Queer at the movies

Gay-themed art house films dominate the movie landscape in Dallas this week: ‘Gun Hill Road,’ ‘Toast,’ ‘Weekend’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

It somehow seems appropriate that  in the middle of October — Gay History Month — a trio of gay art films arrive simultaneously on movie screens in North Texas…. And there’s not even a film festival in town. From a youthful coming-out comedy-drama to an intense story of a trans kid in the barrio to oversexed gay men in Britain, the slate shows a panorama of gay experiences — all compelling in their way.

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BOYS FITTING IN | A trans Latino teen (Harmony Santana, above left) worries about coming out to her violent dad (Esai Morales) in ‘Gun Hill Road

Gun Hill Road

Enrique (Esai Morales) has just been released from a three-year stretch in prison, planning to reconnect with his wife Angela (Judy Reyes) and teenaged son Michael (Harmony Santana). But much has changed since he was sent up. Angela has been emotionally if not physically unfaithful, taking comfort with a neighbor much more stable and affectionate than Enrique. Michael is terrified that his macho Puerto Rican father will discover that on the side, he identifies as trans; as Vanessa, he even performs in the local drag show.

Gun Hill Road is the kind of movie that, even as you are watching it, you cannot help but think, “How did this film get made?” I mean that in the best sense. With a cast of well known if not exactly bankable stars, it has some mojo behind it. But trans teens in Hispanic culture? This doesn’t exactly scream “box office bonanza.”

Which is part of what makes it so daring. Most coming out movies are distinct for being (a) silly comedies that are (b) about middle-class white folk. A drama set among Latinos, and one dealing not just with cross-dressing but a transgender teen protagonist? Well, such things are rarer than a cogent sentence out of Sarah Palin’s mouth. The scenes where Vanessa recklessly explores transitioning with untested drugs and procedures will make you squirm; it’s like pre-Roe v. Wade abortion movies, where people forced into shame become so desperate they put themselves in danger.

So much of Gun Hill Road is on the fringe, it is slightly disappointing that the story ultimately follows a well-worn path of discovery, recrimination, reconciliation. Last year’s La Mission with Benjamin Bratt trod similar ground, and was equally lacking in humor. La Mission was also more brightly lit and briskly paced.

Still, despite a few shortcomings, Gun Hill Road delivers a lot of what it promises, thanks to sincere performances by the three principals in telling a story with insight and understanding.

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In ‘Toast,’ a British lad (Freddie Highmore, above far right) takes solace from his miserable home life in the kitchen on his way to fame as a chef.

Toast

There’s an unmistakable connection between love, sex and food in the mind of young Nigel Slater (Oscar Kennedy). His mother is not the best cook — indeed, she seems to barely understand the concept at all. She has never purchased fresh produce (“You don’t know where it’s been!” she clucks) and cooks canned goods by dropping the sealed cans in a pot of boiling water. Nothing ever turns out as anything close to edible, though Nigel’s dad (Ken Stott) doesn’t seem to notice. Most meals end with mom slathering some butter on toast and calling the effort a success. (“It’s impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you,” Nigel observes, though I’m not quite sure I see the connection.)

It’s become almost clichéd that great chefs grew up with mothers’ who couldn’t boil water; former Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl documented her own mom’s incompetence in memoirs like Tender at the Bone. So it is no surprise that Nigel would grow up to be one of Britain’s most respected food writers and TV cooking show hosts.

But Toast — the film adaptation of Slater’s memoir of growing up in 1960s England with a distant father, a loving but unadventurous mother and, eventually, a blowsy stepmom who happens to be an expert cook — is more than a whimsical comedy about a kid’s love of food. Indeed, aside from the overriding tone, it’s not much of a comedy at all. There’s death, parent-child abuse, homophobia and assorted feelings of anguish heaped on young Nigel, who even at age 9 is beginning to realize he’s attracted to other boys and feels just as lost in those feelings as he is in his love for duck a l’orange.

Some of the comic tension comes about halfway through in the form of Helena Bonham Carter as Nigel’s lower-class stepmother, a cleaning lady who woos his dad with her unrivaled lemon meringue pie. As the two jockey for the dad’s affection, the kitchen becomes a sort of battleground of wills.

Kennedy plays Nigel in the first half with guileless charm; Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) takes over as the teenaged Nigel, showing tenderness as he gets his first kiss from a puppy love crush. It’s portrayed as something as delicate and sweet as a caramel tuile — a fitting metaphor for a film that gorges you on its beauty and fondness for food. That’s something to raise a toast to.

Weekend

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YOU GOT THE HOOK UP | A one-night-stand becomes something more for Russell (Tom Cullen, left) and Glen (Chris New) in the raw English drama ‘Weekend.’

