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Screens > Couch Trip

Queer essentials

One “out” film crit offers some choice views

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Published 5/30/2007

The Hunger

Warner Brothers Home Video

Long before Madonna got a gal-pal and Cindy Crawford's photo shoot heralded "lesbian chic," Susan Sarandon took the Sapphic plunge with French siren Catherine Deneuve in Tony Scott's first feature, 1983's The Hunger. It's hard to believe that Scott, best known for actioners Top Gun and Man on Fire, directed this art-house horror fest, which drips with kitschy goth glam.

Deneuve is Miriam Blaylock, a centuries-old vampire with a serious relationship problem. Her lover John (David Bowie) is suddenly aging rapidly despite her promise to him of eternal life. For help, John visits Dr. Sara Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a geriatric researcher, who at first writes him off as nuts. When Sara goes to the Blaylock residence to find him later, she instead finds Miriam alone. John's already dead, stored in the attic alongside Miriam's other lifeless lovers — unfortunate saps who didn't have her staying power. Maybe it's Sara's oh-so butch slacks and nipples poking though her T-shirt that inspires Miriam to bed Sara using wine and a tickle on the ivories. Most folks would do it for less; c'mon, we're talking Catherine Deneuve. Come sunrise Sara's been bitten, figuratively and literally. Can she sever her bloodthirsty connection or will she be Miriam's newest life-partner?

The Hunger is both reviled and revered. On one hand, it's a film that's an aesthetically stunning timepiece — from the stark palette to the gothic set design, it's what an '80s soft-core lesbian flick would look like if Architectural Digest made it. Even the extremely erotic love scene's in soft-focus, complete with billowy curtains fluttering around a four-poster bed. Then there's the icy-blond Deneuve, with her pristine French twist that barely gets mussed, even during a smack down with Sara. The downside of The Hunger is its leaden pace, a script that feels unfinished, and many questions about Miriam and her (ex) lovers go unanswered. These are minor faults considering that The Hunger is best enjoyed for what it is — T&A disguised as window dressing.

 

Suddenly Last Summer

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Of all the Tennessee Williams plays adapted for the screen, 1959's Suddenly Last Summer may be the only one that actually benefited from the Hays Code. This is classic Williams stuff; incest, manipulation, cannibalism, lobotomies, insane Southerners and a faceless gay victim. Gore Vidal, who adapted the screenplay, circumvented the censors — who, among other moral whitewashings, made the depiction of homosexuality forbidden. With Vidal's double entendres and homoerotic subtext, Suddenly's plot is all the more lurid and creepy. What happened that summer when poet Sebastian Venable took his fetching cousin Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor) on vacation to Spain? Well, only Catherine came back alive, albeit horrified and emotionally damaged after what she saw. Worse, her aunt, the overbearing matriarch Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn), is determined to see her lobotomized. She's less interested in Catherine's well-being than she is living with vaguely incestuous memories of her dead son Sebastian. Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) gets sucked into the ugly familial drama after aunty offers his hospital a fat grant in hopes of expediting Catherine's cranial tinkering. Should the Doc unearth the root of Catherine's breakdown or whore himself out to Violet?

And as Catherine finally recalls how the scene with Sebastian played out, the camera focuses tightly on her face and she's riveting. Taylor makes the horror palpable. Generations probably don't know Taylor outside of her perfume-hocking and Betty Ford stints, but there are reasons why she's an icon; her performance in Suddenly Last Summer is one of them. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz handles the flashback to Sebastian's death like a stylized nightmare. It's often been compared to Frankenstein's ending in which the villagers hunt down the monster. Suddenly Last Summer is a gay classic with gloriously grand Southern gothic trappings. All that's missing is the actual word "gay."

