Monday, 29 October 2007

Festival selection: A Four Letter Word (USA, 2007)

Director: Casper Andreas.

Principal cast: Jesse Archer, Charlie David, Cory Grant, Virginia Bryan.

If films were cocktails, „A Four Letter Word” would be a Pink Lady. With a cherry on top. Casper Andreas’ second long feature film is an excercise in contemporary urban gay self-defining, rich on flamboyant queer characters as well as jokes worthy of any drag queen on a mission. It is evident that the film was created by gay people, with gay people and for gay people and as such deserves credit for being consequent. Some of the most famous gay characters created on screen were played by straight actors – the entire „gay” sets of „Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”, „Brokeback Mountain” and numerous other classics were, in a manner of speech, just fakes. And although I also must give credit where credit is due (they did appear convincing), I still feel somewhat cheated when I realise that all those romantic scenes must have been forced out of them and later „improved” by the film’s editors and other technically minded people. This is certainly not the case with the cast on „A Four Letter Word” – it isn’t necessary to fake their „queerness” – for queer they are!

Luke, played by the relative newcomer Jesse Archer, is a four letter word for horny. Oblivious to any other possible „fun” things in life, he spends his days working in Gayborhood, a gay sex store and his nights playing the field on the local club scene accompanied by his best friend Mace who can probably be best defined by his own words: „I can’t speak for my ass – it’s public property”. At work, his lifestyle is constantly debated by the naked yoga enthusiast and gay rights crusader Zeke who, nevertheless, is still rather fond of him. For under the shallow facade, Luke is more than just the urban gay cliché, an etiquette he certainly doesn’t want to be put on him. One night on his usual manhunt he approaches Stephen with „ph”, played by Charlie David whom many will recognise as Toby from Here! TV’s gay soap opera „Dante’s Cove”. After a brief interaction, our protagonist is labelled by his new acquaintance as just that – „a gay cliché”. This, naturally, hurts Luke who decides to show just how „extraordinary” he is, well, only to be thrown out of the club. In the meantime, „a wannabe actor but currently waiting tables” Peter has his boyfriend Derek moving in with him while his boss Marilyn, brilliantly played by Virginia Bryan, is getting married which prompts her to go amok with what at one point in the film is described as the „Bridzilla” scheme. In order to deliver herself from her alcohol addiction she also starts attending AA meetings with her sponsor Trisha who, however, has other interests at stake with regard to her. Peter and Derek are seen by Luke as a perfect couple and he is happy for Marilyn but he insists that he enjoys being the way he is – single and able to get laid anytime he fancies. This, neverthess, changes after he bumps into Stephen the second time – in the darkroom of a club. They say that opposites attract and it must have been the case here because they are both mysteriously drawn to each other and Luke subsequently attempts to introduce himself to a completely new world – that of monogamy. He knows that his lifestyle isn't sustainable forever. And he seems to have feelings for Stephen. So what can Luke do to change himself? As part of his strategy he even attends a meeting for the sexually compulsive at the local LGBT community centre which I must admit doesn’t sound too far out in a city like New York. Luke really wants things to work out between him and Stephen. But is Stephen actually the one?

„A Four Letter Word” is a romantic comedy set in New York. Still, the characters portrayed are fairly universal and recognisable. The films poses more questions than it attempts to answer. Still, the questions it poses are relevant to most urban gay men of our day and age. Romance versus sex, care versus selfishness, the ability to cohabit and compromise. At the same time, it’s a fun and witty film which should be enjoyed just like a Pink Lady. With a cherry on top.

You can watch the film's trailer here

And a special tribute to Adam Joseph who appears in the film with his song "Faggoty Attention" (that cherry on top)


Amy said...

I haven't seen this film, so I can only comment on your review. I have to admit I fail to see the relevance of the point you make about the fact that this was made for, by and with gay people, as opposed to 'fakes' (straight people playing gays). I don't see how this makes the film any more or less authentic. In fact, isn't it 'film' that we are discussing here, an artistic medium that (with the exception of documentary film) has as its basis actors playing roles and characters whom they are not, and isn't the success or failure of a film often largely the result of good acting (among other things)? It would seem, then, that your argument actually serves to devalue the film and reduce the actors to merely 'being' as opposed to acting. Furthermore, if the argument is that the characters' homosexuality makes the film better, or more honest, then wouldn't it have to follow that the characters portrayed would have to have actually be in love with each other in order not to have to 'force the romantic scenes out'? Unless the characters in the film were actually in love, their performances should have also left you feeling 'cheated', because they would still have to have been forced and 'improved' by editing. Acting is acting, and actors have to pretend all the time that they love and hate people that they don't in real life. Indeed, that is what film does, it presents us with a lot of 'fakes' and attempts to convince us that they are real - this is the same regardless of whether it is a straight actor pretending to be in love with a woman, a lesbian actor pretending to be in love with a man, or a straight actor pretending to be in love with a man. Your argument for authenticity fails on many counts - it seems that you would have only retarded people playing retarded people, Nazis playing Nazis, Germans playing Germans.....lest these performances cheat you with their 'fakeness.'

