GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Unrated, 106 minutes
A couple years ago, I wrote, rather flippantly, about my love-hate relationship with the early films of Gregg Araki. This wasn't meant negatively, as I thought that Jean Luc Godard had just been reborn when I first saw The Living End in 1992. Now that his films are a tad more mainstream, I think I have found another guerrilla filmmaker to take his place and his name is Todd Verow.
|Back in May of this year, I reviewed Bulldog in the Whitehouse, a feat of audacious agitprop from writer/director Verow. Using the actual story of right-wing journalist/male escort Jeff Gannon and his infiltration of the Washington Press Corps (one of the stranger scandals of the Bush years) as a springboard, Verow re-cast the tale as a remake of Dangerous Liaisons in which Karl Rove filled the Marquise de Merteuil role, and Gannon became Valmont and shagged everyone in the White House. Despite terrible camerawork and less-than thespian acting, its rude political satire spoke to me and the film became one of my favorites of the year. Verow is an experimental filmmaker whose Hooks To The Left was filmed entirely on a Nokia phone camera. He also directed the controversial Frisk back in 1995.|
Verow's latest is a semi-autobiographical tale of a freshman art student, and the hustler he loves, entitled Between Something & Nothing. This is an odd film that is both engaging and sometimes off-putting at the same time and, perhaps because of my own art student years, also spoke to me on several levels. Tim Swain is Joe, an innocent adrift from Bangor, Maine - the home of Stephen King. During his opening narration, he remarks that his high school art teacher told him that, in addition to attending art classes, he must also experience as much of the world as possible. This he does, and more.
|Joe befriends Jennifer, another art student, when she steals an art history text from a book store and then gives it to him. He accepts the gift because his scholarship doesn't cover his books or his supplies. Both become each other's muses and provide support. Rather than being a sexual relationship, or a typical gay guy and faghag duo, it is a strong bond that art school alumni will recognize and appreciate. As the film progresses, we will meet several eccentric fellow students and a few even stranger professors. I liked the old instructor who has her students utilize a dozen eggs in their sculpture projects. The artwork will be dropped off a roof and you flunk if the eggs break. I've had art teachers who were almost that weird.|
|Commenting on the many wealthy students in attendance, Jennifer states that "They're all here at art school to get back at their parents or because they didn't get into Harvard. Or because they have serious drug and alcohol problems." Joe is also seen taking his fair share of drugs throughout the course of the film and it's a wonder that he gets any work done. He also becomes enamored with Ramon, an attractive hustler who he identifies with and begins to emulate. Joe describes his usual routine as classes during the day, working on art projects in the evenings, sneaking out from his work studies program to meet up with Ramon, "pop[ping] a john or two," and then going out to bars. Sleep appears to be an afterthought.|
|The art school scenes are The Paper Chase on acid. Tyrannical instructors make inhuman demands on their students and assign seemingly ridiculous projects. The students, themselves, are often more concerned with partying and having a good time. The friendship between Joe and Jennifer is nicely handled and their scenes anchor the film. I enjoyed watching Joe transform into his inner punk rebel queer persona. Joe looked like the cute boy next door in the opening scenes, until another hustler gives him a haircut and we see him wake up the next morning with a very cool looking mohawk that quite becomes him. Pullovers vanish in favor of ripped tank tops with slogans emblazoned like "Cultural Rapist." I'm sure his parents will be proud. When third act tragedy strikes, Joe punches a mirror and explains his bandaged hand as "an X-Acto knife accident." He uses the mirror's shards in a self-portrait project and, perhaps channeling Van Gogh, deliberately cuts his hand to add his own blood to the artwork.|
|Serving as both an inspiration for his art, and a dangerous distraction, is the enigmatic hustler, Ramon. They seem like friends, then adversaries, and then back and forth again. Ramon teases Joe and then pulls away from a kiss. Ramon moves in on one of Joe's johns and then later tries to save Joe from getting into a car with the wrong guy. High on coke, both men go on a call together and have a shag while their john watches. Afterwards, Ramon says "I shouldn't have brought you." It's hard to decipher exactly what is going on in their relationship. Joe clearly reads more into it than he should. But when he overdoses on acid, Ramon helps him come down, and Joe imagines the two of them sensuously kissing as the camera does an elegant 360 degree pan around them in a nice homage to Hitchcock's Vertigo.|
|Images such as these distinguish Between Something & Nothing from a lot of more ordinary faire. Verow shot the film himself and his art school background is apparent by his creative use of space. The many wordless images have a quiet power, evoking moods that are admittedly ambiguous but at the same time conveying more than words ever can. These scenes have a nice improvisational feel to them, Verow knows when to trust his actors. To be honest, the script isn't always clear and so you need to trust your eyes and just go with the flow.|
|This is a far more polished film than Bulldog in the Whitehouse; it made me happy to discover that all of Verow's films do not look like that one. Except for a few grainy night scenes, you'd never know that this was shot on HD video - Verow's preferred medium. Between Something & Nothing is an unusual film; a weird cross between The Paper Chase and Midnight Cowboy. I liked the art class scenes (though I never had a male model that built when I took figure drawing class back in 1977; if I had I might have figured out that I was gay a year earlier) and I liked Joe's walks on the wide side too. The two opposing storylines are actually quite complimentary. There are some very sexy love scenes too and Tim Swain is major league cute, and then hot with a mohawk, as Joe. With the exception of some bad, or inappropriate music during a couple of climactic scenes, I can't find much fault with this film. The acting throughout is also superb.|
Is it for everyone? Maybe not but it sure beats some of the Brat Pack films from the '80s that tried to mine similar territory. I don't know how much of Between Something & Nothing is autobiographical and how much is fiction - or simply embellished - but it feels authentic and a lot of it got under my skin. I've just discovered that this film is a follow-up to an earlier work, made just after Bulldog in the Whitehouse, called Vacationland, which also features Verow's alter-ego, Joe, this time in his senior year of high school. I've just added it to my Netflix queue. Watch this site for an upcoming review.
Tim Swain also