Monday, November 1, 2021

Richard Turner | Violet's Visit

inevitable confusions

by Douglas Messerli

Andrew Creagh and Barry Lowe (screenplay, based on a story by Richard Turner), Richard Turner (director) Violet’s Visit / 1995

From the paucity of reviews on the internet, I presume Australian director Richard Turner’s Violet’s Visit (1995) was basically ignored by the critics and perhaps audiences upon its release. Which is too bad, really, because it’s a fairly honest and forthright view of gay life in the 1990s Sydney in the laid back manner of the 1994 film The Sum of Us while utterly at odds with the over-the-top vision of gay life presented by Priscilla, Queen of The Desert, also of 1994. You might say that Alec (Graham Harvey) and his lover long-term lover Pete (David Franklin), both highly assimilated gay men living in an active gay community stand somewhere between the more sexually hesitant plumber Jeff and his working class connections at whose edges still stand a quite homophobic society in The Sum of Us, and the outrageous drag-queen road tripping queens, on their way from Sydney to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory who meet up with both surprised acceptance and virulent homophobia in the Australian Outback.

      Alec and Pete represent the more typical, to my way of thinking, gay couple, despite the fact that in their late 30s and early 40s they seem to be just a little more buff and well-to-do than many a person I knew at the time. But then San Francisco and Los Angeles did indeed have thousands and Alecs and Petes in their midst. Unfortunately, we never get a chance to know much about their personal lives. 

     Pete seems to be a lawyer, but what Alec does is never quite explained or perhaps I simply missed his job description in one of the heavily Aussie accented scenes I couldn’t quite grasp without a closed caption setting. And I must say I did wonder why they had so very many copies of soft gay porn mags lying about given the fact that these two bronzed beauties seem pretty much in love and up and ready for sex; but we later do find out that they’re having some relationship issues, which temporarily pulls them apart which may explain the need for such a mountain of whacking material. And then, it appears, some of their friends may appear as models in their pages, which makes sense now that I know Alec owns a local gym.

     Otherwise, it appears that Turner, his set designers, and even his actors has got the scene down pretty honestly, certainly without the hysteria of Priscilla and the curiosity-shop mentality of so very many movies portraying gay couples of the 1980 and 1990s. If they stay shirtless more than one might normally expect, what better way to show off their well-developed abs. And at least they never don a turban, a Chinese housecoat, or an ensemble purchased just to stir their friends’ macaronic envy. These blokes are good-looking gay guys hanging out in a neighborhood of equally good-looking gay guys who, when they meet up on the streets, they hug and kiss, sit down with and gossip, and once in a while share a stray serious thought.

     It so happens, as expected, than one of their cutest chest-developed friends has a crush on Alec, but Alec doesn’t get flustered by his advances and doesn’t “give in” as you might expect in any gay film devoted just to the lives of these two men. The problems they have with one another have to do with the difficulties any couple, gay or straight have with temperament and expression of love not with extra-marital affairs. But then this film isn’t truly about a gay couple, but about the interloper who in the very first scenes of the movie shows up at their door.

     And no, it isn’t some long lost lover showing up to claim his due or a boy one of them long ago picked up in a train station, but a plain faced, straight, 15-year-old daughter who’s obviously more sexually conservative than her mother who almost monthly changes boyfriends or—what she couldn’t have expected since she’s never previously laid eyes on him—her “fag” of a father. After all, Violet, who has renamed herself Scooter (Rebecca Smart), has been told the father she’s never seen now has a new wife, so that when she knocks on their door, says a few magic words about relatives back in Kemble Bay, and falls into Pete’s arms saying Dad, what’s a good companion to do but put on his shirt, hide the Mandate, Torso, Numbers, and Men mags strewn about the living room, take down the nude male painting, and explain that her “daddy” is temporarily out of the house shopping for dinner. 

      When Alec does return, she recognizes him as the guy a few minutes earlier she had run into on the street and derogated for being and “old man,” and he is faced with a fact that he apparently never quite digested, that before leaving the town in which he could no longer survive, he’d gotten drunk and evidently fucked the woman, Sharon (May Lloyd) who is now the town slut.

