by Douglas Messerli
Michael Moore (screenplay), A. P. Gonzalez (director) Clay Farmers / 1988
A full 17 years before Brokeback Mountain director A. P. Gonzalez and writer Michael Moore created Clay Farmers, a western-based film far more convincing than the sheepherders’ romance of 2005.
We never quite know for sure whether or not the drifter, Mike (Nicholas Rempel) working as a temporary hired hand for Dan the local farmer (Todd Fraser) have sexually consummated their obvious homoerotic attractions for one another. Indeed, the few paragraphs written about Clay Farmers all seem to suggest the two are just friends whose attraction for one another is still in the early stages. Yet these handsome boys joyfully touch, hug, and rough-play with one another in a manner that is far more explicitly sexual, and immensely more sensuous, than the two fun-loving cowboys romping in nature after their one-night romance represented in Ang Lee’s Brokeback. Just because we haven’t (and won’t be) invited into their “tent” does not mean that Mike and Dan aren’t on their way to becoming the homosexual couple that their neighbors, particularly the mean homophobic next door drunk Jim Antonelli (Asbury Ward), imagine them to be. I’d argue that if we don’t perceive them as a couple Gonzalez doesn’t even have a story to tell. For, it is ultimately Mike’s inability to commit to a longer relationship, once faced with the hostility of the isolated community in which he has found himself, that is central to his film.
Gonzalez, in fact, goes out of his way to show through his beautifully-shot images of their partial nudity as they work side-by-side planting and weeding the rows of crops, as well as in their gentle shaping of the clay-hewn arts works that Dan creates in his spare time that those two are natural pair. That clay work, representing images of dwarves, half animal and beast figures, and a large feminine figure with the head of a man clearly spells out the characters’ perception of themselves as bisexual beings at home in bodies and an imaginative space that does not tie them down to normative definitions of existence.
In many ways, however, this is not really the story of a budding romance between two hot farmers but a tale of the terrible abuse by Antonelli of his two boys and wife which the local community abet in their silence. Although Dan does not own the farm which he has contracted to manage, he too is a local, and he warns the newcomer Mike, who has clearly already gotten on the wrong side of Antonelli even before the film has begun, to stay away from their neighbor and to keep quiet about his behavioral abnormalities.
That is difficult since the youngest of the neighbor’s boys, Gary (Liam McGrath), despite his father’s admonitions, almost daily crosses over from the Antonelli farm boundary to hang out with the two younger farm workers, in part because they teasingly treat him like a pestering younger brother, and, as we later discern, because they offer a sense of belonging and protection that his own home life doesn’t offer. Mike even notices marks on the boy’s body clearly from abuse, and tells Gary that if his father even touches him again to come to them, a statement representing the very kind of offer which Dan has warned him previously can only lead to problems.
Indeed, the way writer Moore and director Gonzalez have structured this narrative, we know almost from the first frame of the work that there ultimately will be a showdown between the farm workers and their irritable neighbor. A trip to the local bar makes it clear that there are tensions between the town folk. Bar keeper Trapper (Diane Conway) keeps a rifle beyond the bar to take care of any fights that might break out.
Evidently, however, Dan and Mike have made at least temporary friends with the others who inhabit the bar by buying rounds of free drinks and offering up their friendly and upbeat personalities. But the first scene in this bar still remains tense when Antonelli enters to begin drinking in earnest alone at the bar, leering at the two friends throughout his obvious determination to become inebriated. Don moves to the jukebox to put on what is evidently his favorite song, Will William’s “What Love Can Do,” a gender free song that seems just as appropriate for gay men as the heterosexual country western audience for which it was probably written*:
You love me, I love you
What more is love to do?
Kiss me and hold me close
Let’s see what we can do.
So give your heart to me
I promise you I’ll be true
I’ll give my heart to you
Let’s see what love can do.
Gonzalez’s camera focuses, for the first time, on the Antonelli farm as Jim attempts to return home. His wife and the children’s stepmother, Terri (Dolores Dwyer), obviously herself a common victim of her husband’s abuse, has already locked the door, with Jim calling out for Randy (Aaron Denney), his eldest son, to open up. They too refuse, cautiously peering out a backroom window to observe his whereabouts.
The confrontation continues with Jim ultimately attempting to break his way into their small, prefabricated house. It appears that Randy undoes the lock, as both boys run to the barn to seek protection, Randy grabbing up a rifle. As Antonelli moves in to beat his wife, she hits him over the head with a bottle, knocking him out, while Gary runs to the farm workers place next door, calling out their names but unable to find them.
Perhaps the only major flaw in this movie’s
logic is that the very next morning Gary escapes his family farm—despite his father’s
quite emphatic warning that he must never again communicate with their
neighbors—to hang out with his young working friends. At first, he says nothing
about the recent incidents on his farm, but he gradually does reveal that
Once more, the audience seems to be more savvy about what is in store with regard what superficially appears as a pedophilic encounter than are the characters. But then one commentator seems to argue that they are not even fully cognizant of their own sexual predilections.
Further, while Mike momentarily contemplates a confrontation with Antonelli, Don again admonishes him, insisting that what happens in their neighbor’s lives is not something in which they should interfere.
This time Mike attempts to explain just what Gary is experiencing. In a long and quite emotionally stirring scene which reveals that as a child he too had been the subject of abuse, he expounds that it is not simply a temporary moment of suffering for the boy but something which he will have to suffer for the rest of his life. Sitting near the ocean, Mike angrily faces off with his friend:
Earlier in the film, Mike has shared with Dan his desire to get away from the farm and to move on to Los Angeles. A spat between the two ensues, with Dan suggesting that we might want to move on with Mike as soon as he contract with the farm owner expires within a couple of months and Mike allowing that he would stay for while if that would happen. In short, they seemed to have made a kind of commitment a more permanent relationship than what Mike has seemingly been running away from for much of his life.
Dan, now alone, sits in the hollow of a tree branch playing his favorite song on his harmonica and is suddenly poked from behind by Gary, who joins him on another branch in the tree.
In the world in which he lives, Gary can only hope to be consoled by those who stay behind in an expression of permanence that demands a repression of sudden judgment and change, while Mike can only wish that through a swift reversal of that behavior his lover will impulsively act to join him. It is a standoff as intense as any in the old west.
Los Angeles, November 12, 2020
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (November 2020).