by most of the team members gay and straight. Meanwhile, Dad continues his campaign to “fix” Ottar; his brother tries to help Dad “ease into the homo vibe” by renting Philadelphia; and Ottar tries to bring his son around, navigate his first gay relationship, and figure out if he wants to become a big-time queer activist.
Eleven Men Out’s leisurely narrative and occasional sitcom impulses will put off viewers who demand high drama or deep characterizations in their gay sports movies. But there are enough compensations here to make it worthwhile, not the least being quirky humor and dialogue like the line spoken by one of Ottar’s straight teammates: “What’s so bad about being gay? Isn’t everyone these days?”
For the Bible Tells Me So (Daniel G. Karslake, 2007)
For the Bible Tells Me So opens with a startling scene. Infamous Christian homophobe Anita Bryant is at a 1970s news conference whining about “the homosexuals” when one of the latter jumps up and pies her. Bryant manages a tacky quip — “At least it’s a fruit pie” — through a face disfigured by meringue. Then she prays for the “misguided” offender’s soul.
Fortunately, people can change, and the film shows this, tracing the journey of rejecting parents as they do the apparently hard work of learning about homosexuality — essentially a process of deprogramming themselves from mainstream Christianity’s homophobia. Wallner’s self-education after her daughter’s suicide leads her to PFLAG and uncompromising activism. The parents of gay teen Jake Reitkan get arrested as they protest outside James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. Tonia Poteat’s mom and dad continue to grapple, but there’s clear progress.
The film samples footage of a number of über-wealthy Christian phonies — Dobson, Swaggert, Falwell — but uses actual scholars to set the Biblical record straight. “Abomination,” we learn, meant a “ritual wrong” not a “moral sin” in ancient times; and Leviticus’ much-vaunted prohibition of homosexuality is better understood as an argument for procreation by a nation desperate to grow. In an entertaining, Michael Moore-like sequence, cartoon characters briskly summarize theories of why homosexuality exists.
For the Bible Tells Me So builds in power as we get to know the five families intimately. That it also expertly debunks the church’s cynical anti-gay viewpoints adds dimension to this important documentary.
Kate Clinton: 25th Anniversary Tour (Andrea Meyerson, 2007)
Though she came out of the lesbian comedy tradition, and certainly has worked that territory with success, it can’t be said that Kate Clinton belongs entirely to queerdom.
Kiss the Bride (C. Jay Cox, 2007)
Matt (Philipp Karner) is one of those cute, clever queens who’s better at slinging the dish than at maintaining a stable, rewarding relationship. But unlike some people, he’s got a very specific reason for being unable to commit — he’s still mooning over his high school sweetheart, hunky Ryan (James O’Shea). That was ten years ago, but Matt can’t move on. He covers his frustration by reviling gay marriage as “our obsession . . . so masochistic.” But when he receives an invitation to Ryan’s wedding, he can’t resist going back to his hometown to see his old flame and, with luck, snatch him away from the bride.
If all a movie needed to be considered successful were snappy dialogue, Kiss the Bride could confidently be called a masterpiece. Some samples: “Tom took too many drugs, and didn’t want to share.” “You can’t get hung over if you don’t stop drinking.” “I’m like Mother Teresa but with better skin care.” Kiss the Bride is a little reminiscent of Will and Grace, with superficial characters slinging brittle but hilarious dish, then pausing for a moment to be all vulnerable. In fact, if the dialogue were cleaned up and the butt shots removed, this might make a dandy ongoing series on, say, the Logo Channel. Most of the actors are refugees from television, and the whole thing has the slick, contrived feel of a sitcom.
Still, Kiss the Bride gets points for its sexy cast, fleeting moments of recognizable emotion, and perhaps the best movie line of the year. When Matt’s Asian fag-hag coworker hears about the messy doings Matt’s involved in, she quotes her wise grandmother: “Granny Ho is right. ‘The gays — they make too much big crazy!'”
