by Douglas Messerli
Throughout most of history LGBTQ forms of love and sexual activity seemed to the majority of the population exceptional and abnormal to the degree that it became something almost incomprehensible and accordingly dangerous and magical, an inexplicable form of love that one might associate with witchery and the devil, becoming ultimately something evil and illegal to be destroyed and wiped out, creating what today we describe as homophobia and its most common manifestation of the threats of the gay bullies and bashers.
This relationship with magic, in fact, continues throughout gay and heterosexual literature and is retained in so many numerous popular songs of inexplicable or unexplainable love that sometimes love itself—both heterosexual and homosexual—comes to be aligned with magic and witchcraft. What else do dozens of songs such as “That Old Devil Moon,” “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” and “It’s Witchcraft” suggest?
LGBTQ cinema has had a great many films that involved witchcraft and magic, as early as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray we see an artist so spellbound by his obviously beautiful narcissist subject that he argues the process of painting itself felt like magic, as if something had possessed his brush. And of course the painting is magical, allowing the true variations of Gray’s evil life to be hidden from his living human visage.
And as in Wilde’s work the mirror image of the young student of Prague (in Paul Wegener and Stellan Rye’s film of that name) held his double, a trope stolen from Edgar Allen Poe’s story “William Wilson.”
The secret seed of Sidney Drew’s A Florida Enchantment (1914) could change one’s sexuality to lesbian, bisexuality, or transgender. And the Frankenstein family’s monstrous creations and the various Dracula myths were represented as obvious examples of toying with magic and the occult that provided evidence of a love that lay not only outside of normal human culture but outside of life itself?
The uninvited ghosts of lesbian love were conjured up in Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944) and a whole household of crazy queers were caught boiling up poison potions, murdering, and torturing others in Arsenic and Old Lace of the same year, enough to make the youngest born, sibling Mortimer wonder about his ability to offer a normal sexual relationship to his new bride, marriage itself having been previously constitutionally against his principles.
And it is this affiliation with LGBTQ sexuality to magic or witchery that led me to argue that the seeming heterosexual comedy Book, Bell, and Candle (1958) is actually a highly coded LGBTQ story, about, once again, an entire family outsiders, secretly witches, meaning that they are involved in a queer world with its own nightclubs, underground network of friends, magic talismans and potions, forcing one to do all sorts of things you might never imagined, including falling suddenly in love.
Is it any wonder that even in the 21st century we still find LGBTQ films that employ just such tropes?
the ghost of porn mags past
Adam Baran (screenwriter and director) Jackpot / 2012 (9.38 minutes)
Adam Baran’s Jackpot is not outwardly about magic or potions which might transfer a straight boy to become a potential gay lover. Besides, the frustrated young man of this story Jack Hoffman
(Ethan Novarro) is only 14 and, accordingly, too young in most US states to even have sex with another human being. But Jack can’t even find any good “wanking” material. Like me in the mid-1950s he has only pictures cut out of newspapers and the Sears Roebuck Catalogue of men in pajamas or underwear to create a jack-off fantasy. I even found a cute bare-chested volunteer for The Peace Corps in my family’s set of encyclopedias that helped meet my needs.
The film is set in 1994, when there were plenty of juicy gay magazines available, but not if your parents watched your every move and regularly checked out the contents of your bedroom, as we can only suspect is Jack’s situation.
He also lives, quite apparently, in a small town where if he were to enter a store selling any kind of gay porno he’d be noticed. In fact, at the moment this film begins, he is even afraid of leaving the house for fear that he may be beaten up by the town bully, Billy Hook (Ryan DeLuca) and his friends determined to make life impossible for anyone they describe as a “fag.”
Interrupted in his frustrating attempts to masturbate by a phone call, Jack is told by his best friend Sammy (George DeNoto) that he and has friends, while obviously dumpster diving, found a huge stash of porn magazines, which after quickly perusing, they were forced to leave behind, Sammy preventing his friend from burning them.
