Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Too Much Agony and Ecstasy

Bravado is one thing. Self-esteem is quite another. Haunted by insecurities, many people are far less confident than one might imagine. Sure, they can slap a smile on their faces and put on a good front. But many successful people are crippled by fear.

The most common fear shared by type-A people? That someone will finally succeed in exposing them as impostors and that the world they have struggled so hard to create will instantly collapse all around them.

Those with unlimited reserves of chutzpah need little reassurance from others. They're experts at flattering their own egos. Who could ever forget Robert Morse's bravura performance as J. Pierrepont Finch in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying!

Two films recently screened at Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) dealt with characters whose levels of confidence were at opposite extremes of the spectrum. For both men, the oppressive power of the closet proved to be a critical force in determining their future. One almost became paralyzed with self-doubt while the other found a way to profit mightily from people who might be living a closeted lifestyle or those who cater to the needs of the closeted.

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A Czech film written and directed by Bohdan Slama is probably the antithesis of Revenge of the Nerds. Petr (Pavel Liska) is a high school teacher specializing in biology and natural science who takes a job in a rural area in order to escape the family and social pressures of living in Prague. What is he leaving behind?
  • A former boyfriend (Marek Daniel) who is a selfish party boy and raging drunk.
  • A teaching job at the same school where his domineering mother has been a long-time member of the faculty.
  • The noise and anonymity of city life.
  • A gay lifestyle built on sex without love.
The principal of the country school where Petr will teach can't understand why a reasonably sane person from Prague would want a job teaching rural students. He predicts that Petr won't last long. But the lack of an urban gay lifestyle is not Petr's problem.

A shy and quiet person who retreats into classical music, Petr is the kind of gay man who finds it easier to go back into the closet after leaving the city. When one of the townspeople, Maria (Zuzana Bydzovska), tries to get friendly he evades her advances and tries to work on developing a safer, more platonic relationship.

Long years without a husband have taught Maria that a friend in need can be a friend in deed (even if that person has no desire to share his seed). When Maria, her son Lada (Ladislav Sedivy), and Petr must all work together to help a cow give birth, a tentative bond of family starts to build.

Watching Maria repeatedly fend off the unwanted advances of the town's macho drunk, Petr soon realizes that she may have the kind of inner strength he lacks. She's a strong, self-sufficient woman who drives a mean tractor and runs the farm to the best of her ability. For all he knows, Maria may be more of a man than he is.

Maria's son, who is also one of Petr's students, seems to be focused on fucking his girlfriend as often and wherever possible. Although Lada shows little interest in studying, Petr has no problems studying Lada. A handsome young man with the kind of cocky teenage appeal that could cut straight through to a shy gay intellectual's heart, Lada is dying for a chance to escape from small town living. As Petr starts tutoring Lada, the young man slowly starts to show some interest in his studies.

However, one drunken night (drinking seems to be the only form of recreation in town), a boating accident forces Lada to stay over at Petr's apartment. With the boy sound asleep, Petr can't resist trying to get closer in an attempt to feel Lada's skin, listen to his breath, rest his head on Lada's shoulder, and maybe even touch Lada's dick. Much less aggressive than a bona fide sexual predator, Petr's resolve simply crumbles before Lada's sleeping beauty.

When Lada suddenly awakens to find his teacher's hand in his pants, his reaction is one of total shock and disgust. Crushed with shame and self-loathing, Petr informs the school's principal of his intention to resign. Lada, however, is stunned to discover that following her initial condemnation of Petr, his mother refuses to abandon her relationship with the teacher.

As Petr and Maria slowly work on rebuilding trust, Petr gains enough confidence to ask the principal if he can remain on the job. There's just one condition: He wants to make sure his being gay won't be an obstacle to teaching. Much to Petr's surprise, the principal responds by shrugging his shoulders and saying that it's now legal for people to be gay in Czechoslovakia. What he really cares about is having a good teacher for his students.

Although it may have won the Best Queer Film award at last year's Reykjavik Film Festival, I found The Country Teacher (at 113 minutes) to be depressingly dull. There is no denying its appeal to people who are still quite closeted. It just isn't my cup of tea. Here's the trailer:

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Pretend, for a moment, that you're a event planner. One of your clients has an international convention due to take place in two weeks and you're scrambling to find the following supplies:
  • Inflatable plastic pools for water sports parties,
  • Large tubs of lubricant for fisting enthusiasts.
  • Hooks on which your registrants can hang their whips, flogging devices, and maybe even some high-paying bondage clients,
  • A savvy lawyer who knows how the police department in your convention's city might react to your presence.
Are the people attending your convention dues-paying members of:
If you chose the last item, your gaydar is as well-tuned as Chi Chi LaRue's or Kathy Griffin's. What's more, you'll probably have no trouble relating to The Good American (a new documentary produced and directed by Jochen Hick that focuses on the personal, social, and entrepreneurial challenges faced by former escort, Tom Weise).

In the 15 years that he lived illegally in the United States and, by his own proud admission, did not pay any taxes, Weise helped launch Rentboy.com and its annual blowout: Hustlaball. He made lots of money and donated nearly $50,000 to charities of his choice. But he was always haunted by his status as an illegal alien, his medical condition (Weise has HIV and hepatitis C), and the fact that he could be deported at any moment.

As the film progresses, we see Weise making the difficult decision to return to Berlin with his American lover (Keith) and his dog (Amber) in tow. The documentary offers striking insights into the world of professional escorts, including those Europeans who fly to New York where the market for their services is so much stronger.


The United States suffers from a higher level of prudishness than most European cities, which drives up an escort's potential earnings. People will pay more in America for "the forbidden fruit" and, thanks to businesses like Rentboy.com or Cybersocket, a six-figure career as a porn star and escort can be launched from any keyboard.

Whether a porn star/escort is a professional like Talvin DeMachio (whose website includes a newsletter for his fans) or a novice, those who come to ogle hot men, dance into the night, and party with professional fetishists rely on sites like Rentboy.com to help them launch and manage their careers (or satisfy their needs).

Weise, himself, is a former escort who has, as he aged, has become even more of a control freak. Whether trying to micromanage a series of Hustlaball events in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York and Berlin -- or trying to get his medications from an airline that has lost his luggage -- he is a tightly wired gay man who wants things done his way. Occasionally, his lover pushes back (but with little success).

By the film's end, Weise has started a new life in Berlin, where he and Keith are seen getting married so that, among other things (such as health insurance issues), Weise can change his surname to Richmond and get a new lease on life, with a new identity.

While Jochen Hick's documentary has more than enough narcissism to go around, it also introduces viewers to some very sweet men who have figured out how to do much more than turn cows into leather. These men have figured out how to turn themselves (and their erotic talents) into web-driven cash cows.

The frequent and rapid switches between spoken English with German subtitles and spoken German with English subtitles might be too much for those who do not speak both languages. But one thing is for sure: you won't be bored!


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