Writer-director Everett Lewis takes us, ready or not, into a particularly nasty demimonde.
With the increasing mainstreaming of cinematic homosexuality, there’s a distinct allure to movies that insist on showing the demimonde of gay s&m, hustlers, and edgeplay. Not that it’s a crowded field, or to date a particularly successful one. Todd Verow’s snuff-skirting Frisk repelled more viewers than it attracted, and a retrospective of the work of Bruce La Bruce, complete with the esoteric pleasures of stumpfucking, could probably be held in your garage. (You could fumigate it later.) Writer-director Everett Lewis (The Natural History of Parking Lots) adds an intense, sometimes unsettling entry to this niche genre with Skin and Bone, made in 1996 but just now getting a theatrical release.
It’s no surprise that it took this long. There’s loads of male nudity (always a problem for uptight general audiences), and like Frisk, Skin and Bone will simply be too disturbing for some, though Lewis gains points by leavening his grim tableaux with pathos and humor, not all of it black.
Inevitably set in Los Angeles, amid that city’s arid strip malls, newsstands, and endless dusty streets, Skin and Bone prowls through the insular world of a trio of rent boys controlled by a mysterious madam named Ghislaine (Nicole Dillenberg). Harry (b. Wyatt) is an ambitious hunk who splits his time between tricking and trying to make it as a movie star. Handsome Dean (Alan Boyce) is younger and more naïve and falls into whoredom through a kind of pathetic disengagement with life that saturates this world and its denizens. A clueless pal of Harry’s, Billy (Garrett Scullin), gets sucked into the life with disastrous results.
The film’s conceptual richness and mocking wit begin with the credits, which show the ridiculously detailed form Ghislaine has the tricks fill out to specify what they want for their money. Her customers can request a “Gleeful, amused sadist” by merely checking a box; they can “Proceed by enema” if they wish, or be left with “Painful monthlong bruises.” This clever motif hints at darker things, and gradually the movie allows these to unfold as tricks suddenly turn, fatal mistakes occur, and gruesome elements of radical sexplay creep in.
Because Ghislaine has both male and female clients, her boys are called on to service both. In one scene that shows how little control they have over what they’re doing, Dean is forced to masturbate by two female scientists, who meticulously track his progress and force him to stop and start constantly for no fathomable reason. (They never touch him.) Another witty sequence has Harry interviewing for a job and, rejected, stripping down and seducing his female boss. It’s a credit to director Lewis’s sleight-of-hand and the film’s visual variety that the latter scene reads initially as a real interview, perhaps Harry’s attempt to change his life, rather than what ensues, which comes as a genuine surprise.
Lewis uses all manner of cinematic tricks to energize the film’s events. He intermingles scenes of the trashy movies (My Bloody Cop) and TV shows Harry’s involved in, varies the footage between color and black-and-white, and introduces disturbing flash-edits that keep us guessing consistently about his characters’ motives and even whether an event is happening in or out of a sexual scenario or at all.
But Skin and Bone is neither simply satirical nor simply gruesome. An element of genuine pathos runs beneath the sardonic wit and brutal, sometimes lethal sex. In one of the most affecting scenes, Dean is shown naked sweeping a kitchen and talking quietly to an unseen customer in the next room. This starts as one of the film’s typical sexual psychodramas, with Dean trying to engage the customer as the latter’s talk becomes increasingly unhinged and desperate in recalling a lost love. But like other characters in the film who can’t resist the lure of danger and possible self-destruction, Dean opens the door and finds a naked man, swathed in shadows, sitting in a wheelchair. Their connection from this point could easily fall into bathos, but Lewis makes it tremendously powerful and real with a complex, discreet lighting scheme, halting dialogue, and a pervasive air of longing.
If there’s a problem with Skin and Bone, it’s that the acting doesn’t always measure up to the concept. A case in point is Nicole Dillenberg’s Ghislaine. The film generates serious tension around her character, shown driving endlessly through Los Angeles, looking glamorous and inscrutable in her opaque sunglasses, arranging increasingly troubling scenarios for her boys. But Dillenberg is not a particularly good actor, and her voice lacks resonance; when she talks, the carefully crafted illusion of this madam as a malevolent god-figure whimsically destroying those around her is undermined. It’s a tribute to Lewis’s skill that her visual image, and the film’s spell, is strong enough to ultimately transcend such limitations.