Saturday, September 25, 2021

Gregory Cooke | $30 || Cameron Thrower | Pretty Boy

grand deception

by Douglas Messerli

Christopher Langdon (screenplay), Gregory Cooke (Director) $30 / 1999

$30 begins in a dark car with neon lights reflecting upon it, as if we were about to engage with a contemporary noir. A father (Greg Itzin) and his son Scott (Erik MacArthur) sit in the front seat, the boy—seemingly having lost his ability even to speak—appears to be terrified, his dad waking him back into reality. “Scotty, you haven’t heard a word I said. ...Just a second ago you looked like NASA sent your brain to Mars.”

     The boy stutteringly demurs.

     “Quit looking so nervous. It’s not that big a deal,” pronounces his father, asking him if he still has the $30, and telling him he’ll be back in an hour to pick him up. He starts up the car and drives off.

     For a moment he have no clue about what mission his father has sent him on for that apparently terrifying sixty minute adventure. He climbs the stairs of some unrecognizable structure and stands for a moment outside a door, attempting to regain his composure, whispering to himself “Don’t be such a pussy Scott.” He knocks.

     When he opens the door, we hear a voice “Be out in a moment,” a woman named Emily soon after appearing, switching off the television set and sitting on edge of the bed. Suddenly we are able to put the entire scene in context. The location is a motel room, and she (Sara Gilbert), evidently is a prostitute not so many years older than he is, but looking far more agèd and bedraggled, as if her profession has already worn her out. They talk for a moment, the preliminaries established, including the payment, his name, and his request that she turn off the lights. She has a couple of house rules: “There’s no biting unless it’s gentle; and there’s no really weird stuff; no anal, no rough stuff, no hitting, and..oh you can cum on my face but just watch my eyes ‘cause I just got new contacts.” So much for the illusion of romance.

       We already suspect the results. He cannot get an erection, and after a few moments of attempted sexual contact, the boy suddenly leaps up, running into the bathroom to wash his sickened face. She suggests they simply take a break and try again later, comforting him with the words that any experienced woman might: It happens to lots of men, especially the first time.

     A few minutes later they are standing downstairs by the motel pool, Scott drinking a soda, and explaining the circumstances, that his father has made the appointment as a birthday gift. Even the prostitute is a bit startled: “The guy who arranged this is your Dad? God, it’s kind of...pushy.” “No shit,” the kid agrees.

     Eventually returning to the room, Scott suddenly comes alive. “You must think I’m a total retard. See, the reason I couldn’t do it in there is I really, really like this girl, and it’s not you, it’s me.”

      The aware viewer almost anticipates her next question: “What’s his name?”

      The boy is taken aback. “Who?”

      “The guy you like at school.”

     After a long and awkward pause, he blurts out, “Fred. His name’s Fred,” still amazed and a bit troubled by her perspicacity.

      She pretends to have a special "vibes" about gay men, always being able to tell, and Scott is still just innocent enough to believe her. But in that moment alone the two hit it off and spend the rest of the hour they have left sharing conversation with one another.

     By the time he hears his father’s car returning, they have become friends of sorts. And when the “pushy father” approaches the room, the hooker begins to moan, finally Scott joining in, giving proof to the fact that they are in the midst of sensational sex. Before he leaves, she gives him a small cupcake as a birthday treat.

      When the father honks the horn, Scott leaving, Michele (which we discover is her real name) leans over the balcony, the father calling out, “Heh, how was my boy.”

       “Oh, he’s not a boy mister. He’s a man.”

       As the final few scenes shows Scott and Fred dancing on the beach at sunset, the car pulls off with the two men in it. Together Michele and Scott have pulled off a “grand deception”—grand not just because they have fooled the elder, but because Scott has fooled himself that he can keep the fact of his sexuality hidden.

       Yet, we know some day soon he will have to suffer the truth, no matter where that lands him. The writer of this work, Christopher Landon—the son of the TV Bonanza star Michael Langdon— who, when he finally revealed that he was gay, realized that given the continued homophobia in Hollywood and the film industry, he was putting his career in jeopardy. As with so many figures straight and gay who portrayed or wrote about gay characters, his then budding writing and directorial efforts temporarily suffered. As he notes,  "I was the flavor of the month, and then I was quickly dismissed. I reached a point in my career when I couldn't get a meeting anywhere." But he later came back to write and direct a series of successful commercial blockbusters, including Disturbia (2007) and the found-footage films, two through four of Paranormal Activity.

