(cover image: Top Row: Chicken People, Holding The Man; Bottom Row: Being 17, Slash)
Last weekend marked the final weekend of the Seattle International Film Festival. After 20+ days of film, even somebody like me was getting worn down. In a completely unplanned move, the final four films I saw dealt with queer male sexuality in a variety of ways, not all of them completely welcome.
Friday: Throwing back to queerness of yesteryear (Chicken People and Holding the Man)
Years ago, MTV moved away from focusing on music videos to scripted or reality television. From The Real World and Road Rules to True Life and 16 and Pregnant, MTV explores the wide breadth of life, including the not-so-savory portions. Similarly, CMT (Country Music Television) has moved into reality television, exploring the breadth of southern working class life.
CMT’s new documentary, Chicken People, is a quirky and humane documentary on people who breed and raise show chickens. There is a whole world of competitions aimed at creating the perfect chicken, similar to a dog show. Though I was most familiar with the Rhode Island Red, there is a wide variety of chicken breeds, each of which have a distinct set of standards ranging from the shape of the comb to the angle of the tail.
Chicken People profiles three breeders, each focusing on a different breed of chicken, as they work to create the perfect example of their chicken in time for the 2015 Ohio Nationals. Brian Knox has been working to fix the Silver-Laced Wyandotte through selective breeding, creating a very specialized system of numbers and genetics to create specific feather coloring and head shapes. Shari McCullough is a housewife and breeder who has a huge collection of chickens she focuses on in a variety of buildings on her constructs. Brian Caraker is a singer in Branson, MO who raises chickens at his parents’ place, mostly Rhode Island Reds.
Because there’s only so much one can say about breeding chickens when there are only three people to focus on, Chicken People inevitably delves into the breeders’ personal lives. Brian Knox is a single straight guy who makes his living building race car engines. He once had a serious girlfriend, a fellow breeder we meet at one of the shows, but it didn’t work out for him. Shari is an at-least-twice married mother of four who was once an alcoholic. She had three kids before marrying her current husband. Brian Caraker sings in the show #1 Hits of the 60s, and one day dreams of having a…home. His sexuality and personal relationships are constantly danced around, with the kind of acrobatics resorted to by Republican politicians trying to talk about terrorism without mentioning the word “gay.” Caraker talks about having poor self esteem due to high school bullying, and trying to be independent of his parents, but not of any relationships he’s had nor how he reconciles his love life with his chicken obsession.
In a serious way, Chicken People was participating in the old tradition of gay erasure, a phenomenon I hadn’t seen in ages. But, it wasn’t the only movie that night to feel like a throwback. Holding the Man is an Australian gay period (can we call the 1970s/1980s period yet?) romance based on Timothy Conigrave’s memoir about his relationship with John Caleo. In Australia, Holding the Man has become canonical in the queer culture, spawning a stage play, a documentary, and now this film.
Spanning 15 years, from high school to death, Holding the Man is a well done, emotionally manipulative, AIDS tearjerker. Tim and John met as teenagers, came of age during the freewheeling end of the late 70s/early 80s, and found their lives ended early by the plague of HIV. Placed beside last year’s The Normal Heart, it seems like we’re experiencing a mini-resurgence of the AIDS = Death movies that were so prevalent in the 80s and 90s. Given the quality of Holding the Man, which has learned how to wrench tears with genuine emotion for almost the entirety of the final act, having a new crop of gay melodramas is welcome.
The brilliance of Holding the Man lies in the chemistry of the two leads, and in its willingness to depict gay sex in a state every bit as explicit as its heterosexual counterparts from the 1990s (actually, I think cinematic romantic sexuality has been overly modest in the modern post-internet milieu). Director Neil Armfield has a penchant for the big and boisterous, occasionally feeling a bit ridiculous in the high school portions with actors a decade past the presented age, but always feeling genuine.
SUNDAY: The Modern Queer Male (Being 17 and Slash)
If the two Friday films felt retrograde, André Téchiné Being 17 was a complicated primal scream against regressive depictions of homosexuality. Damien is a 17 year old smart possibly-queer boy who lives in the city with his doctor mother. Tom is a 17 year old boy who struggles with his schooling because he lives on a farm in the country with his adoptive parents. One day, seemingly out of the blue, Tom trips Damien in school, and Damien fights back, leading to a series of bullying and fights that stems from their repressed sexuality. It only escalates when Damien’s mom invites Tom to stay with them after Tom’s mother gets pregnant.
Being 17 is very French. With a capital F. FRENCH. It’s cool but violent, stand-offish but intimate, and never quite sure of its tone. In order to pull off the third act twist from violent bullying to caringly intimate, both Téchiné and his actors have to pull some firework-style acrobatics that don’t necessarily come together as neatly or messily as intended. The two sides feel almost Frankensteined together, with the first two acts feeling closer to Melanie Laurent’s Breathe than the start of a “fighting because we’re flirting” high school romance.
Although it doesn’t pull off what it intends, the goal of subverting the usual coming of age queer romance is a nice effort. Many of the usual tropes are actually present, though most are perverted. The more confidently queer kid gets frustrated by the constant rejection and makes a couple of bad choices. The more repressed one seems to be having a relationship with a girl (here, it’s Damien’s mother). Both act out their frustrations in macho displays of aggression. The tropes have just been so subverted it almost feels fresh again.
If Being 17 doesn’t quite know how to escape its sexual orbit, Slash is much more knowingly modern, exploiting if not embracing the “fuck labels” type of mentality surrounding sexuality that I hear about from the kids these days. Neil is an introverted high school freshman who writes queer slash fiction for his favorite science fiction series. Julia is a sophomore who also writes slash, but from a more feminist point of view. Through their mutual hobby of writing erotica, the two bond and even hit up a fan convention together.
If that description sounds impossibly balanced, it’s because it is far more balanced than the movie is. Though the slashfic community is largely created by women and largely dominated by women (even women who write queer stories about men getting it on), Slash focuses on Neil and his struggle with his sexuality. Though Julia ushers Neil into the world of slashfic, her character is relatively static and doesn’t actually get much of an arc. Neil, however, gets his writing depicted in separate cut scenes, struggles with his fandom, his sexuality, and his parents in very explicit terms. Meanwhile, Julia deals with many of the same struggles, but is forced to do so behind the scenes.
Clay Liford, a straight man who has worked on several queer films (including Gayby), builds his story as a struggle of a queer guy. He struggles to understand the inner life of a queer kid, but doesn’t know how to communicate the looks of longing, nor the high strung emotion of living multiple sheltered lives. Yet, if he misses the histrionics of a typical high schooler (we were all histrionic at that age; it comes with the territory), he is a master of the struggle. Neil’s questions about his future and the depth of those implications are felt to be as deep and as shallow as they simultaneously are. It’s a fine line that I appreciate Liford addressing, even if he doesn’t master the total heights of the emotions. Which is kind of the struggle I feel about all four of these films.