Laughing Matters: The Men (Andrea Meyerson, 2008)
The Logo Channel has been a mixed blessing for queer culture mavens. For every successful show (First Comes Love) there’s been a corresponding dud (Noah’s Arc, mercifully canceled). And the fact that Logo famously censors words like “fuck” and “shit” — indispensable in contemporary patois — makes the network seem a bit less revolutionary than they would have us think. Logo appears to function best in the reality and stand-up comedy shows. Laughing Matters: The Men is a good example of the latter.
Perhaps the standout in the group is Bob Smith, who’s at his satirical best in a hilarious riff on the “total bottom.” “‘I’m a total bottom.’ That doesn’t sound sexy. It sounds like a disability” or “like a gay breakfast cereal. ‘Every morning I have a big bowl of Total Bottom. It gives me all the vitamins and minerals I need to keep my legs up in the air all night long.'”
Some of the most fascinating material here comes after the stage show. While host Labrador is over-earnest in framing her questions, the boys field them with panache as they discuss their lives, their coming out, contemporary culture, and their careers as gay comics. In clear evidence of how far we’ve come, Scott Kennedy and Andre Kelley both say they play mostly straight clubs, starting with non-gay material and then coming out, with apparently no problem. Bob Smith again shines in these interview segments, sardonically undermining the host’s pompous affirmational style with deadpan declarations like “I just want to say that being gay is a sad and lonely life.” That’s the kind of statement, so damaging in another time and context, we can now afford to laugh at.
Married in America 2 (Michael Apted, 2006)
Director Michael Apted is best known for the groundbreaking Up! series, seven documentaries profiling the same 14 people from childhood (in 1964) to late middle age. In 2002, he began another series called Married in America. The idea was similar to the Up! films, but this time tracking nine couples from wedding to married life when the celebrations end and the problems begin. Married in America did not enjoy the success of the previous series, but Married in America 2 (2006) has just been released on DVD and is well worth a look for anyone interested in the subject.
The film’s gay couple, Toni and Kelly (above), turned out to be a wise choice for a couple of reasons. They’re both wonderfully warm and courageous women, and they provide the film’s emotional high point. The pair met on a blind date and immediately became a couple. Toni wryly notes that they’ve had “a civil union, a commitment ceremony, a domestic partnership — all we’re waiting for is marriage.” Their segment reaches a climax when a long-awaited dinner out (their twin boys take up all their leisure time) turns into an emotional roller-coaster ride as an elderly homophobe, heard but not seen, laughingly spews words like “queers” and “those two freaks” from a couple of tables away. I’ll resist the urge to spoil this with more details. It’s an extraordinarily intense moment that shows at close range the barbarism of homophobia and the strength it takes to deal with it. In an extra on the DVD, Apted talks eloquently about this unexpected scene — “a filmmaker’s dream” — and how luck and timing can transform a documentary from prosaic to powerhouse.
Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004)
Writer-director Gregg Araki was one of the handful of pioneers of the ’90s New Queer Cinema movement, with zeitgeist-friendly but film-school-pretentious movies about polysexual teen angst, drug fantasies, and the occasional space alien. He did have a penchant for picking pretty faces, and that skill is evident in his best film, Mysterious Skin, but there is so much more in this enthralling work that it’s hard to believe it’s from the guy who made Totally F**ked Up, Nowhere, The Living End, and The Doom Generation.
Mysterious Skin, set in the entropy of small-town America (Hutchinson, Kansas), tells parallel stories of two troubled 18-year-old boys. Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet) begins the film with a memory: “The summer I was eight years old, five hours disappeared from my life. Five hours, lost, gone without a trace.” Troubled by nightmares and barely socialized, he’s convinced he was abducted by aliens during those “lost hours.” His classmate Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a hustler whose memories also filigree the film. But they’re of a decidedly different order. McCormick was taken not by aliens but by his handsome Little League coach (Bill Sage), who began molesting him at age eight.
