Saturday, 4 July 2009

The Consequence (1977)

AKA: Die Konsequenz
Stars: Jürgen Prochnow, Ernst Hannawald
Director: Wolfgang Peterson
Country Of Origin: West Germany
Year Of Release: 1977
Running time: 100 minutes
Star Rating: ****
Availability: Region 1 DVD

From it’s depressing opening to its distressing end, The Consequence is a gripping and moving film. It tells the story of Martin Kurath, an actor who is in prison for having underage sex with a fifteen year old boy. Whilst taking part in a play in the prison he falls for Thomas Manzoni, the son of one of the prison wardens. The two plan a life together once Martin has been released but they face objections from Thomas’s parents. When Thomas is sent to a reform school it seems unlikely that the lovers will ever be reunited.

Told in bleak black and white, the narrative of the film covers a period of six years and is therefore episodic in places. This would often be the downfall of a film, but here the structure works extremely well. Jürgen Prochnow gives a restrained and graceful performance as Martin Kurath, with Ernst Hannawald making his film debut in the showier role of Thomas, at which he excels and gives great depth. The film was directed by Wolfgang Peterson who moved to America in the 1990s to make Hollywood blockbusters such as Air Force One (1997), The Perfect Storm (2000) and Troy (2004). It is almost sad that Peterson did not continue directing brave, more personal films such as this.

Despite the fact that this book features reviews of a number of gay films made during the 1970s in Germany, this one stands out from the crowd in a number of ways. Unlike both Fox And His Friends and The Tenderness Of The Wolves, The Consequence features two gay characters, both of which are sympathetically portrayed. Even more surprising is that the two lovers in the film are of different generations, and yet Martin’s love of Thomas is not judged or over-dramatised in any way; it is simply shown to be very real and leaves the argument of whether it is right or wrong to the viewer (who, in turn, would have to be made of sterner stuff than I not to be moved by the story). Similarly, the physical abuse that the teenaged boys suffer at the reform school is not overplayed despite being disturbing to watch. The fact that much of this is off-screen shows just how much in control of his material Peterson was even at this early stage in his career.

The DVD of the film, issued by WaterBearer features a considerably better print than many of those made around the same time that have since been released on the label. However, someone decided that the existing subtitles were hard to read and therefore new ones have been pasted over the film (in bright orange with a white background!), often blocking out a third of the frame. Thankfully, these new subtitles are removable via the remote control (there is no menu option for this) and the original ones are more than acceptable and readable. The DVD release is a welcome one, for this is an unfairly neglected gay film and deserves to be much better known.

More recommended gay films from Germany
Regular Guys (1996)
Love In Thoughts (2004)

Friday, 5 June 2009

Fortune And Men's Eyes (1971)

Stars: Wendell Burton, Michael Greer
Director: Harvey Hart
Country Of Origin: USA
Year Of Release: 1971
Running time: 102 minutes
Star Rating: ***
Availability: Unavailable on DVD. Used copies of the NTSC VHS edition can be found at the usual outlets

One of those love-or-hate movies, Fortune And Men’s Eyes is the film version of John Herbert’s stage play about a naïve young man, Smitty, learning how to cope in the dog-eats-dog world of prison. He shares his cell with three others. Queenie is a drag queen played by Michael Greer, Mona is a shy young gay man and Rocky is a vicious and feared sexual predator. This is a film about homosexual acts rather than homosexuality, much in the same way that Sex In Chains was some four decades earlier. This is a much more violent and in-your-face piece, however, aided and abetted by attempts at arty camera work that don’t always come off.

A few years earlier, Sal Mineo had directed, and starred as Rocky in, the play on stage. Mineo got permission to change some of the script and made the work more of an indictment on prison conditions. Sadly, it wasn’t this version that was filmed (despite the generally good reviews); it would have interesting to see Mineo’s take on the character of Rocky. Here he is played by the unlikely-named Zooey Hall. His performance is effective (despite a haircut that makes him resemble a character from Planet Of The Apes), but lacks the light and shade and character-development of the performances of Wendell Burton and Danny Freedman as Smitty and Mona respectively.

However, it is Michael Greer that one will remember long after the film has finished. His performance as the likeable, and yet bitchy and manipulative, Queenie is a stand-out, even if it is seen as non-PC today and will have some viewers running in horror from their TV sets. And yet, this is true in many ways for the film itself. It was made in a different era to the one in which we live now and, if this can be remembered and taken on board, there is much to entertain here.

It is a far from perfect film of a far from perfect play, but its faults make it all the more interesting to watch. There were clearly some bizarre artistic decisions made, not least with the score of the movie – the use of gentle country music to bookend a rape is particularly strange (and ineffective). However, this is certainly worth hunting the likes of Ebay for on used VHS (it has yet to make it on to DVD), if only as a fascinating example of how Hollywood was pushing the boundaries of acceptability back in the early 1970s.

