Pit Stop

Wolfe Video,

Yen Tan

Yen Tan,
David Lowery,

Bill Heck,
Marcus DeAnda,
Amy Seimetz,
Alfredo Maduro,
Corby Sullivan

Unrated, 80 minutes


Breaking Glass Video,

Patrick McGuinn

Greg Chandler

Chris Graham,
Andrew Glaszek.
Jeremy Neal.
Glenda Lauten

Unrated, 101 minutes

Small Town Blues
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online February, 2014

There is a small, but telling, moment at the end of Pit Stop (2013) that sums up, for one of the characters at least, what it is to be closeted in a rural, Texas town. Two men, who have hooked up on the internet, are happily discovering that they click. They are outside, saying good-bye. One of them, Gabe, smiles and says, “I’d kiss you again if we weren’t standing out here.”

Pit Stop, a poignant tale about being gay in a small town, is the latest film from Yen Tan (Ciao, Happy Birthday). Gabe and Ernie are two gay men who are unable to let go of the past. An ex-lover remains a major fixture in each of their lives. Gabe (Bill Heck) maintains his own apartment but spends much of his time with his ex-wife, Shannon (Amy Seimetz), and their young daughter, Cindy. Scenes at the dinner table suggest the standard All American family unit and it seems at times as if they never divorced. We learn that Gabe left Shannon for a married man, and that he was dumped when the man’s wife discovered their affair. It is obvious that Shannon is still in love with Gabe, and each appears slightly jealous when the other is seeing someone else. When Shannon’s date, a nerdy co-worker from the hardware store, drops by to pick her up, the babysitting Gabe has fun busting his chops.

Ernie (Marcus DeAnda) and his younger lover, Luis (Alfredo Maduro), have broken up. The director introduces the men by placing them at opposite ends of the widescreen to emphasize how apart they have grown. Luis hasn’t moved out yet because Ernie told him that he can take his time. Perhaps he still likes having him around, or just doesn’t want to let go yet. That would also be true concerning Marty, another ex. Marty is in a coma and Ernie dutifully reads to him, not knowing if he can even hear him. “Where is the asshole you left me for?” he asks, bitterly. When Luis tricks with an internet hookup, Ernie reacts violently and abruptly throws him out.

It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Gabe and Ernie will meet before the film is over; one only has to look at the intimate picture of them on the DVD box. Unlike more conventional romances, we get to know the men first (and their ex-lovers) and their hookup is saved for the end. This approach works because, by this point, we are rooting for these unhappy guys to meet. Numerous visual links between the two men set up connections to guide the viewer towards their eventual rendezvous: A distraught Gabe finds solace petting his dog and this scene is followed with an equally upset Ernie holding his cat. When Ernie doesn’t answer a call from Luis on his cellphone, we cut to Gabe getting an unexpected call on his. Because they both work in construction, they are also linked by their occupations. During the film’s final moments, their idyllic memories of the night before are mirrored as each remembers stroking his sleeping lover’s beard.

Gabe is deeply in the closet and, without the internet, might never have enjoyed the opportunity to meet Ernie. Incidents of rural homophobia are never shown, (and perhaps are non-existant), but the fear still remains. Gabe is very don’t ask don’t tell. Closely guarding his “dirty secret,” he grows angry with Shannon when she fixes him up with Les, their daughter’s closeted teacher. Les, it turns out, isn’t ready for intimacy yet but asks if they can be friends because, in a small town, you need all the friends you can get. The desire to escape life in a small town is a prevalent theme. Luis wants to get out of Dodge while Ernie is content to stay put. Les comes from Pond Creek, Oklahoma (“Where the hell is that?” “Exactly.”) and has taken this teaching position because he struck out in the bigger cities.

Pit Stop is a quiet film, filled with beautiful character studies and moments brimming with emotional resonance. Eschewing clichés and histrionics, many scenes are little self-contained stories in themselves, making Pit Stop a small masterpiece of subtle storytelling. The connections between many of these episodes are striking. Director Yen Tan has been on my radar for years. The black & white cinematography in his 2002 Happy Birthday was so remarkable that you forgot the low budget. It was, along with Ciao, effectively minimalist in its narrative approach and Tan’s work has repeatedly shown how clearly he understands the concept of “less is more.” Here the widescreen, his preferred canvas, is a dark palette with almost a sepia tone, fitting for a low-key story about two men looking for happiness. Painterly compositions effectively exploit negative space; corridor shots and scenes filmed through doorways suggest the characters’ stifled lives.

