Thursday, July 8, 2021

Sophie Boyce | Dear Friend || Lucas Mac Dougall | Anochecer (Nightfall) || Stéphane Riethauser | Prora || Jens Choong | Reel || Leandro Tadashi | Tomorrow

how to lose your best friend

by Douglas Messerli 

A great many “coming out” and other LGBTQ films focus on men and women who have long been close friends, one (or sometimes both) of whom suddenly discovers that he feels something more than mere friendship for the other. Since, as is the usual pattern in these films, they have both maintained their friendship in the context of a heterosexual bond—one of the pair usually exhibiting a strong and boastful attraction to the opposite sex—that sudden awareness (often building up over a period of time) not only endangers the friendship, but since it is interpreted a betrayal of both their mutual commitment and is perceived as an unwanted sexual advance, often ends in some sort of violence or other retaliation before the two can either patch up their friendship or, in the best case scenario, develop a sexual relationship built upon their long friendship. Most often, the possibility of such a sexual acceptance is left open by the writer and director. And we never know whether or not friends can truly become lovers, a situation that is often metaphorically expressed by the two being pulled apart from one another by their families or other circumstances, including maturation, the time when such childhood friendships often naturally end.

     I have discussed some of these issues already in my essays on Robert Lambert’s Follow You, Follow Me (1979), Jacques Duron’s Une histoire sans importance (A History of No Importance) (1980); Roger Tonge’s Two of Us (1987, 1988); Reid Waterer’s The Kiss on the Cliff (1993); Frank Mosvold’s Bølgene (Waves) (1998); Miguel Arteta’s feature film Chuck & Buck (2000); Alfonso Cuarón’s feature Y Tu Mamá También (2001);  Mark Thiedeman’s Last Summer (2013); and Chadlee Skrikker’s Hand Off (2019), as I will soon for other movies about I’ve not yet written—Gabrielle Russell’s Keel (2009); Jannick Gensler’s Sog (2017); and most notably the adult relationship between friends played out in the Paulo and Miguel gay subplot of the Portuguese TV popular soap opera, O Beijo do Escorpião (Kiss of the Scorpion) (2014), as well as the many others I will surely encounter in the future.

     But in this instance, I’ve chosen to gather five such films to discuss from the years of 2011-2014, which share not only the same time-frame but significant thematic threads: Dear Friend by British director Sophie Boyce (2011), Anochecer (Nightfall) by Argentinian director Lucas Mac Dougall (2012), Prora by Swiss director Stéphane Riethauser (2012), Reel by Swedish director Jens Choong (2013), and Tomorrow by US director Leandro Tadashi (2014).

 speaking love

Sophie Boyce (screenwriter and director, assisted by George Fox) Dear Friend / 2011 [16.32 minutes]

In many respects, Dear Friend might almost stand as the model of such friend/gay “coming out” films. In this film, long time Liverpool friends Christian (Joshua Miles) and James (Julien Mack) spend their time together in 1965 mostly in Chris’ house where he lives with his father (Christopher Gee), no mother in sight. There the teenage boys, wrestle and roughhouse in a manner that might suggest much younger children, battling with one another like they were playing at sword fighting or jumping upon one another’s backs to ride them forward like horses into battle. The father sits in the kitchen mostly reading the newspaper with great equanimity and patience seemingly to recognize their ruckus as healthy male bonding.

      This particular evening, however, represents a special occasion. The next day James is moving to London, and this will be their last night together, which it is obvious is far more devastating to Chris than to his good friend. The directors represent his inner feelings through moments when he stands against the loud 60s wallpaper of his room, the patterns cracking into fault lines behind his back as if the house had just suffered an earthquake. The period lava lamp replaying images of Chris’ inner howling of pain and his throbbing heart for losing his best friend and, we soon recognize...hopefully lover.

