Join Judge Brett Cullum as he falls down the rabbit hole and invents a new cinematic genre, but not necessarily in that order.
Brian: The only thing worse than being gay is being straight.
Sexy Gay Favorites is one of those collections where First Run Features has packaged three gay films and thrown them in a box with an arbitrary title and some hot cover art. It might save you a few bucks versus buying each film individually, but rarely are the films related in any other way than the most superficial trait that they are all "gay" somehow. Other collections from this company have included The Best of Gay Britain and Passionate Gay Classics. As usual with these boxes of gay cinema, one film is worth it, the next is dodgy but still a find, and the final entry is nearly unwatchable.
The film that's worth it—The Fluffer
Film score = 89
Sean (Michael Cunio, The West Wing) is an ambitious young man studying film, who has moved to Los Angeles to break into the movie industry. He spends endless nights watching all the classics to learn techniques, until one night at the video store he accidentally receives Citizen Cum instead of Citizen Kane. Down the rabbit hole he goes. From the moment he sees the star of the porn flick "Johnny Rebel" (Scott Gurney, Hotlines) Sean is obsessed. He lands a job as a cameraman for Johnny's video company Men of Janus, and gets to work on the latest "Johnny Rebel" masterpiece. He becomes a fluffer for the temperamental star—who claims he is straight, but who asks Sean to help him get excited so he can perform. Before long Sean is sucked (pun intended) into Johnny's world, where everyone is stroking their own egos—and anything else.
The Fluffer has an admittedly raunchy premise, but honestly there is not a whole lot of overt sex to be found. It's more of a story about the dangers of obsession and worship without love. It had to be set in the world of porn, because that's where these themes become fully realized. "Johnny Rebel" is based on an amalgam of three very real personalities in the porn industry that ruled gay porn in the '90s—Jeff Stryker, Ryan Idol, and Ken Ryker. All three were "gay for pay" by their own admission, and they behaved a lot like the fictional "Johnny Rebel" with demands they would only do certain things on film (no kissing, no servicing other men, and always on top). Like his real-life counterparts, Johnny is even given a girlfriend. She is a stripper named Julie who uses the stage name Babylon (Roxanne Day, Nightstalker). She never gets any closer to Johnny than poor Sean does—the point of the movie is that anyone in love with Johnny will always come in second to Johnny's love of himself.
The Fluffer gets many things right about the porn industry. They shot the film in the headquarters of a real gay porn company, and they use practical locations from real studios where porn is made. Most shocking, the shoots shown in the film seem real because everyone seems bored and mechanical. They all know this is only a product (except the misguided romantic Sean). There's a sense that the filmmakers knew a lot about the industry, which is apparent from some of their casting choices. Adding to the reality of the situation are several cameos by real personalities from the adult industry. Famed drag queen/director ChiChi LaRue is present with his band, and so are gay porn luminaries such as Chad Donavan, Zach Richards, Derek Cameron, Karen Dior, Chris Green, Ron Jeremy, and many others. Ironically, at one point porn actor Cole Tucker comes in to replace Johnny in a film, a case of art imitating real life. Tucker was an openly gay real estate agent from Boston who, in his early forties, became the #1 male porn star in the late '90s as a result of his unrelenting assertion that he was all man and really gay and proud of it. The industry changed, and the "gay for pay" actors fell out of favor as real gay men stepped into the limelight. People like Ryan Idol and Jeff Stryker found themselves in theatrical plays struggling to find new gigs away from an industry which had turned on them.
Apart from the porn cameos, the film has some surprising celebrity turns as well—Debbie Harry (Videodrome) as a strip club owner, Taylor Negron (The Last Boy Scout) as a porn art director, Richard Riehle (the dad in Grounded for Life) as a director of gay porn, Tim Bagley (The Mask) as the owner of Men of Janus, and Robert Walden (All the President's Men, Lou Grant) as a casting agent. It's great fun to see them all in a small indie film with such a seedy subject. The leads do well, especially Scott Gurney, who nails the egocentric porn star as well as the flat acting during porn scenes. Michael Cunio is the heart and soul of the movie, and is believable as a man lost in the haze of a new world. The women threaten to steal the movie; they certainly steal any scene they are in. Roxanne Day as Julie / Babylon is a revelation, and a study of punk rock realness. Then there is Adina Porter (Body Shots), as Sean's best friend, who always knows how to work a dry sense of humor. It's ironic the women in this film are the wisest and most fully-realized characters.
The nicest thing about the movie is how everybody knows the score, and the directors keep it real and grounded. Sean knows Johnny is bad for him, and Julie knows he's bad for her. Hell, even Johnny knows he's bad for people. There's a self-awareness the film has that keeps it from becoming a silly romp through the world of sex films (see Orgazmo). But the film's greatest strength is also ultimately its greatest weakness. The Fluffer is so good at showing an extreme narcissist and his worshipers that we have a hard time connecting to the story. Because the film never really gets too hardcore, all we are left with are psychological effects. That makes The Fluffer less sexy than it could have been. Its characters simply seem desperate and unlikable at all turns. That's real life in porn, though. The Fluffer is an unflinching look at a subject, and some are going to be turned off by it because they either do not like porn, or they romanticize it.
