four variations of denial and delusion
by Douglas Messerli
Anna Kerrigan (writer and director) Cowboys / 2020
Etyan Fox and Itay Segal (screenplay), Etyan Fox (director) Sublet / 2020
François Ozon (writer and director) Été 85 (Summer of 85) / 2020
Alan Ball (writer and director) Uncle Frank (2020)
It stands to reason that in a year of political unsurety and general insanity along with the world suffering a pandemic virus that has killed hundreds of thousands of individuals and made millions ill, that four of the year’s most interesting films would not only be works that feature issues concerning the LGBTQ community—which has previously been at the center of such a killing virus—but deal with issues of denial and delusion which characterize several current political figures, in particular, the US president Donald Trump.
Superficially, none of these films are actually about politics or COVID. Yet all of these works sustain a political subtext in the way the societies they present deal or refuse to deal with non-normative behavior and all of these film contain some issues of physical or mental disease including bi-polar disorder, metathesiophobia (the fear of change), obsessive compulsion disorder, alcoholism, and an obsession with death if not outright thanatophobia. Characters in each of these films either attempt to deny painful elements of their pasts or delude themselves with regard to their relationships in the present.
If those facts might seem to indicate that these works of 2020 appear to be a dour group, in fact all are comedies of a sort in which the central figures learn from one another and move into their futures with new insights that will forever change their lives.
While too often in these kinds of LGBTQ works at least one of the outsider characters has to die, only in just one of these films does a death occur and it may have had nothing to do with the sexual relationship. Yet death does haunt three of these works and is a source for the denials and delusions of the characters. Indeed, as in most LGBTQ works, death is still a major theme running through these cinematic creations.
Finally, all of these films oddly involve intense relationships between older and younger figures, along with issues associated with the dynamic which alters the characters’ views of the past and the present.
Obviously, denial and delusion is at the center of thousands of narratives in film history, so I will not attempt to lay claim to structural exceptionalism between these four films. And clearly none of these works, most of which were written and began filming long before the current political and health concerns, were necessarily produced out of a consciousness of the contemporary climate which, I argue, helps to deepen and enrich the meanings of these works. Neither were any of the directors/writers, to my knowledge, aware of the other films. Like all such cultural phenomenon the creators were simply responding to the world around them and their personal obsessions and concerns.
Nonetheless, I still think by grouping these pictures they do reveal something important about our time that open them up to a generational perspective that further highlights their importance. That they all appeared in the New York LGBTQ Film Festival (one of them Uncle Frank also appearing in the same week at the Los Angeles based American Film Institute Festival) also helps to strengthen the links they share.
cowboys: i’m not peggy lee
In many respects, Kerrigan’s first feature film Cowboys serves as a model of the issues upon which I focusing. This film, set in rural Montana, where Kerrigan also spent some periods of her childhood, concerns what might have been a normative heterosexual and conservative couple were it not for two crucial matters. The husband, Troy (a wonderful Steve Zahn decked out with a rough billy-goat-like beard) gets into trouble simply from over-reacting to the fact that his brother’s boy has been spying on Troy’s daughter as she tires on a new cowboy outfit. He almost beats the child and when his brother tries to intervene, he brawls with him as well, turning the peaceful clothes outing into a violent setting that might have more logically been played out in an isolated bar.
Clearly, like so many of his kind, the man-boy Troy actually sees himself as a kind of western figure protecting womenkind. And he is arrested for his own arrested-development. But what he doesn’t know is that he is also suffering from bi-polar disorder, which helps to transform even some of his best attempts to be a lover to his wife and parent to his child into sudden outbursts of over-enthusiasm unpermitted in the necessarily ordered world that has overtaken this former frontier wilderness in just a few decades.
Secondly, what we also gradually discover is that a different series of events have sundered Troy’s relationship with his wife Sally (Jillian Bell) beginning with their daughter’s announcement that she is not a girl but now a male forced to wear long hair and dresses by her loving but clueless mother. Like most Americans she simply has no context into she can catalogue her daughter’s sudden belief that she doesn’t belong in the body into which she was born.