     After a night at the local bar, they stumble and shout back into the house recognizing that it is now their last hours together. As James, half-drunk, falls into Chris’ bed, where he has apparently spent many a sleepover, Chris sits up simply staring at him. Sensing his friend’s presence, despite the fact that he is laying faced in the other direction, James asks what he’s doing. Slowly Chris leans toward him, bending his torso in a slow arc to kiss him on the lips before briefly pulling away. When James, stunned by the act, does not move, Chris is about to attempt the gesture again, when James, clearly disgusted, shouts out “no,” forcefully pulling away from him and shifting once more in the other direction.

      Dreadfully hurt by the complete rejection, Chris sits up the rest of the night pondering things, and after James shares a pleasant breakfast with Chris’ father—who clearly prefers James to his own son and sees his family’s move to London as representing financial advance, going as far as jocularly inviting the friend to move into his own house while suggesting he’ll ship his son off to London instead—faces off with James in the doorway as his friend attempts to make a quick exit to pack for his move to London.

      The show-down is terrifying as James keeps repeating that Chris is sick and wants nothing more to do with him. In one of the most painful moments in this unsettling short, Chris, near tears, shouts out, after claiming he is not a queer, “Don’t fuckin’ make me feel bad for fallin’ for you. I can’t help it. It just happened.”

       James’ response says as much for the tenor of the times and his inability to perceive anything outside of social convention as it does for his own personal convictions: “It’s illegal. And it’s fuckin’ sick. Why did you have to tell me about this Chris?” It is as if his friend’s honesty is the true crime, a betrayal of his own now impossible love for him.

      Chris finally pulls away, claiming that the only sickness he has is from letting his friend and his ego get “inside my head.”

      The father comes out in attempt to discover why the two life-time friends are ending their last moments together in verbal sparring, only to be told by James: “You son is a puff. I hope you know that.”

      The ramifications of the boy’s words are immediately made apparent as the father enters his son’s room. Seeing the wall plastered with photos of the two boys together, the father points to James, saying “You won’t believe the rubbish that just came out of that lad’s mouth. What would make him say such a thing?” Looking at his son’s forlorn but also challenging expression, he pauses before pointing at him, his voice rising to its highest pitch: “’re are going to have to see a psychiatrist. No one can find out about this! Nobody!” Once more, the concern is not about what Chris might feel or even the dangers of such feelings, but rather is focused upon societal propriety. In this world, the truth must never be told.

     There is nothing else for Christian to do but to pack his bags, stopping just long enough to tell his now heavily drinking father, “Mum would have understand,” something he has to believe in order to survive.

         He doesn’t get far before he is spotted by James, who calls out to him. He moves swiftly forward to his former friend and when he reaches him begins to slug him, calling him “vile.” The two clumsily struggle until they are holding one another closely. They both back off a short distance, and James signals for him to join him as they go scampering like two young squirrels across the greenyard with a song by Carl Hauck plucked out in tender accompaniment

Los Angeles, July 8, 2021


the territory of each other’s hands

Lucas Mac Dougall (screenwriter and director) Anochecer (Nightfall) / 2012 [9 minutes]

Lucas Mac Dougall’s Nightfall is almost a “best friends turned to lovers film” presented in the abstract. In this instance we are hardly told anything directly. This is primarily a movie of sound, with a lyrical piano score by Jorge Obeaga and the patter of heavy rain throughout, which perhaps explains the situation.

    A young teen (Leandro Gauto) stands in a boy’s bedroom, his backpack still strapped to his shoulder, as his friend (Juan Yarcho) drags in another mattress, the two of them placing it snugly up next to the boy’s own much higher bed. Obviously, with the heavy rain, the first boy has decided or been encouraged by the other to spend the night at his place. The boy to whom the room belongs climbs a small ladder to the linen closet to bring down bedding which the two lay out upon the bed and pat into place.  

     The second begins to strip off his T-shirt, which the guest notices out of the corner of his eye, and turns to watch. The now bed-ready friend lays down on his bed, checking his cellphone as the guest steps into his mattress on the floor. The other asks him what time he needs to leave, the guest responding 8:00. “We’ll set the clock for 7:00 then?” We have utterly no indication of where the guest for the night is going, but it is clear it’s not to school, since the other seems exempt from the hour. True to pattern of these tales, the second boy is obviously on his way to another place, whether for just the day or forever we can’t yet tell.

