GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Starring: Michael Ontkean, Kate Jackson, Harry Hamlin, Wendy Hiller, Arthur Hill, Nancy Olson, John Dukakis, Terry Kiser
Rated R, 113 minutes
Starring: Frank Ripploh, Bernd Broaderup, Orpha Termin, Peter Fahrni, Dieter Godde, Klaus Schnee, Bernd Kroger
Unrated, 98 minutes
Cinema's Coming Of Age
Times have certainly changed. It is no longer unusual for there to be several films playing simultaneously at your local multiplex that feature gay characters and themes. That certainly wasn't the case when I was coming of age. But, back in 1982, two movies about being gay did play at the same time in Buffalo. The first, Making Love, was a mainstream Hollywood release which played at theaters everywhere. The second, Taxi Zum Klo, was an independent German film which played at the old Allendale Theatre when it was still a foreign film house. Making Love, ground-breaking as it was, treated its subject as antiseptically as it could, while Taxi Zum Klo, unfettered by studio restraints, emerged as a truly radical movie.
Making Love undeniably broke a lot of film taboos when it first appeared in 1982. This was a film that showed two attractive men falling for each other. This was a film that actually tried to depict the difficult process of coming out. This was a film that did all this without resorting to any condemnations or cheap jokes. The gay community had wanted such a movie for decades.
Zack Elliott (Michael Ontkean) is 30, a doctor, and has been married eight years to Claire (Kate Jackson), a network programmer. They seem very much in love, almost sickeningly so, in the early scenes of the movie. Their common interests include old movies and Gilbert & Sullivan. Everything seems perfect but Zack is restless. He is realizing that he is gay and that these "feelings" are not going to go away.
One night he drives down an alley that is a popular cruising spot and almost picks up a young man. Later he visits a gay bar but flees when a young man starts to talk to him. Enter Bart McGuire (Harry Hamlin), a gay writer who appears in Zack's office for a check-up. Zack admires Bart's writing and they strike up a friendship. Drawn to Bart, Zack awkwardly feels him out. Bart "finds a certain charm in [his] confusion" and they ultimately wind up in bed. Zack falls in love with him, and confronts his wife, with predictable results. He leaves her, only to find that Bart isn't made for monogamy. The film ends happily though with both Zack and Claire in new, committed relationships.
But good intentions do not always make for a good film. Making Love is not a bad film, but it is a very bland one. Though daring for its day, its approach was a bit too much like a soap opera or a Made-For-TV movie. Not that all the principals involved didn't try their best. Director Arthur Hiller (best known for that 70s tear jerker, Love Story) peppers the film with monologues by both Claire and Bart. Shot in close-up against a bare background, they function in much the same way as the acclaimed "witnesses" scenes in Warren Beatty's 1981 Reds, establishing an air of dead seriousness. Gay screenwriter Barry Sandler, according to Boze Hadleigh's The Lavender Screen, tried to infuse his own life experiences into both Zack and Bart. Most gay men and women can relate to Zack's struggle to accept himself. Others will recognize themselves in Bart.. And, to appeal to the housewives in the audience, Claire's character is emphasized equally.
But it all comes across rather cold, more like a clinical examination than an emotional and dramatic story. While some of it is insightful, the usual "reasons" for being gay are trotted out, such as both men having an overbearing father. An attempt to educate the straights in the audience makes for a lot of stiff, forced, and preachy dialogue. Unfortunately, Zack radiates far more chemistry with Claire than he does with Bart. Their big love scene seemed stiff and lifeless even back then, as if the two actors couldn't wait for the scene to end. The camera also remains a good distance from the lovers as they become more intimate. Today, thanks mostly to independent films, it is no longer revolutionary to see two men kiss onscreen. Making Love was stiff, but it actually was far more daring at presenting male intimacy than Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia would be years later.
The film's most interesting character is Harry Hamlin's Bart. The filmmakers try too hard to make Michael Ontkean's Zack into a "nice guy" while Bart is shallow, self-centered, and unashamed of it. "What did he want me to be? A teacher?" Bart asks the camera. "I don't want to be anyone's teacher. I can score five nights out of the week... I just don't feel like dealing with anyone's identity crisis." But he genuinely tries to help Zack through his "confusion." Though their liaisons change him somewhat, he is still unable to commit.
Movies like Making Love suffered because the filmmakers wanted them to be accessible to straight, as well as gay, audiences. The end result is that the films are not as honest as they could have been. But despite its faults, Making Love was a step in the right direction. Both men were not your typical Hollywood "fags." The gay bar scenes are populated with butch men and not swishy stereotypes. And, for once, the fag doesn't commit suicide at the end.
Allow me a personal remembrance. In 1982, I was 24 and extremely closeted. The idea of being able to see a love story between two attractive and masculine men excited me when Making Love opened. I remembered Michael Ontkean from a TV show called The Rookies aired during my high school days, and I certainly remembered Harry Hamlin as Perseus in Clash of the Titans! Viewing the film turned out to be an mixed experience. I thought that the film was a soap opera, and the audience screamed with laughter during the big love scene. But it was also cathartic to hear Zack talk about the same feelings that were troubling me. It's interesting to note that Jeff Simon praised the film's courage when he reviewed it in the Buffalo Evening News. (Years later he would complain about there being too much kissing in Torch Song Trilogy however. Go figure.)
