Tormented Christians, hacker boyz, cannibal queers, fish people you know, all those folks who keep it real
The Backyard (Paul Hough, 2002)
One of the byproducts of the success of the Worldwide Wrestling Federation has been the creation of impromptu, violent backyard bouts by teenagers across the country, properly memorialized in this fascinating exercise in subculture sociology. These events are Bizarro-world mirror images of the WWF theatrics but are also their opposite. Whereas the professional events are mostly stuntwork and theatrics, the backyard variety, in which teenage boys (and a few girls) wrestle/assault each other, involves real weapons like barbed wire and stapleguns and broken glass and a much higher chance of injury. The wife of one of the participants says her husband “likes to bleed,” but who knew so many other guys do? A whole mythology has grown up around this phenomenon, with innumerable websites and trailer-park “superstars” like “Bingo the Pot Smoking Monster” and “The Lizard,” both featured in the film. There’s so much free-flowing masochism in this scene that you might mistake it for a night at your local leather bar, but there’s also some disturbing homophobia when one of the more violent miscreants compares what he’s doing to “fagbashing.” The film provides an intriguing class contrast when it visits an upstate New York community of middle-class kids whose parents and school approve of and supervise the events, and lovingly tend to the boys’ occasional scratch or hangnail — a far cry from the “fuck it all” attitude of the version played out in the bleak slums of the Southwest.
The Beast (Walerian Borowczyk, 1975)
Walerian Borowczyk is not a household word (unless you live in a halfway house), and it’s not likely The Beast, also known as The Beast in Heat, will make him one. This legendary film was banned in Britain on its release. What was the problem? Perhaps the literal horse dicks in the opening scene of a stallion mounting a mare? A pederastic old priest smooching with a nubile youth? A ravishing naked girl giving a very long blow job (in lurid closeup) to the title creature, a sort of giant rat-man? The film is a demented mix of the Marquis de Sade in its vitriolic anticlericalism and Beauty and the Beast in its quasi-zoophilia, but going much further than Cocteau. Borowyczyk was an equal-opportunity offender, obsessively recycling the image of horses screwing and the “beast” getting head. There’s also a black butler, a very un-p.c. fuckhound who says “yassuh.” (Penisspotters will appreciate the sight of his hard dick.)
Daddy and Papa (Johnny Symons, 2002)
“For my gay friends and me, kids were an alien concept,” says Johnny Symons, director and star of this one-hour documentary that deserves the accolades it’s received at other festival screenings. That didn’t stop him from adopting a son. Daddy and Papa explores a pocket of gay life that’s received mostly unwelcome attention via right-wing attacks and, surprisingly, a queer community that remains skeptical of gay parenthood as an unappealing mimicry of heterosexuality. Symons compounds the complexities by being white, with a biracial lover, and adopting a black male child. The doc paints a warm picture of this loving family, along with several others who are not only helping themselves and the kids, but also performing a public service in adopting children who might otherwise be lost in the gulag of foster homes. These guys’ obvious deep caring wins over doubting grandparents, Christian foster moms, and biological parents, one of whom turns over a second child to Symons when she sees the kind of life he and his partner can offer her baby. There are some sweetly comic moments here, as when one dad laments a future of sports events when it becomes clear he’s raising a little jock. And the beginnings of a gay male parenting community can be seen in events like a low-key suburban picnic for gay dads and their kids. But Daddy and Papa isn’t unrealistic about the hurdles in this unconventional lifestyle. Nine-year-old Fanny suffers visibly when her two dads break up, but as one of them points out, “Being divorced is a bigger deal for her than being gay.”
David Jacobson’s quietly powerful docudrama about Jeffrey Dahmer does the unthinkable with the unimaginable – it turns the notorious serial killer and cannibal into a pathetic specimen of humanity, but a human being nonetheless, and makes a creditable effort toward explaining, without excusing, some of the mindset that drove his crimes.