As for the cherry on top, well, it is a pity that he resorts to homophobic language in his song from the film. Although I am well aware of the 'reclaimation' argument (whereby members of a minority reclaim disparaging terms used against them as their own), I don't think that Adam Joseph is doing the gay community any favours by using the word 'faggoty' in his song. In fact, it smacks of victimhood and seems a rather uneducated and immature stance to take. Of course, maybe this song plays a role in the film, and its terminology has been explained therein, but taken out of context I find it offensive and only self-deprecating. If this is an example of the homosexual self-definition that you speak of in the film, then it is quite remiss!

Andrejs Visockis said...

I agree with the fact that acting is always acting and I do not believe that real Nazis necessarily have to play Nazis (although it might improve the whole concept of speaking English with a fairly distorted concept of a German accent). However, the argument wasn't about that. As I also mentioned in my review, credit should be given where credit is due. And I find many of the straight actors playing gay characters convincing enough (which definitely doesn't apply to, say, Will from "Will and Grace" or many other awkward attempts at portraying homosexuals). I find it difficult to see Tom Hanks as a convincing gay man which makes the whole film difficult for me to take seriously. When two guys kiss each other on the screen I want to believe it. If Tom Hanks kissed another man, I would probably just cringe my toes :) Things like that are subjective and I am not attempting to claim that no gay men should ever be portayed by straight actors. Only that I personally prefer two gay men making out on the screen to two straight men doing it, especially if you know that they are straight.

As for the use of the word "faggoty", I don't see anything homophobic in that. It's a question of perception, i.e. who and how uses it. Personally, I find this word in this case mostly self-ironic and also somewhat endearing coming from Adam. The song is probably mostly played in gay clubs anyway. I also don't find it in any way degrading to the gay community since I don't find laughing at oneself and one's ways degrading. British comedy, for one, is mostly about that. I don't think his video should be taken all that seriously in the first place - it's just way too sexy for that!

Amy said...

Unfortunately, this line of argument sets film criticism and postmodern criticism back about 100 years, to the days of modernism with its intentionalist theory and biographic interpretation. Formalism has taught us that the work of art is supposed to be able to stand for itself. In that regard, the audience should not need to know the background, biography, or sexual orientation of the actors in question to be able to successfully interpret and criticize the work. As for your desire to know whether an actor is gay or not, that is fair enough, but I think that kind of commentary belongs less to the realm of film criticism and more under the rubric of personal preference.

The reason that the 'death of the author' and anti-intentionalist criticism becomes even more significant when we consider future viewers (if these films, or art objects, survive for posterity), who may not have access to an actor's biography to know whether he was gay, straight or otherwise. Therefore the film and the actors must be able to stand on their own. Furthermore, a film is just that - a package deal - we are meant to enter the theatre, view the film and get what we can from it. This applies to present-day viewers as well. If we were meant to read actors' biographies and other such background information, then those things should be included with the film, otherwise we are no longer talking just about the film, but something else. While these extra facts can be interesting, they must remain separate from the film itself, which is meant to be viewed, interpreted and criticised as it is presented to us.

The term "faggot" is, in and of itself, an offensive and derogatory term, and any attempts to reclaim that term on the part of the minority by default reference the fact that it is commonly used to belittle homosexuals. I disagree with the argument that it depends on the context that the word is used or by whom it is used as to whether or not it is offensive, since the taint of the word remains ever-present. There is that argument that by gays reclaiming the word for themselves they somehow desensitise it, but as I said before, this strategy of victimisation seems more of a step back than a step forward. I see it more as playing the role of the victim than self-ironizing, which really doesn't accomplish much other than further self-subjugation. A better tack would be to take the higher ground and to refuse to use such deprecating terms. The key-word of the gay rights movement is "pride," and therefore one should take pride and be proud of who one is, instead of lowering oneself to the level of a mere 'faggot' who can be nothing more than 'faggoty.' And as for the artists' role in all of this, I think that any gay icon should take his role as a public figure seriously, as should any public figure in general. If it is true that this song is mostly played in gay clubs, then all the more reason for Joseph to serve as a positive role model for young gays to be proud of who they are. I don't think the comparison with British comedy is a fair one, since in that example Brits are poking fun at actual hang-ups and idiosyncrasies in their culture. What is the term 'faggot' poking fun at, other than the fact that intolerant and homophobic people use that term to degrade homosexuals? By choosing to use the term, as an artist he makes a statement that others may take seriosuly - whether he does or not. Language is a very powerful tool, and especially when used in art they must be chosen carefully. One has to assume that artists also make their choices for a reason. I just can't seem to figure out what Joseph's reasoning was.

Admittedly, I am not a gay man. I do know many gay men, however, who agree with me on this point, which may give more 'authenticity' to my argument, as those opinions come from gay men themselves (like gay actors kissing :). But I also know that it is acceptable in some social circles of the gay community to use these terms in what they consider to be an 'endearing' way. Some choose to stand tall and proud, while others relegate themselves to the role of victims...That said, I would love to hear from some others on this topic....