Gabe and Ernie finally meet, without prefacing fanfare, at the same gas station where they passed each other in the film’s opening scene. Their meeting might almost seem an arbitrary afterthought if not for the previously seen visual links between them. They go back to Gabe’s place. They kick back with a couple beers; the dialogue is natural as they get to know one another. Gabe tells Ernie that he looks like his picture – echoing a remark made by Luis’ internet trick much earlier – and says that that is a good thing. Ernie tells Gabe that he thinks he may have seen him around. My favorite scene of the film follows. Ernie uses the bathroom, where he checks his breath and starts chewing gun. Cut to Gabe who is loudly crunching some mints.

A long lovemaking scene, captured in one take, is followed by a soundless breakfast scene in a diner that makes it plain that these two men spent the night together and have hit it off. As each man drives away, alone with his thoughts, they imagine their faces together in loving close-up. It’s a beautiful coda, but when the film came to an end my first impulse was to ask “that’s it?” I wanted more but, oddly, I didn’t need more. We spent the first hour getting to know these men so that we can be glad when they have a chance to be happy. Will this meeting just be a pitstop or will it lead to something else? Better to leave it open and to our imaginations.

Pit Stop won the Texas Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Dallas International Film Festival. It is not a cute, romantic comedy, nor does is turn tragic like Brokeback Mountain. Subverting audience expectations, Pit Stop satisfies on multiple levels. My mind is busy imagining what comes next for those two guys.


More on Yen Tan:
Happy Birthday



An even smaller town (we don’t even see it) is the setting for Patrick McGuinn’s Leather (2013). This one isn’t as successful as Pit Stop but it’s still an interesting - and drastic - departure from most of the usual queer faire I see.

What if the boy you secretly loved when growing up was suddenly back in your life again? This is one of many questions facing Andrew (Andrew Glaszek), who has just returned to his childhood home in the Catskills after his estranged father, Walter,  passed away. Arriving at his dad’s cottage with his boyfriend, Kyle (Jeremy Neal), he finds an unexpected occupant – Birch (Chris Graham), his childhood friend. Andrew is even more surprised when he learns that Birch has acted as Walter's caregiver for the last five years of his life.

Andrew’s father threw him out when he told him that he was gay, so he went to live in New York City and never came back. Andrew’s memories of the old man are far from rosy. Birch, on the other hand, returned to the Catskills after sowing his oats. Aimless and needing direction, he met Walter again - who took him in and straightened him out. He taught him leatherwork and carpentry and, in the process, Birch became the surrogate son. Each man remembers Walter quite differently; Birch has elevated the old man to sainthood, and all his son can say is “I don’t know the man you are talking about.” Andrew is confused, feeling torn between gratitude and resentment for the old friend who clearly replaced him in his father’s heart.

Despite some heavy themes, the tone of Leather is mostly playful. Kyle, always the drama queen, keeps suggesting that there’s something funny about Birch. Maybe he killed the old man. Or maybe there was something kinky going on between them. Andrew reminds him that his father punched him in the face when he came out, making it unlikely that any “dad on lad role playing” went on. But, Kyle asks, what about this leather stuff? The film’s title is suggestive but, while there is almost a sexual vibe when Birch works with leather, we are actually watching a skilled craftsman who is lost in his art. He might look (and act) like a throwback to 1800s Appalachia but he makes fabulous leather sandals.

Andrew doesn’t know what to do. His plans to sell or rent out the cottage has been complicated by Birch’s larger-than-life presence. There are other problems too. His relationship with Kyle is on the rocks, and probably has been for some time. It’s not hard to see one of the reasons why. Kyle is needy and whiny, and he has brought his pet bunny along. Expect some good fish out of water jokes as the two city boys slum it in the woods. Kyle will, predictably, complain that he can’t get a signal on his phone. He also freaks out when Birch tells him that the homemade cheese was made with beaver milk. Wait until his bunny gets loose.

