Bright Lights Film Journal

Little Stabs of Queer Happiness (and Horror): Random Short Reviews of the Worthy and the Worthless in Recent and Old School Cinema

“Heterosexual brides-to-be are one of the demographics that arrive by the busloads to partake of Darcelle’s mad mix of risqué zingers, over-the-top musical routines, and mother-hen reassurances.”

Everything You Wanted to Know About Gay Porn Stars… But Were Afraid to Ask (John Roecker, 2008)

The title of this series from the all-gay here! network could use a less hoary title, but it’s in fact accurate. In seven episodes, five of them running a half-hour and the other two closer to an hour, writer-director John Roecker (of Live Freaky! Die Freaky! fame) lets a cross-section of gay porn stars talk about what it’s like to be in the industry as well as their private lives and challenges. The result is a group portrait that’s by turns illuminating, repetitive, and grim.

The episodes are arranged handily by theme, from the introductory “Getting to Know You” to “Porn Stars Aren’t Hatched” (about their childhood and coming out) to shows devoted to drugs and the pressures of porn on their “civilian” relationships. The subjects include current and former stars for every taste, from movie-star beautiful Jason Ridge, to “edgy” Johnny Hazard (above), to insatiable twink Jeremy Jordan, to hunky Jason Hawke (what’s with all these “J’s”?), to charismatic Harlow Cuadra, imprisoned and awaiting trial at this writing for the murder of a competing porn producer.

For pornhounds — and, I suppose, fans of any sexual subculture — there’s plenty to learn here. Roeckner gets the boyz blabbing about everything from the nuts and bolts of production (one script was only 12 pages long; Thermafill lotion stands in nicely for cum); to mortifying “accidents” during filming; to the rampant, often debilitating presence of meth and other drugs on and off the set. Some of the subjects, like Hawke, have an almost Zen perspective that keeps them more amused than anguished about the life they’ve fallen into; others, like Nick Capra, unsparingly explore the emotional costs of doing professional porn. Nick Piston is especially eloquent in describing his journey down the black hole of meth, and the friends — many of them dead — who joined him.

The most fascinating episode is the one devoted to Harlow Cuadra and his legal problems. Cuadra and boyfriend/business partner Joseph Kerekes stand accused of brutally murdering sleazebag producer and apparent pedophile Bryan Kocis, supposedly because Kocis wouldn’t release a particular twink from his Cobra Films to work for Cuadra and Kerekes. This episode is both a compelling bio of Cuadra and a compelling tale of unbridled ambition, with sensational touches like wired porn stars and gruesome CSI photos that help make it a modern gothic melodrama. Roeckner lets Cuadra speak for himself (by phone), and the picture is puzzling, with Cuadra coming off as both charmer and possible criminal sociopath. It’s not clear how Kerekes’ recent guilty plea will affect Cuadra, who maintains his innocence.

The series has its problems. Some of the stories retread the same tired territory. And the cacophonous punky musical theme seems jarringly out of place given the laid-back, even cozy interviews. One unfair criticism has been that the subjects are “second- and third-stringers” and not sufficiently “buff” to merit filming. But the stories they tell are revealing enough, particularly in the Cuadra and drug episodes, to keep less demanding viewers watching.

I Can’t Think Straight (Shamim Sarif, 2007)

I Can’t Think Straight features beautiful, feisty Palestinian-Jordanian Christian Tala (Lisa Ray), who, to her parents’ dismay, is on her fourth engagement. When she meets the equally beautiful but considerably less feisty Leyla (Sheetal Sheth), a Muslim, we learn why. These women are intensely attracted to each other over tennis and dirty dancing, and eventually wind up in bed. Coming out isn’t easy in traditional Middle East cultures, but these are modern gals and in London, so the chances look good. But it’s Tala who folds, while the seemingly more traditional Leyla does the deed. Various complications including a new girlfriend for Leyla and various jilted suitors occur, with the expected melodramatic results.

Writer-director Shamim Sarif seems as interested in the surfaces in the story — endless beautifully appointed rooms, designer labels, haute couture — as in the characters. Some of the latter, like the maid spitting in her mistress’s food, are virtual cartoons, but the main characters aren’t much more credible thanks to a script choking on clichés. The cultural conflicts inherent in a drama about Muslims, Christians, and their rebellious Westernized children threaten to erupt but never do. And in a film about coming out, would it hurt to spice up the sex scenes? The film’s desperate grab for a PG rating ensures audiences will be spared the apparently too disturbing sight of two beautiful women acting on their attraction.