Dahmer, for those who don’t recall (or have blotted it out), was convicted in 1992 of murdering 16 young men, the murders being attended by various bizarre sex and rituals including cannibalism. The case gained notoriety not just because of the nature of the crimes but because Milwaukee’s homophobic police department blew the chance to nail Dahmer when they interpreted a desperate young Laotian man, fleeing naked on the street, as the killer’s lover, supposedly running out after a “spat.” True-crime ghouls investigating Dahmer learned he had a long history of abusing and murdering animals as a child, and was in fact known in the gay community as someone to avoid, particularly if you were a young black man. This didn’t prevent the charismatic, racist, self-hating homosexual Dahmer from attracting plenty of victims.
Jacobson’s film, the second major one on this subject after The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer (1993), goes easy on the facts in an effort to probe this seemingly impenetrable mentality. Some of the real history is there, things like the scene of the naked Laotian boy’s ill-fated attempt to escape his killer. But the film wants to do more than merely record reality.
To that end, it takes us ready or not inside Dahmer’s head, deftly interweaving memories of his troubled teenage years and family life with present-day scenes of seduction and murder. A particularly unsettling sequence shows teenage Dahmer foolishly trying to seduce a straight boy by convincing him that getting a gay blow job would be a major act of rebellion. This nervous cat-and-mouse game is punctuated with Dahmer’s trademark attempts to drug his victim and disturbingly weird conversations, followed by a sudden, lethal assault, visualized, like much of the film’s gross actions, elliptically. Other flashbacks show a harried home life with a dogmatic Christian father and a ditzy grandmother.
Dahmer also benefits from fine cinematography that belies its low budget, and a gallery of exceptional performances. Jeremy Renner (of WB’s Angel) is the essence of outward stability and inward collapse. He’s intelligent and sympathetic in his pain, but so shut off from his feelings that his only way to find love is through murdering and hacking up other gay men, the ultimate grim response of the self-loathing homo. Artel Kayaru brilliantly embodies Rodney, the charming, playful, okay-with-the-world gay man that Dahmer can never be and so must try to kill.
Directed by frequent Lovecraft interpreter Stuart Gordon, Dagon was supposed to follow the director’s gruesome black comedy Re-Animator (1985), but it was apparently too hard to get funding for a film about a cult of fish people. Based on two stories by Lovecraft (the title story and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” if you must know), Dagon shipwrecks a nerd-everyman, Paul (cute Ezra Godden) onto a small, strange island inhabited by people who’ve chucked Christianity in favor of worshipping “Dagon” (historically, the fish-god of the Philistines). While we don’t exactly see Dagon — there was only enough budget for his tentacles — we do see the effects of this randy creature on a once thriving culture in some well-conceived flashbacks. From a sunny agrarian society they declined into gross fish-like creatures living in a squalid village of squat, rotting houses in seemingly perpetual darkness. Hero Paul is perpetually on the run from these miscreants, trying to save himself and his girlfriend, who’s been captured by the freaks. The grossest scene comes when a tubby old man’s skin is excruciatingly removed while he’s still alive (and screaming). This makes up for some of the cheesy CGI effects. Dagon is most notable for its splendid atmospherics and set design — a miracle of rot and rain. There’s also a Barbara Steele wannabe mermaid-monster who’ll stop at nothing to screw poor Paul. Lovecraft, a notorious sexophobe, might have been appalled at the tits & ass but would probably have applauded Gordon’s excellent grasp of mood and grue.
Eurotika! (Vampires and Virgins, The Pope of Perversion, The Diabolical Mr. Franco, and Blood and Black Lace) (BBC short documentaries, 2000)
Thanks to the undying efforts of obsessive fanboyz and grrlz, and a flourishing underground video scene, the works of once-mysterious European sex ‘n sleaze auteurs of the ’60s and ’70s have become widely available. Films with titles like Virgin Among the Living Dead, Joe Caligula, The Horror of the Lost Dolls, and Natalie, Fugitive from Hell certainly sound enticing, but what about the men (all men in this case) who made them? The BBC’s nine-part series of mini-documentaries on the phenomenon of Eurosleaze uses interviews, snappy histories, and loads of clips — featuring full-frontal nudity, beheadings, zombies, the odd evisceration, etc. — to offer some welcome context on this surprisingly enduring movement.