Suddenly Jack is motivated to leave the house, riding his bicycle as quickly as possible to the designated dumpster, diving in, and finally retrieving the pile of gay magazines. He quickly begins stuffing them into a plastic bag to speed them off to a secret shrine in his bedroom when, quite magically, one of the cover porn artists, Ricky Swayze (Adam Fleming) appears to him in real life, insisting that Jack leave the rest and stuff the magazine in which he appears in six different roles into his back pocket.
But Jack refuses, insisting quite forcibly that he wants “it” all, hungry clearly for having waited so long for just such a treasure.
But before he can even begin stuffing them in the bag, Billy and his gang appear—now realizing that Jack truly is a “fag”—eager to, as he puts it, to make him “die.” Even while Jack is talking to Billy, Swayze appears again, this time as cop, correcting Jack’s lie about intending to burn the material: “You know you going to take this magazine home to jack-off to me!” which, as in so many films where figures attempt to talk to phantoms and real human beings simultaneously (think of Blithe Spirit, 1945 and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, 1947) things quickly grow out of hand.
Swayze tells Jack to “deck him,” but Jack is none to sure that he can “take this guy” as the gay model suggests, and almost immediately goes on the run.
Running even further into the woods, Jack finally trips on a log and falls face forward, exhausted and out of breath. He lifts his head up to the sky only to see Swayze as a cowboy looming over him. “Dead, aren’t I.” “Could be better,” the porn star retorts. “But I’ve seen guys packed into tighter spaces come out on top!”
Jack pulls out the magazine from his hip pocket throws it down and bends down preparing to masturbate, Swayze asking him what he’s doing. “What does it look like I’m doing? If I’m going to die I’m going to least enjoy my last moments on earth.”
But Swayze talks him out of it, arguing “It’s too bad you won’t fight back. Pathetic actually.”
Jack rises, “You think I’m pathetic, what about you? You’re just some loser gay porn star in bunch of cheesy costumes.”
It’s not about me, the porn star reacts. “Gettin’ beaten up doesn’t mean you don’t win. Especially if you get want you want. Meaning me.”
Evidently Baran’s simplistic theme is that you have to take the blows as a young gay boy to get your just desserts. As he wrote about his film, “I really made the film because I loved teen movies and never really saw one for gay kids that both addressed their sexuality in the way that straight movies like Weird Science or American Pie or Superbad did, and let them get what they want. Jack in my film learns that he has to fight back for what he wants, even if it means he has to take a couple of licks. I think that’s a resonant message for gay kids everywhere.”
I can’t say his message is very profound or that I perceive violence as a necessary passage through gay youth. I don’t think it made me any better for having endured a couple of just such beatings. If anything, it forced me to stay at arm’s and mind’s length from my peers through my school years until I escaped to Europe in my senior year. And, unfortunately, one such beating does always satisfy those fearful of that frightening magic you hold in your desire. Surely Swayze won’t get him through the difficult times ahead anymore that the ghostly talking porn stars helped solve the problems of Michael Waters and Scott Favor in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho.
Los Angeles, July 19, 2021
Mark Marchillo (screenwriter, based on a story by him and Matt Marr, and director) The Curse of the Un-Kissable Kid / 2013 (13 minutes)
Marchillo’s message, aimed at even younger kids in The Curse of the Un-Kissable Kid is far more charming and, in the end I believe, helpful in permitting seemingly unloved gay boys come to terms with childhood dilemmas.
It begins with the school bully Ryder (Joseph Haag), on the very last day of school, searching through the men’s room to find and torture the young boy Josh (William Leon). Josh, meanwhile, is hiding out in the women’s bathroom, but even when he finally escapes from his hideout there he still meets with the bully who throws him to the ground, spits on him, and throws dirt and grass on his face.
A meeting with an obviously queer Principal (Drew Droege) does nothing to improve the situation since he is obviously more interested in completely his crossword puzzle than in meting out any fair punishment to the attacker, arguing to Josh that he simply needs to learn to fend for himself, obviously sharing the viewpoint of director Adam Baran.
At home after the event, as Josh hides out in his locked room, we perceive that his father (Brady Matthews) is no better than the school administrator in actually communicating with his son, suggesting that everything is okay even if he doesn’t want to open the door and talk to him and his wife. Every choice for them seems to be based on whatever least troubles their son; so empty are their attempts in communication that while his father speaks, Josh opens his bedroom window and escapes.