Also starring Michael Greer:

The Gay Deceivers (1969)

The Slaughter Rule (2002)

Stars: Ryan Gosling, David Morse
Director: Alex Smith, Andrew J Smith
Country of origin: USA
Year of production: 2002
Running time: 112 minutes
Star Rating: ***
Availability: Region 1 DVD

Although this film benefits from some fine performances, The Slaughter Rule is relatively unknown on this side of the Atlantic. This may well be because of the subject matter – although a sound knowledge of American Football is not required to make sense of the film, it certainly helps. Ryan Gosling stars as Roy Chutney, a good player who is dropped rather unceremoniously from his school team. He is approached by the somewhat mysterious Gid, an older man putting together a six-man side for a tournament. A friendship develops between Roy and Gid, but Roy is somewhat confused about what Gid wants from the friendship and even more concerned about the stories surrounding Gid and the death of a boy some years earlier.

Ryan Gosling shows in this film that even in the early stages of his career he was destined to be one of the finest actors of his generation. He and David Morse, as Gid, work well together and it is these performances that hold the film together. Sadly it is the homosexual element of the story that, in many ways, lets the film down for it is clumsily handled with the script apparently lacking the required guts and commitment to deal with the theme more fully.

More sports-themed gay films:
Balls (2004)

Eleven Men Out (2005)

Parisian Love (1925)

Stars: Clara Bow, Donald Keith
Director: Louis J Gasnier
Country Of Origin: USA
Year Of Release: 1925
Running time: 65 minutes
Star Rating: ***
Availability: Region 1 DVD

Clara Bow was just a teenager when she entered a magazine photo competition where the prize was a walk-on part in a movie. She won the competition and, between 1922 and 1933 (when she retired from acting) made over fifty films, including the infamous It (Clarence G Badger, 1927) and the Best Picture winner at the first Oscar ceremony, Wings. It is hard to believe now, but Bow made no less than fifteen films in 1925 alone. It is therefore no wonder that some of them, including Parisian Love, feel churned out and generally uninspired. Despite the fact that it is one of Bow’s lesser films from the period, it is of interest now because of the relationship and interaction between two of the leading male characters.

The film tells the story of Marie (Clara Bow), who is in love with Armand (Donald Keith). They earn a living dancing together at a seedy Parisian café, and as thieves. A wealthy scientist, Marcel (Lou Tellegen), visits the club one night and Marie, Armand and one of their friends, Knifer, decide to break in to his house when they mistakenly think that he has gone away for a few days. Knifer is killed but Marie manages to escape. Armand is wounded but Marcel doesn’t give him up to the police and, instead, nurses him back to health, persuading him that there are better girls out there than Marie. Marie finds out about this and decides to get her revenge on Marcel.

It is all very silly of course (if rather entertaining), but the key thing here for the gay viewer is the relationship between Armand and Marcel. When nursing him back to health, Marcel acts as though he is nursing his wife rather than someone who broke into his house. He fawns over him at every opportunity and the audience is led to suspect that Marcel is attracted to the thief. The interaction between Armand and Marcel is fascinating and makes this slightly odd little melodrama well worth a watch.

Parisian Love was lost for many decades, but a print surfaced in the mid 1990s and has since been released on DVD in America by Kino. Whether what we have in the 65-minute print of Parisian Love is the complete film is difficult to say. It is possible that small sections have gone missing over the years, but the film certainly holds together and moves along at a good pace making it a relatively easy watch for silent film novices.

Other Clara Bow films:
Wings (1927)
Call Her Savage (1932)

Ode To Billy Joe (1976)

Stars: Robby Benson, Glynnis O’Connor
Director: Max Baer
Country Of Origin: USA
Year Of Release: 1976
Running time: 105 minutes
Star Rating: ***
Availability: Unavailable on DVD. Used VHS copies can often be found on Ebay and other online outlets

Films based around pop songs are more often than not unsuccessful, and yet that is not the case with Ode To Billy Joe. The song of the same name left out enough details of the suicide at the heart of the story to allow scriptwriters a number of options in how to flesh out the narrative. In this film the theory put forward is that Billy Joe commits suicide because of a dalliance with homosexuality.

Robby Benson is a surprisingly quirky and upbeat Billy Joe in the first half of the film before the more serious second section. He excels in his role, instilling his character with a mix of eccentricity and teenage angst that it is difficult not to like him. Also interesting is the performance of Glynnis O’Connor as Bobby Lee Hartley. The character is headstrong enough to be relevant in the pro-feminism 1970s when the film was made, but no so much as to make it look out of place in the mid-1950s when the film is set. The chemistry between the two leads is electric, and the sultry atmosphere of Mississippi is beautifully evoked.

