GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
First Run Features, 1986
Rated R, 90 minutes
Rated R, 124 minutes
The number of gay-themed films that are released commercially have multiplied over the last few years. Because of their easier availability, it is often easy to forget the trailblazers that came before. This month I would like to revisit, and augment, the first column that I wrote for Outcome two years ago. It featured two of my personal favorites, Parting Glances and Apartment Zero. Each is a classic in its own right.
Parting Glances (1986), written and directed by the late Bill Sherwood, is still one of the best gay-themed independent films ever released. Parting Glances details 24 hours in the lives of Michael and Robert, (Richard Ganoung and John Bolger), a longtime couple, living in New York City, who are about to temporarily separate. Michael is a freelance book editor who is wielding the blue pencil to a friend's S&M science fiction novel (and hating every minute of it) while Robert's position with a world health organization is forcing his relocation overseas to Africa. ("Robert, this is the equator," Michael says, pointing to a map. "Why are you packing so many sweaters?") Despite vast political differences, they are firmly committed to one another. Michael is an activist at heart. Robert, despite his job, is unable to deal with disease except as an abstract, and is content to do his part by pushing beaurocratic papers behind a desk
Further complicating their lives is Michael's first lover, a punk rock performer named Nick (Steve Buscemi, before he made a career out of playing psychos in action movies). Nick has been diagnosed with AIDS, and Robert is jealous of the amount of time that Michael spends taking care of him. It is mostly because of Nick that Robert chose the job transfer - a betrayal that does not sit well with Michael when he realizes the truth. Not only does Robert wish to be absent when Nick dies, he also knows, deep down, that Nick was always the great love of Michael's life. The film shows how Michael copes while balancing the potential loss of both his partner and his best friend. Their emotions are finely tuned without hitting any false notes.
On my first viewing of Parting Glances, back in 1986, I found it to be the most natural and realistic portrayal of gay men to ever grace the screen. (Please remember that, unlike today, this phenomenon was not common.) We watch as a small group of friends, confident in their professions and sophisticated in the ways of the world, attempt to smoothly manage their relationships. The film's centerpiece is Robert's farewell party, which takes place at an artist's loft. Sherwood's skill, when sketching realistic and colorful characters, is especially evident here as he presents people from all varied walks of gay life. The guests include the overweight author who penned the S&M Sci-fi novel. He is stalking all the young men at the party and finally hits on a priest who recently left the seminary. A lone straight man vainly cruises the party in search of available women. Robert reminisces with a high school girl friend who states that she always knew that he was gay because he was "just too cute" to be straight, and Nick is asked to appear in a play by an Ingmar Bergman wannabe performance artist who wishes to stage a show in which all the actors are terminally ill. ("Imagine the intensity!")
Sherwood's uncanny ability to write great truths into a simple dialogue exchange reaches its zenith during a scene on the stairs, outside of the party, between two generations of gay men. A drunk young man, in lust with Michael, recognizes Nick from his videos and engages him in conversation. To him, Nick personifies a world of pre-AIDS sexual liberation while he represents a gay future Nick will never know. In perhaps one of the most telling explanations of gay awakening ever put on screen, the young record store clerk remembers telling his parents that he didn't choose this lifestyle, this lifestyle chose him. All he had to do to know that he was gay was ask his penis because it doesn't lie.
Despite the film's mostly comic tone, Parting Glances was made in 1986 and the spectre of AIDS looms heavily over the proceedings. Survivor guilt is especially prevalent when Michael confesses that, every time he looks at Nick, all he can think is "thank God, I don't have it." While preparing a dinner for his friend, Michael accidentally cuts himself with one of Nick's knives. In a telling illustration of how conflicting and hysterical information about AIDS was then the norm, Michael's momentary panic (could the knife infected?) is accompanied by an image of a grinning Nick extending a feather towards him - a "passing the torch" symbol that will recur later during an important flashback. Nick's own reaction to his condition is a mix of anger and acceptance. Music will play an important role as he lays in his bed and listens to Don Giovanni as a prelude to a surreal moment when a deceased friend appears, wearing a suit of armor as Mozart's Commendatore, to tell him that heaven is boring and to cling onto life as long as he can.