Jean Rollin, profiled in Vampires and Virgins, is the cut-rate Cocteau responsible for Shiver of the Vampires and The Nude Vampire. Yes, Rollin’s specialty was the undead, specifically “twin lesbian vampires” wandering through cheesy, surreal tableaux. Rollin, like the other subjects here, comes off as a good-natured old fart. Equally cool is France’s porn king Jose Benazeraf, sketched in The Pope of Perversion. He’s surely the only director ever to put Marxist rants into the mouths of lap dancers humping a pole. The Diabolical Mr. Franco — that’s Jess to the uninitiated — eclipses his peers in one regard: while financing was always problematic for most, Franco has managed to make over 200 features since the 1960s. His films like Succubus have a creepy reality that transcends the tacky sets, zombie acting, and dubious dubbing.
Blood and Black Lace: A Short History of the Italian Horror Film puts Mario Bava in this company, which seems blasphemous given Bava’s vastly superior visual talents. But since he did more or less create the giallo — those stylish sexy, mystery-horror films Italy exported in the ’60s like olive oil — he no doubt belongs here. Other subjects include Max Pecas (I Am a Nyphomaniac), Spanish horror films, and Michael Reeves (The Blood Beast). Jose Roman-Larraz typifies the higher goals these dime-store directors aspired to. He describes mining his films with allusions to classical mythology and literature, but the viewer will be forgiven for not spotting these in his films’ sea of tits-and-ass. Bring the binoculars.
Five Dolls for an August Moon (Mario Bava, 1970)
What Bava lacks in title-picking skills, he more than makes up for in bravura visuals. This one is a veritable catalog of Italian pop style of the period, all lovingly rendered with Sirkian lighting and gorgeous compositions. The story is a shameless lift of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians — this time it’s some nonsense about people being killed off over a “million-dollar formula.” But really, it’s just an excuse to feature unbelievable architecture, decor, wigs, and furniture. Yes, the real stars of the film are not the anonymous — and absurdly dubbed — actors, but the sleek cavernous rooms, modernist spiral staircase, a round revolving bed, marbleized caftans, and a whole array of ’60s high-style decor (with occasional forays into kitsch). Bava constantly showcases the furnishings at the expense of the actors and the action. He perversely shoots most of a pivotal fight scene through a stunning, and obscuring, latticework. Bored by a conversation, he simply ignores the actors and pulls the camera far back to show off the fantastic setting. There’s some gore here — a crowded meat locker full of bodies — but nothing the seasoned modern gorehound can’t tolerate. An irresistible Italo-pop score adds to the fun. There’s also a tasty dyke angle for Bava’s many lesbian fans.
Director Stanley Kwan is a rarity in Hong Kong cinema, a master of the weepie genre and queer to boot. (Of the three other directors traditionally called “women’s directors,” there’s one alleged straight, Mizoguchi; one definite queer, George Cukor; and one probable bisexual, Mitchell Leisen; so Kwan gives the gay auteurs the edge in this realm.) Kwan’s early successes were atmospheric women’s pictures like The Actress and Rouge, but increasingly he’s been making queer variants on the genre. The exceptional Lan Yu is the latest. The title character is an impoverished youth who’s come from the country to Beijing to study architecture. Forced to prostitute himself, he hooks up with Handong (Hu Jun), a hunky, slightly older businessman who prefers a fuck buddy to a lover: “We’ll stay together as long as it feels right.” Over a period of eight years, Handong gives Lan Yu (Liu Ye) a villa (and lots of money), cheats on him, gets married, divorced, and threatened with jail for corruption before the two of them reconnect. If this sounds like an old Hollywood melodrama, it should — at least on paper. But Kwan’s treatment makes it something else entirely. The film is beautifully shot as a series of intensely intimate tableaux that’s both romantic and sexually frank (there’s some nudity). Hu Jun (an eminent stage actor in China who also played the sexy cop in East Palace, West Palace) and Liu Ye expertly convey the complexities of characters who bring such different agendas to a seemingly hopeless affair. Based on a 1996 Internet novel called Beijing Comrade, (apparently slang for “Beijing Gay”), Lan Yu was shot illegally in Beijing, since homosexuality remains a criminal offense in China.
