An arresting look at the limited lives of four New York singles, playing themselves
British director Nicholas Barker’s New York cult hit Unmade Beds has an unintended effect that will make it surprisingly welcome in otherwise hostile quarters. In showing in grim detail the mostly miserable lives of a quartet of aging, unmarried New York heterosexuals, the film offers reassurances to queer folk that we can truly be thankful for our outsider status.
Unmade Beds is a very effective quasi-documentary, the cinematic equivalent of a “nonfiction novel” that starts with real-life events and characters and embroiders them for dramatic effect. Barker is not only a filmmaker but an anthropologist, and there’s a clinical coolness pervading this “story” — essentially interviews with two male and two female singles from New York about their experiences with the personal ads. From hours of taped interviews Barker created a screenplay that is apparently a mix of his subjects’ words and scripted ones. The result — “constructed reality,” in the director’s words — has the look and feel of documentary; it’s a bracing, bitter look at lives quietly disintegrating under the pressure of intractable social and body norms.
The fantasy of the gym-buffed bod notwithstanding, gay men have made room for a wide variety of body types, fetishizing, for example, obesity and old age, both anathema in mainstream straight culture. The denizens of Unmade Beds have no such luck. Michael is fortyish and cute, but at 5’4″ he’s apparently been judged defective by those mysterious hetero forces that determine such things. Some of his bitterness at not being able to present a bride to his demanding Italian parents is directed at gay people. He rails against women who hang around “effeminate homosexual men,” apparently unaware that it isn’t gay men who are preventing him from finding a mate but the same society that, like him, reviles gay men.
An equally self-deluded character is 28-year-old Aimee, 225 pounds and not attractive by conventional standards. She tries to maintain a sense of humor about being chased by fetishists — “It’s embarrassing . . . I was dumped by a submissive!” — but it’s impossible to reconcile her crying jags with her claim that she’s “okay” with being overweight in a culture that’s obviously marginalized her for it. There’s also a queer undercurrent running through her story; her high school boyfriend turned out to be gay, and her dream is to get married and settle down not in the suburbs but on Fire Island.
In some ways the most disturbing of this group is Mikey Russo, a veritable martyr in the singles scene. This fading Lothario is in his mid-fifties and is terrified at his increasing inability to score. He lies about his job and furnishes his apartment with cheesy sex images that say to women who come there “If you’re not here to fuck, leave.” He has a religious devotion to his beeper, which he uses to sneak out of dates with women he decries as “mutts.”
The last of these casualties, Brenda Monte, also laments the onset of age as if it were a disease, but without Mikey’s rampant self-pity. Brenda simply wants a man who will give her money without expecting anything in return beyond her sparkling, bawdy chatter. (“I don’t need dick . . . I need cash.”) She’s the funniest of this lot, explaining with gusto her kleptomania, the number of guys who expose themselves to her (“two or three a week”), and her dog’s tumor. The film gets much comic mileage out of shots of this dog waiting patiently for his mistress to find her patron.
Unmade Beds shows its victims — that’s surely what they are — primarily alone. The women are seen talking occasionally to a friend, but the men appear to have no one else in their lives. The director interrupts the interviews with long shots of the windows to their apartments, where his characters can be glimpsed moving vaguely, seemingly without purpose, through their days. The straight community’s much-vaunted ideal of family and community, which as gay people we’re supposed to emulate and aspire to, seems to have left these four behind.