Younger Yet Wiser?

These small screen post-mortems got me thinking about big screen milestones where our visibility was loud and proud, and advanced our cause with minimal irony and maximal reality—messy, empathic, and vivid.  Almost from different epoques, two films, a mere 15 years apart—a gap that speaks volumes in our community, each made their mark in breezy yet profound ways.

In the first (included both in Outfest LA‘s Legacy Project and its most recent festival), certainly the most esteemable and upbeat LGBT film with gay male protagonists till then, the disease’s morbidity was downplayed by providing visual and romantic succor amidst the hell of that time.  The second also delivered its own whimsies and charms pre-dating the 9/11-induced machismo which continues to be all the rage.

Neither film anticipates the history we have witnessed over the past month, but instead each one “normalizes” us from within without stereotyping or whitewashing.  In otherwords, except for the gender pairings, we’re just like the hets.  But wait there’s more:  in the midst of an imperfect world, something akin to tragedy even, we still make flawed, imperfect choices.  Even and especially amongst ourselves, do we hurt one another the most, not because we’re victims or heros, or tainted or more extraordinary, but simply human.

Both films are populated with two successive generations of gay men in their 20s and 30s, each dealing with loss under different circumstances.  The first romances New York amidst the HIV/AIDS plague, fighting it with the most effective weapons, irony and wit.  The second romances West Hollywood—no mean feat that—with a gaggle of imperfect men (inside and out) struggling to find their way and striving but not quite grasping their precise goals until they lose what they have.  Both films have upbeat albeit knowing conclusions, where the journey toward happiness is not self-aggrandizing or especially unique, but best taken with a solid pair of hiking boots, or a bunch of heels.

 

“One-Size-Fits-All” Doesn’t

collageImagine a disco, rave, or dance club, where or whenever, and now picture every–and I mean every–type of gay man out on that floor, married men with kids, bears/cubs, twinks, doms/subs, geeks, etc.  Kind of an overweening mishmosh, right?

Now that the death knell has tolled on perhaps the last major content provider’s attempt to corral most gay male eye balls to one show comes this web upstart in its second season, and the oracles do not bode well.  After watching most of the first season, while it’s highly professional and even bold, I found it lacking in its presumptuousness.  I give its premium cable predecessor chops for having stretched things literally and figuratively in their last season, but that underscores the problem.

By widening their pool they only seemed to muddy it.  Our conflicts can seem unique when in fact heteros have been there long before:  secret shame of scandalous sex and identity, feeling like broken puzzle pieces that simply don’t fit together no matter what, emptiness of pursuing pleasure at expense of duty, family as a higher calling.   So the pack/gaggle approach, staked somewhere between women’s and LGBT fiction and drama, has extreme limitations, purporting to include everyone, express a variety of points of view, and serves up a cafeteria/theme park variety of plot lines, and ultimately renigs on all counts.

Despite richly drawn and deeply played characters, we end up somewhere designed to accommodate the maximium number of people for the most time, absenting specific circumstances and characters with unique qualities and challenges.  It’s laudable to think big, broad, and inclusive.  But if the intention is supposed to be intimate, emotionally risky and evocative, then it’s only through specificity that universality can occur.

‘Looking’ Back

While the now last season of this series furthered the cause of gay male visibility on TV, its storylines expanded the characters’ conflicts and challenges significantly.  Sex itself practically became a series regular, going from a Sebastian-like encounter at the start, through a bottom-mocking scenario, and finally  passionate intimacy toward the close.

Augustin’s journey, which initially seemed a kind of blatantly inclusive stretch, was the most interesting, culminating in his literal breaking down the intimacy walls of a plus-sized poz guy.  Dom, too, went to extremes, torn between his suitor’s independence-deflating help and a friendly payday that was ultimately a wash, all of course his P.O.V.

The series though lived and ultimately died by Patrick.  There’s no question Jonathan Groff gave it his all, but the problem was the paltry choices given his character.  Two diametric opposite directions for the rest of his life.

