INSTANT 3: Closeted Themes

One possible reading of the film I addressed in my last post, Bad Company (1972), is one that puts a queer lens to the relationship between Jake (Jeff Bridges) and Drew (Barry Brown), considering that their characters could be read as the romantic coupling at the center of the film.  In one revealing scene, Brown's character is the only one in the gang who refuses to have sex with a female prairie prostitute.  His excuse is that he's "saving it for marriage," but there's definitely other tensions in the air.

Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown
on the set of Bad Company
For this second installment of "Instant 3" I want to recommend three flicks available to watch instantly on your Netflix queue that you won't find in the "Gay and Lesbian" section, though they should probably all share that genre classification.   In the age of the "Bro-mance" (a term I use reluctantly), which are too often just another excuse for naturalizing audiences to homophobic punchlines, it seems necessary to champion films that are presenting complex and under-represented presentations of gender and sexuality.  I am always interested in movies that are dealing with issues of masculinity and male relationships that don't fit into cookie-cutter categories of social expectation (although not available to "Watch Instantly," check out Jerry Schatzberg's Grand Prix Cannes Winner Scarecrow (1973)Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky (1976), Alex and Andrew Smith's The Slaughter Rule (2002), for starters).

David Morse and Ryan Gosling
in The Slaughter Rule
The following recommendations (all pretty male oriented, I'm aware--but, please send me your suggestions for their female counterparts!)  include two regrettably under-seen pictures that rank among the best films of 2008-2009, and a landmark indie film that most have probably seen, but maybe haven't considered as the gayest work of a great director:

1) Bronson (2008) - Tom Hardy has been sadly underused since his tour-de-force performance in Nicolas Winding Refn's portrait of England's most violent and artistic prisoner (most notably breathing a bit of life into Christopher Nolan's overwritten Inception); once you see Bronson you may understand why, since a character like Mikey Peterson, aka Charlie Bronson, only comes along once in a lifetime.  Bronson begins as if it were a typical bio-pic, but succeeds by never acting as if one film could "tell the story" of a life, instead combining a grandiose visual sensibility with a larger-than-life subject to create a biography that is truly an avant-garde example of it's genre.  Bronson is plot-less in the best sense; not a novel, but a painting.  The film alternately uses voice-over, staged sequences, and slightly skewed locations as a way to stay expressively focused on it's complex central character.                                                                 Bronson never quite acts as you suspect it should:  in one moment bombastic, then nearly silent; at times maddeningly masculine, then utterly feminine.  Hardy is at the heart of all of this, giving a performance of remarkable technical skill; a combination of the most refined comedic moments of Buster Keaton and the most intensely frightening moments of Ben Kingsley...but with prison workout muscles.  The character of Bronson is progressively ushered through the film's narrative by an impressively queer supporting cast, including Hugh Ross as Bronson's Uncle Jack, Matt King as his fighting promoter, Paul, and James Lance as his prison art instructor, Phil.  Bronson's relationship with all of these men is physically measured in a curious fashion, contrasting the depiction of his struggles to relate to the women in his life.  Of course, in one sense, it's a prison movie, but one that never uses the sexuality of prison life as a cheap punchline, but explores it in an almost absurdist manner.  For a film that ultimately leaves us with one of the most brutal images of confinement in prison movie history, Bronson is terrifically funny and fantastically colorful at times, as well as easily being the most quotable film of the last ten years (my favorite line being Uncle Jack's assessment of Bronson's facial hair:  "That's an outstanding set of mustaches").  I hope to catch up with Refn's other work soon, including the Pusher trilogy, Fear X with John TurturroValhalla Rising (also available to "Watch Instantly" on Netflix), and the upcoming Walter Hill homage, Drive.

Tom Hardy in Bronson
2) Big Fan (2009) - Robert D. Siegel had an impressive couple of years as a screenwriter, first with the Darren Aaronofsky directed The Wrestler (2008), followed closely by his directorial debut, Big Fan.  Featuring a lead dramatic turn by the masterful stand-up comedian/writer Patton Oswalt as NY Giants fan and toll booth attendant Paul Aufiero, the casting is a bit of a gamble, but works perfectly paired with the scruffy desperation of Kevin Corrigan as his best friend Sal, a character who we know dangerously little about other than he lives for Giants football.  If there is another high point to Sal's existence, it's curling up in bed and listening to Paul call in to their favorite late-night sports talk show with his prepared monologues railing against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The film is essentially about the relationship between two men leading a poor working class existence (they can't actually afford tickets to the game, but travel whenever they can to view the game on their portable tube from the stadium parking lot), and Siegel understands that his compassion as a writer/director for these characters is the key to the success of the film.  In contrast, what the current spate of "Bro-mances" miss is that there has to be a romance between the writer and the characters, and every turn of Big Fan shows an all-too-rare affection for the losers at hand.  Paul and Sal's fandom is one that is private and affectionately drawn, as they play out the arguments of an old married couple arguing over which soda to drink.  When they attempt to make their passion public, as in the parking lot scene where they fail at getting a "Here we go Gi-ants!" chant going, wandering through a crowd that they are trying to perform along with but are obviously separate from, they fail.  This separateness of Paul and Sal's fandom stands in contrast to the depiction of the Eagle's lair, which Paul eventually infiltrates.  In the lair, Paul confronts his radio-show nemesis, Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rappaport, perfectly cast), whose booster-ism is portrayed as a communal, public experience, where everyone chants in unison, "Gi-ants SUCK!"  This chant eventually becomes muddled, as the camera focuses in on Paul's shaken reaction to the barrage of noise, now sounding more like "This Guy SUCKS!"  It's this moment that is the character-based climax of the film, but for a film that has been characterized too often as a "dark character study," Big Fan leaves it's characters in a pretty sweet place.
In the same way that Bronson is a prison film that doesn't play by the rules of its genre,  Big Fan is going to disappoint those looking for a typical "sports" movie (or, perhaps, something more along the lines of 1996's The Fan--the triumphant sound cue in Big Fan is less Nine Inch Nails, and more Tanya Tucker), but unfortunately what might be missed is a film that is pretty expansive in its implications.  Big Fan is not a "small" film at all, particularly because it's showing us something about fan culture that feels nearly unprecedented in American film, and doing so in the uncompromising spirit of the early 70's character study.