      The girl he produced with Sharon is not only plain-looking but totally unimaginative, and without any vision of what she might like to do in live except design various objects of kitschy delight. She’s surly and more street smart than she should be at her age, and Alec wants no part of her, particularly after she refuses to even touch the Indonesian dinner he whips up for her and Pete.

      Pete plays the go-between, convincing Alec that he can’t simply send her to the streets or even back to Kemble Bay where her only future career, as Scooter admits, would be as a hairdresser. We’ve seen that world before in P. J. Hogan’s portrayal of another dead-end beach town, Porpoise Spit in Muriel’s Wedding, another movie of 1994, this about a determined straight girl, even if she’s also a queer outsider.

      Alec gives Scooter a chance, without even promising to love her, and quickly finds out that he’s been long looking for someone to take care of—which may be part of the problem he has with the intelligent and independent-minded Pete—and before long they’re taking in the sites, visiting the local cinema, and introducing her to their friends. He even offers to send her to art school, she refusing because she wants to stay outside of any “popular trends.”

     She may be a bit confused about her dad and step-dad’s sexual goings on, but she quickly finds models who she likes enough to clip out of their magazines and paste on her bedroom wall in place of Brad Pitt and Keanu Reeves. She cuts out penises and pastes them on other Hollywood hotties. And even more perversely develops a teenage crush on their beautiful body-builder friend, Wayne (Caleb Packham), the one who’s desperate to get Alec into bed. Wayne, who has a mind of a 15-year old teenager invites Scooter to drop by his place any time she likes and befriends her in a way that she confuses with love, despite Alec and Pete’s warnings that he’s only into boys. 

      Like most teenagers, however, she perceives their misgivings only as further evidence that her feelings are right, only to be even more confused when she furtively observes her imaginary “boyfriend” pick up another boy for the night, an act that so confuses her that she insists she wants to return to her mother in Pembroke Bay, where at least she knows the territory.

     By this time her father has so grown to love his daughter that he attempts to dissuade her, but she’s, as she puts it, as stubborn as he is, and insists he call Sharon, whose telephonic histrionics concerning what she imagines to be Pete and Alec’s orgiastic behavior around her daughter represents the only vision of Australian homophobia in this film. When she arrives with a new boyfriend in the front seat, Scooter scoots back into her father’s house, unable to stand being introduced yet again to a new man in his mother’s always busy life. But in returning “home,” she suddenly discovers that Pete has left Alec, apparently over her presence.

     In fact, we and she later realize, it is not that Pete will not remain if Scooter stays on, but that he has no way to argue out their problems in her presence. But as all not clear-thinking youth tend to do, she blames herself and disappears for a few days, while Alec searches the city in terror of what might have happened, finally reporting her absence to the police.

     When Pete finally hears of the situation, he too returns to participate in the search; even if he and Alec have not yet found a way to solve their problems, it’s clear they both are desperate to find and resolve the misunderstandings of their young charge.

     Wayne finally finds her by the bay, after she has spent a few nights with several homeless crazies, and lures her back to McDonald’s—which provides us a clue of where Violet-now-Scooter’s imagination and stomach will take her in the future—as Alec and Pete rush to bring her back into their lives. Alec agrees he’s “pushy” and promises to make time to talk out the problems with Pete; and Scooter evidently will happily return to her gay booty shrine in their house where she hopefully can sort out the difference between beautiful looking men and handsome straight boys to whom she might be attracted—a distinction which this film doesn’t dare to explore. Perhaps Alec may finally convince her to sign up for art school. But I still feel there’s something wrong with this picture.

      I have to admit I’m not convinced of the well-being that composer Paul Anthony Smith’s music attempts to evoke at film’s end. What is the beef between Pete and Alec really about? We certainly don’t have evidence of their ability to resolve a problem about which we’ve never truly been told. And what about the unthinking girl in their attic? What’s to become of her? One can hardly imagine her surviving in the insular gay world in which her new fathers exist. We have to presume that Alec and Pete once upon a time celebrated with tacky gay parties and took trips to Phuket, Thailand, Sanibel, or Key West once in a while. Somehow I can’t imagine the two boys returning to Kemble Bay for an Aussie Christmas. Sacrifices might surely be made, but can we truly expect them to sacrifice their very existence?  I get an uneasy feeling, sad to say, about this feel-good movie. 

Los Angeles, November 1, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2021).   

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