Monday, June 28, 2010

Isn't It Bromantic?

It's not always the athletic bangaramathons that inspire the fondest memories of a relationship. Sometimes it's the way you catch someone looking at you. Or the feel of his breath on your neck in the middle of the night.

Sometimes it's an involuntary wink and smile. Or the way his hand quietly reaches for yours as you are walking together.

Maybe it's his habit of kissing you on the eyes and whispering "I love you so much." Or the feeling of warmth you feel as he rolls over in his sleep, slides his arm around your waist, and holds you tight.

Beyond all the hook-ups and webcam chats, the parties or dinners with friends, it's often the quietest moments that we treasure the most. Sometimes, during such moments, I think of a Cole Porter song that became famous in 1956 following MGM's release of High Society -- a movie musical that starred Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly (in the last film she made before marrying Prince Rainier III of Monaco).

Originally written by Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse for 1917's hit musical, Oh, Lady! Lady!!, the lyrics for the torch song that wound up in Act II of Show Boat were revised by Oscar Hammerstein II in preparation for the musical's world premiere on December 27, 1927. Whether sung by a man or a woman, those lyrics still hold true today:
"I used to dream that I would discover
The perfect lover someday.
I knew I'd recognize him if ever
He came 'round my way.
I always used to fancy then
He'd be one of the God-like kind of men
With a giant brain and a noble head
Like the heroes bold
In the books I've read.

But along came Bill
Who's not the type at all,
You'd meet him on the street
And never notice him.
His form and face,
His manly grace
Are not the kind that you
Would find in a statue.

And I can't explain,
It's surely not his brain
That makes me thrill
I love him because he's wonderful,
Because he's just my Bill.

He can't play golf or tennis or polo,
Or sing a solo, or row.
He isn't half as handsome
As dozens of men that I know.
He isn't tall or straight or slim
And he dresses far worse than Ted or Jim.
And I can't explain why he should be
Just the one, one man in the world for me.

He's just my Bill, an ordinary man,
He hasn't got a thing that I can brag about.
And yet to be
Upon his knee
So comfy and roomy
Seems natural to me.
Oh, I can't explain,
It's surely not his brain
That makes me thrill
I love him because he's, I don't know,
Because he's just my Bill."
One of the biggest challenges facing a filmmaker trying to tell a love story is to find something that will take his film beyond mere formula and overcome an audience's cynicism. Even if one tries to make a film based on a theme that has been done to death, a gifted storyteller can breathe new life into a familiar tale of "boy meets boy, boy gets boy." Consider these standard situations:
  • One man in a same-sex relationship is in the military, the other is not.
  • A gay man has to take a stand against a domineering, self-absorbed mother.
  • A gay man finds himself caught in a modern day version of Cyrano de Bergerac.
Three films screened at the Frameline 34 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival rework these familiar formulas with new plot twists and fresh cultural overlays to show how love can triumph on three different continents. Ironically, two feature scenes in which a mother unexpectedly discovers her son in bed with another man.

Despite the markedly different cultures in which easy story takes place, these three films manage to capture the kind of love many gay men yearn for but have so much difficulty finding. Is such love ethereal and unobtainable? Or does it fit around us with the comfort of an old shoe? Is it the type of love that is constantly on display in public situations? Or a quieter kind of tenderness that fosters contentment, security, and inner peace?

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Kim Jo Gwang-Soo's 30-minute short, Just Friends?, is essentially a love story sandwiched between two very happy music videos. In this tender tale, Seok-i (Lee Je-hoon) travels by bus from Seoul to visit his boyfriend Min-su (Seo Ji-hoo), who is serving in the South Korean army.

The plot takes a curious turn when Min-su's mother interrupts their meeting at the barracks and brings both young men home for dinner. When Seok-i discovers that there are no more buses to Seoul that night, the three protagonists end up sleeping together on the floor (their faces covered with moisturizing cream) in a scene unlike any I've ever watched in a romantic comedy. As the filmmaker notes:
"There are many Korean films that give distorted portrayals of gays. I wanted to make a real gay film of 99.9% purity. Through this film, I wanted to give a true view of gays -- not only the gay couples, but the relationships that surround them -- and how they 'unconsciously but inevitably' hurt those around them."
Thankfully, Just Friends? is available on YouTube with English subtitles. Kim Jo Gwang-Soo's romantic comedy has such charm and wit that you can't help but fall in love with its characters. Enjoy!

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A new full-length feature from Tunisia plants a gay love story in the middle of several interesting cultural conflicts. Le Fil (The String) deals with the varied expectations of people who are gay, straight, old, young, wealthy, poor, Catholic, Muslim, in denial, and insane. Written and directed with great insight by Medhi Ben Attia, its main characters include:
  • Malik (Antonin Stahly-Vishwanadan), a 30-year-old Tunisian who has returned home from studying in France to work as an architect at a firm run by an old friend of the family. Although Malik is gay and has a preference for rough trade, he has always had difficulty standing up to his mother, a very manipulative grande dame.
  • Moncef (Hosni Khaled), the head of the architectural firm where Malik will be working.
  • Siryne (Ramla Ayari), Moncef's very butch daughter who, along with her lesbian lover, wants to have a child. Siryne is considering her childhood friend, Malik, as a potential sperm donor.
  • Malik's grandmother (Nejia Zemni), who wants her grandson to get married and give her a grandchild before she dies.
  • Sara (Claudia Cardinale), a wealthy widower living in a beautiful estate near the beach. Although her late husband, Abdelaziz (Lotfi Dziri), acknowledged that their son was gay, Sara has, for many years, refused to face the truth. When Sara walks into Malik's bedroom without knocking and finds him sleeping with Bilal, she must not only accept the fact that her son is gay, but also accept that she is losing a servant and will have to treat Bilal as an honored guest in her home.
Claudia Cardinale as Sara
  • Bilal (Salim Kechiouche) is a young Arab student who has been doing part-time work for Sara in exchange for room and board. His talents go far beyond gardening.
  • Wafa (Rihab Mejri), Sara's domestic servant. A devout Muslim who is ready to quit her job because her faith tells her that homosexuals are evil, Wafa must also deal with the sudden change in Bilal's status in Sara's house.
  • Frida (Djaouida Vaughan), a close friend of Sara's whose son might also be gay. Frida reminds Sara that she knew about Malik's sexuality years ago but didn't want to accept it.
  • The Madman (Mohamed Gra├»aa) harasses Malik and Bilal when they are at the beach, threatening to have them arrested for crimes against nature.
Malik (Antonin Stahly-Vishwanadan) and Bilal (Salim Kechiouche)

