Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mr. Harlot's Holiday

Whether or not most people want to admit it, prostitutes have played a huge role in their lives. They can be found in literature, onstage and online -- as well as on Santa Monica Boulevard (just ask Eddie Murphy). There are plenty of prostitutes to be found onscreen (and I'm not even talking about adult video). Some of them have found cherished places in our hearts.

Few can forget Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Melina Mercouri in Never on Sunday, Anna Magnani in Mamma Roma, or Shirley Maclaine as both Irma la Douce and Sweet Charity. In 2004, Charlize Theron received the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of Aileen Wournos (the Daytona Beach prostitute who became a serial killer) in Monster.

But male prostitutes on film? Those roles have not been celebrated quite as much in the media or embraced with quite the same zeal. Sure, there was Jon Voight's portrayal of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969), Robert La Tourneaux's "Cowboy" in The Boys in the Band (1970), Richard Gere's Julian in American Gigolo (1980), and Woody Harrelson's depiction of a Washington, D.C. escort in The Walker (2007). But few people nurture fond memories of the performances by Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991), David Arquette in Johns (1996), Rob Schneider's portrayal of Deuce Bigelow, Male Gigolo (1999), or Joseph Gordon-Levitt's impressive work in Mysterious Skin (2004).

Gay film festivals have screened the documentary 101 Rent Boys (2000) as well as a series of films about male prostitutes from the Philippines: Macho Dancer (1988), Sibak: Midnight Dancers (1994), The Masseur (2005), and Twilight Dancers (2006). In recent years, films in which a gay male prostitute is integral to the plot (Shortbus, Boy Culture) -- without being doomed to a violent death -- have achieved limited success.

This year's Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) offers two new entries to the category. One fictional, the other mostly factual). In both films, the hustler/rentboy/male prostitute figure is depicted as a fairly normal person -- an employee or entrepreneur using his body to earn a living (the same way other craftsmen use the tools of their trade). Surprisingly, what elevates these two films above so many others has nothing to do with any controversy about prostitution. Both films benefit from some top-notch cinematography.

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First, let's examine the quasidocumentary. Greek Pete follows a year in the life of a London rentboy (Peter Pittaros) who has come to the big city with clearly-defined goals of making a lot of money so that he can live in a nice flat, buy a good laptop, and enjoy an urban lifestyle which presents him with plenty of opportunities for building a devoted clientele. Another goal is to win the title in the Escort of the Year contest held in Los Angeles. Pete has no misgivings about being a prostitute -- he's making the most of his physical assets while they are in fully functioning condition.

Peter Pittaros

Pete has mastered the basic skills of building his profile on Gaydar.com, having professional-quality pictures taken, and using his sweet personality to make nervous clients feel comfortable in his presence. Whether he is hired as a dinner companion or for a good, solid fuck, he delivers on cue. Although he is a top who specializes in role-playing scenarios, Pete's oversized ears almost beg to be grabbed by his clients as they itch to pull his head toward their aching crotches.

However, in order for Pete to succeed, he's going to have to deal with some of his closest friends and their bad habits. His boyfriend Kai (Lewis Wallis) is a sweet young thing who is frequently depressed, jealous, or seeking out his next high. Kai has also been underwriting his drug habit with the money he makes from hustling. Completely self-absorbed, he often does little things that irritate the very business-like Pete -- such as flushing the toilet in their flat while Pete is trying to screw a client in the next room. 

If there is one thing Pete cares about, it is customer satisfaction.

Despite Pete's professional mentoring (and almost parental concern), Kai can't seem to develop any interest in saving money for the future. Most of their friends are immature, narcissistic, and fairly irresponsible young men. Even as they snort cocaine and respond to potential clients on their cell phones, a Christmas pot luck dinner with this giggling gaggle of gay gigolos has an almost childlike quality to it. In his director's notes, Andrew Haigh points out that:
"The life of a rentboy is often depicted as either sexy and glamorous or blighted with abuse and drugs. I wanted to try and get closer to the reality and focus on the everyday nature of things, the nuts and bolts of the job, the real personalities behind the online profiles and magazine adverts. I didn’t want to pander to what people expected from this kind of film or water it down for a more mainstream audience. I also decided early on that the project would be worthless unless I worked with people with knowledge of the sex industry. It wasn’t until after casting that a rough narrative took shape, changing and developing as the shooting progressed, but always based on real experiences. There was never a script as such, only a story framework, on which all of the scenes were improvised. The blurring of documentary and fiction came very much out of this process, using elements of each to best suit the needs of the story. I wanted the film to be truly authentic, but that did not mean that everything had to be completely real. After all, the life of an escort is filled with variations of the truth, a mixture of reality and fantasy, and I wanted to explore this in the very nature of the film’s construction."
There are moments of surprising tenderness in Greek Pete, whether they be childhood clips of Pete with his family or moments of genuine physical intimacy between Pete and Kai that have been beautifully captured by Haigh (whose cinematography is often deliciously erotic). Here's the trailer:


