Friday, September 25, 2020

Christopher Larkin | A Very Natural Thing || Frank Ripploh | Taxi zum Klo (Taxi to the Toilets)

where is love?
by Douglas Messerli

Christopher Larkin and Joseph Coencas (screenplay), Christopher Larkin (director) A Very Natural Thing / 1974
Frank Ripploh (writer and director) Taxi zum Klo (Taxi to the Toilets) / 1981

1974, the year of Christopher Larkin’s film A Very Natural Thing, was a year in which the LGBTQ community was, after the events surrounding the 1969 Stonewall riots, occupied with speaking out. Indeed, the 1973 annual New York City Gay Pride March down Manhattan’s 5th Avenue is featured in Larkin’s movie.
     Nonetheless, in this pre-AIDS era (only the earliest of cases were being diagnosed, the first US case being recognized in 1969 with the death a 16-year old boy, with only a few single cases reported in 1973 and 1976) when, moreover, most US citizens could not yet imagine the legalization of same-sex marriage (for most of the interviewees of the gay and lesbian march Larkin captured on camera, the central problem of the day was to simply achieve acceptance by the society at large) people had highly differing notions about permanent commitments and long-term relationships.
     By 1974 Howard and I, then living in Washington, D.C. were into our fourth year of a complete commitment to one another very much like a heterosexual marriage, and I recall a friend of ours who fearing that he might never find someone who might be interested in a true relationship, even threatening suicide at some future date if he was still faced with that possibility (I presume he long ago forgot that vow); yet many of not most—gays in particular—were happy with the pleasures of open sex unavailable to their heterosexual peers. In urban bars, public toilets, steam baths, parks, beaches, and sometimes even on side-streets the open sexuality of the day provided an enticement that was difficult to ignore.
     Unlike most heterosexuals who were expected after a normal period of sexual exploration to find a partner, marry, and settle down into a permanent relationship to raise a family, LGBTQ individuals who had already gone through many long struggles to break from the normative values of the culture at large—often endangering their careers, their familial relationships, and even their own bodies—could rightfully argue they had gained the privilege to remain outside those cultural values even if they might now be able to pair together under the banner of being queer. Afterall, part of the definition of having “come out” was to break with precisely the definitions of home and family from which they had escaped.
     As I am about to celebrate with my husband our 51st anniversary early in 2021, it may seem strange to admit that before I met Howard in 1970, I was most definitely one of those believers in completely open sexuality; marriage, either symbolic or literal, was something I just could not have imagined. In my year in New York City and in Madison, Wisconsin where I was attending the university, the lure of almost daily sex with other nubile male bodies was a lure I couldn’t and didn’t even want to resist.*
     Those issues, interestingly enough are at the heart of Larkin’s film and another gay movie I recently re-visited, German director Frank Ripploh’s Taxi zum Klo (Taxi to the Toilets) of 1981. Both feature couples who find themselves in a marriage-like relationship, in which one feels sexually trapped and delimited, while the other hopes to retain him in a monogamous relationship.
      Both films are also almost painfully honest, although the more literate and sexually less explicit of the two, Larkin’s film, perhaps more thoroughly portrays the issues which any couple of the time had to face.
      Even from the beginning of A Very Natural Thing we quickly perceive
that the two gay men, David (Robert Joel) and Mark (Curt Gareth), who meet one night at a gay bar, are basically incompatible, and we wince a bit as David soon pushes their night of good sex into a more serious relationship.
      In the first scene of the film we have seen David being released from his vows as a monk from a Schenectady, New York, monastery. The night he meets Mark he has driven down to New York City to visit his long-time gay friend Alan (Jay Pierce). He is, in short, a man attracted to if not still committed to spiritual beliefs, a man who has lived an ordered life of commitment, if only to the church. And he soon becomes a public-school teacher, which obviously requires a new dedication to some of the most important of normative cultural values, the education of the product of those heterosexual unions. As a teacher, just as we suspect of Mark, he has of necessity closeted off his sexual life from his daily job.
      Mark, a businessman, it is clear, picks up tricks mainly as an exciting alternative from his overly regularized schedule which, we suspect, he uses as a kind of relief valve from the highly formalized world into which he is locked. To David he even admits that at times he does also have sex with women, suggesting that his very societal role demands some restrictions to his central gay attractions.