One of the most loving scenes of this film, in fact, is Sally’s attempt to explain to Joe (Sasha Knight, a young transexual actor) that you don’t get a choice about what body you’re born into. She recounts a story [which I’ll restate words from my own memory] about how when she was a child her mother loved the singer Peggy Lee, playing her music day and night. Sally suggests that she herself wanted to be Peggy Lee, to be as beautiful as she was in her early years and to sing like her mother’s hero. But here I am, she summarizes, not looking anything like Peggy Lee and I can’t sing for shit. “I’m not Peggy Lee.”
As she shouts at Troy in one of their arguments, I cook and clean, I work to pay for our food. And I’m tired. “Who would choose to be a girl?”
For Troy, on the other hand, once he gets over the momentary shock of his blonde long-haired daughter’s declaration of her gender shift, he sees it is as something simply to be accepted. Besides, we perceive, it allows him the perfect opportunity to live out his childhood once again, this time with a son at his side with whom he might share his wonderment of the natural world he so loves which in the increasingly urbanized world in which he lives, has almost been lost.
Kerrigan’s film begins, in fact, with a poignantly beautiful landscape spread out before him and his now short-haired son, with him declaring “It’s so pretty it’s almost too much.” In fact, he has just kidnapped Joe, suggesting to him that they are about to set out on a short camping trip into Canada where the mountains, the trees, the fish, everything is much bigger than it is even in the back country of Montana.
Despite the fact that he is now taking pills to regulate his excessive visions of what he can accomplish, we already suspect and soon have it reconfirmed that the voyage he and Joe are planning is not a short-lived outing, but a permanent escape into a neverland that even Joe begins to recognize is utterly impossible to enter.
Already Sally has discovered that her daughter has escaped through the window and has notified the police that her husband has kidnapped her. She does not, however, explain to the local Detective Faith Erickson (Ann Dowd) that Joe has chopped her own away long curls and is not dressed in a skirt as in the photo she has provided, but is dressed in jeans, cowboy shirt, and cowboy hat. By the time the general warnings of a kidnapped girl have gone out, moreover, Troy’s truck has broken down and he and Joe have stolen a friend’s horse, now turning the long chase at the center of this film into a kind of 21st-century western story in which the two of them have now become outlaws of a sort.
Kerrigan skillfully demonstrates the problem of both parents with the fact that they cannot even identify their child or one another through the same language: for the father he is rationally undertaking a voyage into the back country with his son, while the mother sees only a madman who has stolen off with her daughter. If Joe seems often quiet and confused, one can only imagine the chaos rushing into this handsome child’s head. To be what he wants to be he can only move forward, while still recognizing that any reality exists only from where he has come from. Space itself becomes a labyrinth pushing and pulling him from any course he may wish to choose for himself.
And like any cowboy living more than a century after such now-mythological creatures truly existed, Troy has not planned well. With most of their foodstuffs gone, Joe awakens in the night in order to surprise his father with a fresh-caught fish, but nearly drowns in the process, Troy pulling the boy to safety after he thought he might have already his child to the rapids. What he lost is his medicine, and with it any attempts at a sane trek to the Canadian border and beyond.
Besides, by this time Erickson and the federal police have already closed off the border and are seeking the outlaws, particularly since a stranger heard in a nearby thicket has been shot in the leg by the nervous inexperienced gunman Joe.
It is only at this moment we recognize that the duo, now lost and designated as dangerous, might become yet another instance of trigger-happy policemen mistakenly gunning them down. Erickson is almost able to lure them into calm as she prepares to cross the river in order to bring them safely, but, just as we might have expected, a shot rings out and Troy is downed.
The director, however, is too clever too allow her film to end with a stale trope. Troy survives, to be locked up once more, while Sally, finally recognizing that she has been wrong in her resistance to the inevitable, has gone out and bought her child, now soon to enter puberty, the toy guns and holsters, the cowboy books, and all else that she had once denied her pleading got up in long hair and gown.
Clearly, it’s not going to be easy for Joe to live out his teenage years within the normative society in which his mother remains, but at least the previous denials of her mother and, hopefully, the delusions of her father have been put to rest. Joe finally has a space in which he himself must now learn to live. Yet it’s still difficult not to recall that this is also the territory of the cowboys of Brokeback Mountain (filmed just across the border to where Joe and his father were headed) and in nearby Wyoming (one state below) Matthew Shepard was beaten and died for being gay.