But almost immediately Josh spots his nemesis once more, and again is on the run, with Caitlyn screaming after, “I seriously think you’re helpless without me, helpless.”
With no place else to go, Josh slips in the back of a small tent announcing that there is a “gypsy inside.”
In the dark, Josh is suddenly accosted by the gypsy (Lee Meriwether) who declares: “I’ve been waiting for you. Quite a long time.”
“I have to go see my friends,” he insists, to which the gypsy answers, “No, you have no friends.”
We are, of course, getting near to the territory of another great adult children’s tale, The Wizard of Oz, and like the male gypsy in that work, she finds out a great deal about him from simply by riffling through his pockets, pulling out a five-dollar bill, and offering him something that she is certain will work for him, a special potion which she insists will make all of his problems disappear. She hands it to him as he stares at her in vague wonderment, she snapping him back to reality by demanding ten bucks!
Outside the tent again, he opens the elixir and drinks without even reading the label. When he finally reads the fine print he discovers: “Congratulations, after drinking this you will disappear within 24 hours unless you experience true love’s kiss.” A rather astounding demand to suddenly put on a 12 or 13 year old who clearly also has other problems to face. “Good luck with that,” the bottle’s fine print message concludes.
By the next morning while he sitting in a garage with Caitlyn who is apparently attempting to sell encyclopedias, he explains his situation, putting his hand out to reveal that already it has begun to fade. “What am I going to do?”
“Well, I guess you’re just going to have to kiss around a bit.”
Josh is on the run once more. And his whole torso is now beginning to fade in and out. He attempts to rush up to several women, who quickly rebuff his attempted kisses. When he tries to kiss a baby, the mother hurries off with the child in the carriage. Even a dog runs off. When he attempts to pay a young hooker, she grabs the money, shakes her head, and walks away.
Back at the fair, Josh mans a “kissing
booth,” with Caitlyn trying to sell tickets in support of “ugly orphan babies.”
“Maybe you should change your hair,” she suggests, trying also to reassure him, “It will be okay.” Finally, she leans
quickly forward and plants a kiss on his lips. For an instant they both think
maybe...until he looks
Suddenly someone comes up to the booth to buy a ticket. It’s just Clark, who kisses Josh on the lips giving Josh immediate new life, Caitlyn nodding to the camera, “I knew it.”
Looking down to see that his legs have returned, Josh says, “Thanks Clark,” to which the other boy replies, “It’s actually Harry. Caitlyn just doesn’t like it.”
A few second later the boys go into a rousing dance number of “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” and Caitlyn suggests the bully, Ryker, take a drink from the still half-full bottle that Josh bought from the gypsy. Assuming it’s alcohol, he complies.
Los Angeles, July 19, 2021
Otavio Chamorro (screenwriter and director) Vagabunda de Meia Tigela (Floozy Suzy) / 2015 (25 minutes)
Brazilian work begins with an athlete running around the school track alone.
There is, however, one good-looking young boy sitting alone in the stands, a
book in hand, Amor Animal, a work that apparently, so we discover,
contains several recipes for making someone who is not in
The cute boy drinks the potion and comes down to offer another bottle to the runner Angelo, who is afraid that someone might see him with the boy, who obviously is gay, but relents when the kid brings him a bottle of the potion which is believes will help him win the upcoming marathon.
Angelo drinks, almost immediately turning back to the boy whom he finds to be utterly irresistible, going over to him and kissing him on the lips. At that very moment, the boy keels over, evidently dead as he hits the ground.
30 years later, things have quite radically changed at the same school. The gay boy at the center of this part of the film, Jonas John (Peterson Andrade) is far more obviously effeminate and clearly involved in cross-dressing. His hair is dyed pink.