The DVD for The Fluffer includes a widescreen transfer that is nice to look at, except for some edge enhancement and minimal artifacts and grain. There's a stereo mix that delivers the dialogue and music well. Tons of extras are included, including a commentary with directors Wash West and Richard Glatzer, deleted scenes, a photo gallery, a Johnny Rebel scrapbook, a gallery of the false porn covers they made, and some deleted and expanded footage concentrating on Johnny Rebel. Nice package, and a great cover that should sell well to the Midwest farmers.
The film that is dodgy, but still a find—Coming Out
Film score = 93
Next up is a foreign film that has the historical importance of being the only gay themed film made in communist-era East Berlin, 1989's Coming Out. It's about a high school teacher named Philipp (Matthias Freihof, Führer Ex) who is deeply in the closet. He is engaged, and living a "normal" life. Then one night he stumbles into a flamboyant East Berlin underground gay club, and he falls down the rabbit hole. The movie deals with his coming to terms with his love for a gay youth named Matthias (Dirk Kummer). The whole movie is an examination of real life for homosexuals before The Wall was torn down. It's sad, moving, and feels like a documentary. Director Heiner Carrow insisted on filming in real locations, often with hidden cameras that resulted in real homosexuals "playing" themselves in the movie. Cinema "very gay," anyone? There are two pretty well-shot sex scenes, but nothing too graphic. Seems the "sexy" in the box collection is being stretched a little here, but at least it's a classic.
Coming Out is a moving work, and is very personal. Despite the fact it is yet another entry in the over-crowded "coming out of the closet" genre, it wins points for showing us what it was like in East Berlin when being gay was something criminal and hateful. The characters are all completely believable, and I especially loved the climax of the movie. While Philipp freaks out about the impact of being gay on his life, an older gay man reminds him that at least he won't end up in a concentration camp where he could be dead. Nothing like an older, wiser man to slap you back into reality.
The film looks okay, though its age shows a little. The transfer is a cropped widescreen which is probably the original aspect ratio. Colors look soft, and there is grain and some scratches now and then. But Coming Out is a historic, brave film considering when it was made, and deserves to be seen by today's gay community. Extras include "gay and lesbian hot spots of Berlin," text essays on the director and the importance of the film, and a montage of important movies from East Germany (many directed by Carrow, who was prolific and a real auteur). This could be a candidate for the Criterion collection, but unfortunately we have to settle for this decidedly okay treatment of the film. It's great that it's here on DVD.
The film that is nearly unwatchable—Midnight Dancers
Film score = 75
I knew that after enjoying the first two films, chances were good that Midnight Dancers was going to be pretty bad. The law of averages prevailed, and it is indeed the weakest of the collection. The film is a foreign entry from the Philippines that was shot on location in Manila in 1994, and stars unknowns. It's the story of a young man named Sonny, who comes home from studying to live with his family and two brothers, Joel and Dennis, in the city. The two boys that stayed home are dancing in a gay strip club downtown, and one night they invite Sonny to come along. Sonny falls down the rabbit hole, and joins his two brothers on stage as a sexy macho dancer. The owner also pimps the boys out, but they don't seem to mind. It means extra money, and, as with the "gay for pay" star of The Fluffer, it becomes a way to get cash and feel important. But the consequences? One boy ends up in a gang, another ends up dating a drag queen, and the third wants out after realizing at 23 that he is getting too old for the job.
It's shot much like Coming Out, with that whole cinema "very gay" feel. The club looks real, the city is gritty, and the boys and their customers all look like they were found on the street. The film wound up banned in its original country of origin. In 1995 it was discovered and entered into the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. It's an ambitious work, but hard to watch because it seems so real and unflinching. It's hardly sexy, unless you have a thing for Philippine youths in skimpy briefs dancing around on stage. There are hardly any sex scenes; most of the sex is only implied. It's almost too real to enjoy, and it's not entertaining because it needs to be explained better. Midnight Dancers runs a little long at almost two hours, and wears out its welcome in this world of sleazy Manila.
What really makes the film unwatchable is the transfer. It's a grainy, poor, full screen job with subtitles that are often unreadable. You lose much of the story because you can't tell what people are saying. I'm sure it's an important film historically, but it looks like crud and it's hard to follow. There are no extras at all to be found, so you are on your own as to what it all means. I suggest watching with someone from the Philippines to help translate for you. That could help. And if they wear underwear and can show you how to do the sexy dance in the movie, all the better.
I recommend the box set only if all the movies sound appealing to you. All three titles are available individually for sale or rental through many outlets. Sexy Gay Favorites seems like a strange title for a box set that could be labeled anything else. Maybe "Films That Make a Social Statement About Sex" would be more apt, but it certainly wouldn't sell well. The irony is that all three of these titles are important in some way, so it is nice to see them released. First Run Features is to be commended for putting these films out to the public. I wish they would treat them with more care, and find groupings that made sense when they issue these sets.
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Scales of Justice, Coming Out
Perp Profile, Coming Out
Studio: First Run Features
Distinguishing Marks, Coming Out
• "Best of Gay and Lesbian Berlin"
Scales of Justice, Midnight Dancers
Perp Profile, Midnight Dancers
Studio: First Run Features
Distinguishing Marks, Midnight Dancers
Scales of Justice, Fluffer
Perp Profile, Fluffer
Studio: First Run Features
Distinguishing Marks, Fluffer
• Commentary with Directors Wash West and Richard Glatzer
Review content copyright © 2005 Brett Cullum; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.