     The host checks his cellphone once again and turns off the lights. We hear only the heavy patter of the rain and crickets, the camera panning slowly over the room and its contents in the dark. The two boys, at their different levels, seem to be sleeping as the piano music returns, the guest switching positions, clearly not really sleeping well. 

     Eventually he whispers to the other, “Are you asleep?” and when he receives no answer he lifts his head up to look into the higher bed and at the face of his apparently sleeping friend.

     You don’t have to be gay to know what’s troubling him. I’ve been in the very same position a couple of times in my life and I know the feeling. But unlike this guest positioned in almost hierarchical relationship with the other, I obeyed the symbolism of my placement. Our young backpacker, on his way to somewhere other, has evidently so such reservations, gradually moving up his hand along the side of the higher bed and feeling with his fingers for human flesh. He finds nothing, but obviously sensing his friend’s search, the other turns slightly, freeing his arm from under the covers.

      Evidently, these friends were both ready to change their definition of themselves to lovers. But then we cannot know whether they will ever truly be able to consummate that new designation of their relationship since we have no idea where the other is going in the morning.

Los Angeles, July 8, 2021


love in the ruins

Stéphane Riethauser (screenwriter and director) Prora / 2012 [23 minutes]

Of the four films I discuss here, I think anyone who has written about movies, would agree the most sophisticated and most beautiful of them is Swiss director Stéphane Riethauser’s Prora. First of all, it is filmed at one of the best bizarre structures in the world, the former Nazi holiday camp and later Communist military complex, Prora, now abandoned, on Germany’s Rügen Island at the Baltic Sea. Inexplicably, two friends, the somewhat timid German Jan (Tim Gramenz) and the French outwardly macho womanizer Matthieu (Swen Gippa) meet to spend their summer vacation.

     We don’t if they are there with their parents or have somehow chosen this strange spot by the ocean themselves, nor do we know how their friendship developed nor how long in the past they first met one another. All we can say is they apparently enjoy one another’s company and have clearly spent a great deal of time together in the past. Perhaps their families have regularly vacationed at this resort for some time now. But clearly they have found one another without visiting each other’s home country. Although Jan speaks some French, Matthieu mocks his accent and keeps defining Jan, because of his lean build and seemingly shy demeanor as his “little” friend. Basically, they behave as do most young teenagers in gay movies, alternately basking in the sun, skipping along the shore, and roughhousing, Matthieu bragging of his sexual exploits with women to the other, while Jan mocks him for his often course and sometimes dangerous behavior. 

      Like many “best friends” in gay films, there seems to be no real logic of why they are attracted to one another except that they each offer something that the other lacks, the German in this case being the more refined and less outwardly aggressive, while the Frenchman behaves rather more like a stumbling American oaf who offers up adventures on with Jan might otherwise never embark.

      The film actually begins near to where it ends, with Jan sitting alone on a high sea wall looking out toward to sea in contemplation of both the view and what has occurred that resulted in the deep recently stitched-up wound on his upper thigh.

      We are taken back to some of their early meetings as we discover the differences in the two I describe above as the narrative also establishes their friendship. Bored by simply “hanging out,” an activity which Jan seems to prefer, Mathieu suddenly determines to break into the endless complex of buildings that stretch almost as far as the eye can see.

      Jan hangs back as Matthieu enters through an open doorway and disappears, Jan ultimately having no choice if he is to remain in Matthieu’s company but also to enter the labyrinth. As he seeks out his friend, he quite quickly gets lost in the endless open corridors with staircases hooking up at odd places. Eventually he reaches the final floor calling out to Matthieu as he goes, without any success in locating him. Finally, when he about to retreat, Matthieu can be heard in a large open room where he has found a Nazi flag, and when Jan appears he torments the boy by calling him his little Nazi and charging at him draped in the red swastika banner like a bull, reminding him of his country’s shameful past.

      At first Jan is rightfully irritated by the obscene gestures, but ultimately joins his friend as they run through the long corridors breaking out windows as they pass, eventually finding even a larger open space where Mathieu lays down among the broken glass, exhausted by his athletic adventures.

