What makes you shine?
There is something magical about the art of independent filmmaking. The intimacy and raw emotion of these personally infused tales mirror the power normally reserved for the stage. It's not slick or pretty, but it's real and that's what makes it compelling. If you can look past the bad lighting, poor picture quality, continuity flaws, and uneven secondary performances, you will be captivated, entertained, and rewarded with a new perspective on your own humanity. Such is the case with Everett Lewis's Luster.
Facts of the Case
Jackson (Justin Herwick) is a slacker, skater boi, poet who suffers daily for his angst driven art. He parties all night, rolls out of his or someone else's bed, and stumbles into work whenever he feels compelled. The rest of his time is spent sharpening his inner monologue and, in his mind's eye, seducing a bevy of boyhood idols, or whoever happens to catch his attention at any given moment. He's self-focused, overly affected, and oblivious to the people and concerns that surround him. Sam (Shane Powers) is Jackson's best friend, surrogate father, and employer. Sam is also an artist, disillusioned by life, and inflicting his psyche with unrequited love. Alyssa (Pam Gidley), the third and final member of our protagonist trio, is—you guessed it—an artist who has lost her voice. However, unlike Jackson and Sam, she continues to pursue elusive inspiration in everything she sees. Can any of these free spirits hope to find self-actualization and true human connection amid the shallow inauthenticity that permeates the City of Angels?
Writer/director Everett Lewis's mission in creating Luster was to recapture the significance and feel of the original gay arthouse films of years gone by. Wildly experimental and often times tacky, films such as James Bidgood's Pink Narcissus (1971), Derek Jarman's Sebastiane (1976), Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Querelle (1982), and Bill Sherwood's Parting Glances (1986) served as visual cornerstones for a population existing below the radar of an ignorant and unforgiving world. With gay culture now having been co-opted by the mainstream in the form of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Will & Grace, Lewis is tired of what he sees as an infantile, narcissistic internalization of queer life.
With Luster, Lewis has created a positive, affirming, and well-adjusted gay world, infused with self-conscious queerness and built upon a foundation of gay ideas, music, and poetry. In this world, the straights are the ones who struggle with their identity, sexuality, and position in life. This is given form by Jackson's cousin Jed (Barry Wyatt), a corn fed Iowa boy who has never been to the big city. His arrival serves as a catalyst that profoundly impacts each of our protagonists. In Jackson, he awakens a soul, enabling our slacker to care for and protect someone other than himself. In Alyssa, he plays the muse, inspiring her art to heights she could have scarcely imagined. In Sam, well…let's just say he shines a light on issues that have gone unresolved for far too long. In the end, Jed too is changed, removing the blinders from his sheltered Midwestern life, and baptizing himself into a world as colorfully diverse as a Saturday night on the Sunset Strip.
The first nine minutes of the film are the brush you'll have to clear in order to reach the oasis hidden inside. Single name opening credits, shaky camera work, stilted dialogue (Jackson's conversation with a bathtub junkie), and ridiculously horrid periphery characters (the kid looking to buy a Madonna record) are likely to scare you into thinking this is a train wreck. That's where you would be wrong. Twenty minutes in, we know these characters. We are these characters. Hurtling through life, without a map to guide us, we venture beyond the families who raised us, discovering new worlds, meeting new people, and creating new families that will love, support, and carry us through to the next step on this all too brief journey. Together, we celebrate and struggle with energized plans and shattered dreams, the excitement of new love and the bitterness of failed relationships. We are all damaged and flawed in our own way. If we're lucky, we come to realize these defects make us who we are and give us the power to do great things. For some, that epiphany comes sooner than others. However, we can take solace in the fact that we're not alone. People will walk in and out of our lives, teaching us valuable lessons, if our eyes and ears are open long enough to learn them. Jackson and Alyssa can count themselves among the lucky ones.
What drives Luster's success are a handful of emotional performances. Justin Herwick arms Jackson with a raw, horny, fuck-the-world attitude. He knows he's screwed up and doesn't care. It's a badge of honor and he wears it proudly. Unfortunately, it also serves as a suit of armor preventing him from making anything other than superficial connections with the people in his life.
Shane Powers, as Sam, has resigned himself to his present situation in life. He's silenced the artist within, having grown weary of the journey. In Sam, Shane exhibits the rut we see all too often in life—get up, go to work, come home, watch TV, go to bed, and do it all over again. Sadly, it's a problem he does not wish to change, as if this is some penance he's serving for past crimes.
Pamela Gidley is the film's spark plug, spouting existential theory and pop culture references like a female Kevin Smith. She wants to experience everything but lacks the inspiration to do anything. Unlike her comrades, Alyssa is in a committed, loving, long-term relationship with Sandra, yet even this aspect of her life is not immune to the chaotic winds of change.
The one recognizable name in the picture is Willie Garson, the so-called "Mayor of Hollywood," best known for his role as Stanford on HBO's Sex and the City. Willie plays the wickedly sadistic Sonny Spike, a well-known recording artist with an insatiable appetite for violent sex. Sonny hires Jackson to help him write songs for his latest album, but ends up obsessed with tracking down the source of Jackson's poetic inspiration for himself.
The quality of performance falls off somewhat from here. Barry Wyatt as Jed—Jackson's cousin—and Jonah Blechman as Billy—a pain loving lothario for hire and the latest object of Jackson's affections—are little more than meat puppets able to spout dialogue on command. Sean Thibedou (Derek) and Susanna Melvoin (Sandra) make the most of the screen time available to them, which isn't much.
Don't let me lead you into thinking any of these performances are going to blow the roof off the acting profession, but they are able to convey some very real moments that will bring forth a genuine response from you as an audience. For that they should be commended, as should Lewis for bringing them together. Luster is a great little film and should be appreciated as such.
Presented in 1.33:1 full screen format, the quality of this 16mm gem is a far cry from the slick presentation values of a major studio release. The print is a grainy mess, but somehow quite fitting for the world in which these characters live. Lewis made a conscious decision to utilize the natural light of July in Los Angeles. The result is warm and inviting, except during night exterior shots when much of the action is swallowed by darkness. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track is clearer than the visuals but suffers from budget limitations and segments of the dialogue are subsequently lost. The levels are a bit screwy at times, but on the whole the track is adequate enough to support the picture. Credit Lewis and company for an impressive underscore populated by some of the West Coast's hottest gay artists and bands—Pansy Division, Third Grade Teacher, Texas Terri and the Stiff Ones, and Michael Leon.
Animated menus and two nice bonus features enhance the presentation. First up is a feature commentary by Lewis and producer Robert Shulevitz. The track would have been more effective as a Lewis solo act. Shulevitz doesn't show up for the recording session until halfway through the picture and spends most of his time making sarcastic observations that are not the least bit valued or entertaining. The second feature is a 17-minute interview with Lewis in which he shares his thoughts on the state of queer cinema today and how he is using films like Luster to bring it back to its roots. This highly intelligent and well-spoken artist is a joy to listen to.
There is no mistaking the fact that Luster is a gay film. If you have issues with this, it's your loss. We can learn more about ourselves and the world around us from films like these than we ever will from repeated viewings of most Hollywood blockbusters. As an independent filmmaker, I continue to be impressed by my brethren for putting so much of themselves into their films, working to realize the potential the medium holds. While this gem might not be as polished as its larger budget peers, it shines no less brightly.
This court releases TLA and Luster from custody, presenting them as role models for independent artists who look to push the boundaries of independent film beyond their present limitations.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
• Feature Commentary
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