Los Angeles, October 19, 2020
sublet: making room
If the major characters of Kerrigan’s film were obvious outsiders in the normative worlds in which they existed, the central figures of Etyan Fox’s 2020 film Sublet seem by comparison to be perfectly at home in the cultures and age groups which they represents, Michael (John Benjamin Hickey) the late middle aged journalist happily married to his gay lover back in the US and the young film director Tomer (Niv Nissim) encompassing many of the values of the younger Israeli generation, dissatisfied by the secular and patriarchal past they are still, at times, called upon to embrace. On face value both seem quite acclimated to their cultural and sexual roles despite whatever failures they might recognize in their own societies.
But that very perception is created entirely by their own delusions and the self-denial of who each of them truly is. Michael, writer of a New York Times column titled “The Intrepid Traveler” just arrived in Israel to the food, architecture, people, and cultural values in just five days, is anything but an easy traveler and inwardly is just the opposite of being intrepid. He is rather an almost fanatical man of order who relies on the predictability of his self-constructed reality to assure him that all is well. Yet even from the beginning of this voyage, arriving at the apartment he has sublet for his stay, he is met with everything he fears: unpredictability, chance, disorder, and a young landlord Tomer who stands against almost all the values Michael clings to.
A bit like Richard Dreyfus in Herbert Ross’ 1977 version of Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl, Michael arrives to find the place still occupied—in this instance by Toomer who has miscalculated the day on which he was to have vacated. Not only is the apartment a several story-tall walk-up, but Tomer, busy with a film shoot, has turned it into a chaos out of which he unsuccessfully attempts quickly to create a sense of order. It is clear that its fairly run-down rooms filled with packed cabinets, drawers, cupboards, and bedroom dressers with a chock-a-block of old cameras, expired food products, drugs, and other inexplicable paraphernalia that it leaves hardly any space for a new tenant let alone representing the get-away paradise that Michael might have imagined it to be.
Having to rent out his space simply to bring in enough money to pay for some of his new film shoot, Toomer attempts to convince Michael—determined to hail another taxi and check into a local hotel— that the apartment is much better than it looks and stands in the center of a district of Tel Aviv that has been voted the best new hot spot in the world by Time Out. No one with half a brain would believe him, but Michael is suffering jet-lag and, we might suspect, finds his landlord to be a quite dashing gay man. And so Toomer dashes off, leaving Michael, with an almost anal sense of order, to rehabilitate his temporary habitation.
When asked during a telephone call by his New York husband to show him around the place, the journalist waves the cell-phone camera vaguely in a few directions while mouthing the words that might once have suggested their purpose—kitchen, bedroom, living room, etc. Even his companion, however, cannot help but notice the handsome young man’s photograph on the kitchen door, upon whose looks he comments, perhaps somewhat enviously or even sensing that something if up with Michael’s apparent discontent.
Michael has already bought pastries from a nearby shop voted the best for such fare in the city, and invites Toomer to stay for breakfast. Although Toomer can’t stand breakfast as a meal—the first of dozens of oppositions he will lay out over the course of the film—he nonetheless hangs about, taking his roomer to a local restaurant and through the robbery of his bicycle describing to him some of the problems in a culture which, if he called the police, would probably close down the immigrant bike shop to where the robber delivered his stolen vehicle. In their brief early conversation, he laughs at Michael’s list of “half to visit” locations, suggesting they’re all fine if you’re an American touring your daughter who has recently been bat-mitzvah-ed.
The far less impulsive Michael does leap, however, when he discovers that his landlord still has no place to stay for the night, in inviting him to stay in his own apartment to sleep on the couch. In return, Michael suggests Toomer taken him on his own tour of Tel Aviv, allowing him a chance to truly be somewhat “intrepid,” to see a world of Israel otherwise unavailable to him.
The two thus become a sort of temporary “odd-couple,” who quickly reveal their oppositional natures: if Michael is married, Toomer does not believe in monogamy—or for that matter anything that might clearly define his gay sexuality. While Toomer makes cheap and shocking science-fiction films, Michael prefers music, dance, and films undefined by specific genres. Toomer, checking his new friend out on the internet discovers he has long ago written a book about a relationship during the early AIDS crisis. “Why does everything have to begin with AIDS?” he cries out. Michael points out that not only did he live through time but lost his then-lover to the disease. When a dancer friend describes her relief that she and her dancing companion about to immigrate to Berlin, Michael suggests that given what Germany stood for, it seems ironic that she would take that position; both she and Toomer laugh, explaining that Berlin is the current hot-bed for all new cultural developments. Toomer invites a hot boy he sees in Grindr over for a threesome with who he has delicious sex while Michael watches (dressed in pajamas that Toomer has mocked in discomfort before hurrying off to bed. In short, these two gay men, at opposite ends of their lives, slowly begin to educate each other about the worlds they inhabit.