      Before he can even comprehend his situation Jan moves toward him, towering over him, and bending down to begin—much as in the film Dear Friend—the long descent into a gentle kiss on his lips. When Matthieu remains passive, Jan follows it up with another kiss on his neck, and another and yet one more before kissing him through his ripped shirt across the chest.

      The camera discretely pulls away from a view of Jan sprawled atop Matthieu to show us the foreground of a long hall of broken glass and debris, as we hear the pull of belts, the snap of buttons,  the slip of pants, the slurp of mouths, and the flap of flesh on flesh in a long off-stage cinematic portrayal of the boys’ sexual release. It may be one of the sexiest depictions of gay fucking and sucking I have ever experienced without being a visual witness.

     The camera returns to the room to witness Matthieu, still laying prone, as he buttons up his pants.

     If Matthieu has been utterly compliant, when he awakens from his satiation he immediately turns into a furious and frightened homophobe, rushing from the room, Jan following, pushing his former friend away as he attempts to find his way out, only to be met with dead ends and further expanses of empty space. When Jan tries to reason with him, suggesting another route, he slugs him and pushes him into a pile of broken glass, forcing the boy to remain behind to nurse the blood flowing his deep wounds.

     So we return the Jan at the sea wall. Soon after, with Jan sitting alone on the beach, Matthieu appears, for moment hovering over him—one might almost imagine in rage, but apparently peacefully, as he sits beside his “friend,” and eventually lays down flat on the sand, Jan joining him. 

     Soon Matthieu stands and walks slowly out in the surf, Jan following far behind. Matthieu dives into the shallow waters, and eventually Jan follows his lead, the two swimming for a short while before turning back.

      It is the time for them to say goodbye, Matthieu evidently heading back that afternoon to Paris, and Jan to Berlin, where previously Matthieu had promised to one day visit him. The two hug, torn away from one another by their family abodes.

      Once more, we realize these two boys are now closer to being young men who can never again be friends, but if they do meet up once more will surely recognize themselves as having been briefly splendid lovers.

Los Angeles, July 8, 2001   

like hell

Jens Choong (screenwriter and director) Reel / 2013 [13 minutes]

From the very first frames of Swedish director Jens Choong’s Reel, we realize that the skateboarding boy Robert (played, in a strange twist of casting by female actor Fanny Ketter) and his friend Victor (Toft Hervén) would rather hang out together than join their female acquaintance for a pizza. Together, they join another male friend, Anton (Norin Lindgren) and escape to a derelict building with broken windows to spray paint the inside with images of what they declare represent one another.

     But when Robert finishes his “painting,” Victor says it “sucks,” that it makes him look like a woman, attempting to repaint it, which angers Robert, who pulls away from the others. Returning, he takes a rock and throws it at the glass panes on which they have been painting. If at first the others are frustrated and confused by his behavior, they soon join him in attempting to destroy the few remaining intact glass panes, shouting and making a boisterous and joyful noise only young boys can, swearing meaninglessly by incorporating every dirty word their know into one long string of a sentence. A passing neighbor woman out walking her dog takes notice and calls the police.   

    And suddenly these boys are on the run, skateboards in hand, Victor and Robert pulling away from the other, who takes another direction, finally out-foxing the police by slipping through a narrow opening in a fence and, when the police begin scouring the nearby woods, lying motionless in a narrow gulley while the policeman looks over them, scanning the territory.

     They finally run off to a metal water runway where they can rest up and skateboard off.

     Their next stop is, after climbing a high scaffolding, a rooftop looking over the city where they declare the view “fucking awesome,” take out sodas which they’ve packed, and worry a bit over their friend Anton, who may have nabbed by the cops.

     Just like the other three films I discuss here, one of the friends, in this case Victor, is moving to the next morning to another city, Stockholm, leaving Robert and Anton behind. And the two, sitting in their nighttime “splendor,” are well aware of the poignancy of the moment.