The two male leads are attractive, and their brief love scenes are sexually charged. Richard Ganoung (Michael) would go on to play a similar role opposite Sean Hayes in Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss more than a decade later. Steve Buscemi, however, steals the show as Nick. He is both angry and sarcastic about his illness, and picks on Michael for being a mother hen and for marrying Robert who "looks like a fuckin' Ken doll." In its depiction of everyday Manhattan life, Parting Glances is similar to a Woody Allen film in tone. The humor is both witty and biting. Sherwood's screenplay is filled with rich characterizations and attention to detail. Unlike many scripts, this one actually improves on subsequent viewings. The direction is superb and the soundtrack is effectively peppered with many known tunes of the day, most memorably Jimmy Sommerville and The Bronski Beat's "Smalltown Boy" and "Why." The scene where Michael embraces Nick, after telling him him that he was always the true love of his life, is one of the most iconic images in all of queer cinema. No matter how many times I see the film, this moment still reduces me to tears,
Parting Glances is a wonderful film in which all of the gay characters are presented naturally, and not defined simply by their sexuality. The human issues raised throughout make Parting Glances universal and timeless. It is a shame that this was director Sherwood's only film. He died from AIDS complications in 1990.
Beunos Aires is the setting for Martin Donovan's Apartment Zero (1989), a psychological thriller with gay undercurrents. Don't be deceived by the videotape box which simply remarks that two men share an apartment and that "one of them is a cold-blooded serial killer."
Colin Firth stars as Adrian LeDuc, an introverted, paranoid, and sexually repressed young man who runs an old movie theater that shows only classic films. His apartment is filled with framed photographs of movie icons like James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. He's a kindred soul to Felix Unger, and his mother is currently confined to a mental hospital. His colorful neighbors in the apartment building think him odd because he keeps to himself. Because his theater is losing money, Adrian reluctantly decides to advertise for a roommate.
Enter the roommate, Jack Carney, played by Hart Bochner. His entrance trumpets Adrian's closeted sexuality to the audience. The attraction between them is immediate. Jack, wearing a black leather jacket, is tall, dark and smolderingly handsome. From Adrian's point of view, he walks into the apartment, stands next to a framed photograph of James Dean, and gazes directly at the camera. His smile is both seductive and threatening. Jack seems amused by Adrian's nervousness, but the sexual tension as the two men look each other over is electric.
While a number of execution styled murders in town persist in the background, the film emphasizes the growing friendship, and tension, between the two men. Jack becomes a hit with the neighbors to Adrian's horror. While Adrian refuses to even talk to them, Jack sleeps with almost everyone in the building... a young gay man, a lonely married woman, a sad transvestite. All of the tenants seem to fall under Jack's "spell," especially Adrian.
The second half of the film becomes a psychological mindgame worthy of Hitchcock as it becomes clear that Jack is not what he appears to be. Where does he go at night? What are those pictures, taken at a military camp, doing in his room? As Adrian's need for Jack becomes almost obsessive, the world unravels for them both. Rather than opting for cheap thrills and the usual suspense cliches, the tension in Apartment Zero builds in subtle ways. Like Roman Polanski did in Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant, director Martin Donovan explores the cinematic possibilities inherent within the apartment itself. As the tension builds, the large apartment seems to shrink. Characters are filmed in constricted camera set-ups; walls and ceilings seem to close in during many agitated scenes.
Unlike most thrillers, there is fine character development, and the plot is not predictable. A political angle is introduced when the murders are thought to have been committed by a former government mercenary and this adds to the film's creepy believability. But what makes this film really stand out is the sexual tension between Adrian and Jack. Adrian's obsession with the cinema is central to the themes of appearance vs. reality. Adrian would rather lose himself in the movies than talk to real people, and Jack functions for him as a film icon that has come to life. "If that is a mask," he tells Jack, "Take it off now or keep it on forever." Jack also forces Adrian to confront his true identity by asking questions like "who do you want me to be?" It would be a crime to say anything more about the plot, except to note that the conclusion is one of the most disturbing in modern cinema. I guarantee that you will never forget it. It is well worth a look.
Both of these films, to the best of my knowledge, were never seen theatrically in Buffalo, but both films are available on video. You might find Apartment Zero at Blockbuster Video but both are available at Buffalo's more adventurous outlets, Mondo Video and Rainbow Pride. [Update for 2007: Apartment Zero is now available on DVD in its original 124 minute theatrical version. Click here for more details.]
on Richard Ganoung:
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