We also begin to realize, however, that what they truly believe is not always what they each insist they do. Although Toomer claims he does not want a relationship which delimits what he can do, he encourages his dancer girlfriend to remain with her partner, and dismisses the continued frustrations they have with one another, which when Michael and Toomer attend one of their performances seems to be played out in their dance itself. Although he claims to sorrow over his father’s death, it is clear that the relationship he has developed with Michael is a sort of father-son connection. He begins covertly reading Michael’s book which he somehow discovers in a used book shop.
When Toomer disparages social activism, Michael argues that you can and often need to remake the world in which you were born, reminding his younger friend that he and others redefine the political and sexual values of their time in the late 1960s through the 1970s.
If Michael seems dependent upon his relatively
confined sexual boundaries, it soon becomes apparent that he has almost shaken
loose by Toomer in their adventurous treks through the city. And he is
seemingly able to deal with the varied sex life of Toomer, who he discovers in
bed with his dancer friend in an attempt to comfort her one night and on
another night shares the couch with the cute Grindr guy. Even more amazing, on evening
before their separation Michael and Toomer also make love. Despite his dislike
of breakfast, Toomer has gone out early for pastries and eggs
For all of his commitment to family and marriage, we discover through his phone conversations with his husband, that he is hurt to discover that his partner has attempted to make a connection with a possible surrogate mother to produce their own child. In another call he tells his companion that he does not want to continue the search and is against the idea of their attempting to raise a child at their ages. Yet, when visiting the beach with Toomer he spots a child wandering into the ocean, he rushes forward to save him from being drowned. His own relationship with his father seems to have fraught with tensions, some of which he recalls from only other visit to Israel.
And, finally, in a beautiful evening dinner to which Toomer has invited Michael to share with the younger man’s mother, when the topic of death arises, he calls up the fact that he and his husband had previously hired a surrogate birth mother, only to have the child die soon after being born, forcing him to break down in tears at the otherwise happy occasion. Both Toomer and his mother try to convince him that he would be a perfect father, which assures, if nothing else, that when he returns to the US, he will have to reevaluate his decision.
Michael comes eventually to perceive Israel and his new-found friend to be filled with contradictions, but so too does Toomer perceive that Michael is a far more flexible being that he imagines himself to be.
Both locked in their delusions of what the real world is, have denied themselves a plethora of other possibilities. And as they hug upon Michael’s departure, the often cynical Toomer even opens himself enough emotion to release a small torrent of pent-up tears. Both will return to their cultures with fewer of the delusions they have lived with, accepting some truths about themselves which they had never before admitted to.
Los Angeles, October 21, 2020
summer of 85: dancing to death
Given that the major figures of François Ozon’s most recent film features two young men, 16-year old Alexis (who prefers to be called Alex) and a two to three year older boy David (Benjamin Voisin) it seems highly unlikely that issues of denial and delusion should have already settled into their personalities. Except for the fact that both, in different ways, are fascinated with death—Alex, like many young people simply being fascinated with the rituals of death in different cultures; and David, more seriously, seeking the thrill that comes from chasing after what might be dangerous—it similarly seems odd that of the four LGBTQ films from 2020 I write about in this essay, only Ozon’s Summer of 85 ends in the death of one of its characters.
That is not to say that the director doesn’t warn us that something in this otherwise seemingly gay idyll is not quite right. Even before we’ve been truly introduced to Alex we see him at the beach with his best friend with whom he is clearly looking forward to share an outing on a small sailboat. The friend tells Alex that he has a secret to share, and a few seconds later when the new “secret,” a girl with whom he has a date shows up, we can easily read signs of disappointment upon Alex’s face. Told by his friend that he can still use his boat for the day, Alex mutters something like “But it’s more fun with you,” forcing us to realize that perhaps Alex had hoped for a more intimate relationship with the other boy.