[Reviewer's note, 2007: Re-reading my 1998 essay on Making Love, methinks I might have been a wee bit too harsh. At the very least, I'd like to extend the same courtesy to screenwriter Barry Sandler that I gave to playwright Paul Rudnick when I panned The Stepford Wives. Filmmaking by committee, I wrote in my Stepford review, is anathema to the art of cinema. Box office is the bottom line, and many a writer's vision has been eviscerated on its way to the screen. By the very nature of its subject matter, Making Love was a radical movie in 1982 but because of studio restraints it was also a very compromised film - just as Philadelphia would be ten years later. Even though it was about two gay men, it couldn't be too gay. Studio heads would never sit still for that. That's why Kate Jackson gets as much screentime as she does and also why Philadelphia winds up being more about Denzel Washington than about Tom Hanks. Hollywood needs to learn to trust its audience.]
A favorable review in the late, lamented Courier Express, of the more adventurous Taxi Zum Klo perked my interest but the description of the plot scared me off. I would regret my decision for a long time, and I did not see Taxi Zum Klo until last year [note: that would be 1997] when I finally found a copy for rent at Mondo Video.
Frank Ripploh's Taxi Zum Klo is everything that Making Love is not. Taxi Zum Klo (which translates as Taxi to the Toilet), is the brainchild of Frank Ripploh, who wrote, directed, and stars in the film. His autobiographical film presents the simple tale of a promiscuous gay man and offers no apologies for his behavior. "Do you want to come with me on my adventures?" he asks the audience during the opening shot, as the camera pans down a wall dotted with family pictures, religious icons, advertisements, and S&M photographs. "Don't be afraid if I take you along to public restrooms or the baths."
Frank, also known in the film as Peggy, is a school teacher in Berlin, Germany. He is also an amateur filmmaker. Our first view of Frank is a close-up of his butt as he wakes up in the morning. Like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Ripploh attempts to endear his character to the audience through a time honored tradition: slapstick comedy. Naked, he strolls out of his apartment to steal his neighbor's newspaper. When he is locked out, he is forced to knock on his neighbor's door, and then climb, still naked, across his balcony to get back home. On the way to school, he cruises a gas station attendant and writes down his phone number in one of his student's dictation books. After school, he grades his students' papers as he sits in a public toilet while a man in the next stall offers him his penis through a glory hole. While driving home he thinks about the Chilean Solidarity Meeting he was supposed to attend and decides to go to the baths instead.
At a movie theater he meets and falls for Bernd (Ripploh's real-life lover, Bernd Broaderup). Bernd, who longs for a monogamous relationship, moves in with Frank. Bernd's presence does nothing to curb Frank's sexual appetite. He comes home one afternoon to find Frank in bed with some rough trade. When confronted, Frank says "When I walk down the street it is an adventure for me. It's my domain and things sometimes happen. I don't want to be Joe Normal. Next time you join in, understand?" In a later scene, Bernd visits Frank in the hospital like a dutiful wife. When he leaves, Frank throws on a robe, hails a taxi, and takes it to a public toilet for a quickie.
Despite his overactive libido, Frank does love Bernd. "When I'm old, will I still be so restless?" he asks himself. "I'm afraid of becoming some old fag who hangs around urinals." While he seems heartless at times, other scenes show him visiting his mother, helping a battered woman who shows up at his doorstop, and bowling with his fellow teachers. His stormy relationship with Bernd isn't defined entirely in sexual terms. They experience the same problems as any couple might. Frank wants to live in the city, Bernd in the country on a farm. Bernd gets angry when Frank doesn't eat the dinner that he just cooked for him. When Frank flirts with a young man at a costume ball, Bernd reacts as any devoted spouse would.
Making Love attempted to sanitize homosexuality for a mass audience. Taxi Zum Klo, on the other hand, is almost a celebration of pre-AIDS promiscuity. Frank grows marijuana, drops acid, snorts cocaine, and seizes any opportunity to engage in fast sex. While Making Love "shocked" audiences with a male-to-male kiss and a short embrace in bed, Taxi Zum Klo's sex scenes are almost as explicit as a porn flick.There's even a golden shower!
As cinema, Taxi Zum Klo is hardly perfect. Its low budget is apparent in its grainy photography. Occasionally Ripploh cuts in old, scratchy, footage of "blue movies" to mock the action onscreen. There is, however, a spontaneity to the movie that is as infectious as the early works of Godard and Truffaut. The characters' lives are aimless, and Ripploh allows the camera to meander from one episode to the next, documenting the more "carefree" days that existed before the AIDS crisis. For all its daring, one never gets the impression that Ripploh is out to shock his audience. He simply presents his life as it is and makes no bones about it; he merely explains during the opening voice-over that he is a "normal, tired, neurotic, polymorphous perverse teacher."
Unbound by the Hollywood restraints that Making Love's screenwriter surely faced, Ripploh was able to present his uncensored vision on celluloid. Taxi Zum Klo would probably never get made in today's politically correct climate. Ripploh is hardly a role model, nevertheless his portrayal is an honest and refreshing one. While neither film is a masterpiece, Making Love and Taxi Zum Klo both broke new ground, and are important in the annals of queer cinema. They helped pave the way for a new wave of independent films that eventually led to the current "explosion" of gay treatments (both good and bad) in mainstream movies.
Making Love, as well as scores of other gay films (many unavailable elsewhere) can be rented at Rainbow Pride on Hodge Street. Taxi Zum Klo will soon be available there too, but can only be found currently at M. Faust's Mondo Video on Elmwood near Forest, along with many other hard-to-find titles. Forget your local Blockbuster Video when it comes to queer cinema. Unless it is a new mainstream release, like In and Out, or a piece of harmless fluff like To Wong Foo, good luck finding it.
(Reviewer's note from 2007: I recently found this picture of Frank Ripploh in a scene from Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Querelle.)