     Clearly, however, the sex with David has been highly enjoyable, and surprisingly, perhaps even to himself, he asks if he can see him again after returning from a two-week trip to Cleveland to see his parents.
     David, it is apparent, is already quite hooked, yelling out a greeting to a stranger on the street who just happens to be wearing the same kind of suit coat Mark has worn.
     They do get together upon Mark’s return and before long are enjoying weekly outings together at Coney Island, the zoo, museums and elsewhere, even rather openly sentimentally rolling down hills. And David has begun asking the kinds of questions which Mark dismisses by dubbing David as his “fucking romantic friend.” Playing with the popular culture of the day, the writers call up the Erich Segal film Love Story from 1970, Mark responding to his friend’s predictable question “Do you love me?” with the comeback, “Love means never having to say you’re in love.”
    Yet despite Mark’s obvious resistance, David pushes the issue until we observe him moving in with his new lover short before he begins  cooking, house cleaning, and gardening. Mark is neither a deep thinker nor a natural talker, and the tensions within him build up, despite David’s attempts to bring the problems into the open. It begins with him picking up a boy waiting outside the subway stop, and soon after expands into late-night walks in Central Park and other inexplicable absences, not so vastly different from the life of any heterosexual married partner.
     The causes for his cheating, if you want to call it that, are something quite different, however, from simply tiring of one’s wife. On the contrary Mark is still sexually very attracted to the man waiting at home. For the reasons I’ve outlined above and simply because of living outside of the constraints of normative values, queer life almost demands alternatives, what Mark and others of his kind describe as a “perfect relationship that still permits a couple to live separate lives.”
      Even David’s friend speaks of this in similar terms, a slightly older man explaining that he has grown used to his lover demanding outside sex and permits it, except if he were to see a beautiful young face more than once in his lover’s bed, whereupon he would quickly join him to break up any false romantic attachments. There is almost a kind of cynicism in this kind of “give and take” concept which instead of entailing compromises consists of a “commitment with limitations.”
     Yet even David comprehends those pulls in his companion, agreeing to explore new possibilities with him on Fire Island, where, however, the moment David wanders off with another man, Mark becomes jealous, and when Mark suggests group sex, David breaks away unable to continue with the anonymous groping of strangers.
     Their differences demand they reluctantly break up, with Mark, at first, half-heartedly attempting to lure David back through sex, David perceiving all along it is still a kind of test, a trap that puts him at a distant embrace without the deeper emotional attachment he seeks.
     Of course, heterosexuals also feel these pushes and pulls. It is no accident that nowadays gay marriages sometimes last longer than heterosexual ones, in part because we have been forced to be more honest, as Larkin’s film makes clear, about these various issues. It is hard to imagine that one night or even several in someone else’s arms would end in immediate divorce as it appears almost always to end in the cinema romances of husbands and wives, male and female.
     And ultimately, in this very optimistic work, David finds someone with whom he is sexually in love and to whom he can also talk in Jason (Bo White), a photographer who was formerly in a heterosexual marriage with a child, and who has had to struggle with these very issues in order to come out. Accordingly, he remains close friends with his wife, is committed to participating in the Gay Pride March, and puts the very words that one might imagine David wanting to hear in his mouth “Do you love me? “Why not move in together?” etc. by requesting them instead the standard smile alert: “cheese.”
      Only it is now David who has become skeptical, determined this time to not to force commitment upon himself or someone else, but base their future not on their needs but their wants. The wait-and-see attitude this time around, bodes well for what the audience which cannot help but to perceive as a necessary coupling as the two skip naked through the Cape Cod surf.
     Not surprisingly, particularly given David’s own discomfort about the true meaning of what an annual march might mean and the film’s seeming argument for a marriage-like commitment in a time of new liberations, A Very Natural Thing was not so “naturally” well-received. Yet its positive message was something totally unavailable previously—when the vast majority of LGBTQ films ended either in suicide or with the heroes (and studios) hiding or transforming their sexuality into something else—or a few years later with AIDS looming over the horizon.
