(This is a long one.)
As I said in part one, the original post under this title was supposed to be a movie review of sorts . . .
Long time readers know that Wednesdays are queer movie night at casa pbw. Since I teach queer media, and since one of the boys has the worst taste in film *ever*, I am often the one who gets to pick the movies.
What you probably don’t know is that I love detective novels. Love them! My grad students all know that I am dying to teach an inappropriately titled course about lesbian detectives. Thinking about it makes me positively giddy. It has become such a thing that I recently misread the title of an acquaintance’s course and asked all big eyed “So what exactly is Top Gay Literature?” to which, thank goodness, he played along by saying “So that’s why there are all those guys in the front row.” Doh! Can you imagine? Some times I forget the world does not live inside my campy Catholic head and it does not help when others “shock the Catholic.”
All this to say, I picked the following films: Third Man Out and Shock to the System (Did I mention our video store has a gender bias in its available films?). I had never read the Donald Strachey series since I am more of a Blue Place and Stay kind of girl. So I cannot tell you how well these films stick to the books or not. I can say that on first watch Sebastian Spence’s performance in Third Man Out is a little too campy but is appropriately mellowed in the follow up Shock to the System. As a big Nick and Nora fan, I also think the camp was perfect for the reference but out of step for our time period. I love the touches with the dog, the martinis, and (spoiler) when Sebastian gets knocked out with shaker in hand . . . these are all perfect references to the Thin Man series that it no doubt takes a detective geek like me to pick up on. I also want to point out that Here! has descriptions up of both films emphasizing the “sexy” nature of the stories; these are real detective stories, with real plots and character development, if you watch looking for hard bodies, you will get a glimpse or two, but will be disappointed.
Some will find the plots of these films heavy handed. They center on well-known real life events but are completely fictional. Third Man Out’s plot revolves around a “gay activist” who outs gay men on his website when they vote against gay rights. Shock to the System explores the impact of the “ex-gay” movement with Strachey going under cover to find a “cure for his desires.” Yet, if you remember that these films are based on books penned much earlier, the political goings on they represent are not just reminders of a well worn past but a document of them. Also, the fact is we still have these problems: Senator Craig’s voting record vs. his bathroom romp, State Rep. Kern’s attempt to shutdown all discussion of sexuality in schools and her gay teenage son, etc. Though Focus on the Family has certainly lost some steam, the conservative church continues to persecute GLBTQ people and perpetuate “ex-gay” propaganda. Also, though Third Man Out’s conclusion is a little predictable (tho hopefully not who the murderer is), Shock to the System is not. Both give a lot of food for thought with regards to the issues of persecution, the politics of the closet, and building love affirming lives.
The characters are really what draw you in to these films. They are well rounded and complex. Some are cute and funny and yes once or twice there is eye-candy for the boys and the straight girls. Each film gives you a little bit to look forward to in the next installment and characters re-occur in new ways throughout. There are innumerable cute little touches in any given scene, for instance the dish collecting water from the roof between Sebastian’s legs when they go to bed or the imbalance in their drinks throughout the second film. The relationship between Timmy and Donald is also really important as it stands counter to a lot of the dysfunction surrounding them. Both actors agreed that they wanted to show a complex and committed relationship for all the people who don’t get told love (of the self and others) is as real a possibility in queer communities as straight ones. Nor do Timmy and Donald play like the equally unrealistic “perfect couple;” they have fights, different interests, and different experiences with regards to their identities and their choices. Given the number of films that we watch on Wednesdays that still have the tragic queer character in them, I think it is important to have a relationship that is believable and solid out there. It is also a multicultural cast with both recognizable veterans, grown up young ones, and new-but-known faces in the queer film/tv industry, which is nice. (One caveat, I do think the black man in edit Third Man Out end edit was just there for the mirror scene; edit while, Shock to the System once again improves upon the original by giving us an integral black character along with the return of recognizable characters of color from the first film end edit.) In all these ways, you can tell the films were done by people who care about what they are doing.
The other truly great thing about these two made for Here! tv movies, is Chad Allen. In a bit of life imitating art, Allen, like the potential murderers & Strachey in Third Man Out, was outed against his will at the height of his career. Also like those characters, the consequences were devastating. To quote one of Allen’s interviews, he “never looked for work a day since [he] was 5 years old” then after the cancellation of Dr. Quinn he “couldn’t get a meeting with the same network [his] hit show was on for another 6.” The damage of growing up as he put it without “real gay role models on tv” and then having his career killed by his refusal to hire a beard as suggested, would normally knock someone down for good, but Allen not only turned it in to an opportunity to become an amazing GLBTQ activist, he also channels a lot of what he has survived into Strachey, who he admits playing because of their similarities. It is good to see him on my screen and his acting is spot on.