Indeed this scene begins with a woman, Floozy Suzy, wrestling Jonas John on the school yard, winning as she pins him to the ground. Her boyfriend, Romulo, comes to Jonas’ support, pulling his girlfriend off of boy she describes as a fag, unable to comprehend why her boyfriend keeps continues to protect him. Indeed, there does seem to be an inexplicable connection between the two, and it is clear that Jonas in in love with his protector. Evidently Jonas helps Romulo pass his exams by sneaking the answers to him during class exams.
And the boy does seem particularly close to Jonas, checking on his scratches later in the school hall and telling him that Suzy just doesn’t understand that Jonas is special to him. When Suzy again intervenes, Jonas takes to the school library.
The library has seen better days, ruled over by a sassy librarian who seems interested primarily in eating smell and stinky lunches of termite stew and other delicacies, and who hasn’t evidently reshelved a book since the days of the young boy we saw in the first scene Tobias. Jonas is unable to find Animal Love, the book which led Tobias astray.
When a skirmish with Jonas makes her drop her dish of termite stew, the boy is forced to clean it up, but in doing so discover the magic book in a crook between the bottom rows of a self, grabbing it up and making plans, like Tobias before him, to turn Suzy’s boyfriend into his lover at the Halloween school dance.
When Jonas’ nerdy friend Nestor discovers the infamous Amor Animal in his friend’s bag, he is also, quite reluctantly on his part, pulled into helping with Jonas’ schemes by helping him steal Suzy’s cellphone.
Meanwhile, we see the mad wizard of love whipping up his love potions. And the party has already started by the time Nestor delivers up the cellphone.
The plot here thickens, alas, a bit more than the potion has, as Otavio Chamorro’s narrative becomes weighed down by a series of somewhat unnecessary complexities, Jonas calling her friend to tell Suzy that her cellphone has been found in the library, Suzy busy kissing Romulo at the party forced to leave her boyfriend in the hands of her best friend Marileen who quite literally does “replace” Suzy by immediately making out with the fickle Romulo, and adding a touch of horror by having Suzy—dressed up like the devil herself—wandering the darkened library before she meets up with the librarian who invites her to cool down with a coconut drink which knocks the girl out that Jonas can take over Suzy’s body and presumably replace her in Romulo’s loving arms.
By the time he arrives at the party, however, Romulo is so involved with Marileen that he wants nothing to do with Suzy, and Jonas and Suzy is so infuriated that she/he quickly leaves the party to take the antidote that will change him back into himself again.
Only the vial which needs to be smashed to free the spirits which will take him back to himself seems to be unbreakable despite how much Suzy attempts to dance a samba upon it. Nestor and Jonas/Suzy look on in horror as the vial simply refuses to give up its contents.
Finally, Suzy returns to the party furious with course of events, getting drunk, falling down and passing out in the street. Several students gather round her trying to bring her back to life with chants of “whore,” “slut,” and similar adjectives the like of which she has all her life applied to others. But in the process a heavy set boy stomps on the vial, breaking it. Back in the library Jonas wakes up with Nestor at his side and rushes out in an attempt to find out what has become of Suzy.
Observing what’s going on, Jonas suddenly turns on his fellow students, shouting, “This asshole”—pointing at Romulo—cheats on her in front of the whole school and you call her a slut?”
He suddenly find himself protecting her just as once Romulo protected him against her.
But the school administration and students are outraged by both of them, and they wind up with Nestor in a kind of lockdown cleaning up after the party. Nestor, who has missed participating in the Chemistry Olympiad, is angry for having risked everything for his friend, and tells him, in front of Suzy that he’d warned him against all the “magic.”
She suspects something, but Jonas quickly shifts the word to suggest it is his own moniker, “Miss Magic,” and Suzy goes off, not wanting any part with either of them. Once she’s gone, Jonas reprimands Nestor, suggesting that maybe he wanted to tell her about switching bodies as well, and wondering why Nestor is always following him. “After all, what do you want?”
The next day in the school hall, we see some other boy unsuccessfully trying to hook with Suzy, Romulo prowling alone, and Jonas and Nestor hand-in-hand. The magic has worked its own tricks.
Sitting alone in the school library, Suzy glances once more at a photo of her and Romulo, tossing it to the floor. When she finally decides to bend down to retrieve it, she discovers under it the once again “lost” book Amor animal, taking it up and reading one of its entries, “Camel’s Magic.” Get ready for Act III.