Kiss of the Spider Woman (Hector Babenco, 1985) and The Boys in the Band (William Friedkin, 1970)

The Boys in the Band and Kiss of the Spider Woman share the dubious distinction of being canonical works of old-school queer cinema that are only now being made available on DVD. Boys caused an uproar at the time by giving mass audiences an up-close glimpse of “the gay lifestyle” at its wildest; indeed, it was so controversial that some newspapers reviewed it while refusing to run ads for it. Apparently the film’s tagline, “It’s not a musical,” was too much for the bluenoses. And Kiss of the Spider Woman won an Oscar for straight hunk William Hurt’s portrayal of a mincing, kimono-clad queen. That it took these films so long to get a release can only be attributed to cultural dementia.

That said, revisiting them in 2008, Boys feels like the classic many of us thought it was, while Kiss seems to have lost some of its luster. In the latter case, what was lauded as “brave” and “provocative” in 1985 now feels forced and pretentious.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is based on Manuel Puig’s brilliant novel, and it took some years to go from the printed page to the screen. After several false starts, Hector Babenco of Pixote fame was signed on as director. Making a movie of a book set in a claustrophobic South American prison cell populated by two people couldn’t have been easy. Valentin (Raul Julia) is a straight revolutionary; Molina (Hurt) is a screaming queen who regales his cellmate with imaginative retellings of old Hollywood melodramas. Babenco’s approach, aided by screenwriter Leonard Schrader, was to open up the story in the only way possible, by visualizing Molina’s stories in elaborate fantasy sequences. That, and of course, tracking the tensions, sexual and otherwise, between the “noble” radical and the apolitical queer, who predictably (and literally) “come together” despite their deep differences.

Critics at the time were enthralled by the film, citing particularly the fantasy scenes — which are diverting — and William Hurt’s drag queen routine. In the mid-1980s it was still considered risky to “play gay” — not to mention “play tranny.” But Hurt is at the crux of this overheated drama’s problems. Puig portrayed Molina as a feisty, authentic “homosexual,” more powerful in some ways than Valentin. But Hurt pulls every cliché out of the closet as his Molina fusses mindlessly over his costumes and makeup and talks with a confused, unconvincing “gay accent.” There is no magic or mystery in this boilerplate portrayal; and when a film only has two characters (not counting those in the fantasies), they’d both better be believable. Hurt misses the strength of Molina because he’s too busy playing out a straight man’s view of an effeminate homosexual. Puig was quoted as saying he “hated” the film and especially Hurt’s portrayal, and modern viewers may be inclined to agree.

If authenticity is what’s lacking in Kiss, it’s the stock-in-trade of the characters in Boys in the Band. Made 16 years before Kiss, Boys doesn’t feel as dated as we have every right to expect, given that its cast of “seven tired screaming fairy queens and one anxious queer” swing wildly from dazzling wits to self-hating queers and everything in-between. The plot is too well known to recount here; suffice it to say that it centers on a birthday party for Harold (Leonard Frey) given by his friends, an event that becomes equal parts brilliant dish, loving camaraderie, and fights that draw blood and, in one case, a virtual nervous breakdown. In a word, life. Many of its lines have become standard dish: “Who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?” But best of all are the characterizations; it’s hard to imagine a stronger cast than these “boys,” most of whom were in the Broadway play. The late Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet, no doubt spoke for many in being conflicted about Boys in the Band, calling it both “fair” and “not positive” in the same sentence. But ultimately he condemns it as a kind of Green Pastures for queers and a lamentable exercise in self-loathing. This narrow interpretation misses the sheer magnetism, humor, and power of these super-queens. From the distance of 2008, we observe above all their humanity in all its messy, glittering glory.

Both these DVDs have much to recommend them for fans. Kiss of the Spider Woman includes nearly three hours of documentary material about Puig, how Kiss went from book to movie, and the on-set battles between the two real divas of the piece: Hurt and director Babenco. Boys in the Band appears at last in a fine transfer and with three documentary extras covering the play, the film, and its cultural and historical significance. Director William Friedkin and author Mart Crowley offer illuminating commentaries. See also Matt Kennedy’s wonderful appreciation of the Boys here.

Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008)

I moved to San Francisco in 1988, too late to have met Harvey Milk, “The Mayor of Castro Street,” who was assassinated in 1978 at age 48. But I could feel Milk’s activist legacy everywhere, from the pleasure and ease of simply walking through the flourishing Castro district that he helped transform to witnessing the community’s toughness and resilience in dealing with homophobia wherever it appeared.

