Thursday, November 26, 2020

P. J. Castellaneta | Relax...It's Just Sex

an educational movie

by Douglas Messerli

P. J. Castellaneta (screenwriter and director) Relax...It’s Just Sex / 1998

If critics are to be believed (don’t count on me for an answer) my third visit to P. J. Castellaneta’s 1998 LGBTQ film should have been disastrous. As San Francisco Weekly reviewer Michael Fox wrote in 1999, the year of the film’s general release, “The shelf life should be equally short; diverting while it lasts, I can't imagine anyone outside of L.A. watching this movie again even three years from now.” Since I first saw this movie that year, another time when we bought the DVD a few years alter, and just yesterday—22 years from my original viewing—just to remind myself of details for writing this review, I should apparently have retained none of the enthusiasm that I still feel for it. But then I live in Los Angeles, and perhaps share some of the positivism of this work’s figures who attempt to hide that feeling with a veneer of chipper cynicism.

      Moreover, I have hardly ever watched a movie for what city it was filmed in—except perhaps for Vertigo wherein Alfred Hitchcock reveals shallow lies cleverly spun out in the town of beautiful streets and hills. But then I have never paid much attention to San Francisco critics either. Besides, another San Francisco critic, Edward Guthmann, writing in the SFGate, criticized Castellaneta’s movie for being “too talky.”

     But then he wasn’t the only one who faulted the film for relying too much on Castellaneta’s skill with dialogue: David Collins’ basically positive review arguesThe story is structured around issues and not characters or events in their lives. There’s religion, bashing and bisexuality. There’s an HIV/AIDS debate over dinner that’s so heavy handed that even Castellaneta’s characters comment that it killed all the fun.”

      It’s not that I disagree with the fact that this film is filled with ideas often expressed in monologues and conversations between the work’s characters; but it is that, in particular, which makes this film for me so very exceptional.

      Instead of yet another trek through childhood angst, young male or female confusion that leads to falling in love with the nearest same-sex person, or a perverse tale of denial and sometimes painful punishment of another who finally is revealed to be the object of the torturer’s affection— everyone in this multi-character comedic drama is an adult, having long ago established his or her sexual inclinations who have bonded together in a large family-like structure for support and just as often constructive criticism.

     True, the very idea of regular dinner parties being celebrated in the home of Tara Ricotto (Jennifer Tilly) —a straight girl, former “fag-hag,” who justifiably hates to be described in that manner—attended by single, gay boy Vincey Sauris (Mitchell Anderson); the lipstick lesbians, the first black and the other a true WASP who speaks with a affected British accent, who have recently broken up, Sarina (Cynda Williams) and Megan (Serena Scott Thomas); the butch lesbian Robin (Lori Petty) with whom Sarina is now involved; Javi, a handsome gay man who has just discovered he’s HIV-positive (Eddie Garcia); Buzz (T. C. Carson), a gay black artist who Vincey has brought to the party on his first date and who soon after moves in with Javi; two devout Christian gym boys who are perfectly-matched mindless lovers, Diego (Chris Cleveland) and Dwight (Gibbs Tolsdorf); and Gus (Timothy Paul Perez), Tara’s lover and Javi’s brother who feels, rightfully, completely out of the loop is, to put it lightly, a totally artificial set-up.   

      If this setup sounds like the making of a really deliciously devious soap-opera you should stop watching this film immediately. If you suspect that this rainbow splash of LGBTQ figures is a purposeful attempt to bring out a range of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and just queer issues that these various individuals bring up around the table and elsewhere, advance to GO and finish the movie.

      Castellaneta’s film is, after all, as the first short comic video segment calls itself “An Educational Movie,” a motion picture that openly discusses a wide range of important concerns that are all truly worth exploring on film that move far beyond the typical concerns of all too many LGBT flicks which I might summarize as focusing on a version of “hide and seek,” consisting of characters who from the beginning of the industry attempted to deflect their true sexual identities by pretending to be others (often in drag, male or female) and refusing to accept their sexual confusion (by pretense or denial) or seeking out solutions to their queer feelings by searching for and sometimes even finding before the last frame of the film a suitable companion.

       None of these characters are hiding and even if all are seeking, they are just as interested in exploring their own and others’ problems in finding fulfilling relationships in a the much larger context of the social and cultural issues at large. If the comedian Joan Rivers had ever been serious about her opening line, “Can we talk?” she might have wanted to join this queer family and discover what being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or whatever else is really all about instead being a mere sexual appellation.

      Finally, in the characters’ searches for answers to their unanswerable questions they do help to educate any normative sexual member of the movie’s audience. As an educator, myself, I guess I enjoy an intelligent film that seeks out issues instead of holding up stick-figures who mostly attempt to avoid them.    

