Friday, November 6, 2020

Roger Stigliano | Fun Down There

giggling and gurgling for joy

by Douglas Messerli

Roger Stigliano and Michael Waite (screenplay), Roger Stigliano (director) Fun Down There / 1988, Germany 1989, USA 1990

Roger Stigliano’s 1989 film Fun Down There is one of the least ostentatious gay films I’ve ever encountered. There is only a bit of nudity, and only one sexual coupling represented. Yet in its simplicity, this small film tells us more about a young man’s introduction to the intense world of  New York City gay life than most movies hoping to wise us up by drawing us into the bars, back rooms, docks, and alleyways of that city.

     Strangely, it reminds me a great deal of my own experiences upon arriving in New York, although I was not quite the total innocent and virgin that the “hero” of this work, Buddy (Michael Waite) is.  But like Buddy, I was greeted into the gay community with mostly friendly words, open arms—and beds.

     I didn’t meet someone, as Buddy does his first night in town, on the streets, who after a quick jerk off—so absolutely pleasurable for Buddy, it being his first time having any kind of sex with a man, that he giggles and gurgles in joy for so long that his new friend, Joseph (Nickolas B. Nagourney), is fearful that something might be wrong—who might become a seemingly permanent friend; but much like Buddy, I was introduced to a cheap hotel (in my case, the infamous Sloane House YMCA; Buddy’s noisy room is even more modest), and just as our hero does, I quickly found temporary employment.

       Actually Buddy, who meets his future employer, an East Side restaurant owner, at a party to which Joe invites him. Apartment parties are always difficult to portray in movies, as individual behavior becomes public and group dances within small confines always seems a bit dangerous and clumsy. Here, at least, instead of an intense room of boys on the make, Buddy encounters a mixed group of employees from Greta’s (Gretchen Sommerville) bar and restaurant. 

     After a rather marvelous vocal rendition by Greta’s bartender of a song in both French and English by Edith Piaf, Buddy encounters a friendly girl, Sandy (Yvonne Fisher) —a waiter in Greta’s restaurant—who takes a liking to him and suggests he might be able to get a job there.

      In the kitchen he meets Angelo (Martin Goldin), who at this point is still a minor character who keeps trying to tell the same story over and over, and the restaurant’s cook who Greta describes as the funniest man alive. Unfortunately, the cook’s campy renditions of Bette Davis playing Blanche DuBois and other gay favorites is truly awful. And any spell he may have woven for his fellow restaurant workers is broken when Buddy blankly enquires, “Who’s Blanche DuBois?”

      Buddy, we immediately recognize—particularly after the picture’s early scenes filmed in a truly rural suburban house with the actor’s real mother and father, I presume, playing his cinematic parents—that Buddy is a true country rube, in the best sense of that word. Having been born and raised in upstate New York where he worked as a kid in Pizza Hut and as a young man on a dairy farm, Buddy (whose real name is Edward Fields, but has been called simply Buddy at home apparently since he was a kid) is so refreshing to these slightly more savvy New Yorkers because of his true lack of any pretension.

       In some repects Buddy is another version of Jerzy Kosiński’s Chance (Chauncey Gardiner) in Being There, a kind of Christ figure beloved by all who meet him because of his simple belief in the goodness of the world.

       Fortunately, the figures he meets—almost all transplants from somewhere else with some pleasant memories of their childhoods—do not interpret his open-eyed wonderment with any cynical misrepresentations. They all seem to recognize and love him for being the real thing, a boy who simply has arrived in their midst inherently knowing that it just had to be more “fun down there,” meaning literally from he stood down state in New York City, despite our recognition of the pun on the sexual parts he so enjoys having other boys touching and pulling. 

       When offered a job as a dish washer (washing dishes the old-fashioned way with no fancy restaurant dish-washing apparatus), Buddy is delighted. He now has a place to sleep, new friends, and a low-paying job to keep him from going hungry. One almost expects him to sing out “Who could want anything more?”

     After a rather marvelous vocal rendition by Greta’s bartender of a song in both French and English by Edith Piaf, Buddy encounters a friendly girl, Sandy (Yvonne Fisher) —a waiter in Greta’s restaurant—who takes a liking to him and suggests he might be able to get a job there.