You get a very different view of Britain and the gay experience with Weekend, an edgy, almost shapeless gay romance that crackles with familiarity even as it paints a detailed, specific portrait of average men trying to connect.

Russell (Tom Cullen) is a crack-smoking, working class English bloke hangin’ and drinkin’ with his straight mates before hitting a gay bar for some quick action. He meets Glen (Chris New), an otter whom he assumes will be a one-night stand before heading off to work on Saturday morning.  But Glen wants to turn the hook-up into an art project, asking Russell to record his experience. When Glen’s probing questions make Russell uncomfortable (“Are you completely out? Do you wish my dick was bigger?”), Russell’s bourgeois sensibilities emerge.

Writer-director Andrew Haigh has captured an authenticity of the modern gay experience with an off-handed, sharply observed eye. He shows an extended segment of Russell toying with texting Glen to apologize, feeling pangs of guilt but also curiosity and self-reflection — a process that will strike a note of familiarity with anyone on the dating scene today.

Weekend conjures moments of early Gus Van Sant, like My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy: It’s full of textures and naturalistic moments that feel unforced. Haigh is a master of long takes that are voyeuristic without seeming prurient. When Glen and Russell meet up again, their banter is both meaningless and confessional, which creates a palpable tension. Their body language points to hormones racing, but they are determined not to make this relationship only about sex, even though the sexual energy is undeniable. This makes the scenes romantic and erotic, and when they explode with passion, you don’t feel like the director has inserted a de rigueur sex scene, but encapsulated the dynamics of the hookup-turned-real-relationship dance (including the slightly scary obsessiveness of “Is this the one?” angst).

Cullen and New have great chemistry and an easy way with the rambling dialogue, but this is Haigh’s movie. Because it’s fairly raw (there’s lots of casual frontal nudity), it’s not the kind of film likely to be a crossover hit with straight audiences, but neither does it ooze “gay-ghetto movie,” the kind that assumes a small, lemming-like audience who can get titillated and forget about it. Like the Irish romance Once, it rings truth out of every frame.

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For more reviews of more films opening this weekend, including The Thing, pictured, and Incendiary, visit DallasVoice.com/ category/Screen.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 14, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

LGBT history and the evolution of the media

For years, mainstream press ignored the LGBT community. Thankfully, LGBT media filled the gaps

David-Webb

David Webb The Rare Reporter

Editor’s note: October is National Gay History Month, and as the month begins, Rare Reporter columnist David Webb takes a look at the role the media — both mainstream and LGBT — has played in preserving our history.

If an LGBT person went into a coma a decade or so ago and came out of it today, they likely wouldn’t be able to believe their eyes when they recovered enough to survey the media landscape.

There was a time not so long ago when gay activists literally had to plead with or rant at editors and reporters at mainstream publications and television stations to get them to cover LGBT events. Even editorial staffs at alternative publications often dismissed political and cultural events in the LGBT community as unimportant to the majority of their audience.

Editors and reporters at traditional media outlets who happened to be members of the LGBT community often steared clear of gay issues to fall in line with the prevailing policies set by the publishers in the newsroom . Often, they were deep in the closet, or if not, just afraid to challenge the status quo.

I know all this to be true because as late as the early 1990s, I was engaged in legendary battles with my straight editor at an alternative publication who only wanted two or three “gay stories” per year. After the first quarter of one year I heard the editor telling another writer that I had already used up the newspaper’s quota for gay stories for the whole year.

This long-standing scarcity of coverage opened the door for the launch of gay newspapers to fill the void and the thirst for information that was coming not only from LGBT people but also straight allies, straight enemies and the non-committed in the gay rights movement.

After about two decades of working for the mainstream media and later at the alternative publication for a few years, I moved to a gay newspaper. Upon hearing about it, my former editor advised me that the job sounded “perfect” for me.

At the gay newspaper, I not only covered LGBT issues, but I also liked to scrutinize and comment on the coverage or lack thereof I observed in mainstream publications. It was, at the time, a dream job for me. I was flabbergasted to learn that no one at the newspaper had obtained a media pass from local law enforcement officials nor received official recognition at local law enforcement public relations departments.

What gay activists and enterprising journalists had come to realize was that straight people were just as interested in what our community was doing as we were. I also realized that elected and appointed public officials, civic and religious leaders, law enforcement officials and most others love media coverage, and the fact that it was a gay publication featuring them didn’t much matter at all.

As a result, gay publications across the country were providing coverage that gay and straight readers couldn’t find anywhere else. And those newspapers were flying out of the racks at the libraries, municipal buildings and on the street in front of the big city newspapers as fast as they disappeared from gay and lesbian nightclubs.