And yet it could not have been clearer with neon sign to boot:  Richie is and will be “the one” for him.  The Halloween scene was fun and painful, a blistering x-ray into just how un-self-loving Patrick has become.  Which might explain his fusion with/repulsion to Kevin, himself a serial romantic.  I had thought their first workplace connection might be a downlow thing, which could have interestingly twisted up the “Gay Guys in Apartment 3-G” premise.  But instead due to the alternately moody and glacial pacing, the show clearly pitted Patrick’s self-dread against Richie’s selflessness, barrelling doubtlessly toward some major showdown.

It’s entirely possible the moment has passed where the need and success of an “all-gay” series exists.  And yet from all that the producers have said, the hunger and yearning of so many gay men (this one included) to see our stories out there couldn’t be stronger.  Terrific try, and better luck—to one and all—next time.

Mediocre ‘Imitation’

TuringCumberWhile I think overall this film deserves the praise that it’s gotten, it has a treacly pseudo-patriotric feel as if it were promoting LGBT inclusion in the armed forces. But instead of validating full and equal participation, it’s more as if directed toward our most cynical foes, saying almost blatantly, “Look how nearly normal these chaps are, they can even have sexless marriages!”

Prudence, the film’s key flaw.  Unlike another British film both topically and chronologically similar, which not only was far more successful overall, but propelled its star to greater and greater heights, here Alan Turing is utterly sexless, his motives and choices in the film bereft of viscerally human empathy.  This eccentric odd fellow, whose good chap redemption arrives through his genius, comes off ultimately as half-baked, especially since the film’s prototypical “ah-ha” moment comes through his rare conviviality with his hetero chaps.

Save of course his heroic contribution to winning WWII, a great feat in and of itself, Turing’s brilliance, eccentricity, and humanity are all left tangled and murky.  The secrecy and duplicity that he was forced to endure and pervade as a result are also left strangely incomplete, circuits and routes that are left hanging and disconnected, like the great machine he nearly single-handedly invented, but unplugged and not fully-realized.

Re-Looking

A major retraction from me to the makers of Looking, which after finally seen the first season, I get how exquisitely it moves gay male visibility forward on TV.  Eclipsing the firsts of both Queer as Folk versions, the show further nuances the cultural tightrope that gay men can occupy between physical contact and profound intimacy/love, often necessitating confrontations with painful truths.

While many linked Haigh’s breakout film to Richard Linklater, I felt Antonioni was more fitting and accurate.  Silences, physical shifts, and bleakly beautiful landscapes form the aural and visual core of this series’ palette.  Even more interesting is how a fully fleshed group of gay male friends develop well past coming out.  And while a plethora of new shows feature gay men in various situations—work, family, school—they’re mostly colorful sidebars.

Less successful here are certain dramatic nuances which don’t fully land even if the choices made are clear and interesting.  Richie was and is a wonderful foil and modifier for Patrick, but by the end felt a bit over the top because ultimately San Francisco is a very small place, and a West Side Story take might work better further south.  The threat and temptation presented by Kevin to Patrick was intriguing at first but fizzled as the source of his passion never really surfaced—except as a workplace/power manipulation.  The women characters fared the worst—unsurprisingly?—with Patrick’s mother starting off frosty with a nice touché reveal, but the fag hag nurse character ultimately was never much more than that.

Is this Haigh’s ploy, showing how unreliable and flimsy everyone around Patrick is, save his friends?  And some friends they are.  Agustin spent a season almost literally up his own ass because of his immense inadequacy and drove his boyfriend away, while Dom, nearly doing the opposite, hit 30 (yet the actor playing him is obviously 40ish??), and found his benefactor at a sex club who ultimately demonstrates infinitely more patience with him than he does with himself.

The overall quality is so high that the flaws, to me anyway, are that much more stark.  I look forward to further examination come the new year.

The Boy Can’t Help It . . . Or Can He?

Wesley

Wesley Taylor‘s butt is a magical thing to behold.  Making that observation, I instantly feel the portly, graying, eccentric sextegenarian that I am not (yet!)  Fortunately for viewers (junkies?) of his deliciously sweet inebriant of a show (in tandem with his supersonically outrageous “playmate” Mitchell Jarvis), Taylor’s caboose is literally and delectably the marachino in an ecstatically entertaining concoction.