Metrosexuality (Ricky Beadle-Blair, 2001)
Fast on the (high) heels of Queer as Folk, and in some ways a corrective to it, comes another homo TV show from Britain’s always edgy Channel 4, Metrosexuality. The series was commissioned, according to Channel 4’s Adam Barker, “because of its vivid and funny take on the sexual and mating dilemmas of today.” One of the criticisms of Queer as Folk was that it was too white and no dykes; Metrosexuality opts for the opposite in its vision of a manically polyracial, polysexual Britain.
Seventeen-year-old straight boy Kwane (Noel Clarke) lusts after his classmate Asha (Rebecca Varney). He has no mother but rather two dads, Max (Rikkie Beadle-Blair, who created the series) and Jordan (Karl Collins). The dads are separated, and Kwane schemes to get them back together, even though Jordan is dating a hunky honky and Max is trawling the personal ads for a new squeeze. Complicating matters are Kwane’s gay best friend’s obsession with daddy Max, love trouble between Max’s sister and her girlfriend, and a dizzying variety of other relationships, trysts, and tricks covering most of the possible permutations of straight and queer, male and female, white and black.
Anyone put off by the superficiality of Queer as Folk won’t be reassured by Metrosexuality. This seldom funny comedy is frantic and shrill, with a nonstop stream of cutesy effects like words on the screen and faces appearing suddenly in heart-shaped inserts to address the camera. Beadle-Blair’s dialogue (he also wrote the dreaded 1996 feature Stonewall) is delivered at machine-gun speed, perhaps to cover a lack of inspiration. The acting would be forgettable if it weren’t so loud — all snapping fingers, feather boas, and carry-on. Most of the show’s energy seems to have gone into the sets, couture, hairdos, and thunderous soundtrack (by Moby, among others), which do represent a veritable catalog of modern queer-glam style. Intriguing, but not enough to redeem the rest. Laudable as its goals are — who doesn’t want to bust up the white-boy monopoly in queer media? — Metrosexuality just isn’t up to the job. Some of us were surprised that Queer as Folk made the transition to U.S. TV (even cable), but it’s no shock that Metrosexuality hasn’t. The easily available DVD, collecting the first six episodes, is loaded with extras, including director/cast commentary, “making of” documentaries, deleted scenes, photo gallery, and promos.
Missing Allen (Christian Bauer, 2001)
Christian Bauer’s exceptional portrait of the hunt for lost friend (and former cameraman) Allen Ross (left in photograph) takes him into some of the darkest of America’s many dark byways. Allen is seen in retrospect, laughing and carrying on, and a portrait of him as a loving, charismatic, intelligent guy emerges from interviews with many of his friends. But after his disappearance, an investigation of his belongings reveals a whacked-out mentality ripe for cultification, and this being America, he didn’t have far to look. What no one could have predicted was the Byzantine web of weirdness he would fall into, which the film meticulously documents, involving claims of alien possession, doomsday mania, castration, and murder across several states. The cast of characters, some of them seen only in photographs or heard in mysterious phone calls, along with gruesome crime scenes and a Waco connection, make this one of the creepiest forays into the hell that is the heartland since the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Only this one isn’t fiction. Not available on video at this writing, February 2004.
Night Warning (William Asher, 1982)
William Asher’s (husband of Bewitched‘s Elizabeth Montgomery, and the show’s director) only made one foray into the horror genre, but it’s a doozy. Billy (Christy McNichol’s brother Jimmy) has been raised since age two by his pathologically possessive aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell) after his parents’ mysterious death. Billy’s a star basketball player with a gay coach he adores. Cheryl kills a man she claims tried to rape her (he turns out to be gay too), and a homophobic cop, Carlson (Bo Svenson), tries to pin the murder on Billy, believing Billy, the coach, and the dead alleged rapist were sexually involved. The queer angle is handled with surprising subtlety and power for the period, with the film clearly taking the side of Billy and the two gay men against Carlson. The latter’s smug sadism makes him a great villain, but the film’s nerve center is Susan Tyrrell in a brilliant performance. Many a female star tried her hand at horror starting in the 1960s. But Tyrrell, who could wield an ax (and a poker, and a butcher knife) better than Joan Crawford or any of the better-known horror divas, stands alone in making her crazed, desperate monster both troublingly human and terrifying.