      Tearing up about not being able to see Anton before he leaves, Victor answers Robert’s question, “Will you miss him?” with an emphatic “Like hell.”

       After, Victor admits he will not miss Anna, Robert assures him he’s not interested in Anna, the woman who asked him out for pizza, either. Look at it from my point of view, argues Robert, you’ll make new friends in Stockholm, but I’ll be stuck here with all the doucebags.

     Leaning his head on Robert’s shoulder, Victor wonders what if he doesn’t meet new friends?

      Meanwhile, Choong’s camera re-visits some of the earlier moments of the reel, showing them in the waterway and soon after in the shed where they were painting as the police arrive. We watch them once more run into the woods, and dart out of police view in the gulley. But this time the camera catches something it hadn’t previously, as they lay together in utter silence, their fingers are wrapped around each other’s hand as seriously as the fingers of the two boys in Nightfall sought out the other’s flesh.   

     And we see them in the narrative now, lying out in the night on the roof with fingers once more entwined. Robert sits up a bit and leans over his friend, just as in the other films, kissing Victor again and again on the lips, and in so doing transforming their friendship into something else which, for better or worse, they will never forget.

     Robert wakes up on the rooftop alone, as Victor sits in his home kitchen eating breakfast. They meet up for what can only be a perfunctory and meaningless goodbye, as Robert skates away, tears welling up in his eyes.

the new world

Joshua Paul Johnson (screenplay), Leandro Tadashi (director) Tomorrow / 2014

The two best friends of this short film, Clark (Daniel Rashid) and Trevor (Zachary Roozen), begin their lawn-bound discussion by Trevor suggesting that if Clark moves to Chicago for college, he’ll just come visit him and hang out. The boys laugh uneasily, knowing clearly that if Clark does move away they may not be able to retain their deep friendship that goes back to grade school. While using Clark’s camera as a viewfinder, Trevor’s friend recalls the day he first got the camera and what happened back then.

     Yet there are even more gnawing difficulties even as they speak, in particular the fact that Trevor is highly attracted to Sarah  (Katie Baker), who is a close friend of Clark’s, who just happens to show up while they’re talking, inviting them both again to a party to celebrate in the new millennium.

     Trevor confides to Clark that he’s finally “going to make a move on Sarah” and wants him, as her close friend, to be his “wingman,” helping to talk him up and lead Sarah to become interested in him.

     We recognize almost immediately just by slight facial gestures from Clark and from Sarah that we are about to experience the possible break up a friendship that fits all the patterns of a gay crush that the one (Clark) has for the other, Trevor being a figure who goes out of his way to express himself as a heterosexual in part to deny any of the truly close feelings he has for his friend. In this instance, it’s clear that he’s asking the boy who secretly loves him to help fix up a heterosexual romance, a situation that given what I have described in the films above does not look promising, particularly since the evening on which Trevor has determined to make his move signifies so many other changes, the beginning of an entirely new century and a break in the thread of friendship woven by two boys throughout the years.

      But how can Clark, the more passive of the two, possibly turn his friend down? But the moment the part begins with a toast to the last sunset of the millennium you can see Clark’s smile quickly fade to a look of quiet desperation. And as the room full of partying teens moves in a celebratory frenzy as the two boys stand on either side of Sarah, Trevor pushing to find out more about the girl while Clark works hard just to keep the fairly one-sided conversation going, we recognize that things are not going well. When Sarah suggests to Trevor that she needs a refill of her tequila, Trevor quietly confides to his friend, “You’re supposed to be talking me up, come on you’re killing me,” and the moment he is out of sight, Sarah reports to Clark, “He doesn’t let up, does he?” 

      It’s also clear that Sarah has a crush on Trevor which surely doesn’t help given that it puts him in the middle of two friends, and positions him into a kind of emotional corner regarding his feelings for Trevor. Even if Sarah is not interested in Trevor, he has utterly no clue as to whether Trevor could ever truly show any love for him.

