Harris Dickinson's stricken face at the end of Beach Rats
In the final shots of Eliza Hittman's sensitive independent film Beach Rats (2017), the rootless teen Frankie (Harris Dickinson) stares at the fireworks over Coney Island. Earlier in the film, he and his friends had looked on them with disdain. They found no great thrill in the display, even if he uses it as a conversation starter with Simone (Madeline Weinstein), a pretty girl he sees on the pier. But now, his life a mess, he watches them through pained eyes. Is the weekly display all he has left to look forward to? It's a gripping image, made more powerful by the way it echoes the ending of Francois Truffaut's first feature, The 400 Blows (1959), the famous freeze-frame on Jean-Pierre Leaud's face as his Antoine Doinel looks at the ocean for the first time and realizes it's not really the escape from his tortured life for which he had hoped. To say Truffaut's film is the screen's greatest portrait of youth at risk is hardly to denigrate Ms. Hittman's work, but rather to put it in perspective among the screen's more powerful portraits of the way young people can feel trapped in a world that seems to offer no real future.
Truffaut drew on details from his own childhood to paint Doinel as a victim of his parents' almost malicious neglect. Hittman's Frankie suffers from neglect, too, but it's more a matter of circumstance. Frankie's father is dying of cancer, and his well-meaning mother (Kate Hodge, in a deeply felt performance) is understandably preoccupied with caring for him and keeping the bills paid. Without guidance, he just hangs out with his friends, shooting hoops, getting high and trying to pick up girls. They support themselves with petty crime. While waiting to get on the bumper cars at Coney Island, one of them lifts a wallet from the person ahead of them. Frankie steals his father's painkillers to share with his friends and sell for a quick buck. At one point, he even pawns his mother's jewelry.
There's another difference between Frankie and Antoine. Frankie is gay. In the first scene, he cruises an on-line hook-up service looking for a man to talk to. Eventually he starts meeting the men from the site. Not that he's out to himself. In his view, he's just what's called an "MSM," a man who has sex with men. For the most part he dates older men for fear of hooking up with someone who might know his friends. When he meets one of his tricks in public, he almost panics. The man is one of the bartenders on a party boat Frankie's gone to with his friends and Simone, and when the guy tries to send the group free drinks, claiming the girlfriend is too pretty to have to pay, Frankie is furious. Later, when his friends catch him on his way to another date, Frankie tells them he only hooks up with gay men because they have drugs, lying that he gets high with them and then leaves them cold.
There's a price to pay for this dishonesty. In two of the three gay encounters shown in the film, the men simply treat Frankie as a receptacle. It's interesting that the only one who actually spends time with him and seems to care about his enjoying the encounter is the guy who tries to comp him for drinks later. And Frankie is finding the façade of heterosexuality harder to pull off. It's not just that his friends catch him. When he hooks up with Simone, he can only perform once, and only then by running to the bathroom to psych himself up in private. Hittman doesn't go for the obvious by having him pull out some gay porn to get in the mood, but you're pretty sure it's not Simone he's thinking about.
Hittman handles all of this with an objective sense of restraint. She's not there to judge the character; she just wants to show us what his life is like. When Frankie's father dies, she doesn't milk the scene for easy sentiment. She just shows the family gathered around his hospital bed in the living room. The slowing of the heart monitor is the only clue that this is the end for him. At times she may be a little too restrained. You may find yourself longing for a big, fiery confrontation out of '50s kitchen-sink realism. And there's no big climax at the end. After Frankie lets his friends beat up a trick, the first younger man he's tried to meet, he simply runs off to Coney Island to watch the fireworks. Yet that final image of him is haunting. It stayed with me long after some forced crisis might have.
Hittman's helped greatly by Dickenson's performance. He has a gift for getting inside his character and letting us see the world through his eyes (his performance as the telekinetic teen in this year's The Darkest Minds was one of the few saving graces of that mediocre effort to launch a sci-fi/fantasy franchise). Even when you can see Frankie making stupid choices, you know why he's doing it, and Dickenson draws you in enough to be on his side.