Also set in Mississippi:
Red Dirt (2000)

Thursday, 4 June 2009

The Detective (1968)

Stars: Frank Sinatra, Lee Remick
Director: Gordon M Douglas
Country of origin: USA
Year of release: 1968
Running time: 109 minutes
Star Rating: ***
Availability: Region 1 DVD, Region 2 DVD

The Detective has probably been on the receiving end of more criticisms of homophobia within film than any other, with the exception of Cruising (William Friedkin, 1980). In his otherwise excellent book, Richard Barrios in “Screened Out” launches into a tirade about the film, labelling it “one of the most homophobic movies ever made” (Barrios 2003, p331). The film follows the story of a hard-nosed, but liberal, New York cop, Joe Leland (played by Frank Sinatra) who gets involved in a case concerning the murder of a gay man. Barrios accuses Sinatra’s character of “making illegal arrests in gay bars and roughing up gay suspects” (ibid), but this is simply untrue. Nowhere in the film is Leland seen as anything less than understanding of the gay situation. On the contrary, it is his fellow policemen who are guilty of the actions mentioned by Barrios and it is Leland who takes one of his colleagues aside and punches him in the stomach as punishment for “roughing up” the gay suspects in a local cruising area. In many respects, then, Sinatra’s character is a step forward from what has gone before. His live-and-let-live attitude towards the gay lifestyle is in stark contrast to the corrupt actions of his colleagues but it is he who is the lead character of the film. Whether Barrios simply has a dislike for Sinatra, and therefore the film, is difficult to ascertain particularly when he makes reference to “Sinatra’s sneering condescension to the gay characters, which seemed part of both the character and the star”. True, Sinatra regularly told jokes on stage at the expense of homosexuals, but he also made many politically incorrect jokes at the expense of Sammy Davis Jr’s colour and conversion to Judaism and yet was a campaigner for black rights, particularly within the show business world.

This doesn’t mean to say that the film should be devoid of criticism. The gay characters themselves are mostly seen in cruising grounds or gay bars and as either mentally unstable or as some kind of predator. When the victim of the murder is seen in flashback near the end of the film, he is hardly portrayed as a victim at all. He is instead seen as both a predator for whom the majority of the cinema-going audience in 1968 would not have had any sympathy..

The film is one that can provoke mixed reactions amongst viewers today. Released on DVD for the first time in 2006, it is clearly a product of its time and many will say that its belated DVD release is no big loss. True, the film is flawed both in its representation of gay men and as a film itself. The two lengthy flashbacks concerning Leland’s marriage problems are particularly problematic in that they literally halt the main plot of the film and only seem to succeed in making it twenty minutes too long. However, it is a movie that will continue to divide audiences and the best that we can do is watch the film and make up our own minds.

More murder mysteries set in the gay community:
Cruising (1980)
Third Man Out (2005)

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Sticks And Stones (1970)

Stars: Craig Dudley, Jesse Deane
Director: Stan Lopresto
Country Of Origin: USA
Year Of Release: 1970
Running time: 85 minutes
Star Rating: *
Availability: Region 1 DVD, Region 2 DVD

This vaguely repulsive film is set on Fire Island and centres around the crumbling relationship of two gay men and a party they are throwing for their “friends”. The guests are a series of queens in different shapes and sizes, each and every one a cliché.

Quite why this film has made it to DVD in both Britain and America is anybody’s guess, especially when there are many far better films of the period still to see the light of day in the DVD era. Very much a product of its time, Sticks And Stones is a prime example of the more industrialised underground gay cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s, as opposed to the more mainstream films such as Staircase (Stanley Donen, 1969) and The Boys In The Band. Here, not only is the viewer presented with the biggest array of stereotypes imaginable but the film has a miniscule budget, poor acting and nearly non-existent direction. What is worse is the knowledge that this semi-offensive dross was actually made by gay men themselves! One almost hopes that the film might finally veer off into pornography in the last reel if only to provide some relief from the constant bitching between the various characters, which is neither witty enough to provide a much needed comic element to the film or dark enough to add to characterisation. Indeed, the only enjoyment to be had from the film is to watch out for unintentional comic moments such as the Guru, played by Robert Case, who philosophises at various intervals throughout the film while a young Adonis watches him adoringly. These monologues last for as long as five minutes at a time and, at one point, presumably due to the only flash of inspiration from the director in the entire film, inter-cut with a decidedly non-erotic sex scene between the two.

Sticks And Stones is very much a time capsule of the period in which it was made. Sadly, however, it is difficult to sit through such a dull and poorly made film even for curiosity value.

The DVD release of Sticks And Stones in the UK is as part of a double bill of “Classic Gay Films Of The 70s”. The other half of the double bill, The Meatrack (Richard Stockton, 1970), is even more of a chore to sit through, with direction and acting even worse than Sticks And Stones. Avoidance is recommended. As if Odeon Entertainment hadn’t provided us with enough rubbish for our money with the two features, also included (as bonus features) are a series of “nudie” films from the same time period. These short films have no plot and were made, presumably, for the titillation of the customers of private cinemas of the time. However, they are very tame indeed and even the participants in the films don’t appear to have been particularly stimulated! Despite this, a couple of them are worth watching, if only for their bizarre nature, as naked, non-aroused men play pool and blind man’s buff!

Other films worth avoiding:
Cut Sleeve Boys (2006)
Playroom (2006)