What it amounted to was that gay publications were enjoying a lucrative monopoly on LGBT news and, in the process, helping LGBT communities to grow strong in major urban areas.

It’s amazing how long it took the powers that be at the giant media companies to figure out what was going on, but they eventually did.

I would love to say that a social awakening was responsible for the new enlightened approach to LGBT issues by the mainstream media, but alas, I fear it was more motivated by dollars and cents. Publishers began to realize that those small gay publications were raking in lots of advertising revenue from car dealers, retail stores, real estate agencies and many other businesses where the owners knew LGBT people spent money.

Today, you can hardly turn on the television or pick up a newspaper or magazine without hearing or reading about something related to LGBT news or gay and lesbian celebrities and politicians. When I fired up my laptop today, I received an e-mail from the Huffington Post directing me to a story written by Arianna Huffington announcing new features that included the debut of “HuffPost: Gay Voices,” a page that will compile LGBT news stories together each day for the convenience of the readers.

With the power of the Internet and its capacity for documenting and archiving news stories, information about the LGBT community for both the present and the past will always be at our fingertips, except for those three decades between about 1970 and 2000 when the mainstream media couldn’t be bothered with us because they had no idea what a force we would one day become.

For information about that period of time we are going to have to scour the coverage of gay newspapers and magazines published before the days of the Internet, read fiction and non-fiction published by LGBT writers and encourage older members of our community to share their recollections in written and oral form.

It’s vitally important to the history of our culture that we not lose those stories, and it’s largely thanks to our communities’ own publications that we won’t.

David Webb is a veteran journalist who has covered LGBT issues for the mainstream and alternative media for three decades. E-mail him at davidwaynewebb@yahoo.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 7, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Our most read stories of 2010

Zach Harrington

In this week’s print edition (which, by the way, is now on the streets) we told you how our LGBT Person of the Year, Joel Burns, was inspired to deliver his “It Gets Better” speech after reading about the death of Zach Harrington, a gay teen who committed suicide after attending a City Council meeting in Norman, Okla. Well, our post about Harrington’s suicide also happens to be the single most read post on this website since we launched it in June, with nearly 15,000 page views. Here are the top 10 most viewed posts:

1. Gay Oklahoma teen commits suicide following ‘toxic’ city debate over GLBT history month

2. Trans fit: Chris Bruce proudly and bravely went from 230-lb. male bodybuilder to 180-lb. female fitness guru Chris Tina Foxx

3. 11 arrested in raid at Club Dallas

4. Record 106 gay candidates elected in 2010

5. DeLay, who warned U.S. would ‘go down’ because of gay marriage, is brought down by a lesbian

6. Gay Dallas couple legally weds in Texas, aims to bring ‘e-marriage’ to the same-sex masses

7. Joel Burns responds to Arkansas school board member who encouraged gays to kill themselves

8. Gay porn star Mason Wyler says he has HIV

9. Local chef, reality TV celeb dies

10. Exploring spirituality, Radical Faerie style

—  John Wright

Gay Oklahoma teen commits suicide following ‘toxic’ city debate over GLBT history month

Zach Harrington

A 19-year-old gay man from Oklahoma has taken his own life, and his parents say a hate-filled recent City Council meeting he attended may have driven him over the edge.

Zach Harrington was a talented musician who’d endured years of struggles due to his sexual orientation in high school in conservative Norman, Okla.

On Sept. 28, Harrington attended a three-hour public hearing on a proposal to declare October gay history month in the city. Although the council ultimately approved the proposal, Harrington’s parents described the meeting as potentially “toxic” for their son, a private person who internalized his feelings.

From The Norman Transcript:

Nikki Harrington, Zach’s older sister, said her brother likely took all of the negative things said about members of the GLBT community straight to heart.

“When he was sitting there, I’m sure he was internalizing everything and analyzing everything … that’s the kind of person he was,” she said. “I’m sure he took it personally. Everything that was said.”

Harrington’s father, Van, said he wasn’t sure why his son went to the meeting, especially after his experiences in Norman once he revealed that he was gay as a teenager. He said he feels his son may have glimpsed a hard reality at the Sept. 28 council meeting, a place where the same sentiments that quietly tormented him in high school were being shouted out and applauded by adults the same age as his own parents.

“I don’t think it was a place where he would hear something to make him feel more accepted by the community,” he said. “For somebody like Zach, it (the meeting) was probably very hard to sit through.”

Zach Harrington committed suicide at his family’s home in Norman seven days after the meeting, yet another apparent victim of anti-gay hate. His parents say they hope the story of his death will make people think twice before they say certain things about their friends and neighbors in public. We’re hoping it will also prompt them to reflect upon the hatred in their hearts.

—  John Wright