Starting from what they know, Taylor and Jarvis, who previously had put together what amounted to videoed skits on their off (and occasionally on) hours doing duty on a third-rung musical homage, debuted their first season as a no-holds barred send up of life in the biz in the big city, and in the process warped the notion of “power bottom”-ing into quite another stratosphere.

Their new season, a logical and welcome extension to the Best Coast wreaks equally (and inequally) yummy and justified havoc.  Given the simply presented and moved on from homo-affection and sexuality of Season One, Taylor and Javris zanily spend a good deal of this season pushing back at their audience.  Until as if driving along in one of our more rarified hoods, the show hit a jarring speed bump.

Which unfortunately prompts me to pull the emergency brake on this otherwise glowing tribute, as if Taylor had suddenly soiled and/or made a stink in his Aussie Bums.  For his character, after implying (much less blatantly than Jonathan Tolin’s lovingly written one-man show for the lovely and talented Michael Urie) his being strung up into a Norma Desmond-like flytrap in season one, now goes whole hog, i.e. going down to better get to the top professionally.  Once “there,” his co-star on (yet another) heteromalecentric violence fest, where yelling, punching, and post-mortem sobs constitute emotional interaction, quickly picks up on the source of Taylor’s rapid rise, and confronts him with the homophobic “F” word.

Up until now, the sufferings of Taylor’s character, despite his best efforts to manage anything about his life, have been not only utterly endearing, but incredibly disasterous, without an ounce of victimhood or pity.  But here, he and Jarvis try circumventing what feels like a dealbreaker and turn it into a sudden, bracing, and “homo” (as in man-to-man, but not gay) validation, somehow recalling the water glass duel between Shirley Maclaine and Anne Bancroft.  I didn’t buy it, but I’m guessing the choices they think they had might have been few, given where they were coming from, and where they want to move on to.

It’s acceptable that Jarvis’s character ultimately pulls Taylor back, essentially, into the show, to this (to quote almost any character, especially Taylor) “mheh” place.  As in, I’ll find whatever way I can to get a hold of season 3 soon after it’s aired (hopefully).  But given the daring, the fun, and the “realness” they’ve built so far, I know they can, should and need to do a lot better.  Get to work, boys  . . .

Conspicuously Obscured

I once heard a prominent gay clergyman say how homophobia is a room in the ‘Hotel Sexism.’  Initially startling, having tumbled from the lips of a gay man who came out in later life, the idea reasonated. While neither touchstone nor bedrock, it’s an occasional directional sign or barometer.

This jumbles my consciousness as I ponder the fate of an excellent film, which not only depicts that guest room with punch and panache, but some of the inn as well.  Directed and produced by a talented friend, it has yet to be justly distributed despite its A-list casting and performances, and being well-reviewed, amply circuited, and community-seal approved.

The film is not just a heartfelt auto-reimagining, but a truly equality-forward study of gay marriage from two generations ago.   Nevertheless, languishing, unreleased films are nothing new, and the film is in (relatively) good company.  The pervasive and persistent sexism in the film industry however might offer a clearer scapegoat which in fact is culpable.

Had this film been made by a man–gay or straight–might it have gotten to Netflix already?  Might it have had a modest but thorough art/indie house run?  Might it even have garnered mention if not spots on the 10 best lists of mostly straight white male (with few exceptions) film critics?  This is all still possible, though the film’s post-production kickstart didn’t take, reinforcing the suspicion that certain funding pool crashers are killing its efficacy for budding and blooming filmmakers.  I wonder had Sarah Jones been male, how much more furious would the tempest have brewed from her tragic end?

Having a gifted and successful relation who has transcended all those hurdles, and yet remains Oscar-non grata has increased my sensitivity to this conundrum.  An expanded list of equally steadfast and established peers comes to mind.  Meanwhile, I wonder about my friend’s film, if the prematurely tragic death of one of her fine principals, Phil Hoffman or James Gandolfini-like, will propel her film into cinematic consciousness?  Or not?