With the airwaves choking on corporate and right-wing propaganda, it’s a pleasure to see a documentary like Jennifer Read’s Owned. This lively history of computer hacking and those who do it samples the superstars of the field — “cybercriminal” Kevin Mittnick, for example — but is more compelling in showing that hackers are mostly the kids of the supposedly conformist middle class. The film nicely captures the seductiveness of this activity but also the intellectual challenge, the sheer exuberance that comes when a single person (most often a teenage male, it seems) can bring down a major, heavily firewalled website. And it isn’t as if they have no sense of humor. One of these talented boyz creates a “graffiti robot” programmed to spray “Fuck the man!” on any wall that gets in its way — certainly an admirable message in any context but especially in these days of hysteria over Janet Jackson’s nipple. Luminaries who appear in Owned include phone freaker extraordinaire Cap’n Crunch, former fugitive Kevin Poulson — both extremely articulate — and two nerdy FBI agents who invade a hacker convention only to be exposed, with a lot of laughs from both sides, by the canny promoters in a “Spot the Fed” contest. Not available on video at this writing, February 2004. Heck, it’s not even listed on the Internet Movie Database.
Questioning Faith (Macky Alston, 2002)
This uneven documentary follows filmmaker and gay seminarian Macky Alston in his search for religious belief after his friend and fellow future preacher Alan Smith dies of AIDS-related complications. This leads him through a number of encounters of varying interest, from Smith’s still-grieving mother to Alston’s feisty atheist grandma to a country preacher who, a la Howard Finster, spends equal time making bizarre artwork and studying the Bible. These encounters offer a variety of responses to Alston’s question of how to reconcile belief in God with such traumas as AIDS, but mostly they’re not all that enlightening, being too often of the “You can’t question God” variety. Part of the problem is Alston’s grating presence throughout the film. Much of the energy here is spent on shots of “Macky” looking wistfully at a picture of Jesus, or hyperdramatizing (“And yet look, behold! A senseless tragedy!”), or literally begging rightly annoyed strangers on the street to talk with him about his quest. There’s a very intriguing story in here that survives the filmmaker’s ego tripping, particularly in powerful sequences devoted to a teenage girl who turns to Buddhist rituals to escape unbearable violence in her life, and a woman who survives brain surgery partly through an unshakable faith.
What Are You Going to Do for Toilet Paper? (Ben Thompson, 2002)
This shortish (55-minute) documentary is a witty portrait of a hippie couple who dropped out of society during the flower-power craze of the late 1960s. Their location is kept secret by the filmmakers, since the pair support themselves by selling primo pot. When they’re not getting high (10 to 20 joints a day) or watching porn delivered by FedEx, they’re shooting squirrels or searching for the choicest non-cellulose ass-paper they can find (cotton cloth, apparently, which they studiously bury in the woods). The picture is intimate and mostly endearing; both Bill and Lydia have a cutting sense of humor. Bill, a former schoolteacher, is especially eloquent on such subjects as pot vs. money (“It’s better to have pot and no money than money and no pot”), variety meats (raccoon is like “greasy beef,” possums have “hardly any meat”), and the lack of necessity for bathing. Still, it would have been nice to hear more from Bill’s estranged daughter, who, while thanking her parents for teaching her to “always tell the truth,” says her dad was a “tyrant.” Dog lovers won’t be thrilled to hear that Bill prefers to drown his dog’s puppies rather than have her spayed, but maybe that’s what they have to do in this zany two-person subculture. Not available on video at this writing, February 2004, and again, missing even from the Internet Movie Database. Wake up, people!