The announcement that Gus Van Sant was going to direct the biopic of this seminal gay leader wasn’t universally welcomed, despite his sacred status as The Gay Indie Director. Van Sant’s career has been a checkered one; for every high point (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho), there’s been a corresponding low (Gerry, Psycho), with some, like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, so low that they regularly make the “worst movies ever” lists. But the recent, excellent Paranoid Park was an encouraging sign, and Milk in fact reaffirms Van Sant’s gifts. This film ranks alongside Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho as a solid biopic of the queer icon.

Milk opens with grainy real-life footage of busts in gay bars in New York and L.A. in the 1950s and ’60s, setting both the style and the political tone for the story to follow. But Van Sant balances the political (via actual news clips) with the personal throughout, just as Harvey tried to do in his own life. Early on we see both his funny, human side and his drive to make a difference when he picks up a trick, Scott Smith, and wistfully tells him: “I’m 40 years old and I haven’t done a thing I’m proud of.” The two move to San Francisco, and Harvey, who spent years in the closet, begins the work that would at last make him proud. His arrival dovetails with a politicized post-Stonewall gay community, and no two bedfellows were ever happier as Harvey becomes the dynamic leader and mother hen of a group of queer activists fighting for their rights.

One of the pleasures of Milk is the feeling of joyful camaraderie of Harvey and this merry band of queens and dykes, who seem to realize they’re making history while at the same time dancing, dishing, and trying to get laid. Why shouldn’t the revolution be fun? Of course, the fun is tempered by what we know happened to Harvey and by the film’s frequent insertions of authentic footage of hate-mongers like Anita Bryant and John Briggs into the narrative. The film also lays out one of the more surprising obstacles Harvey faced in the form of gay power brokers like David Goodstein, publisher of The Advocate, who were terrified of the interloper’s fiery version of gay liberation.

Harvey’s romances with dreamy Scott Smith and unhinged Jack Lira offer fascinating glimpses into his personality, but it was his relationship with his future Killer, Dan White, that resonates the most here. The film subtly portrays unexpected similarities between the two men, both community-minded and both outsiders, while also airing Harvey’s suspicion that White’s inner demons may have been the result of being a closet case, something Harvey felt he could recognize.

Van Sant expertly conjures 1970s San Francisco, aided by Dustin Lance Black’s strong script. And the film gains simply by timing — it’s impossible not to equate Harvey and the queer community’s struggle then with the present bruising fight for gay marriage. But what really makes Milk are the performances. Sean Penn is simply stunning in the title role, alternately whimsical and self-effacing, a political firebrand and a hopeless romantic always looking for love. The versatile Josh Brolin also registers powerfully as the tormented Dan White — is there any role Brolin can’t play? Emile Hirsch and James Franco nicely sketch their smaller roles as, respectively, Cleve Jones and Scott Smith, while Diego Luna is both appalling and enthralling as dizzy, maniacal Jack Lira.

One side note: There’s a scene in Milk where Harvey explains to some of the timid gay power brokers that putting out a flyer demanding gay rights without using the word “gay” is pathetic and counter-productive. According to a production insider for Milk, quoted on Yahoo Films, distributor Focus Features also tried to “erase the gay” from the film’s marketing: “The best way to help this film win over a mainstream audience is to avoid partisanship, and the best way to avoid partisanship is to let people find out about the film from the film itself.” Avoid partisanship? In 2008? Harvey, we need you!

Queens of Heart: Community Therapists in Drag (Jan Haaken, 2006)

The stats on “Darcelle XV” are striking: the longest surviving drag club in the U.S. with four decades of continuous performances. Walter Cole, aka Darcelle, owns, operates, and performs at the Portland, Oregon club with his partner Roxy. This short (48-minute) documentary, made off and on over a four-year period, is a valentine to Darcelle and the unique venue he’s created.

Director Jan Haaken has structured Queens of Heart with the same kind of playfulness she observes in Darcelle and his club. Individual sections riff on therapeutic motifs like “Hysteria,” “Castration Anxiety,” and “Gender Complexes,” and the film makes a credible case, through interviews with patrons and performers, that what happens in Darcelle’s is as much therapy as entertainment. Apparently, nervous straight brides-to-be are one of the demographics that arrive by the busloads to partake of Darcelle’s mad mix of risqué zingers, over-the-top musical routines, and mother-hen reassurances. There’s also a large lesbian contingent in his audiences, along with queens and even hetero boys and church-going girls, who can’t resist the spell of Darcelle when it’s cast with humor and heart.