With its seaside setting and depiction of vagrant youth, Beach Rats calls up another association — with Federico Fellini's second feature, I Vitelloni. Like The 400 Blows, the Fellini film is semi-autobiographical, with the director represented by Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), the group's philosopher who eventually runs off to Rome to build a new life. The two comparisons make the ending of Beach Rats even more painful. We know that Truffaut and Fellini eventually moved beyond their adolescent problems to become major filmmakers. But what does poor Frankie have? Doinel had the movies and his love of Balzac; Moraldo, his questioning. There's no indication in Beach Rats that Frankie has any special talent. He can charm girls for a while, and he can steal drugs (if it doesn't require too much planning). Under the credits, he takes pictures of himself from the neck down, the kinds of shots people post to sell their bodies while keeping their faces hidden. At that moment, Hittman turns the gaze on her male star and, as the male gaze in cinema most often does to women, reduces him to disjointed body parts. By the end, that seems to be all he has to offer, and he doesn't seem to have the intelligence or maturity to survive that for long.
The two reasons to see King Cobra: Garrett Clayton and Christian Slater
If anyone had the brains and maturity to survive a life in the sex trade, it's the version of Brent Corrigan (the stage name for Sean Lockhart) played by Garrett Clayton in Justin Kelly's King Cobra (2016). As written by Kelly and D. Madison Savage and played by Clayton, Corrigan is almost the Eve Harrington of gay porn. In his initial interview for porn director Stephen (the film's name for Bryan Kocis, who actually discovered him), he comes off as a young naïf. But the camera is on, and before long he's taking his clothes off in a scenario that's far from unfamiliar to anybody who's seen more than a few solo films. After he agrees to work for Stephen, there's a brief shot of him in his room as he tries out different ways of wearing a baseball cap. That's where you see the wheels start clicking. It's a wonderful actor's moment, as Clayton takes us inside the character to show him rehearsing the image he'll use to sell videos over the next several years.
The humor from that scene carries into the way Kelly depicts Corrigan's early films for Cobra. He mainly focuses on the set-up scenes and seems to enjoy the cheesy dialogue and cheerful non-acting. As a result, the films made for Cobra come off as silly and queasy and little bit erotic all at the same time.
Clayton's portrait of the young macher is matched by Christian Slater's performance as Stephen. There's an openness to his work here I've never seen before; even in the recent TV series Mr. Robot, he seems more focused on projecting an attitude than getting inside his character's head. But he seems totally in synch with the porn producer he plays in King Cobra. Stephen is just as much of a schemer as Corrigan, but he's also a Pygmalion who's fallen hard for his Galatea. You can see the pain in his eyes when Corrigan starts fighting for his independence, even as you know that he's been ripping him off for years, underpaying him for videos that are pulling in six figures each. By the time he reaches his sorry end, dragged through the legal system when Corrigan reveals he was underage when he made his first videos and eventually murdered by a rival producer, you can't help but feel sorry for him.
The film is based on the real-life story of Corrigan's relationship with Kocis and their legal battles when Corrigan tried to break free of his control to forge his own career. It's there the film starts to fall apart. Kelly goes to great pains to depict Corrigan as Kocis' victim while also trying to keep the director sympathetic. When Kocis reveals he's copyrighted the Brent Corrigan name, Lockhart finds he can't work anywhere. Nobody wants him as anything other than Brent Corrigan. That's not true, however. In reality, Corrigan made three films as Fox Ryder before reaching a settlement to use the Corrigan name. In addition, the scenes of his abjection are a drain on the film, and though Clayton plays the wronged innocent well, it doesn't really work with the way he's been depicted as a schemer. It's as if Kelly wants us to laugh at the character's machinations and then suddenly feel sorry for him.
The film's biggest problem, however, is in presenting Kocis' killers, a pair of hustlers turned porn producers played by Keegan Allen and James Franco. Allen is perfectly fine as the young stud who's fallen for a life of privilege with his lover/pimp/producer, but Franco has a rare misfire as the more volatile half of the relationship. The character is a master of self-deception. He lives beyond his means and thinks the tacky porn films he makes with his lover are his ticket to the big time. Franco seems to be too smart for all that. When he has to get violent, he can't get a convincing rhythm going, and his scenes threatening and browbeating his partner fall flat.