      She pushes to move them out to the dance floor, and while he suggests they hold back until Trevor returns, she counters, “And I think you should stop worrying about him.” How does a closeted bay boy come to terms with love given these circumstances where it’s clear that the wrong person who truly cares for him? As they begin to dance, he suddenly abandons her, perhaps the only way out.

      And when he spots Trevor he runs from him as well, Trevor following in an attempt to comprehend what’s going on. Where’s Sarah and why has Clark abandoned them both? Fortunately, several people appear to be running in a specific direction and when the boys check it out they discover they are heading to the large pool of this ranch-style desert house. Clark, seeing it as a way back into a connection with Trevor, suggests they join the others, and together they swim for a while, lost perhaps in the memory of the hundreds of times they’ve swam together, diving deep into the waters and suddenly popping up behind one another in surprise. At one moment paddling in place a few feet from each other it appears that they have momentarily lost track of time, staring deeply at one another as if to admit all those years of their special friendship.

     Trevor pulls away, but still remains as if almost puzzling it all out, as Clark again comes near. One could almost imagine them saying what they both need to say or briefly awarding one another a kiss, but Trevor, true to his type, pulls back into himself: “Sarah’s waiting for her drink,” something Clark knows to be absolutely not true.

      Clark dries off, taking a long look at himself in the mirror. As he returns to the main room, Sarah intervenes once again with a hopeful greeting, “There you are....”

      “I think I’m goin’ to head out,” he answers. But she insists he stay, “It’s almost midnight,” finally cornering him and embracing him in a deep kiss at the very moment that Trevor shows up, Clark running off, with Trevor following.

       When he catches up, he shouts, “What the fuck was that?”

       “Sorry, I promise it wasn’t what it looked like.”

      Trevor moves closer, and Clark tries to reassure him, placing his hands outward.

      “Fuck, don’t touch me!”

      Clark finally spits it out: “She’s not even into you!”

      “Fuck you,” Trevor responds, pushing him to the floor and leaning over the prone body of his friend as if he were about to beat him, but pausing as he literally straddles him and finally leaning into a long a desperate series of intense kisses. Clark is so absolutely and delightedly surprised that by the time he loosens his arms to embrace his friend, pulling Trevor back towards him, his sudden lover, resisting all he feels slowly pulls up and away and leaves the room. 

       Clark looks off in the direction that his friend has left in astonishment. What has just happened is nearly as shocking as if he has suddenly been raped, even if he has perhaps desired it all his life. Longing is sometimes far easier that recognizing the other has been holding an equal feeling back apparently for years. Surely their friendship can never be a simple buddy connection ever again.

       Almost inexplicably everyone has abandoned the party, while our three friends have remained late into night, Sarah falling to sleep drunk on the couch, with the two boys obviously hidden away in different spaces in an attempt to process what has just happened. Waking up to find both Trevor and Clark still there, Sarah asks if she might catch a ride home. Once more, she unknowingly intrudes upon a moment when they might have been able to begin to work things out. But as it stands, the long ride home with Trevor driving is so quiet that it’s deafening, the car motor being the only sound one can recognize.

     As they arrive at Clark’s house he looks in his friend’s direction but his face makes it clear that any attempt to speak would be pointless. How can he tell him what surely the other has not yet been able to forgive himself for and even if he could explain cannot with Sarah sleeping in the back seat.

     The seat belt snapping loose is the only sound he permits other than the opening of the car door and its small slam back as he walks off into what surely must appear to be a future of emptiness.

     But suddenly Trevor rolls down the window, calling out for Clark. The boy pauses, looks back and slowly returns to the car bending down to the open window. Trevor hands him his forgotten camera. Clark takes it, somewhat disappointed, but observes that now Trevor his also holding out his hand as if to shake. “See you tomorrow?”

     Clark smiles, takes the hand and holds it for instant, Trevor slightly smiling. Trevor starts up the motor and drives off.

      Clearly Trevor has accepted what has happened. The only question now is whether he wants to forget it or to see it as an event to build a new relationship with Clark upon. If nothing else, he has opened up the possibility that their friendship has come to be something different: a tomorrow instead of an endless series of days spent just hanging out.

Los Angeles, August 5, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2021). 

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