Los Angeles, July 20, 2021
Juan Sebastián Valencia (screenwriter and director) Magico / 2019 (17 minutes)
Columbian-born director Juan Sebastian Valencia’s US production Magico begins simply as a work about the magic magicians perform through sleight-of-hand tricks. In fact the work begins with the young would-be magician Luke (David Aaron Evans) attempting to perform the vanishing magician trick. He stands before his audience, placing a red cloth in front of him, the cloth falling to the floor to reveal the missing man of magic. But as another rehearsing magician entering the rented hall points out “I can see you!”
He continues, “Show me something real.”
The young magician snaps back, “Who says it’s real. It’s called magic for a reason.”
The other suggests he must like being the guy who performs for kids at parties.
The interloper, so he explains, is the one who rented the room at 4:30, and it’s now past that time. Luke apologizes, and the other, Carl (Sam Street), apologizes as well for interrupting the trick, “even if it was fake.” It order for it to be magic, he insists, “it has to be real.” “The only way you can tell if a magician has real magic is to learn his tricks.”
Pulling out a small wand and asking for
Luke’s hat, he insists, “The wand doesn’t carry magic,
Luke is skeptical of Carl’s seemingly empty dictums.
But Carl, unperturbed continues. “Your emotions help connect you with the soul of the trick.”
He continues, as he speaks, to wave his wand over the other boy’s hat. “Here,” he offers up the wand, “try it.”
The minute that Luke moves into the space near the hat there is a loud snap as the two suddenly find themselves in a dark space they cannot identify. As Carl offers his hand to lift up Luke to check the territory, the latter suddenly finds himself moving up through his hat, returned to the space on the stage where they had begun. He is confused, astounded. The magic has clearly been real in his head.
Asked how it feels, he can only say, “Amazing” as just as suddenly they both find themselves on an ocean beach, eating ice cream. Carl continues his lecture, suggesting that what most magicians forget is that the magic has to be for them as well as for the audience.
By the very next scene, it is clear, the two have become friends and are dressed in outrageous costumes presumably about to perform together. Another man, perhaps Luke’s “roommate” Sergio, wants to photograph them before they perform. And Carl has brought Luke a special gift, his very own wand.
In the very next scene, they are in a room with a bed, without their costumes, with Carl suggesting that Luke’s roommate is going to wonder “what we’re doing in here.” Luke suggests, “You better lock the door then.” Carl does.
Over the next few moments they strip down to their underwear as soap-bubbles begin the fall all around them, with Luke declaring “Real magic.”
Time has passed, two weeks we later hear, and Carl has evidently disappeared. We must read, presumably the previous scenes as a kind of condensed metaphoric expression of a whirlwind romance between the highly romantic Luke and the older Carl, who quite literally, to pull out the old cliche of inexplicable sudden love, “has been swept off his feet.” The wands Carl talked so much about quite obviously, become the film’s representation of their cocks which apparently truly helped to focus their inner joy on one another, making something what is never “real,” what we describe as “love,” seem real in its transformation one another’s lives.
But now that Carl has suddenly left, leaving Luke confused and lonely, the magic obviously have left him. And when he runs into to Carl again, it’s clear that his brief encounter wants nothing to remind of what happened between the two, his female partner also being his wife.
Without the film precisely saying this, it is pretty obvious that Carl is one of the numerous bisexual men who play around when their heterosexual mates are away.
It is now up to Luke alone to find his own magic, and no matter what tricks he attempts, no matter how hard he tries to repeat the old illusions, nothing comes of it.
He was hoping that together with Carl that they would easily win a national magic competition, but Carl makes it clear that Luke and he are not a couple.
Luke practices, gradually focusing his tears into frozen crystals of snow-like flakes that gather on his cheeks. But he is not at all certain that he has anything special to show the competition judges. As he is called in to perform, he once more encounters Carl and his wife (Dicle Ozcer), Carl pausing to attempt to explain what clearly needs no explaining. But as Luke turns away, a few bubbles suddenly appear, evidence that there has still some feeling for Carl and even more importantly, that Luke has not lost his own magic.
