GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Love and Death on Long Island
Starring: John Hurt and Jason Priestly, Fiona Loewi, Sheila Hancock, Harvey Atkin, Lou Gawn Grainger, Henry Elizabeth Quinn
Chuck & Buck
Rated R, 96 minutes
God's Stalkers Great And Small
This month's column features two very different films that share a similar theme: a gay man's love for an unattainable ideal. The two men, one old and one young, live in their own private worlds until their obsessions lead them to literally become stalkers. Both films were billed as comedies and, though each provides an ample supply of laughs, they are also bittersweet love stories that will haunt you for days.
Love and Death on Long Island, based on an acclaimed novel by Gilbert Adair, is a modern take on Thomas Mann's classic Death in Venice. The film stars John Hurt as Giles De'Ath, a brilliant and cerebral writer who lives as a virtual recluse. He is completely ignorant of popular culture and doesn't own a television. He eschews technology to the point that he still hand-writes all of his manuscripts.
Having recently suffered the death of his wife, he agrees to his first interview in years. When the journalist asks the old fashioned British writer if he uses a word processor, he indignantly replies "I am a writer! I do not process words." He is also offended when asked if he would ever allow his books to be filmed. After admitting that it has been decades since he last went to the movies, his curiosity is mildly piqued upon learning that E.M. Forster's novels have been successfully adapted to the screen.
One day, when he locks himself out of his flat, he walks to a nearby movie theater to see the new Forster film. Confused by the numerous auditoriums in the multi-plex, he inadvertently walks into a teen movie called Hotpants College II. Appalled by this puerile nonsense, he gets up to leave but then stops when the teen heartthrob Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestly) appears onscreen.
It is not clear whether or not Giles has been a closeted gay man all of his adult life, (the only clue here is that his late wife was much older than him), but it is obvious that Giles has just experienced a major epiphany after seeing the image of this beautiful youth flicker on the silver screen. Suddenly he is buying American fan magazines to collect pictures of Ronnie. He keeps a scrapbook, humorously titled Bostockania, and acts more like a giggly schoolgirl than a stuffy academic. It's as if he has been reborn. In one of the movie's many great comedic moments, he buys a VCR to see Ronnie's movies but doesn't realize that he also needs a television to watch them on. For years he has been an anachronism in the modern world, but now he responds to these new (for him) technological marvels with all the wonder and innocence of a wide-eyed child.
Eventually he travels to America and to Long Island to find his obscure object of desire. He gazes longingly at Ronnie's beach house from afar, and then repeatedly walks up and down his street hoping to catch a glimpse of his idyll coming and going. His stalking of the young man is wrong but this is an old man at a major crossroads in his life and he is confused. When they finally meet face-to-face, Giles learns that Ronnie is tired of being a teen idol and wants to be recognized for his acting talent. Ronnie is at first flattered by Giles' insistence that he is "a young Olivier." But one doesn't have to be psychic to figure out that Ronnie is not interested in having a sugar daddy who will develop his intellect in the manner of the ancient Greeks.
While the film isn't without its share of heartache, Love and Death on Long Island is a charmer that holds your attention via a witty script and a bravura performance by John Hurt as Giles. Hurt, like his contemporaries Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, is blessed with an uncanny flair for creating compelling characters. Highlights of Hurt's impressive career include the mad Roman emperor Caligula - opposite Jacobi - in Masterpiece Theatre's I, Claudius, the lead role in The Elephant Man and a vivid turn as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant. (We will try to forgive him for appearing opposite Ryan O'Neal in the ghastly Partners.)
As Giles, his acting continues to soar. Effective as both an old bookworm and a new world innocent, his performance is shaded with subtle nuances. His worn and lined face is a road map of emotions that makes words often unnecessary. He is both tragic and funny, and absolutely unforgettable. Rent the video just for his performance alone. Also worth noting are the hilarious and dead-on lampoons of Ronnie's vapid teen flicks. Jason Priestly is to be commended for being a good sport here as these parody his own screen and television career. Thomas Mann's Death in Venice was never as much fun as Love and Death on Long Island. And the old man doesn't die at the end either.
One of the most talked about films at Sundance last year was a small independent venture, shot on high-definition video, called Chuck & Buck. Buck, who is 27 and lives with his sick mother, is the opposite of Giles De'Ath. He seems to be emotionally challenged; his room is filled with toys and he perpetually sucks on a lollipop. When his mother dies, he sends a handwritten letter to his childhood friend, Chuck, to invite him to the funeral. Upon seeing Chuck again, Buck wants to resume their friendship as if they had never been apart. The twist to this story is that Chuck "seduced" Buck when they were both 11 years old and Buck is still in love with Chuck...to the point of obsession. But Chuck lives in LA where he is a successful record producer with both a fiancee and an expensive home. Chuck is forced to face his past again when Buck moves to LA and refuses to go away.
In an effort to win back his beloved Chuck, Buck writes a play which is an obvious allegory about their lives - two young boys are accosted by a wicked witch who forces them to eat a black magic cookie. Buck's counterpart in the play is left a cripple, while Chuck's is left enslaved to the witch. Buck rents a children's theater for one night to mount his play and invites Chuck and his fiancee to the premiere. Chuck squirms uncomfortably throughout the performance, realizing that something has to be done about his old friend before it is too late.
Chuck & Buck was marketed as a comedy but this label is very misleading. Yes, it does have many hilarious moments but it is also one of the most disturbing movies this reviewer has ever seen. On one level it is a very creepy film but, looking at it from the vantage point of a gay man, the story is very sad. Buck has never grown up and he is in love. That doesn't excuse his behavior, (because, let's face it, he becomes a stalker in every sense of the word), but it is easy to understand where Buck is coming from. Everyone has a childhood friend whom they miss as an adult, and Buck is no exception. The trouble is that Buck lacks the social skills to recognize when he is being an intruder.
While Buck is the central character, we also see things from Chuck's viewpoint. Buck would be any straight man's worst nightmare. Actually, he would be any gay man's worst nightmare too. Chuck has moved on and his childhood episode with Buck is one he would clearly like to forget.
The film's subject, while handled tastefully, might trouble some viewers. Is the film equating Buck's social handicaps with his homosexuality? Is the film trying to say that Chuck made Buck that way when they were children? To its credit, the film never makes any such blanket statements nor does it condemn Buck for his desires. In fact, the film is a quantum leap forward in some respects. Usually, when Hollywood presents a mentally challenged character in a mainstream movie, (think of Forest Gump or Rainman), the script ordinarily de-sexes him to make him harmless and non-threatening to the audience. Chuck and Buck changes the rules to present a much more honest character.
Buck is a truly pathetic creature but he is one to be pitied rather than ridiculed. You feel Buck's pain throughout the movie. Undoubtedly homophobic male viewers of the film might look at it otherwise but you would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by Buck's sorrow. Screenwriter Mike White's performance as Buck is a marvel; it is subtle without going over the top even when he becomes intentionally annoying. (As for annoying, wait until you've heard Buck's favorite record, "Oodly Oodly Oodly Oodly Fun Fun Fun" a few times. It is the sappiest kiddie song since "Happy Happy Joy Joy" on Ren & Stimpy and it will be stuck in your head for days.) You empathize with him, while at the same time feeling grateful that you have no one remotely like him in your own life. Lupe Ontiveros is also marvelous as the theater's stage manager whose life is transformed through her experience while directing Buck's play.
A few mainstream reviewers did not get this film at all and protested that Buck's final confrontation with Chuck rang false but I disagree. See it for yourself and decide because this is a film that haunted me for a long time.