The month of June is a good time to be gay. With an entire month devoted to LGBT pride, the community is at its most visible in media and whether it’s Laverne Cox appearing on the cover of Time Magazine and inciting a much-needed conversation about trans issues, or Broadway Bares raising money for AIDS research on the back of, well, Broadway’s bare, broad shoulders, there’s a lot to be proud of. Cinema itself hasn’t quite caught up, for despite a much larger number of LGBT films reaching the marketplace in some form (theatrical, VOD, home entertainment) they never seem to take full advantage of the surge of interest in gay topics that pride month, coupled with New York City’s Pride March, provide.
This time of the year is also a great moment to look back at the many advances made in the rights movement for LGBT community. Narrative filmmakers Ryan Murphy and Chris Mason Johnson have this year looked at the onset of the AIDS crisis in The Normal Heart and Test (which Nathaniel was far more forgiving to than I was when I reviewed it here last here), but one of the year’s most high profile documentaries zips forward in time to what is arguably the biggest moment in the gay rights movement in decades. Ben Cotner and Ryan White won the audience choice and jury prizes at this year’s Sundance for The Case Against 8, and it’s easy to see how audiences could get swept up in its matter of fact telling of the court case that brought about an end to the ban on same-sex marriages in California and the subsequent domino effect it put into motion.
I didn’t see this film at Sundance, but had I would not have been pleased. While it is true that the beat down on Proposition 8 – also somewhat investigated in the flawed, but superior 8: The Mormon Proposition – is one we should all feel excited and proud of, it’s hard to figure much of this film’s power comes from actual filmmaking and not just the viewer’s feelings on the subject. I got misty-eyed at the end of The Case Against 8, but not because of anything Cotner and White were doing. Whatever power the film has rather is in spite of their work, which I have heard described as “conservative”. That’s very much the case against The Case Against 8. Watching this film and one realizes just how staid the entire thing was with its upper/middle-class defendants, milquetoast legal team, and desperately vanilla reduction of the LGBT cause to one of homogeny. Coupled with the film’s bland visual stylings and any possible rough edges involving those involved not being saintly devotees to the cause being sanded down to within an inch of their life, it's a disappointing film. Ted Olson’s famous republican leanings, for instance, make an interesting early counterbalance, but are swiftly put aside for sweater sets and “look how normal we are” domesticity. It’s as thorough as a Wikipedia page, and about as interesting to watch as one, too.
For more interesting from a subject and style perspective is David McMahon’s sophomore documentary, Skanks. While films about the behind the scenes of a small town theatre troop are hardly rare (Corky St. Clair is alive and well), McMahon’s film documenting the drag musical comedy ‘Skanks in a One Horse Town’ in Burmingham, Alabama is funny and frisky, and pulls back the curtain on the lives of small town gay men just enough to not be a one trick pony. The play these people are performing – in a deeply religious town, it must be added – is imbued with the irreverent spirit of John Waters with its desire to shock and unsettle as well as entertain and engage.
I admired much of Skanks and wished it had given me even more of these people, some of whom live such fascinatingly dichotomous lives. In this age where even the god-fearing churchgoers are comfortable with homosexuality, at least the basic impulses of it, there was perhaps even more room for McMahon to move in watching his subjects interact with their families. Many gay viewers will likely recognize much of the drama, although whether they enjoy ‘Skanks in a One Horse Town’ (which involves time-travelling women from Studio 54 to the old west) will depend entirely on taste.
Watching Out in the Night, however, and perhaps anger is the correct feeling to have. Blair Doroshwalther’s upsetting look at the injustice perpetrated against four gay African American women for defending themselves against sexist and homophobic slander – in New York’s West Village no less – lacks polish, but shines a light on a story that otherwise may go unnoticed. The film, which recently played at the Human Rights Festival, is at its most interesting when focusing on the disgusting anti-gay bias of the media coverage, but is also smart to allow cameras into the lives of a section of the LGBT community that is rarely seen in media and entertainment. An admirable and simple look at an under-recognized story, Out in the Night raises interesting questions and for those unfamiliar with the case should find the winding road to its outcome staggering.
Skanks screens Friday Night at the Rooftop Film Festival in New York and is on VOD 07/22