       The movie on the TV when Scott enters the motel room was a clip from Little House on the Prairie, one of whose leads was Melissa Gilbert, the sister of Sara, director and actor Gregory Cooke’s choice to play the prostitute in this short film.

Los Angeles, January 22, 2001

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (January 2001).

Cameron Thrower (screenplay and director) Pretty Boy / 2015

The price of sending a son off to a prostitute to transform him from a young budding homosexual into a strapping straight man has gone up enormously from 1999. The $30 of Gregory Cooke’s visit now runs to several hundred dollars, and if the son and the whore get hungry it costs even more; and in this case the son—evidently of a wealthy father who has sent him off to a private school where the family lives at quite a distance from cheap motel where he, Sean James Collins (Nick Eversman) has been hooked up with the prostitute Katie Bloom (Rebekah Tripp)—is willing to pay even more if the hooker is simply willing to let him stay on without having sex.

     If Katie seems tough and even mean in the first, she like the proverbial whore, has a heart of platinum, and when the 18-year old kid gets an opportunity to tell his story, revealing the bullying he’s been receiving at school and the verbal abuse of his well-intentioned but homophobic father (Jon Briddell), she’s willing to punish him by forcing him to sleep in the car while she and Sean sit in the bedroom celebrating his birthday with a pumpkin muffin and a long—for the film’s sake perhaps a little too long—chat about their lives.

      While we learn in Cameron Thrower's 2015 film Pretty Boy that poor “pretty boy” Sean suffers the slings and arrows of peer mockery and the rejection—temporary we can imagine—of his father, Katie has it even harder, forced to prostitute herself to pay for her son’s upbringing by a mother who won’t even talk to her, coincidentally also on the child’s birthday, on the phone. Even shopping at the local stop-and-shop mart becomes an obstacle course of disapproving women who themselves look like rejects of whatever urban society has clawed its way to status in this suburban Los Angeles outpost.

      In order to survive Katie has created a tough veneer of slick-backed hair, heavy lipstick, high-heeled shoes and, even more importantly, an ever-ready outsider irony she delivers like she were a campion dart player. Describing the boy’s father, Katie observes: “It must be exhausting trying to fix something that's not broken.” When she visits the father sheltered four hours in his automobile to demand the money for dinner treats, he pleading with her to help his son become a heterosexual, she snaps back: “What am I? Some fairy fucking God-hooker?”—a line that could as well have been spoken by a drag queen, dredged up from the depths of all outsider and queer sardonicism.

      At the supermarket stop she asks him to pick out a muffin, Sean choosing pumpkin, and she responding, “Do you really like pumpkin?” Sean answers, “Yes, I’ve always loved pumpkin.” If the script uses this occasion as an instance of good-will mentoring—Katie insisting that if he likes pumpkin he should never allow anyone to dissuade him or demand that he like something else—a problem from which this 31 minute short suffers overall, we also recognize that the boy needs a mother, his own having died when he was young. And there are plenty of nicely honest moments that writer/director Thrower has tossed into his script that do nothing but reveal character and help his work establish credibility.

       For example, when Sean admits that his fellow students call him names, the one they most often use, “Pretty boy,” he admits doesn’t really bother him, since he mother called him the same name. At another moment when Katie asks him the inevitable question every gay boy and man is asked again and again throughout his life (and lesbians probably as well), “When did you know you were gay?”—the equivalent of asking a prostitute how or why she became a hooker—the kid answers what so many other gay men have, “I think I’ve always known,” equivocating in way that makes perfect sense to me, “I just didn’t know what it was” [italics mine]. For the first time in my life I realized, although I’ve declared that I was so innocent I didn’t realize that I was truly gay until college, I now believe that the same was true for me. I always knew, but wasn’t able to describe it—that thing that makes you feel separated from all those around, that makes you feel so very lonely and apart from world you daily inhabit. This kid, as Katie tells the father, is lost.

      Fortunately, she helps him focus on and find a way home, in part by insisting that he kiss her—the father peeping into the room window at the very moment, smiling approvingly—as he imagines the face of a boy to whom he is attracted. And by helping him to realize just how brave he has been all his life for dodging and escaping the bullying world in which he is forced to live while returning to that battleground each morning. If it doesn’t get said outright in this film, it’s what it says in tone and manner.

       By film’s end the boy is ready to demand his father recognize him for who he is. But Katie, whose mother won’t even let her wish happy birthday to her son, has no other recourse but the tears she sheds to help her move back to her battlefield of motel beds. She refuses her equivalent of the inflated $30 dollar’s on the boys pillow as he sleeps.

Los Angeles, September 25, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2021).



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