“We found that audiences keep coming to the show because they seek something that they cannot find elsewhere,” says Haaken, “a chance to acknowledge the anxieties and absurdities of sex, whether gay or straight, and to vicariously play with identity, suspending for a night the rigid boundaries between masculine and feminine.” This gender play is evident throughout the film as Darcelle alternately scandalizes and dotes on the patrons, drawing them out and providing an atmosphere for them to act in ways they can’t in their “normal” lives.

Darcelle, who turned 78 in November 2008, proves a witty, articulate chronicler of his own life. He vividly describes his early life in working-class Linton, Oregon; the loss of his mother at a young age; and his alcoholic father’s emotional remoteness. These descriptions provide clues about his driving need to treat those around him, whether friend or club patron, as family. That includes everything from helping people pry open their closet doors to saving marriages. If there’s a problem with the film, it’s the brevity. While Haaken crams a lot in 48 minutes, including footage shot in the club, Darcelle is surely a rich enough subject to justify more time.

The Trials of Ted Haggard (Alexandra Pelosi, 2008)

Ted Haggard’s story dominated more than a few news cycles in late 2006 and early 2007, with occasional reappearances throughout 2008 and again recently, thanks to the inevitable “fresh revelations.” Haggard’s fall from the presidency of the country’s largest evangelical group (30 million members) and his “exile” by the New Life Church, which he founded, were tracked in meticulous detail in both mainstream and queer media. And no wonder. This narrative had it all — a massive reversal of fortune, a closeted evangelical icon, a hunky rent boy, secret motel trysts, furtive blow jobs, and of course methamphetamine to spice things up. Haggard was attacked by the gay community as just another religious closet queen getting a well-deserved comeuppance, and cried over — then reviled — by his less-than-forgiving Christian associates.

Alexandra Pelosi’s short (42-minute) documentary (her second on evangelicals for HBO) reworks the familiar narratives about Haggard into a surprisingly complex, ultimately sympathetic picture of a charismatic man equally undone by what looks like internalized homophobia and a fatally naive attitude about the world in general and corporate Christianity in particular. It’s a bit shocking, given Haggard’s pivotal place in the modern evangelical movement, to learn that he was far from the empire-building hucksterism of Falwell, Robertson, Swaggert, et al. “Pastor Ted” recalls naifs like Tammy Faye Baker who get off more on the emotional adulation and gushing acceptance of their followers than on accumulating wealth and spewing hate. He made $130,000 per year and apparently had no Cayman Islands bank accounts or phony charities. And like Baker, even his condemnations of homosexuality and same-sex marriage seem lukewarm. He also arguably paved the way for the modern eco-evangelism movement by preaching that Christians need to be engaged in social issues like poverty and AIDS — anathema to the corporate Christian crowd — and by suggesting gay civil unions as an equitable substitute for the dreaded M-word: marriage.

The Trials of Ted Haggard packs quite a punch in its brief running time, filling in the outlines of this seemingly cartoonish, eternally grinning character with flesh and blood. Pelosi is an unsparing interviewer, doggedly recording Haggard’s naive attempts to get a job (“I’m sure I’ll get it unless they google me”) and his family’s nomad-like moves from one “safe house” or motel to another. She asks him questions like “Where did all your friends go?” and draws out remarkably candid responses. “I’m worthless at this point,” he says, a statement that sounds more self-pitying than it comes across. Haggard also gives a bitter portrait of his fellow evangelicals: “In some circles they’d rather have me be a murderer than gay.” It’s easy to dismiss Haggard as no more than a delusional closet case, but it doesn’t tell the whole story of this unexpectedly complex character.

Tru Loved (Stewart Wade, 2008)

Writer-director Stewart Wade’s Tru Loved became a cause célèbre after a review by Roger Ebert, who trashed it with a 1-star rating based on watching a mere eight minutes of a DVD screener. The resulting uproar triggered some lively discussions on Ebert’s blog and elsewhere about the ethics of film critics. But maybe the laugh is on him. Despite his negative attitude toward it, the controversy has no doubt benefited the film by calling so much attention to it. Some of Ebert’s mistakes based on reading the Internet Movie Database (like saying Bruce Vilanch played two characters) have also given Tru Loved a bit of a David vs. Goliath patina — ironic given Ebert’s longtime David-like championing of marginal cinema against the mainstream and the middlebrow.