Alex does take the boat out, anchoring it briefly to fish, but soon spots a rainstorm’s gathering clouds, with lightning on the horizon. He quickly pulls up the anchor and tacks the sail in order to return to harbor, but the winds quickly capsize the small vessel, sending him into the waters. Even his attempts to hang onto the overturned boat seem slightly futile—that is until a savior in a similarly sized boat shows up, tosses him a line, and tells him how to upright the boat before towing him back to shore.
Clearly the slightly older boy who has just saved his life has had some experience with saving the lives of others previously, for when he invites Alex to his house, David’s mother speaks of his other rescued friends, the two of them pushing Alex into the bathroom with the mother (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) taking a somewhat prurient interest in pulling off his clothes so that he might take a hot bath. Before Alex can even catch his breath, David presents him with a new wardrobe pilfered from his own closet, has invited to stay to dinner and insisted that they spend the next day together. We’re now friends, David insists, before Alex, somewhat more cautiously, can even come to terms with what has so quickly occurred.
Over the next couple of days, David and his mother have conspired that Alex should work in their small sports shop, now managed by David since of his father’s death, and planned out the rest of his summer—despite the fact that Alex had determined to continue his summer taking a creative writing course with M. Lefèvre (Melvil Poupaud) who finds his work promising. By the time David has purchased a new helmet for Alex, taken him on a daredevil ride on his motorcycle, and has purchased new pants, shirt, and hat for the boy, Alex is already in love and has begun to take over his own story by becoming the film’s narrator, now gushing about his new overwhelming passion for David while luring us on by closing the bedroom door behind the two enjoying what we can only imagine to be an utterly pleasurable night of sex. No coy coming out film is this.
Yet even here, Ozon tosses us crumbs that might alert to the fact that, that despite the palpable pleasure the two take in just being around one another, these Hansels (the dictionary definition of the archaic word “hansel” is a gift given for good luck at the beginning of the year or to mark an acquisition or the start of an enterprise) may unknowingly have set out on a trip to the witch’s oven. As they walk arm in arm with each other through the streets of their provincial beach town on night, they encounter a drunk who keeps diving into the traffic. David insists, despite Alex’s protests to leave him along, that they help him to safety. Shouldering him between them, they take the young man to the beach to drop him into the safer sands. We might simply imagine the handsome angel as showing his deep compassion, but as they pull the drunk onto his back, so our new narrator comments, he suddenly observes the man’s beautiful face which, he realizes, has probably occasioned David’s interest him; and the next morning Alex discovers that after the two of them parted for the night, David returned to the drunk on the beach, just to talk to him he claims, leaving Alex and us to suspect something other.
After their wild motorcycle ride, Alex asks whether David always speeds through the roads so carelessly, moving in and out of oncoming traffic. The older boy’s answer not only confirms that he does, but that in the maneuver he is chasing as if to catch up with death, moving as close as he can possibly get to it without crossing over.
A third clue that something strange may be underfoot is when David suddenly demands that the two share a pact that they will dance on one another’s grave of after his death. Certainly, this pact which seems to come of nowhere gives Alex some pause, but by this time he has so come under David’s spell that he cannot deny him.
The final and most clearly perceived bit of evidence comes almost as a repetition of the very first scene in the film, as Alex and David’s planned outing on a sailboat is interrupted by a English girl who Alex has previously met. Upon meeting her, David impulsively invites her along, suddenly shifting his attention from Alex to the intruder Kate (Philippine Velge), leading the younger boy to realize that his idyll of 10-weeks has perhaps come to a close.
I suspect that had we been able to pick up these authorial crumbs one by one in their proper order we might have recognized another storm on the horizon. Ozon, however, cuts up his narrative after establishing the fact that something terrible has happened to David and that Alex has come under general suspicion. Refusing to speak of the events to anyone, including the psychiatrist hired by the police to help explain the inexplicable facts surrounding Alex and his friend, the creative writing teacher asks his former pupil to write out his story as if it were a fiction. Thus, we discover why Alex has become the narrator, and why a linear narrative is nearly impossible. Soon it is revealed that David has been killed in a terrible accident while riding his motorcycle, and that the previously loving and open M. Gorman now refuses any communication with Alex, believing that he been responsible for her son’s accident.
