Three historic gay movies from Water Bearer Films
It was inevitable that the DVD market would move beyond the blockbusters and so-called reference disks (those mindless actioners like Armageddon whose ultimate value is to show off the format’s latest audio and video effects) into more nichey realms. One beneficiary of this trend has been the queer film. Three notable works in the genre have been cleaned up (to the extent possible) and digitized and released on DVD.
Christopher Larkin’s A Very Natural Thing (1973) is widely considered a landmark work – a gay film aimed at the mainstream at a time when the culture was still saturated by suicidal lesbians and psycho-killer fags. This is definitely an insider’s take on queer life, regardless of how dated it seems. It follows 26-year-old Jason as he leaves the priesthood and moves to New York in search of more earthly pleasures. He hooks up with hunky but sluttish ad exec David, and the film shows the minutiae of their lives together as they cook, shop, buy K-Y, go to the zoo, fight, and fuck. The fact that these prosaic events were even portrayed in a mainstream film of the time is praiseworthy. Less so is the soap-operaish quality of the plot. In spite of welcome early bathhouse scenes and Fire Island trysts, the film is too talky and hand-wringing to be completely successful. The symphonic backgrounds to the sex scenes quickly grate; the rolling through leaves in Central Park skirts parody; and the gigantic moussed hairdos, mutton chops, and elephant bells make it all look uncomfortably like a homosexual Brady Bunch (is that a redundancy?). Still, the actors get points for sincerity, and the location shooting in a pre-Disneyfied New York at least makes for a lively setting. The film was a commercial failure at the time, perhaps because straight audiences weren’t prepared to see queers living normal lives and queers expected more of a porn feel in their ghetto cinema. The quality of the transfer is superior to the video but apparently the source material was not the best; some of the scenes are quite grainy. And unlike those blockbuster DVDs mentioned earlier, there are no bells and whistles here – no commentaries, trailers, multiple languages or camera angles. Ditto for the other two releases.
San Francisco impresarios Marc (“Hostess”) Huestis and Lawrence Helman made a splash with Sex Is … in 1992, and the film – essentially a talking heads documentary in which 15 gay men of varying stripes and ages talk about their sexuality – still has a kick. Like A Very Natural Thing, this film broke some ground by daring in the early ’90s to present an unapologetic view of queer male sex that factored in the AIDS crisis without succumbing to it and becoming a maudlin “AIDS movie.” It’s always amusing and heartening to hear articulate queens talk about their personal histories, and Sex Is… doesn’t disappoint in this area. The ironies of growing up gay are everywhere apparent here; freelance writer David Perry describes how his dad tried to help him “butch it up” by buying him muscle mags, which to dad’s ultimate horror only whetted his budding queer son’s appetite for the real thing. Another queen describes getting his queer visual fix from magazines like Photoplay; he wistfully recalls “Richard Burton’s hairy legs … Tab Hunter … and god help us, Robert Stack! He had perky nipples.” Director Huestis adds spice in his witty descriptions of tearoom sex and s&m, while hoary old newsreels (“THIS is gay San Francisco!”) and archival sources add visual leavening. The quality of the video transfer is fine.
Rounding out this triple bill is Frank Krom’s featurette (50 minutes) To Play or To Die. This 1991 Dutch film caused consternation in some circles; straight audiences were no doubt horrified by the gothic trappings of queer psychopathology, and queer audiences probably didn’t take kindly to a gay director making a film in which the leading boy is a psychotic masochist. Poor Kees is a nerdy 15-year-old student lusting after Charel, a blond jock who looks like a Hitler Youth recruiting poster. Kees is one of cinema’s most extreme maso-queens; he’s constantly on edge but refuses to disguise his obsession. He blatantly cruises the sleazy Charel in front of everybody, knowing he’s going to get the hell beat out of him, and protects his evil love object against school authorities even as he’s getting pummeled. It all ends up in an Old Dark House with the two of them engaging in a more physical variety of Pinter/Albee-style mind games that involve graphic violence, hallucinations, and a basketball with a face. An effective, if too brief, study in the far fringes of perversion. Video quality is fine.