Readers who followed the debate but have actually seen the film may wonder what all the fuss was about, particularly Ebert’s inexplicable charge (based on a stylized opening fantasy sequence that’s very different in tone from the rest of the film) that Tru Loved is a technically “amateurish” production. A full viewing shows that, while it’s no masterpiece and surely has its problems, the film is not just professionally made, but an often winning mix of comedy, drama, and social commentary, making up in heart what it lacks in subtlety. (Ebert’s puzzling charge of technical incompetence is not echoed in the mostly positive reviews in The New York Times, Variety, and other major venues.)

Tru Loved opens with a witty sequence that introduces some of the characters via a send-up of 1950s Leave It to Beaver-type sitcoms. The main character is 16-year-old Tru (Najarra Townsend), who’s just relocated with her two moms from tolerant San Francisco (where her two gay dads live) to intolerant L.A. suburb Agoura Hills. Not unexpectedly, Tru quickly encounters her new school’s homophobia (internalized and otherwise) in the form of queer-baiting football player Manny and his equally ignorant coach, a queeny literature teacher who pretends he’s not gay, and closeted jock Lodell (Matthew Thompson). Lodell inducts her into his clique but has an ulterior motive: he’s terrified of being unmasked and needs a beard. Tru is too sweet to say no, despite the fact that it goes against all her beliefs. Things get more complicated as Lodell’s closet becomes more cramped, and the film hits the bull’s-eye in scenes where he mortifies Tru by overacting the role of straight Romeo at her expense. Tru and another friend start a gay-straight alliance, she hooks up with a straight boy, and the plot twists — including a gaybashing sequence — continue up to the end.

Tru Loved is both a convincing message movie about living authentically and a diverting entertainment. Townsend is totally credible as Tru, while Thompson nails the difficult role of a well-intentioned, desperate boy who can’t come to terms with the fact that his secret takes its toll on others besides himself. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols as Lodell’s sassy grandma, and real-life queer superstars David Kopay and Jane Lynch appear in cameos. Less effective are Tru’s various parents, who fail to enliven their underwritten roles. And the extra-tidy ending may set some eyes rolling. Also questionable is the amount of music on the soundtrack, which sometimes overwhelms key scenes in bombast. Still, this is ultimately an earnest, affecting effort that deserves — and rewards — a viewing, preferably from beginning to end.

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (Matt Wolf, 2008)

“He was a different sort of kid,” says Arthur Russell’s father. Just how different is the subject of Matt Wolf’s fine documentary tribute to one of modern music’s most creative unsung talents. Russell was a classically trained cellist and musical obsessive who blended a vast array of influences — Indian ragas, African rhythms, funk, folk, jazz — into hypnotic, echo-drenched soundscapes that are both intimate and otherworldly. Russell was deeply immersed in New York’s art-dance scene but also remained outside it, a gay maverick listening endlessly to the sounds in his head and trying to bring them into the world. His wider fame, or perhaps more accurately his cult status, began more than a decade after his 1992 death from AIDS, when a number of CD compilations were issued to acclaim.

Wild Combination isn’t a typical documentary doggedly tracking its subject’s rise and fall, though this theme is here along with the basic facts: his birth in 1952 in Oskaloosa, Iowa; his early fascination with music and magic; his years of drug use and Buddhist studies at a San Francisco commune during the flower-power era. But director Wolf integrates these details into a lyrical, collage-style portrait appropriate for a man who didn’t work in a linear fashion going from a to b to c, but rather worked on a, b, and c, and the rest of the alphabet simultaneously. The result both honors and, to the extent possible, explains Russell. Highlights include Allen Ginsberg wittily describing how Russell’s California guru made him stay for hours in the closet to find spiritual and musical perfection, and moving recollections of Russell riding back and forth on the Staten Island Ferry listening to cassettes of works he’d composed, studying every note and nuance, and repeatedly revising them first in his mind and then on tape. This true eccentric was lucky enough to find a lover, Tom Lee, who gave Russell the kind of unstinting love and support most artists only dream of and which surely helped him realize his creative dreams.

One of the best things about the film is the gallery of friends, family, and artistic associates (including Tom Lee and Phillip Glass) who speak of Russell in the awed tones reserved for those unique talents who are with us briefly, make an extraordinary contribution, then vanish. Wild Combination also explores the dark side that inevitably accompanies this kind of artistic high-wire art, from delusional late-night phone calls to friends to self-sabotaging whenever mainstream success beckoned. Ultimately we’re left with some mesmerizing music, featured throughout the film on tape and in live performance. That’s what we’ll remember long after the complicated life of its creator is forgotten.

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!