As we move forward in what is now Alex’s fiction, we begin to perceive that indeed it is not precisely the objective truth he (or the film) is revealing, but his own vision of that truth. As Kate, who later befriends the troubled teenager, explains it to him, David was not everything Alex imagined him to be; he was another being onto whom David projected all the joy and youthful exuberance the 16-year-old felt in his first full enchantment with love. Even through the eyes of a youth, truth is often denied, delusions of what the young imagine and want to happen overwhelming the realities that eventually must be faced.
If nothing else, however, Alex is a faithful lover, insisting that he is still bound to dance on his lover’s grave. But first he requires real evidence of his death, which he obtains, with the help of Kate, by showing up at the morgue in a dress—stolen out of Ozon’s early short A Summer Dress—as David’s girlfriend, an act which ends in comic disaster. Even when he finds the unmarked grave he spends the first night prostrate with grief, and when he returns a second night to dance, is caught and arrested by the police.
We now recognize that Alex is not actually being charged with David’s death, although he personally feels some guilt for that as well. Challenging David’s love after their sailboating party with Kate, David is finally led to admit that he is now bored with their relationship, that Alex’s love for him has become too predictable, without the challenges he loves. As I have written about so very many characters in the LGBTQ films of these pages, David is a man who finds it difficult to commit. Furthermore, we wonder why he even might be expected to be at his young age. Love and the desire to possess, from which Alex suffers, are some of the oldest dilemmas facing couples for centuries. In anger, Alex storms out of the Gorman shop, with little hope of reviving the perfect summer he has just experienced.
In M. Gorman’s delusion, David has raced off after Alex in order to apologize and explain. Perhaps even Alex fears that explanation to be the truth, that in his lover’s rush to find him David was killed. Yet, by the end of this painful film both David and we come to recognize that behind David’s acts lay an insatiable attempt to embrace everything he hadn’t yet experienced or encountered, an almost suicidal thrill of the new and different. Surely, he recognized the dangers that exist in such behavior, which helps to explain his request to celebrate that urge if it might consume him.
To satisfy normative society, the judges cook up a story about Alex and David fighting jealously over Kate, and, accordingly, justifying Alex’s bizarre behavior after his friend’s death. As in many of Ozon’s works, the normative world wins out over the queer more inclusive one that truly surrounds it.
By film’s end, however, Alex’s queerness perseveres as, at work in community service for his desecration of the grave, he strikes up a new relationship with the drunken man whose life he and David once save. And the two them sail off for the day in David’s boat, perhaps the only thing he has inherited from his dead lover—except, obviously, for taking up another chance for love.
Los Angeles, October 23, 2020
uncle frank: all in the family
If one might briefly ponder how the seemingly well-adjusted and young figures I described in the last two films above were also suffering from denial and delusion, in Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank, set in the early 1970s alternately in the homophobic Creekville, South Carolina and gay-friendly Manhattan, the audience can easily comprehend why Frank Bledsoe (Paul Bettany) might wish to deny his sexuality to his unfriendly family. On his few holiday visits back home, he is treated to lectures about his unmarried status by Aunt Butch (Lois Smith), recriminating smiles and kisses by his Mammaw Bledsoe (Margo Martindale), and complete dismissal by his father, Daddy Mac (Stephen Root). This is a world in which any marriage and the “no-neck” bastards it produces are awarded with family love and acceptance, even if that marriage might have occurred, as the old-timers used to say, “under the gun,” as is the case with Frank’s younger brother, Mike (Steve Zahn, the lead of Cowboys) and his wife Kitty (Judy Greer).
The only pleasure that Frank enjoys in this Southern outpost is his conversations with his niece Beth (Sophia Lillis), a budding Carson McCullers—one of Beth’s favorite authors—who takes her uncle’s advice that she should be what she wants to be instead of how others might wish to define, to heart.
Given what we gradually also come to perceive—that Frank as a child (a role played by Cole Doman), having fallen in love with a neighbor boy, Sam (Michael Perez), was terrorized by the hell-and-damnation lectures of his father and abandoned Sam, who in response drowned himself—it is little wonder that Frank still has delusions regarding his family’s ability to show him love which effects the way he sees himself as an adult.
In Manhattan, Frank lives an open sexual life as a popular New York University literature professor along with his Saudi-born husband, Walid “Wally” Nadeem (Peter Macdissi), who, despite the fact that if he were to reveal his sexuality to his mother he might be beheaded, is a kind of wildly open gay man, not at all intimidated to cover up his sometimes campy behavior.