 

Poison

Wellspring Media

Of the new batch of queer filmmakers, Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven) gets the most mainstream recognition — if Oscar nods and year-end top-10 critic rankings are indicators. It's also surprising to see how little he's compromised his work. His distinct and very queer vision was already in place with 1991's Poison, his first full-length feature. It's a trilogy of seemingly disparate stories presented atypically; each story is told in short segments and rotated randomly about the film. (Or maybe not so random, you decide.)

But it's not that hard to follow because each has its own distinct borderline-surreal look. But the various themes are linked, and each character has its own poison. "Hero" looks like Hard Copy sideways with its tabloid TV examination of a woman whose son kills his abusive father then disappears. Mom says her kid was an angel. "Horror" is stylized '50s sci-fi action about a scientist who falls victim to his own experiment — one that isolates the human sex drive. The third, "Homo " — adapted from the writings of Jean Genet — is a graphic tale about a disturbed inmate whose sexual obsession with a fellow prisoner turns violent.

This is great, challenging stuff that raises questions about identity, isolation and love's darker side. This Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner requires a hunt since the studio has discontinued the DVD.

 

Stonewall

Wellspring Media

When hayseed Matty Dean (Fred Weller) steps off the bus in the Big Apple he thinks he can be openly gay. But New York City in summer 1969 isn't the permissive paradise he'd imagined. It takes one day and a visit to the Stonewall bar, a sort of speakeasy for the transgendered set, before his dreams crash.

Cops raid the Stonewall and Matty gets roughed up and arrested while defending a patron named LaMiranda (Guillermo Díaz). The incident galvanizes Matty. He seeks out "mainstream" gay organizations that rally against the system with quiet meetings in basements and marches on the Capitol lawn, which get zero attention from the press or political leaders.

Matty's in an interesting quandary — should he align himself with the colorless homos or the proudly fierce and multi-cultural Queens of the Stonewall?

The film reinvents some details of the gay rights movement, but keeps the essence of what brought about the '69 Stonewall Riots. It illuminates much of the anti-gay legislation used to deny people the right to drink where they want, dress how they want or even dance with whomever they want. As a drama-comedy-musical, Stonewall wisely shows how a marginalized group loves, lives, laughs and how it can start a revolution. People familiar with Guillermo Díaz (Half Baked) may be surprised by his genuinely affecting performance here as LaMiranda. His ability to show heartache, devotion and defiance comes through the glittering costumes and makeup. This is Nigel Finch's (The Lost Language of Cranes) last film. Unfortunately, Finch died of AIDS before the film was released. Stonewall entertains as well as educates (ever wonder why Judy Garland and rainbows are gay culture clichés?). It's also a genial reminder of how far we've come and how far we still have to go.

 

Chained Heat 2

New Line Home Video

Sadistic guards. White slave trading. Stacked foreign babes. Drug smuggling. These are but a few of the salacious "devices" in Chained Heat 2 — a women-in-prison (or WIP) sequel that's as good as its predecessor.

The blueprint-plot sees Alex (Kimberley Kates) framed for coke possession while visiting her sister Suzanne (Kari Whitman) in the Czech Republic. Alex gets 10 years and must survive the gauntlet of violent inmates and the lesbian desires of warden Magda Kassar (Brigitte Nielsen). Sis Suzanne plots to bust her out and prove her innocence.

OK, this is a cliché-ridden WIP that defies every level of good taste, coherency and decent acting — and that's a good thing. Nielsen's cast perfectly; down to her linebacker shoulders and butch-chic cropped do. When she wins Alex in a game of prostitution roulette and orders her to "Dance for me, bitch!" it's downright hysterical.

There's a Shakespeare-quoting transsexual named Bobo who makes the leather-lace getups for the girls who get whored out. There's nudity galore and each scene is rife with girl-girl action to the point of redundancy.

Chained Heat 2 would be horribly exploitative were it not for its total disconnect from reality — uh, standard prison garb is a mini-skirt and Keds! It's not the Queen bitch of WIP flicks but Chained Heat 2 is loaded with campy-insane charm.

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