     In later films, moreover, these questions were often simply shuffled under the table because of AIDS, with more traditional marriages not only able to protect the LGBTQ figures from disease but finally being embraced by the society at large. Only a handful of films between the 1970s and early 1980s could substantially take up these issues.
     Sadly, the director of this work committed suicide in 1988. One only hopes the cause was not because he had not found a life-time commitment or was suffering from AIDS, both of which seem possible given the time and the issues his film raises.
     Ripploh’s film is so similar in some respects that it seems almost uncanny. The central figure of Taxi to the Toilets, Frank (Ripploh) like David in Larkin’s film, is by day a schoolteacher. But in this case he is the more promiscuous of the couple, even taking his student’s homework to read with him into his toilet stops as he waits for a cock to be shoved into a near-by glory hole. What’s more, as you might expect in a German-made film, Frank is rather strongly into leather and light S&M. 
    His domestic partner, who much like David cooks, cleans, and keeps the balcony plants in their apartment, Bernd (Bernd Broaderup) is the manager of a movie theater which shows late-night gay films, whom Frank met on one of his many nightly travels throughout Berlin in search of a gay trick. And like the couple in Larkin’s film they enjoy one another in their simple bedroom sex. 
   Yet in this film, made only 7 years after A Very Natural Thing, we begin to see ugly diseases on the horizon. Later in the film Frank is  hospitalized with hepatitis, told that he will have to remain there for several weeks. Ripploh’s work, however, is more of a comic version of Larkin’s more argumentative piece. So putting on his clothes over his hospital gown, Frank orders up a taxi to take him to various city public toilets to find a pickup; when he finally does discern someone standing outside in the cold of a locked toilet, this would-be sex companion, upon espying Frank’s undergarments, flees the scene.
      Given Bernd’s preference that they move to the country to raise food and perhaps a few animals instead of remaining in the city, Frank does briefly attempt to limit his sexual appetite—but without success. Most nights his lover is left alone, like Larkin’s David, hugging the pillow instead of Frank. One of the most outrageous lines of the film is Frank’s campy statement—once he has laced up into his leather gear and found his prophylactics and cocaine—“Don’t wait up. I’ll be late tonight.”
      Another clever moment of this work consists of Frank attempting to tutor at home one of his students not at doing well in the class, while in the other room Bernd and their transgender friend watch a German educational film warning young boys about pervert pedophiles. As Frank attempts to help the boy in arithmetic, the child hands him some of his metal toys before he suggests they play “horsey,” as Frank does everything possible to return his student’s attention to the lesson at hand.
      Despite the film’s jocularity, however, Ripploh’s work points in the opposite direction of Larkin’s optimism. As Frank’s adventures accelerate, for example, he meets up with a gas station attendant whose number he had scribbled down in one of his student’s lesson books earlier in the film. The attendant (Peter Fahrni, also listed as an assistant director, perhaps a relative given that my Swiss great-grandfather shared the same name) plays out the humiliating acts of beating Frank across his back before pissing over his entire body.
       More significantly, attending an annual drag ball for which this year Frank dresses somewhat like Scheherazade and Bernd as a sailor, the story-teller director misses his midnight departure only to arrive the next morning at his school still in costume, Bernd having left him in anger for all their missed opportunities to live a more regularized life.
      Obviously, Frank has committed a kind of symbolic suicide by now having lost his mode of employment on top of his increasing ill health. Giving up on all sense of order, he hands each of his students a single die (the singular of dice), encouraging her or him to roll for the chance of performing the worst acts she or he might imagine committing, including beating up one another, destroying the classroom, and tearing off one another’s clothing, which the camera catches them accomplishing before cutting, for the film’s last scene, to show Bernd, evidently at a nearby petting zoo, holding a lamb in his arms.
    It is doubtful that Bernd will continue to sacrifice his own life to a man who cannot put an end to his sexual escapades; besides, we have already seen Bernd at a travel agent discussing various possible tourist destinations. The sacrificial beast, most likely, is Frank who has somewhere lost his life in his many voyages between the taxi and the toilets.

*Perhaps at the age of 73 I can now admit that early in our relationship, Howard and I were not always monogamous, and that we experimented a few times with threesomes.

Los Angeles, September 25, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queen Cinema blog (September 2020).

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