Patton Oswalt and Kevin Corrigan in Big Fan
3)  Reservoir Dogs (1992) - We know that Quentin Tarantino had a thing for queer readings from his screen time in the rightfully forgotten indie Sleep With Me (1994), which may have been a call to look back at 1992's Reservoir Dogs in the same light.  It's hard to believe that Reservoir Dogs is coming up on a 20 year anniversary, but in retrospect it holds up remarkably well, and unlike a number of pictures that surrounded it and attempted to copy its style (I'm talking to you, Boondock Saints fans), Dogs doesn't feel helplessly locked into the early 90's.  The film has already been unpacked through a queer lens better than I could ever hope to here, so I will spare you the details.  Suffice it to say that if you haven't checked out this picture in a while, or haven't seen it at all, it is definitely worth revisiting for a number of reasons.  Although it has probably come to be considered what I often refer to (in my best faux-macho TBS promo voice) as "Movies for Guys Who Like Movies!!!" fare, it is hard to recall a film that subverted portrayals of masculinity in such a uniquely stylish manner.

Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs


nathaniel drake carlson said...

Excellent blog and excellent series of posts! I would certainly agree with your selections here. The ones I would add at the moment are ones I just recently rewatched: Everett Lewis' The Natural History of Parking Lots and Zalman King's In God's Hands. Parking Lots was the directorial debut for Lewis, who has gone on to make a number of acclaimed independent films with specifically gay characters and themes. One of the things I love about his debut though is that it is not really "a gay film" at all. When I interviewed him years back he mentioned to me that it was received as such and that surprised him since that was not how he had conceived it at all. And yet it is perfectly understandable as the intimacy between the two brothers at center demonstrates the kind of intimacy between men that we rarely if ever get to see outside the strict province of gay cinema (i.e. most specifically here I'm talking about emotional vulnerability, that kind of exposure). It's not on DVD though to the best of my knowledge and an old VHS had to suffice. Lewis' later unreleased An Ambush of Ghosts goes even further bringing in an odd confluence of desperate need and psychopathology.

In God's Hands is a surfing pic from a director normally known for his soft core hetero romantic melodramas. I like those and think they are doing a lot more than they are given credit for but in this case the subject matter would seem shorn of any potential for the strictly erotic. That may be but what King has done is shift gears to emphasize the nature of the sensuous and the way that can bond people involved in the kind of communal activity in which that sensation, sensory experience as such, is predominant. Also, it's a remarkably and deceptively subtle film in which the deep bonds between the men as friends, the intimate sort of access into themselves and their fears and their hopes, shapes the others who respond to them and are willing to be so affected. It's a piece very attuned to and respectful of the undercurrents that make us who we are.

When speaking about these issues I think there should also be special note made of films like those of Julian Hernandez which take emotional/sexual intimacy profoundly seriously (more so than a lot of gay cinema or cinema in general that traffics blithely in these issues). So much so that that intimacy becomes the ostensible subject of his films and motivator for their glorious aesthetic power.

On a slightly different note I feel compelled to mention something else here that might be a very worthwhile complement to any discussion about the ways in which physical and sexual intimacy can get folded into intellectual intimacy. A rare example of this possibility is my favorite Nicolas Roeg picture, Full Body Massage (there are other, technically better Roeg pictures but this is my favorite for many reasons). The whole film takes place over the course of an extended massage session, along with numerous Roeg trademark style flashbacks and cutaways. What compels here is the extraordinary way in which Roeg and his actors (there are really only the two principles) and his screenwriter craft a detailed, subtle and ever developing rhythmic dialogue of rich subjects in which we are meant to understand that this level of intimacy is exactly the same as that of the intensely physical or sexual. The spectrum of possibilities (sexual/purely physical and sensual/ intellectual/ spiritual) is shown to be that of complementary colors in a continuum, none taken to be excessively dominant or baseline indisposable. In this I think Roeg actually gets very close to demonstrating an ideal relationship and, importantly, not one shorn of friction or confrontational elements.

Jason Hedrick said...

As always, you make some great recommendations, Nathaniel. Thanks for turning me on to such great pics over the years, including "The Slaughter Rule," which might have passed under my radar otherwise.