Monday, March 27, 2006

Down from the Mountain: Loggerheads, Gay Sex in the '70s

Last September, film critic B. Ruby Rich wrote that Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain represented "a shift in scope and tenor so profound as to signal a new era" in Gay cinema. She discusses the film in the context of the "New Queer Cinema" movement, itself an offshoot (mostly) of the Midnight Cowboy school of urban drama, in which a certain louche dinginess was the ultimate sign of artistic truth. Of course, the "New Queer Cinema" had been slowly dying off for years prior to Brokeback, with more "mainstream" works like Todd Haynes's 1950s pastiche Far From Heaven dominating the arthouse category of Gay and Lesbian Film.

The reason for the shift was simple, really. Under Giuliani, New York -- the usual setting for Gay cinema -- had managed to clean up its act, and other cities gradually followed suit. Urban areas where Gays and Lesbians gathered were no longer notorious for blight, corruption and decay; in fact, thanks to gentrification, they were better known for skyrocketing property values and stultifying respectability. At last, homosexuals had made it "hip to be square," and Gay filmmakers schooled in social transgression had to find new subject matter to reflect a more placid reality. On the whole, they seemed unsure how to proceed, which might explain why some -- like Gregg Araki -- turned to 1980s period dramas instead. Araki's Mysterious Skin managed to sidestep contemporary urban life altogether with dour visions of child molesters and urban sin.

Although Brokeback Mountain also qualifies as a period piece, it seems more relevant to current sensibilities, in ways that an impartial observer could not have predicted ten years ago (or even five, for that matter). Audiences were unruffled by the numerous unprotected sexual encounters depicted in the film, even though the final scenes take place in the early '80s, as AIDS began to emerge as a major public health threat. I doubt many Brokeback filmgoers walked away with the idea that Ennis del Mar might have contracted HIV from his trysts with Twist.

But perhaps more to the point (as numerous critics have noted), Brokeback brought overt homosexuality into the Western. This was an assimilationist film in every sense of the word, not only presenting a same-sex male romance as normal, but bringing Gay male characters into the most quintessentially American of film genres. No wonder, then, that Rich saw Brokeback as a breakthrough for Gay filmmaking both in terms of content and commercial potential. Certainly it felt like a cinematic milestone three months ago, proving that a low(ish)-budget love story between two men could become not only a mass-media phenomenon, but also a come-from-nowhere box-office success.

The only problem with Rich's analysis is that Brokeback Mountain wasn't really connected to the "New Queer Cinema" of Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes, Monika Treut, or any of the other sub-basement auteurs commonly associated with Gay and Lesbian film. Granted, Ang Lee had explored Gay themes once before, in his 1993 cross-cultural comedy The Wedding Banquet (which played marital rape for sitcom guffaws). But real-life Gays and Lesbians were absent from the creative team and the cast: The producers, writers, director and actors all took pains to identify themselves as Straight. To a great extent, then, Brokeback exemplified the dictum of Hollywood hypocrisy expressed in Craig Lucas's Dying Gaul: "You can do anything you want, as long as you don't call it what it is." As it turned out, Brokeback was a film made by heterosexuals, for heterosexuals, about homosexual and bisexual men.

To the extent that Gay men embraced the film, we proved that the filmmakers had managed to get something about us right:Brokeback was the first major studio film in which heterosexuals viewed same-sex relationships as something other than a complication or a "social problem" (Gay and Lesbian filmmakers had long since progressed beyond that point, though a whiff of politics remained, inevitably, in their work). The question now is whether audiences will accept stories of Gay and Lesbian life, as told by actual Gays and Lesbians -- and whether studios will give Gay-themed projects the budgets and the distribution required to reach American audiences. And although the two films I'm reviewing here predate Brokeback Mountain, it looks like the answer will be a resounding no.

To be fair, neither Loggerheads nor Gay Sex in the '70s remotely approaches Brokeback in terms of quality, though both have considerable merits. Tim Kirkman's three-hankie tearjerker Loggerheads is the crunchy-granola film Brokeback could have been -- and we're all very grateful wasn't. But Gay Sex in the '70s, though every bit as self-indulgent and amateurish as my friend Rick Sincere claims, comes across more as a meditation on Gay male friendship and loss than an exploration of Gay male sexual encounters.

Loggerheads: It's time, I think, for critics to declare a moratorium on "ensemble dramas," which of late have become a tiresome staple of independent filmmaking. Like most critics who lament the sorry state of American cinema, I lay the blame with Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, a very good movie which happened to start a number of bad trends. Tarantino's innovation was to tell three separate stories, connecting them with a few specific scenes and overlapping characters, in a manner not unlike "anthology films" -- Dead of Night, for instance, or (to cite an egregious American example) Twilight Zone: The Movie. Of course, Tarantino gave the anthology movie a twist that was both postmodern and eminently classical: By linking characters and scenes from his vignettes, he not only offered an illusion of scrambled chronology (belied by stolidly linear storytelling within each segment), but hinted at character arcs even when the characters in question were either absent or peripheral to the narrative proper.