A bit like Michael in Sublet, the New York City version of Frank seems to have it all: a fulfilling job and loving companion. If only his past family life can stay safely put in the world he has successfully, it appears, left behind.
But we all know that even if you “can’t go home again,” that home has a way of following you to wherever else you may have escaped. In Frank’s case it begins with the sudden appearance of his niece Beth, who is now a freshman at NYU, with her new boyfriend. As Abbey White nicely describes the it in The Hollywood Reporter, encountering the fairly swishy Walid at the door “the young girl who says she's ‘never known anybody who's gay before’ soon discovers that she has actually has, both in her beloved uncle and even more shockingly, her church choir director,” as well, we might add, her boyfriend, who has wheedled his way into the party simply to proposition the esteemed professor.
Suddenly realizing that she is completely out of her league, Beth swallows down some whisky, and under the delighted tutelage of Wally, attempts to assimilate her new environment. Yet hardly does she catch her breath after all her new discoveries, but she, along with Frank, are called back home through a phone call announcing the death of the mean-hearted Daddy Mac. Beth has no choice but to return, but Frank attempts to talk his way out of it.
Wally will hear nothing of it, and argues that instead of taking a plane or train, they drive down to South Carolina by car, with him in the back seat. If we can’t quite yet comprehend why Wally is so insistent that he join in the funeral “fun,” we do get clues in the fact that during his difficult times following the death of his father, Frank was there to support him; and, more importantly, the fact that Frank is former alcoholic who in revisiting the horrors of his childhood relationship with his father will need all the support he can get.
Frank, terrified by the whole ordeal, quickly nixes Wally’s participation in what his husband is certain will be a gothic horror tale, but does agree that a road trip with his niece might be a solution that would help to prepare him for the confrontation.
If we can now recognize this film as being concerned with more serious issues than the mental and sexual awakening of youth Beth, it is still also a comedy of sorts, exemplified by the sudden appearance of a beautiful convertible conveniently following Frank and his niece at a respectable distance sports Wally at the wheel. Their attempts to cohabit a room at the Dixie-situated Hummingbird Hotel, along with various other on-the-road psychological insights and absurd tiffs offer some levity to what soon becomes a far darker work, particularly when the tag-along Wally discovers that Frank taken up drinking again and has taken up his long-ago habit of hiding small single-swallow bourbon bottles around the bedroom. When Frank and Beth’s car breaks down, forcing them to join Wally in his olive-green and white rented Cadillac, Beth gets a far more intimate and disturbing view of what her uncle’s life is all about.
Ball might have presented the final events as a simple endurance test in how to smile and keep every emotion hidden within except for the fact that after the funeral a lawyer shows up to read Daddy Mac’s will. The family members are each left some small amounts—accept for Frank whom his father “outs” in front of the entire family in this most egregious manner imaginable.
Frank goes rushing off, and Beth, now knowing of the dangers facing him, quickly borrows her father’s car and speeds away to Wally for help. Wally knows where he may have headed—to the pier from where Frank’s boyhood friend dived into the waters—and Beth knows the territory. Together they discover the car where Frank has left it, but after rushing to the pier see no sign of their loved one.
We might imagine that Frank has drowned as well, but Ball has already signaled his intentions to turn this into a sort of sentimental feel-good tragic-comedy, and they soon discover him stumbling through the nearby woods.
Embracing him with relief, Wally and Beth grab the slightly tipsy Frank and race off to the more raucous after-funeral dinner, which is a time for celebration in such Protestant family gatherings. Finally, Frank’s delusions are shown up for what they truly are as one by one, family members respond with love and acceptance, seemingly even more receptive to Wally’s ability to share his open-minded attitude toward life in general. Even Aunt Butch gives the prodigal son a hug, although assuring him that we sill still go to hell when he dies.
Ball’s work, particularly in the final reconciliation with a past that clearly tortured his father more than Frank himself, is not entirely believable and thus is not as profound as he intends it to be. But with Wally to guide him, Frank—and those of us who have shared his journey—can now. if nothing else, let out a hearty laugh, particularly when Frank’s mother demands that Wally now call her Mammaw, a mother finally to whom he can now tell the truth without fear of death.
Los Angeles, October 27, 2020
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (October 2020).