There is also a lot of tension between Andrew and Birch; some of it is, of course, sexual. When he first sees Birch again, his old friend is shirtless beneath a full length leather apron. Tall, dark, bearded and hairy, Birch is a striking figure who - as Kyle puts it - is hot “in a Little House on the Prairie sort of way.” Birch is one of the more unique characters I’ve encountered in queer film. He’s a walking and talking anachronism, but I admire him for the way he is “at one” with the woods. (A sarcastic Andrew will ask him, “What’s with the survivalist drag?” one angry afternoon.) Birch rides an old bicycle with a metal basket, catches fish, isn’t interested in computers and sends handwritten letters. He also buried Walter in the woods like his ancestors have done for centuries. And did I say that he makes fabulous leather sandals?

Birch also refuses to be pigeonholed; his sexuality is fluid. He is with a woman before Andrew’s arrival but, later on when their friendship reaches the next level, he rejects his old chum’s attempt to label him as bi-sexual, insisting that he doesn’t think that way and that he simply “identifies as a man.” Birch is the epitome of butch. Kyle is the opposite; slight and effeminate. He works in fashion and he has a pet bunny (Birch has a dog). The film makes no judgments, it simply presents them as very different types. Andrew is an everyman type of guy, at a crossroads in his life. Now the boyhood friend that he secretly loved, and wished he could run away and “have adventures with,” is back in his life.

Things come to a head when Birch’s friend, a “licensed arts therapist” puts on a puppet show that re-enacts Andrew’s fight with his father. (Don’t ask.) Andrew storms off and Birch eventually finds him sitting by the lake where they used to swim as kids. You know where this is leading, don’t you? Birch shares a bottle of hooch with Andrew. They go swimming. They splash each other. Afterwards they lay sun-drenched and naked in the grass. And then, in what I hope was a dream sequence, both men are naked in the forest wearing deer antlers on their heads. I’m not sure if this was the director’s intention or not, but this surreal – yet oddly beautiful – image gave me the giggles.

Up until now, my reaction to Leather has been mixed. I’ll explain why in a moment. The film has had its share of scenes that ran from the sublime to the silly, but suddenly it really comes to life when Birch and Andrew spend the night in the woods. The moment when I fell in love with the film was when Birch serenades his old pal as a Dionysian rock god while playing a guitar made out of tree branches, pieces of metal and twine. Lying under the stars, they have passionate, earthy sex. Meanwhile Kyle is getting drunk with the licensed arts therapist, and he puts on his own puppet show about him and Andrew. His catharsis is our belly laugh.

This is a good film, but not a great one. Most problematic is the background score. While the banjo-flavored folk music fits the movie’s setting, it is too obtrusive and the transitional songs grow tiresome quickly. The film’s best scenes play with no music; the impact of many scenes are diminished, if not totally ruined, when the banjo music suddenly intrudes. There are many classic films that I have enjoyed for their offbeat music choices. The bluegrass in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and the zither in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) come to mind. I give director McGuinn (who, by the way is the son of former Byrds guitarist, Roger McGuinn) credit for thinking outside the box in terms of the music but it works against the drama and, in the end, sabotages the finished film.

The movie’s publicity touts how it evokes the visual style of 1970s cinema. That description is accurate, but it’s also a nice way of saying that the 16mm photography is grainy and sometimes resembles your father’s Super 8 home movies. Some of this was probably deliberate, especially the opening flashback of the two boys fishing with Walter. But film is warmer than video and the nature photography is often quite beautiful. The story is a good one, the script could just use some polishing. All of the three leads deliver credible performances; Chris Graham is especially memorable as Birch.

Leather isn’t perfect but there is much that satisfies and it certainly has its quirky charms. Who would have thought that measuring a foot for leather sandals could be sexy? The ending, which ties everything into way too neat of a bow, was a little too “feel good” for my taste (even the bunny seems to live happily everafter) but I enjoyed most of this tale about the Mountain Man and the City Mouse. Try to tune out the banjos - if you can - and you’ll have a good time.