      In the kitchen he meets Angelo (Martin Goldin), who at this point is still a minor character who keeps trying to tell the same story over and over, and the restaurant’s cook who Greta describes as the funniest man alive. Unfortunately, the cook’s campy renditions of Bette Davis playing Blanche DuBois and other gay favorites is truly awful. And any spell he may have woven for his fellow restaurant workers is broken when Buddy blankly enquires, “Who’s Blanche DuBois?”

       Buddy, we immediately recognize—particularly after the picture’s early scenes filmed in a truly rural suburban house with the actor’s real mother and father, I presume, playing his cinematic parents—that Buddy is a true country rube, in the best sense of that word. Having been born and raised in upstate New York where he worked as a kid in Pizza Hut and as a young man on a dairy farm, Buddy (whose real name is Edward Fields, but has been called simply Buddy at home apparently since he was a kid) is so refreshing to these slightly more savvy New Yorkers because of his true lack of any pretension.

       In some repects Buddy is another version of Jerzy Kosiński’s Chance (Chauncey Gardiner) in Being There, a kind of Christ figure beloved by all who meet him because of his simple belief in the goodness of the world.

       Fortunately, the figures he meets—almost all transplants from somewhere else with some pleasant memories of their childhoods—do not interpret his open-eyed wonderment with any cynical misrepresentations. They all seem to recognize and love him for being the real thing, a boy who simply has arrived in their midst inherently knowing that it just had to be more “fun down there,” meaning literally from he stood down state in New York City, despite our recognition of the pun on the sexual parts he so enjoys having other boys touching and pulling. 

       If Joe can hardly wait to get his hands on his new friend’s penis, Angelo shows him how to enjoy the slower process of sexual titillation. Both advise him carefully on what kind of sex, in the worst days of AIDS, is permissible and what is verboten. But their conversations are not expressed as statements of fearful warning as much as out of a gently expressed sense of caution.

       Indeed, one of the great joys of this film is just how sexually and socially caring  Buddy’s New York friends are. Joseph even invites him to move out of the hotel room and into his own apartment. Yet, he is not at all upset by the news of Buddy’s sexual involvement with Angelo. As Amanda Jane Stern observes in Film Inquiry:

“Angelo is immediately taken with Buddy and begins to pursue him sexually. Many other films, especially ones with a heteronormative story-line, would use this as dramatic tension, creating a love triangle between Buddy, Angelo, and Joseph, yet Fun Down There does not do this. Instead, it allows Buddy to explore his attraction to both Angelo and Joseph without it causing tension. Joseph even urges him to go out with Angelo and see how it goes, knowing at the end of the day, Buddy will come home to him. It’s still radical to depict a couple who is non-monogamous on screen, and to do it so calmly is unheard of.”

      Anyone, and obviously there are numerous such voices, who describes New Yorkers as rude and unfriendly must be a tourist. If Buddy is an example (and my own experience upon arriving there in 1969 was similar) the gay community of New York was, if it is not still, completely welcoming, friendly, and encouraging. After all, most young New Yorkers have come there from their own not-so-friendly hometowns to experience the “fun down there” that the LGBTQ community offers.

     Even if Buddy were to be seen as an exception, it proves my point. In 1989, at least, this was still a society that recognized the innocent pleasures of sex as a blessing.

     We can only imagine that if we tuned back into his life a few months or years later we might hardly recognize him. But that is the utter charm of this Teddy award-winning motion picture,* it is not the story about a life but about an episode recounting a gay man’s coming into being, a coming out for a boy so honest to himself that he never truly knew that there was a “closet” in which he might hide.

     And in that respect this is a gay movie that every young person suffering not only homophobic bullying but who fears what participating in LGBTQ sex might mean for own lives or have limited notions of what that world embraces should be required to watch Fun Down There along with all those dreary high school cinematic manuals expressing the facts and dangers of sex. If Buddy is right, it’s fun to find a place where you can share experiences with new friends along with the open joy of sex; in fact, it might even tickle the hell of you as it does for our dear friend. 

*This prize is given annually by a jury of the Berlin International Film Festival for the best LGBT film.

Los Angeles, November 6, 2020

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

 

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