Although many suggest that the title, Le Fil, refers to Malik's need to cut himself free from his mother's apron strings, the film's title actually refers to something else. In his childhood, whenever he felt pressured, Malik would often imagine himself being wound up in a piece of string. The only way for him to escape was to keep spinning until the string unwound and he was once again free.

At a crucial point in the film, the audience sees a panicky Malik run into a field and start spinning wildly, as if the stress of Sara's unexpected hospitalization is too much for him to bear. Thankfully, Bilal is there to ground him and bring Malik back to reality.

One of my favorite moments in the film occurs when Bilal is introduced to Moncef's family. After hearing the young student explain that he had previously had a relationship with an older man, Moncef smiles and says "Then you can teach all of us how to deal with it." It is a lovely moment in which the traditional authority of the older generation is handed over to the youngest with an understanding of who has important knowledge to share.

Poster art for Le Fil

Bilal is, in fact, the catalyst who brings about a surprising amount of social change within Sara's social circle. Not only does he become Malik's lover (as Malik becomes Siryne's husband), during the wedding Sara confesses a bit of her own history to Malik by relating how she shocked Abdelaziz's relatives at their wedding by refusing to sit dutifully with the women instead of with her new husband. That was, of course, back in the days when a French Catholic girl marrying a Tunisian Muslim was deemed scandalous.

Sara also plays an important role in explaining to Malik, Moncef, Siryne, and Bilal why it is important for them to participate in her son's sham wedding. They're all doing this so that the child can have a father and not suffer any stigma of illegitimacy. As the film ends, the audience sees both families relaxing on the beach as Malik and his son play in the water.

The performances in Le Fil are uniformly solid, with Claudia Cardinale showing that she still has plenty of fire in her eyes and heart. As the two young lovers, Antonin Stahly-Vishwanadan and Salim Kechiouche are intensely photogenic and refreshingly self-possessed. Topping it all off is a wonderful musical score by Karol Beffa which alternates between popular Arabic music and the astringent tones of a modern ensemble. Here's the trailer:

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A decidedly more lighthearted romance, Is It Just Me? explores the challenges faced by an average looking gay man trying to find true love in an intense meat market like Hollywood. Blaine (Nicholas Downs) writes an advice column for a popular Los Angeles gay newspaper. He is also the polar opposite of his roommate, Cameron (Adam Huss).

Whereas Blaine is the type of gay man who can overintellectualize anything and everything, Cameron is the stereotypical hunky go-go dancer who knows how to get plenty of head. And does so without compunction.

One night, Blaine starts chatting online with someone who sounds too good to be true. During their first telephone call, things just keep getting better and better. Could he have found Prince Charming? Is there someone in Hollywood who is actually compatible with Blaine?

Unfortunately, the chat occurred shortly after Cameron had been using Blaine's computer (and had forgotten to sign off from his favorite gay website). The result? The handsome hunk that's just arrived in Los Angeles from a small town in Texas is falling in love with Blaine's words and thoughts while drooling over Cameron's pictures.

How long will it take for Xander (David Loren) to learn the truth? And when he does, will he be willing to embrace plain Blaine instead of hunky Cameron?

This gimmick has been used in vehicles ranging from Edmond Rostand's play, Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) to Steve Martin's film adaptation, Roxanne (1987) and Q. Allan Brocka's rowdy gay sex farce, Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat (2009). Whereas Brocka wasted no time taking the low road, writer/director J. C. Calciano has decided to take the romance between Blaine and Xander much more seriously. To his credit, even the most cynical of audiences will find themselves won over by Calciano's approach.
I especially loved the scene in which Xander and his housemate Ernie (Bruce Gray) are watching a horror film in which Cameron once had a small part. When the credits roll -- revealing that Blaine's name is nowhere to be seen -- Ernie can't stop blubbering over what has essentially been a Grade B piece of schlock.

What words of wisdom pour forth from an old queen whose fart-prone dog is named is Donatella? "It's like Sweeney Todd without the music," sobs Ernie. "Or Angela!"

By the time Is It Just Me? comes to its end, it's impossible to resist the charms of its well-balanced ensemble, particularly David Loren's Xander. Key supporting roles are handled by Michelle Laurent (as Blaine's close friend and running partner) and Bob Rumnock as Blaine's neurotic and often hysterical publisher. Adam Huss is an absolute hoot as Blaine's sexy roommate.

Will Blaine and Xander fall in love and live happily ever after? Only time will tell. Here's the trailer:

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