He enters the audition without any props, standing alone on the stage as his tears turn gradually into snowflakes that magically fill the theater, amazing the judges who are amused and amazed by the boy’s inexplicable “trick.”
This film was awarded the Best LGBT Short Film Independent short awards and received other awards as well. For me, however, the magic existed more in the beautiful images of the film than in its rather clumsy metaphorical statements.
Los Angeles, July 20, 2021
i don’t want to be a woman
Axel Barranco (screenwriter and director) Deseo (Wish) / 2020 (16.58 minutes)
Mexican director Axel Barranco’s Deseo takes us back to the black magic of the gods as expressed in Otavio Chamorro’s “animal love,” in this case the forces still powerful in the Mayan statues a young boy and girl discover in a Mexican museum.
Their teacher’s announcement that they have to now enter the show allows what Alejandro perceives as a special moment when they can actually approach the boys they desire, asking them if they might accompany them in the show. Alejandro goes first, striking up a brief conversation with Javier, who seem affable enough and readily agrees to join Alejandro.
Their brief discussions are rather aborted, Javier saying that he’s been considering his future, and Alejandro, obviously too nervous to even respond, saying there nothing happening with him. As they enter the darkened rooms, Javier asks if his friend actually thinks these works are magical, and after a pause Alejandro says, “Yes,” staring intensely at his friend as the other observes the statues and other artifacts. Alejandro suggests it’s getting hot, and pulls out a notebook, Javier handing him a pen so that he might take notes. One can perceive that even that small gesture excites Alejandro.
The boy tries to get up the courage and finally does ask Javier, “Do you want to go out...,” his friend immediately responding “Yes, I’m hungry,” turning to leave, while Alejandro, now alone, finishes his sentence “...on a date with me?”
The next morning when he awakens to his usual 7:00 clock alarm he gets out of bed to discover only dresses in his closet, and when he looks into the mirror he has long hair and, so he discovers, small breasts. He is now clearly someone different, Alejandra (Giovanna Jiménez), who, in delight, applies makeup and dresses in a completely different for school that morning, which even her best girlfriend recognizes as a change: “How did you get so pretty?”
Before she can even get comfortably ensconced in her classroom Javier asks her if they can study together and a few seconds later invites her out to dinner that night.
At the restaurant, she is delighted for the company and begins small talk in a way that all first time daters do, both ordering similarly barbecued hot wings, he an orangeade and she a lemonade.
She asks him why he asked her out on date and Javier responds that he has always seen her as someone different and special, surely pleasing the inner Alejandro.
When she asks him what he planning on studying, however, he suggests two quite radically different alternatives, the first that he would like to study acting and the second that he may join his father as an accountant. On what does it depend? He’d like to study acting but it’s a family tradition to be an accountant, his father, grandfather, etc. which is the direction his family prefers.
Alejandra suggests that he should choose that which makes him the happiest. But he finds it difficult to be loyal to himself. If he would study acting, he answers her query, he might study in New York, the name of which lights up Alejandra’s face: that was where Madonna got her start?
Like the soccer player, asks Javier, clearly having no clue who Madonna is.
“No, no, no,” she immediately corrects him, “A homosexual role. Not a faggot role. Homosexual is the way you say it.”
But he cannot get her drift. “Homosexual, faggot, gay....”
“No, no, no. They’re aren’t synonyms,” she interrupts. “It’s just homosexual, period.”
“Whatever...it’s just a disease.”
The waiter delivers their drinks.
He repeats that it is a disease, Alejandra again correcting him, “It’s not a disease.”
“I have read about it,” he insists.
“No, it’s not a disease. OK. It’s just a preference.” Suddenly rising, she turns back to him: “And I can’t believe you don’t even know who Madonna is.”
She continues: “You should study acting. There are lots of roles for assholes.”
A figure is in bed, and the alarm rings, this morning at 11:04. Alejandro awakens, checks out his chest and peaks in his pajamas just to see his cock before he rises and dances with joy. He is still a gay boy, happy to be who he is.
Los Angeles, July 20, 2021