Last year suffered from a veritable plague of these movies, whether low-profile works like Rodrigo Garcia's Nine Lives, mainstream fare like Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, or highbrow Oscar-bait (-bate?) like Paul Haggis's Crash. One reason for the glut is that actors in an ensemble drama can receive renewed attention from critics and peers, all for what amounts to only a few days of real work. Rodrigo Garcia has mentioned that, because of his film's structure and its method of shooting, no actor worked on Nine Lives for more than four days -- which might explain how he secured a dream cast of Hollywood actresses on a budget less than a million dollars. (Nine Lives is also, for my money, the most satisfying entry in the genre so far.) Haggis's Crash drew A-list Hollywood celebrities like flies to honey, despite a paltry $7 million budget, by sprinkling them through the film like chocolate chips (white chocolate, alas). To the list of dramas with no identifiable protagonist but a web's worth of entangled narrative, we can add Tim Kirkman's Loggerheads. Kirkman's soap-opera sensibility couldn't be more different from Tarantino's overcaffeinated eye. but he, too, tells three stories -- with separate timelines, themes, and sets of characters.

Unfortunately, the three stories of Loggerheads would have been more effective as a single, continuous narrative, with an identifiable protagonist, supporting characters, and a traditional climax in which the various story threads come together. Kirkman compensates, or tries to, by jumping from segment to segment in the mode of Griffith's Intolerance (though without the skill). This is fitting, in one sense, since Kirkman's subject is also intolerance -- and maybe Mother's Day as well, with a dollop of childhood abandonment on the side.

Without strong thematic or associative links between these stories, the intercutting feels like a directorial imposition. Kirkman feels the need to reestablish time and setting with every temporal leap -- and as a result, several important story threads are left unresolved. (And because a film like this calls constant attention to its structure, even the slightest plot hole becomes a gaping wound.) This is not to say the film doesn't have considerable strengths: Kirkman has a good feeling for rural North Carolina locations -- Loggerheads is that rare example of authentically Gay cinema located outside the traditional urban milieu -- and he pulls a genuinely sympathetic performance from B-list hunk Kip Pardue. Other quasi-celebs who offer glorified cameos include Tess Harper, Bonnie Hunt, and Chris Sarandon (who sheds his Dog Day Afternoon past to play a fundamentalist preacher with a too-trendy ring of facial hair). None of them probably worked for much more than a week on the film.

I had hoped that Loggerheads would offer a more nuanced view of Gay characters than Brokeback Mountain, especially with regard to personal responsibility. To some extent it does. Kirkman depicts Gay men as business owners and adoptive parents, living up to their day-to-day responsiblities and keeping monogamous commitments. Alas, Kirkman tends to keep his Gay characters on the edges of the frame, preferring to discuss causes and effects of religious-fundamentalist homophobia. By now Christian homophobia is a pretty exhausted theme, and Kirkman doesn't breathe new life into it -- indeed, for a film called Loggerheads there's a strange paucity of dramatic conflict. In one vignette Kirkman even abandons Gay characters altogether, presumably to lobby for adoption reform in North Carolina. It's a noble cause, but unlikely to inspire much devotion outside the Tar Heel State. As for the sea turtles in the opening credits, I never understood quite how they fit in Kirkman's overall design. Since his film is named after them, I can only presume there was once a reason.

Loggerheads is occasionally moving, but deeply muddled: I was disappointed.

Gay Sex in the '70s: I have a more favorable opinion of Joseph Lovett's Gay Sex in the '70s than is probably warranted, because I approached the thing with unconscionably low expectations. It is advertised as a "steamy romp," but it is neither steamy nor rompy. Gay Sex is a poverty-row video project, a type that has gradually come to dominate the second tier of small-potatoes film festivals. Like most of its ilk it shows little if any cinematic aptitude: Even the vintage pornography excerpted in the film looks better than what's generally onscreen. (That said, the editor, Jason Szabo, deserves kudos for making this less than a drag to watch.) It's all but given that Gay Sex would fail as a documentary, for reasons Rick Sincere explains all too well: It is too focused on New York, it fails to identify its sources, and it provides only the most superficial social context for Gay male subcultures in the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS era. At a mere sixty-seven minutes, it tends to leave most of its ideas unexplored. It feels more like a first draft than a finished product.

What struck me as remarkable about this "film" was its portrait of friendship and loss. In the opening scene, a man in his late 50s sifts through pottery sherds on which are pasted photos of dead comrades. An interviewee notes, wistfully, that Gay men in the 1970s had "a childlike view of things," and both the comment and the wistfulness feel true. Gay Sex has a number of genuinely funny and heartbreaking moments -- more, certainly, than one would expect. It's clear that Lovett has close friendships with most of his subjects, because of the things he gets them to talk about. The director himself appears on camera, with startling anecdotes that are far more interesting (for once) than the archival material. Often I found myself wishing Lovett could have jettisoned his documentarian ambitions, and remade this video as a group memoir.

Both Loggerheads and Gay Sex have managed to sneak into urban arthouses: Loggerheads may eventually find a wider audience, now that it's available on DVD. But neither promises the renaissance (or even a commercial "naissance") of Gay cinema that B. Ruby Rich spotted in the all-hetero Brokeback Mountain. Loggerheads has the assimilationist sensibility and even the rural setting, yet its bargain-basement production values and spotty release strategy have consigned it to obscurity. (This even though, or possibly because, its view of Gay men is on the whole more positive than Brokeback.) Gay Sex, on the other hand, is strictly a niche-market product, and although it has reached its core audience of older urban Gay men, it's hard to imagine the film possessing a substantially wider appeal.

So the revolution of Queer Cinema, as such, is once again indefinitely deferred.

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