There are also moments of almost self-conscious artiness. Stephen has a taste for classical music, which is established early on. For most of the film, the classics are confined to his scenes. When the police come to arrest Franco and Allen, however, the soundtrack switches to Schubert's "Ave Maria." Only it's not just the "Ave Maria." It's a mash-up with "Love Me Forever," a song setting lyrics by Tim Kvasnosky to the Schubert music, and the original Latin text. "Love me forever and pray for us sinners?" It's a strange muddle, but by then, so is the film.
The real star of The Gay Deceivers, Michael Greer (r.), and the man who should have been one of its stars, Christopher Riordan (below)
Imagine a romantic comedy set in an apartment complex for gay men. The piece is shot in the pop, crayon-box colors of the late 1960s. The leading man is the landlord, a flamboyant gay man in a happy, long-term relationship who acts as den mother to the tenants. He decorates their apartments, gives them romantic advice, provides a sympathetic ear and even cooks for them if they need help in the kitchen. The complex's resident hottie is always on the prowl, even as he's caught in a frustrating romance with an Army recruiter who has to keep the relationship a secret. When a pair of straight boys move in, pretending to be gay to avoid the draft, everybody sees through them but plays along just to twit the dimwitted dolts and even tease them into a few compromising situations. Most of us would lap something like that up.
Unfortunately, that's not The Gay Deceivers, a 1969 sex comedy that makes the mistake of focusing more on the straight boys than on their gay neighbors. Of course, that's the nature of the period. Homosexuality had only been allowed as a screen subject since 1961 (when William Wyler finally got the Production Code Administration to approve his rather overwrought adaptation of The Children's Hour), and was treated mainly as a subplot when it did turn up. Back then gay men and lesbians only appeared as either perverted villains or tragic psychological mistakes. My images of gay representation in that era are dominated by the failed primetime soap Executive Suite, in which a woman confesses to her best friend that she's in love with her (at the time, one "confessed" to homosexuality, because it was still a crime in many states), then runs into the street only to be hit and killed by a garbage truck. The fact that the tortured lesbian was the incandescent Geraldine Brooks and the object of her affection Patricia Smith, a good character actress but hardly the type to whom one would write sonnets, just made it even more ridiculous. At least there are no garbage trucks in The Gay Deceivers.
What there is, however, is an illogical plot in which a rich, white law student (Kevin Coughlin) whose family could easily have bought him out of the draft gets his childhood buddy (Lawrence P. Casey), a lifeguard and gigolo (the straight kind, so it's OK) to pose as his lover so they'll be classified 4F. When they think the recruiting officer (Jack Starrett) is spying on them, they move into the gay complex while trying to keep Coughlin's family and girlfriend from learning about the ruse. It should be the set-up for a door-slamming farce, but their labored efforts to keep up the pose without sacrificing their love lives aren't exactly funny.
What is funny, however, is the complex and its residents. Michael Greer was already out and proud when he made his film debut as their landlord, Malcolm. Director Bruce Kessler, who apparently was committed to making a good movie, gave Greer his head, resulting in a more positive depiction of homosexuality than was originally in the script. Unfortunately, that only applies to Malcolm's scenes. When he's not on-screen, there are still some painful lines about gay people being child molesters, and Coughlin's and, particularly, Casey's stereotyped attempts to pass as gay. Yet there's also a powerful scene near the end, when Coughlin's father finds out about the ruse and tells him about the real-world consequences of his behavior, particularly should he become a lawyer. This all tends to give the film something of a split personality as it mocks homosexuality in some scenes, celebrates it in others and seriously acknowledges the consequences of anti-gay bigotry.