Spence’s work here is also nice. There is a look of love and compassion in his eyes in some of the smallest scenes that conveys more than any dialog. It is the tiny details that matter, and in those moments Spence’s talent really shines.
Having watched what was the first two non-traumatizing films in about a month on queer night (steer clear of the unrated versions of Sugar and El Mar no matter what crack smoking friend tells you otherwise), you can imagine how hard what happened next was for us. . . .
The videos ended just as English as a Second Language came on cable. As a Soñadoras fan, yeah I said it and I am not the only one in this casa, I couldn’t wait to finish the last of the popcorn watching not only Kuno but a movie that promised to complicate the idea of Latin@ lives and the immigration narrative. Unlike other films, ESL made a point of drawing us into a world that was both riddled with disparity and speckled with unchecked wealth within the Latin@ community. Thus it juxtaposes the spoiled daughter of a rich family named Lola with the desperate acts of a new arrival named Bolívar. Like the other movies of the night, it had its trite moments. Yet its premise of two decidedly different Latin@s struggling in “life that is never easy” avoided cliched depictions of the community and of well-worn stories. Thus Lola has her own struggles with reproductive rights, wealth and assimilation, and finding herself which she does without becoming a “do gooder rich girl” or a “completely transformed saint.” Her story is imminently teachable, if only it were in a different movie. Bolívar’s story takes up the bulk of the film and it wasn’t long before we discovered that the real twist was not Lola and Bolívar’s internal struggles but rather homophobia and the myth of the gay male predator.
Bolívar has only been in the U.S. a few days before he inexplicably veers from the rest of the lined up workers to ask a man coming out of Home Depot for a job. The man, Norman, is an abusive, washed up actor, with delusions of being sexy and famous, who also happens to be a strip club owner and part time pimp. He takes Bolívar home to do yard work. Not long after which, Norman starts leering at Bolívar from his bedroom window.
Though nothing happens during the job, on the car ride back, Norman inappropriately caresses Bolívar’s inner thigh asking “Do you like that?” (literally!!!) Bolívar is appropriately disgusted and jolts from the car without his money for the day’s labor. When he realizes he has not been paid, he chases after the car as Norman curses at him and speeds away.
This scene is bad enough. It pathologizes queer desire in the figure of a creepy and pathetic older man and invites the audience to despise him. Yet it could also be read as the very real problem recent immigrants have in finding legitimate work and often being exploited. It opens the door for a powerful discussion about same sex exploitation and the immigrant population involved in trade. Had it stopped there, I think we would have been unhappy about the avenue they chose to explore these issues but understood the overall point.
However, much of the film centers around Bolívar’s subsequent job at Norman’s night club. The strip club caters to women with beefy men on stage and bored rich girls, including Lola, with handfuls of dollars awaiting them at the tables. Like most clubs, there are also backroom “private dances” where the exchanges are negotiable but the money goes to Norman & a flat fee to the dancers. Two things happen to drive the homophobic underlining of the film home in these first scenes at the club: First, Bolívar tells Norman he will “do anything” and pathological Norman takes that opportunity to caress his neck and ask him the same creepy question “Do you like that?” As Bolívar tolerates his touch like a jittery colt, Norman adds “You like that right? You like it.” (hello, pay a writer!) Bolívar, says “yes” b/c he knows he needs to work. And Second, when Norman shows Bolívar the back room and explains the fee, Bolívar says “no hombres” over and over, trying to ensure confirmation from Norman, who assures him the club is for women.
Again, had these scenes been juxtaposed with a complex critique of rentboys, Norman would be a questionable character in an otherwise interesting film. There is no such critique. Not only are the major story arches in Bolívar’s part of the story about queer predator sub-text, but the minor events of his story are tainted by them. Thus, when Norman asks Bolívar if he knows a good bar tender, he eagerly goes to find the first person who helped him get his bearings on the work line. Bolívar picks his friend up in Norman’s car, which is of course decorated with a bouncing penis ornament on the dashboard and animal print interior. His friend looks at Bolívar distastefully, until Bolívar explains the car is not his. Even then, his friend is wary and asks about his wife. Bolívar is annoyed and defends both his heterosexuality and his work, which he says is good and easy money.