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Following the success of his first feature (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros), Filipino filmmaker Aureaus Solito returns to the screen with a new fantasy about young men that is simply entitled Boy. In his film the conflict is not about whether or not someone is gay. Instead, there is a poignant contrast between the lives of two young men: one who enjoys the comforts of an upper middle class lifestyle and the other a macho dancer/hustler in a gay bar. Government censors banned Solito's movie from the 22nd Singapore International Film Festival because it "normalized homosexuality" and because a prolonged and explicitly sexual scene of two men making love was filmed "in a romanticized manner."

The protagonist (Aeious Asin) has recently turned 18 and is living at home with his mother (Madeleine Nicolas). An aspiring poet, he likes to write odes in which he describes himself as being "hard for his hard-on, and other hard boys who like to get hard so they can feel their hard- ons." His hobbies include collecting comic books, action figurines, and stocking his impressive set of aquariums with tropical fish from South America.

Although the boy's father is always promising to come visit, he lives with his second family and is a constant no-show. When the boy makes his first trip to a gay bar, his breath is nearly taken away by a macho dancer with deep, soulful eyes (Aries Pena). As he asks the resident drag queen/madam about Aries, he learns how much it will cost to hire the boy for a night.

While the boy may be young, he knows how to make critical decisions. After selling his comic books, he returns to the gay bar to rent Aries for New Year's Eve. He brings the hustler home for a New Year's Eve dinner that his mother has prepared in hopes that her estranged husband might visit. In the few minutes she is left alone with Aries, the mother unintentionally humiliates him by asking him to read one of her son's poems to her (Aries is obviously illiterate). 

The three of them watch a holiday fireworks display together before the boy takes Aries to his room for the night. When the mother walks into her son's bedroom the next morning to find two naked male bodies entwined in sleep she is stunned, but does not condemn her son for his sexuality.

Soon after she goes back downstairs, Aries gets up and leaves the house. Awakening to find his bed empty, the boy quickly dresses and follows Aries, confessing that he wants to see how the other half lives. The contrast between their lifestyles couldn't be more painful and Aries is quick to warn the boy that he wouldn't survive for ten minutes in his poverty-stricken existence. However, a bond of tenderness, lust, erotic fascination and need has developed between the two young men. For however long it lasts, they have a future to explore together.

Most of the sequences in which these two young men make love are beautifully shot through fish tanks (and well worth the price of admission for those with a taste for artistic soft porn). The work of cinematographer Luis Quirino stands out here as well as when he is capturing the New Year's Eve fireworks display. In an interview for Fridae, Solito explained that:
"Like the unnamed boy in Boy, at seventeen, when I went to my first gay bar and saw a macho dancer dancing, it was a real turn-on. And when I felt this -- it's genetic! -- I finally accepted that I'm gay. For me, the erotic genre is very important for people to define their sexuality. This film is almost personal, for it captures that night when I finally accepted myself for who I am.

I wanted to make an erotica that is more sensitive and personal. The film is basically a rich boy meets poor boy film. It was almost like a documentary making this film, casting real macho dancers, female impersonators and a real poet (the lead boy played by Aeious Asin is a Creative Writing major at the University of the Philippines). Only the parents -- the mother of the boy and the father of the macho dancer -- were played by professional actors.

The script was organic, being written day by day as we got closer with the macho dancers. I wanted to know who they really were and why is it that, since the People Power revolution in 1986, things have not really changed. People are still poor and getting poorer, the rich are still getting richer And somehow when the rich boy meets the poor boy, he finds his humanity in the poorest of the poor.

In Boy, I cast a real life macho dancer, Aries Pena, who plays himself. He told me in one crucial scene that his fellow macho dancers told him while practicing his lines (which were based on how they really talked) 'Finally we are being portrayed as who we really are. And you (Aries Pena) are carrying our banner as people, dancing to survive!'"
There is much to enjoy in Solito's romance (which stands head and shoulders above most films I have seen from the Philippines). If you're attracted to Asian men, you certainly won't want to miss it. You can order tickets here.

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