      Many of these “educational” issues are understandably comic in tone. Vincey’s first serious question which he poses to other gays, lesbians, and straight guys and women—Do you swallow or not? referring to semen or vaginal fluids—may not seem like a very profound issue, but in an era of AIDS it is a perfectly credible one. The other concerns he voices have to do with the problems that perfectly good-looking but not incredibly beautiful gay men have in finding someone who wants more than a one-night stand. As he puts it, he’s “tired of kissing strangers.” Can a sexually active gay man find happiness without a permanent relationship? And for that matter, as the question is restated later by Buzz, do gay men and lesbians need to be defined in their relationships by the patterns of normative society? Even before marriage was an option, these men and women are asking questions that LGBTQ men and women and those in-between continue to ask. Does a relationship have to be permanent to have significance in a one’s life?

       Why after nine long years of a deep relationship has sex become less satisfactory in their relationship, is a question Megan asks, just as her partner Serena wonders how a self-designated lesbian like Megan—whose even own mother rather perversely prefers she remain lesbian— suddenly find herself in a heterosexual love affair? How does bisexuality effect ones own sexual identity, let alone friends and family who have come to perceive you as a woman attracted only to her own sex?

       Suddenly Serena is also faced, like Vincey, is the possibility of living alone, fearing it but perhaps also wanting to explore what those changes might mean for her life.

       For Robin, who looks more like a young boy than the sensual “lip-stick” lesbians Serena and Megan, the question is whether Serena, whom she has long loved in secret, might be interested in breaking the stereotype of lesbian definitions and find sexual fulfillment with her? And when she actually does find herself in a deep sexual relationship with Serena, is she simply a temporary or ancillary figure in her new lover’s life? Why is Serena resistant to their moving in together? Might she still be harboring love for her past lover? Is Robin allowing herself to be merely a stop-gap for Serena’s attempt of self-healing?

       Javi, faced with the specter of AIDS—who despite his compulsive complaints of minor symptoms, is still in good health—is consumed unsurprisingly by fear. When the inevitable does begin to happen, how should he react? Will his friends merely pity him? Will he suffer? Is suicide an option?

       Or, as Brad argues—throwing a wrench into the whole range of standard thinking about HIV, AIDS, and sickness in general—do these conditions and illnesses truly exist or are they simply  another way that the medical community has of designating something they cannot truly comprehend as a sickness which helps, yet again, to falsely define and demean gay men? As gays of the past were psychologically or mentally sick so now they are labeled as physically sick, dangerous beings who might possibly infect the whole of society. 

       Are the chemical cocktails that scientists have concocted in order to help slow or diminish the “disease” more dangerous that having AIDS itself? And, obviously, when Javi and Brad become lovers, these questions become those of Javi as well. Moreover, is Brad really right in his assumptions? As well read as he is, how can he pretend to be more knowledgeable than the whole medical community? Is Javi really being well-served by Brad’s questions or even by his over-whelming love?

       If some of these issues are interlinked with jocular quips or, as what one critic complained were endless self-referential references to other films—something which one might well expect from Castellaneta who worked for years as a librarian in Warner Brothers script department—so be it. For me they demonstrate both the awareness of these characters of the popular concerns of their society and their deeper readings of figures such as Susan Sontag (Illness as Metaphor) and queer theorists, as well as helping to create an alternating pattern of the lighter and darker issues the film tackles.

     Moreover, the comic one-liners almost serve the characters as being the very relaxant they need to face the far more difficult issues the movie brings up regarding outsiders’ interference of their otherwise “normal” sexual lives, the way queers have survived for centuries when faced by societal rejections. This becomes particularly poignant when leaving a restaurant gathering of their “family” Vincey and Javi are attacked by gay bangers, Javi being held back while Vincey is threatened with a beer bottle about to be shoved up his ass, along with wooden clubs held in temporary abeyance before being cracked across his body. Previously in the film the “family” have discussed such groups killing local gay men without the police even bothering to follow up.

       Hearing Vincey and Javi’s shouts, the others run to their rescue, scaring away most of the hoodlums except one scrawny boy who, now that the situation been reversed, is utterly terrified, particularly when Vincey grabs a knife and puts it to his throat with the intention of raping him in an only slightly more humane way (with a real penis instead of a broken bottle) than that with which he had been threatened a few moments earlier. Although his friends demand that Vincey release the boy he acts out his revenge, temporarily maddened by a mix of alcohol, adrenalin, and horniness, disgusting and saddening his unintentionally voyeuristic companions.

       At this moment Castellaneta’s film radically shifts in tone as it moves forward to consider the even darker consequences of the issues previously queried. In a marvelously healing scene immediately after this shocking event, the director follows each of the couples back to their homes as they carry their sorrow with them, yet relieving it in their various manifestations of sexual intercourse—a graphic but startlingly beautiful representation of both LGBTQ and heterosexual love. This scene, played out with numerous cuts from couple to couple set to an intense musical score, is a masterpiece of cinematic editing, and again reveals the careful balancing act between the comic, the loving, and the tragic elements this director’s characters face. That he was was able to achieve despite an almost minuscule budget is a testament to his talent.