Lola also questions Bolívar’s employment. She points out that she can help him find other, non-exploitative with her connections. She also reminds him that with his English rapidly improving, he can do better at understanding what is going on and therefore negotiating for better conditions in his new work place. Lola is not naive about Bolívar’s circumstances, as she has been witness to much of them, but genuinely has the ability to get him a better job. She also wants to help not out of guilt or judgment but because Bolívar has been by her side in two of her most pivotal moments in the film. He responds to Lola the same way he does to his friend, with indignation and praise for his job and the money he makes. Though this can be read as the sort of denial necessary, Bolívar is never seen to be unhappy or abused in his workplace, beyond his homophobic interactions with Norman, which are fairly minimal. Through the multiple scenes of his dancing in public and private, we are given an image of Bolívar of largely, if slightly mindlessly, enjoying his work and the money he makes. He does not question his sexual encounters and takes full advantage of the night Lola is in the backroom to be with her.
The major story arch is thus all the more jarring. Where the crusty, over weight, clearly predatory, men come from, in a ladies club where only women are evident in the wide shots, I cannot tell you, but there they were waiting for Bolívar in the backroom. Though until now the rule has been only one woman at a time in the backroom, an obviously predatory gay couple have been led to the backroom expecting to be serviced. The director and writer’s desire to make same sex desire as repugnant as possible also ensures that these men do not fit the atmosphere of the club on class levels either; unlike the female patrons who are all wealthy and bored, these two men look like toothless rejects from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The leer so disgustingly at Bolívar that drool actually drips out of one man’s mouth. If you have seen Sugar, you know what I’m talking about.
Bolívar begins to scream, in English, “No Mens!” over and over, until Norman reminds him he won’t get paid for the night if he leaves. He also leers at Bolívar and asks him how he could dare to refuse. There is a distinct look to the leering that reminds watchers of the first scene between them in the car when Bolívar refuses Norman’s sexual advances. Norman is not threatening Bolívar as an employee but as someone who dared to refuse his homosexual advances and now has to pay!!!
Though we are spared what goes on in the backroom, Bolívar emerges from the room soiled and pulling on his pants enraged. The crusty men are satiated and still drooling. Bolívar storms over to Norman and clocks him with all the heterosexist outrage of the homophobic screen writers who just know we will all be equally horrified by this added debasement. Like the scene in Traffic where the black male drug dealer’s massive, unclothed, body looms over drugged out blonde Erika Christensen, the gay male body serves as emblematic of the depths of degradation Bolívar has reached. Since both scenes also rely on the presence of coercion to cover up their racial and sexuality biased messages, the audience is invited to be openly shocked without judgment.
The film culminates in Bolívar melting down at his ESL class because of his gay sex work the night before. For the first time Bolívar mentions that he has a newborn baby along with his wife at home. Also for the first time, we the audience are given long slow shots of his wife’s growing belly, the nursery, and finally the mother and child. He juxtaposes his love and need to provide for them with the horror of being “abused by mens” and wails about wanting to “just go home.” Note, he had no similar crisis when he slept with Lola for money much earlier in the film; where were his wife and new born then? Even if we were not clear that we are supposed to see the purity and beauty of heterosexual coupling in Mexico and cry out against the debased queer freakery of N. America, the film does it for us. As Bolívar wails inconsolably, his equally new arrival ESL classmates, who have all managed in their own right, take up a collection to send Bolívar home and by class end he has enough to get on the bus.
Bolívar is an exploited immigrant, that much is true. However, he had more opportunities than most immigrants. In order to see him as wholly victimized the film operates within a series of erasures. First he fails to explore nor take advantage of other economic opportunities. Second he has an emotional turned sexual relationship with Lola without much thought for his wife and child. Third he engages in heterosexual sex work willingly and without any similar crises. The final erasure is of any redeeming or normal gay characters in the film. Taken together, these four erasures create a dichotomous atmosphere in which heterosexual coupling is always good and gay male desire is always predatory.
It was hard to watch this film, coming down off the Strachey high we had all been on. It was made all the worse because there really is a complex story to tell about immigration and male sex work which many other films made in Canada, Eastern Europe, Greece, etc. have done really well. As a casa full of people impacted by immigration and queerness we were particularly angered by the predatory depictions and the ultimate message of the film that failed so decidedly to critique immigrant exploitation in favor of repeated stereotype. Much like Sally Kern’s comments in pt. 1, the film seemed to argue that there was a “homosexual agenda” that was a threat to us all.
Perhaps, this is why I held on to our Strachey rentals until the last day to return them. Little dorks that we are here in casa pbw, I found one of the boys curled up beside me later that night with coco saying “I knew you’d be watching it again.” And I was, not just because I am a detective geek, but like D, I needed to wash the message of ESL out of my head for good. Whether you fall on the side of the “its too made for tv movie” camp, the “Yay! how cute are they” camp, or the who done it camp, you have to admit that the Donald Strachey series from Here! is a necessary counterpoint to the continued insistence that gay is synonymous with predator.