None of that seems to matter when Greer is on-screen, however. His relationship with his partner (Sebastian Brook) is the most mature, positive pairing in the film (certainly better than Coughlin's stock parents — stern father and ditzy mother — or his relationship with his judgmental girlfriend, a role that forces the talented Brooke Bundy to function as resident turd in the punchbowl). One scene Greer added, in which he fixes breakfast for the new tenants, is a comic delight. As the radio plays an arrangement of the "Habanera" from Carmen, he dances around the kitchen, at one point even putting a rose between his teeth. It's the kind of thing that would be insufferably over-the-top in the hands of a less-accomplished actor, but Greer's movement is so controlled and, at times, even graceful, he pulls it off. The script requires not one, but both of the straight boys to look in at different times and mug to the camera to register that they can't believe what he's doing. In the theatre, that's what we call "milking the cat." Frankly, the young men would be better advised to study his performance as a lesson in how to play farce.
They'd also be well-advised to study Christopher Riordan's work as Duane, the resident hottie. Riordan doesn't have a lot to do, which is a pity. He's an experienced dancer who knows how to make every movement count, and he's smart enough to know how people behave. When he first shows up, he delivers the "cruise of death" to the two guys with skill and precision. During the costume party scene, the camera keeps cutting to him for good reason. Not only does he look terrific (he's done up in hippie garb, and let's just say, his beads are very well supported), but he also drops his pithy observations on what's going on with all the skill of a young Eve Arden.
The Gay Deceivers did surprisingly well at the box office, which historian Richard Barrios credits to Greer's performance. He should have had a great career, but after playing Queenie in the overwrought film version of Fortune and Men's Eyes (1971), he was so typed in gay roles he found it hard to get film work (he wasn't the only one typed; Coughlin, who wasn't a bad actor, had trouble finding work after The Gay Deceivers). It's too bad the screen hadn't progressed enough to star Greer in a series of films as the landlord, with Riordan more prominently featured. Imagine how much fun that might have been.
Alexander Bracq shot through shadows in Seeing Heaven, an image as cloudy as the rest of the film
At the start of Ian Powell's Seeing Heaven (2010) we learn three things about the romantic young hustler Paul (Alexander Bracq): he's the most beautiful man porn director Baxter (Lee Chapman) has ever seen; he's trying to find his long-lost twin brother, also an escort; and whenever he has sex, he has visions of his brother, so he agrees to star in Baxter's newest film hoping all that sex will lead him to the man. Therein lie most of the film's problems.
Calling somebody "the most" anything in a visual medium, is generally not a good idea. There's a reason Alfred Hitchcock never showed the audience the first Mrs. De Winter in Rebecca (1940). Nothing could live up to her description. It's not that Bracq is unattractive. It's just hard to buy him as the most beautiful man anybody has ever seen. Hell, Chapman is lots hotter. Does the man never look in the mirror?
As for Paul's wanting to find his twin: Bracq, most of whose credits are for stunt work rather than acting, is such a weak actor it's hard to believe his wanting anything. Playing objectives seems to be somewhere outside his wheelhouse.
The idea of having visions during sex might work for a soft-core thriller. But Powell's script also has Paul experiencing visions while he sleeps, when he looks at art and when he watches other people have sex. So, why does he need to star in a porn film to find his brother. It would seem a nice trip to a museum would do the trick.
I guess that would mean cutting the videos of him shooting the porn film. They're not that hot, certainly not as much fun as the porn scenes in King Cobra. Here, it really is like finding gay Skinemax among your cable channels. Frequently after a torrid love scene, the two guys get out of bed wearing underwear, which isn't a physical impossibility, but I mean, why bother.
If the whole thing moved more quickly, the ludicrous plotting might work on at least a camp level. You could laugh at it and make wisecracks in between the lines. But this thing is so slow, you begin to think you could play Mourning Becomes Electra during the pauses.
It's also bristling with self-importance. It's not just the moody scenes of people staring at each other or even the morose Baxter chain-smoking through his own sexual encounters (and never at any other time). Baxter's dream is to make one more porn film so he can finance the serious script he's written, which would cast Paul as the most beautiful man in the world. At the film's end, after a bunch of strained revelations, including another producer's plot to drug Paul into doing bareback scenes, Baxter decides his more serious film is just another way of objectifying the young man, so he throws his script from the balcony of his apartment…one page at a time…in slow motion. It already seems hypocritical for the film to want us to feel guilty about watching the sex scenes. Since they're really not all that hot, it ultimately seems like the height of self-deception.