      Ironically, however, Vincey’s own loving community suddenly turns upon him, the often self-righteous Christian couple Dwight and Diego even suggesting that he turn himself into the police, which Brad and Javi mockingly argue is all to often what happens to LGBTQ people, who are only too ready to bear on the guilt for the hostility of others to their sexual behavior. Frustrated that the numerous discussions of his friends are focused almost entirely upon him, our “hero” drops of out sight, although still remaining a topic of conversation among the others.

       This radical change, however, allows the focus to briefly, but importantly, shift to the other central figure, Tara. Her boyfriend Gus, who has up until this time been merely a kind of sperm-producing hanger on, suddenly begins to question his own life and his role in Tara’s acquired family. Long desiring to get away to explore the world, Gus buys a ticket to travel to the mid-East in search of a life of his own, realizing that the sometimes bizarre, confusing, but often entertaining whirlwind of questions surrounding him have left him in the role of being a voyeur to his own life. He has no existence except in the role of possibly spawning a child. And in some sense, this basically simple-minded heterosexual angst is suddenly made as complex if not more so than those nursed by the friends for whom Tara plays mother.

       Tara, finally, has to ask her own questions. Why is she, given that she has long become a mother to so many friends, so desperate to have her own child? Is motherhood the end-all of her identity? When she finally discovers herself pregnant, she must ask just how a new baby will fit into her multitude of roles in which she has previously defined herself.

       After months of silence, Tara and the others uncover Vincey’s whereabouts when they discover, through a local television broadcast, that he has become—what else given the obsessions of this work—an independent commentator (today he would have a successful blog) about the LGBTQ community, so popular that he is about to fly to New York where a backer is interested in extending its audience.

        Tara has determined her pregnancy secret from Gus, allowing him to explore his own adventures, as well as refusing to tell her own parents. Only  the “family” from whom she has long been unable to hide any secret, are aware of the significant changes in her life.

        The baby born prematurely, alas, dies soon after birth. The group has reached Gus, who comes to her side in the hospital at the last moment. And as they begin the toss the remains of the cremated baby into the sea, the winds blowing the ashes back into their faces, Vincey joins them, having left New York early to be with them.

        Throughout Castellaneta’s disquisitions about these folks’ sexual lives, death has been one of the major underlying themes. As Vincey’s voice relates:

“When those ashes fell back into our faces I was certain that it meant something...but just what I still haven’t figured out. ,,,And so our lives go on, although I know they can never be the same. Javi still has HIV. I still...did what I did. And Tara and Gus still lost the baby. Just thinking about that baby’s life and how it never even got started, the strangest thought occurred to me. I thought about how that life began with sex and how sex sometimes leads to life, sometimes to death, sometimes to love. And then I thought about my friends. ‘Cause every day people are born and people die and in between we find a lot of ridiculous and important things to keep us busy and sex, although not necessarily in that order. And those that can find both in the same person should count themselves as among the lucky ones. As for the others, like me...hey I’ve got plenty of love. I’ve got my friends. And you know what: that is something to cherish in this amazingly brutal, crazy, but truly wonderful world.

     If these ideas are not quite profound, and smack a little of the sentimentalism of a Hallmark card, they are, nonetheless, also a fairly emotionally moving statement summarizing the shifting series of questions this film’s characters have been pondering. In the end, we realize that the reason some people get so upset about what they see as challenges to their “normal” sexual behavior is that sex really does matter. It is anything but “relaxing,” is everything but what the young hero of Simon Shore’s Get Real—released interestingly in the very same year as Castellaneta’s work—“just sex.” Sex and one’s orientation to it represents everything from birth, survival, and death. Why shouldn’t we want, as this movie insists upon doing, to talk about it end-lessly...absurdly...sentimentally... and profoundly if that’s possible. This film comes about as close to profound as you can come without sucking the silly joy out of it.

      Our talented young director, as if just a little embarrassed by the musings of his hero, follows it up almost immediately with a clever jazz adaption by the Miles Brothers of the truly silly song “Funiculi, Funicula,” lyrics by Edward Oxenford, as the credits roll:


                                   Some think the world is made for fun and frolic,

                                   And so do I! And so do I!

                                   Some think it well to be all melancholic,

                                   To pine and sigh; to pine and sigh;

                                   But I, I love to spend my time in singing,

                                   Some joyous song, some joyous song,

                                   To set the air with music bravely ringing

                                   Is far from wrong! Is far from wrong!

                                   Harken, harken, music sounds a-far!

                                   Harken, harken, with a happy heart!

                                   Funiculì, funiculà, funiculì, funiculà!

                                   Joy is everywhere, funiculì, funiculà!

Los Angeles, Thanksgiving Day 2020

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (November 2020).

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