Both boys are on a search for their missing childhood, but it takes them in very different directions. Repressed Brian hooks up with a disabled, slightly demented girl who also believes she was “beamed up” by aliens. Meanwhile, Neil looks for meaning in the local park, where he hustles older men. Eventually he moves to New York City for more harrowing adventures. In both cases, the boys’ mothers are sympathetic but not privy to what is really going on with their kids. The film moves into high gear when Brian is able to track down Neil and on to a devastating conclusion.
Mysterious Skin does the unthinkable in cautiously visualizing the quiet nightmare of molestation. These scenes are played elliptically, sampling rather than lingering on the troubling images. They gain much of their power by showing the victimizer not as a freak but as a trusted, handsome coach, a surrogate father for a lonely boy. But these scenes are part of a much wider canvas of exploration of Brian and Neil’s damaged lives. More a series of striking vignettes than a straight narrative, Mysterious Skin expertly weaves in and out of past and present and through these boys’ attempts to come to grips with something beyond their control.
The acting is first-rate throughout, with Corbet and Levitt dead-on as the teenage Brian and Neil. Lesser roles are played with refreshing realism, particularly Neil’s wonderful gay Goth-boy friend Eric (Jeff Licon) and quasi-girlfriend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenburg). Credit too goes to the two kids who play Brian and Neil as eight-year-olds — very difficult roles. In a just world there would have been Oscar nominations for everyone concerned with this brilliant film, certainly for Araki. But despite its frequent appearances in indie films (L.I.E., Happiness, and Eban and Charley come to mind), pedophilia, however sensitively portrayed, remains too volatile a subject to be acknowledged by the mainstream in this way.
Na Kamalei: The Men of Hula (Lisette Marie Flanery, 2006)
For many of us, the phrase “men in skirts” conjures images of drag queens and Scotsmen. In the excellent documentary Na Kamalei: The Men of Hula, however, the skirts are grass and the men who wear them are native Hawaiians enthusiastically reviving an ancient art form. While we think of it as a feminine tradition (it’s “hula girl,” after all), hula originated as a martial art and was the province of males before Hawaii was overrun by those pesky missionaries and colonialists. These stick-in-the-muds were apparently appalled when they saw men dolling up in skirts and dancing, and they soon put a stop to such nonsense. However, even the most zealous religious fanatic couldn’t stop male hula dancing entirely, and happily, it’s back.
While the female hula troupes tend toward the young, the willowy, and the gorgeous, Cazimero’s “boys,” ages 18 to 55, look like men you’d see at your local gas station. A few resemble aging Abercrombie & Fitch models; others tend more toward the zaftig. Their day jobs range from fireman to surfer, but given the intensity of their emotional connection with hula, Cazimero, and each other seen here, hula seems to be their calling. Without being overtly gay (though Cazimero certainly seems to be), the film is an endearing, often moving portrait of a group of men for whom hula has been a kind of salvation. It’s shown as a pathway back to their lost Hawaiian heritage (the film nicely blends some of that sad history into the narrative), and into a world of artistry, emotion, and powerful homosocial bonding that has survived all efforts to suppress it.
No Regret (Hee-il Leesong, 2006)
Korea’s No Regret, directed by gay auteur Hee-il Leesong, presents a memorably atmospheric Seoul, with its foggy streets and coldly majestic steel-and-glass skyscrapers.
On the Other Hand, Death (Ron Oliver, 2008)
Richard Stevenson has achieved some cult fame for his series of detective novels starring Albany, New York-based gay private dick Donald Strachey. Even The New York Times has weighed in favorably on the books, though whether they’ll be as positive about the film version of Stevenson’s novel On the Other Hand Death is doubtful at best.
Strachey gets distracted from his quest to prove his innocence by the plight of an older dyke couple (played by Margot Kidder and Gabrielle Rose), who are threatened with violence if they don’t agree to follow the crudely scrawled command on their living room wall: “DYKES GO HOME!” More gay secrets emerge involving a clandestine teenage affair, and Strachey’s monogamous relationship being threatened when Andrew, an ex-boyfriend of his present lover Tim, comes on to Strachey. The plot becomes increasingly convoluted and difficult to follow, as director Ron Oliver doesn’t have the chops to make this material clear or credible, much less engaging.
The best thing about this entry in the franchise (preceded by two films dealing, respectively, with outing and gay reparative therapy) may be Margot Kidder and Gabrielle Rose (above). The plot is derivative and predictable, and the acting is mostly by-the-numbers. But Kidder’s weatherbeaten face and croaky voice and Rose’s tormented demeanor give some emotional heft to the foolishness, and some viewers will enjoy the fetching flesh of Andrew as he offers it to our hapless hero.
Out at the Wedding (Lee Friedlander, 2007)
Lee Friedlander’s Out at the Wedding updates all those 1930s screwball comedies where a small detail (read: lie) spirals out of control until all parties concerned — and the audience — are confused but also, the filmmakers hope, amused. Such works take a delicate hand, and Friedlander’s is more like a bear claw.
Shelter (Jonah Markowitz, 2007)
This serious story with flashes of humor follows the misadventures of working-class Zach (Trevor Wright). A cute, depressed, gifted artist a year out of high school working as a short-order cook.
Strictly Confidential (Kay Mellor, 2006)
With Britain’s ITV’s six-episode miniseries Strictly Confidential (2006), the venerable soap opera genre leaps headlong into the present. Focusing on the travails of sex therapists, patients, their families, lovers, and tricks, the show raunchily showcases the problems it talks about.
There’s no star per se of this ensemble drama, but Linda (Suranne Jones), a bisexual ex-cop who’s now a sex therapist, comes closest. She shares a practice with hottie brother-in-law Greg (Tristan Gemmill). Her hubby, the deeply gorgeous Richard (Christian Solimeno), alas, is infertile and can’t give poor Linda the kid she wants. The show asks the question so many of us have pondered: Should Greg give Linda the hot beef injection?
Meanwhile, one of Linda’s clients, a nympho, turns up dead, hanged in what looks like an episode of autoerotic asphyxiation gone wrong. That this is the second such death convinces Linda there’s a serial sex killer on the loose. She tells her female ex, who’s still a cop (and still lusting for Linda), triggering endless complications, romantic and criminal.
The investigation of the killer, who might or might not be Linda’s hunky hubby, is interwoven with lurid, barely credible vignettes of patients and their problems ranging from Internet porn addiction to infidelity to impotence. Voyeuristic viewers will enjoy the frequent forays into sleazy swingers’ clubs and cheesy hotel rooms where these characters giddily play out their neuroses with whips, chains, dildos, and slings. That the owner of the club lets obvious undercover cops into the place to peek at the raunchy doings and interview clients shows how little the filmmakers must know about this scene. Of course, soap operas aren’t supposed to be realistic, and Strictly Confidential doesn’t buck the trend.
When did you know you were gay? That’s the simple premise of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s engaging Cinemax documentary When I Knew, based on Robert Trachtenberg’s book of the same title. This time the pair responsible for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Party Monster, and Inside Deep Throat focuses not on celebrities but on ordinary people. They asked 150 everyday queers about the moment they realized they were, in Barbato’s words, “radically and unacceptably different from their friends and family.”
When I Knew (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, 2008)
For some of the subjects, the memories are more quirky than traumatic. “Cynthia,” replied one mother to her dyke daughter, “I already know. And I want to watch this TV show!” Sometimes a parent surprises his gay child, as when one father shelves the football game in favor of picking flowers with his son. Inevitably, though, some of the memories here are ugly indeed as vulnerable queer kids who cannot keep their secret face disdain, disgust, even outright banishment from the family.
Happily, though, there are plenty of balancing lighter moments in When I Knew. One dyke says, “I was a stud from day one!” Another reveals, “I realized I was a lesbian and I was so relieved.” Then there are the unrepentant queers like Chris, age 20, who show us a joyful future by celebrating what the reactionaries, whose numbers are shrinking, revile: “I’m Liberace gay,” he proclaims. “Flames of faggotry seem to emit from my pores!”