Judge George Hatch thought it best to watch this film with a slab of raw steak covering one eye. By the time it was over, the Judge had a taste for blood, and found himself gnawing at the gristle around the T-bone.
Shiner is one of the most unique independent films I've seen in quite some time, and it unsettled me in ways I'd never anticipated.
In his commentary, director Christian Calson claims he "wanted to make Shiner a very violent and sexual film…one that I realized had to be relentless and disturbing. I wanted the audience to be angry and outraged, but also feel like shameless voyeurs. We were responsible for making the film, but they are responsible for watching it."
Calson managed to push all the right buttons.
Facts of the Case
The project started out as a short film about a boxer and a stalker, but Calson began getting other ideas that had connections to his basic premise, and they enabled him to expand on the theme of intimate and interpersonal violence. Using a non-traditional narrative technique, Shiner weaves together the stories of three couples who use physical and psychological abuse to enhance their sexual relationships.
Danny (Derris Nile) and Tony (Scott Stepp) are two straight guys who get off by fag-bashing any gay man they can trick into a dark alleyway. The film opens with a brutal assault on Charles (Ryan Sotoros), but this is just a prelude and a homoerotic stimulant to their own private encounters.
Danny wears his bruises like badges, and his bloody wounds are like war paint. He provokes a more-than-willing Tony to keep punching his chest and stomach until he drops to his knees in pain. Then, while masturbating, he begs Tony to punch him in the face until he "breaks skin" and gives him a good "shiner." Danny has his own apartment, but after these intense knockout sessions, he often cuddles up against Tony, burying his face in Tony's bloodstained T-shirt and boxer shorts.
In one particularly gruesome scene, Tony and Danny help a friend move a near-dead man from one spot to another. In the backseat, Danny cradles the man's head in his lap, caressing the blood and fondling the raw tissue of his face. Danny later tells Tony, "He was beautiful. Magnificent! The guy's teeth were ready to fall out. I could move the whole top section with my fingers." Tony is both revolted and intrigued by Danny's identification with another man who had, literally, been beaten to a pulp. Just how far are Danny and Tony willing to push the limits of their relationship?
When the bashed Charles tracks down Danny and Tony for revenge, he challenges their "straight" relationship. Danny says, "I don't like guys. I don't like him. I just like getting beat." At gunpoint, Charles forces them to strip and perform a mutual act to show him that they, too, "are just a couple of queers." Danny and Tony recall images of their punching bouts, and both feel an erotic charge. They quickly disarm Charles, tie him up and straddle his body. Danny, of course, wants a solid haymaker to his chest. But now Tony has a new taste for pain and says, "No. You hit me. And make it a good one, because you're only getting one shot." You'll have to see for yourself how this last request plays out.
In the second segment, Danny's friend, Tim (David Zelina), is an amateur boxer, and the most damage he suffers is an occasional cracked lip. Tim openly admires Danny's battered face and scars; and Shiner obliquely indicates the he envies Danny's ability to sustain such punishment on a regular basis with total disregard for any bodily or facial damage. Tim is, at heart, a coward. He uses his Adonis-like looks and body to attract the attention of anyone whose admiration may compensate for his own lack of confidence and low self-esteem.
Tim knows that Bob (Nicholas T. King), the young attendant at his gym, has been "secretly" watching him work out, shower, and change in the locker room. He's even aware that Bob has stolen items from his locker for sexual gratification. Boxer Tim knows that towel-boy Bob is the prime candidate who can satisfy his desperate need for personal adoration. Yet he constantly rejects Bob's shy requests to simply "go out for a beer together sometime," and, in one lengthy scene, Tim literally pins Bob to the wall in a secluded underground garage and taunts him. "Yeah. I've been approached by queers before. But what exactly do you want from me, Bob?"
Bob feels that he has the upper hand in this cat-and-mouse game. He's watched Tim walk naked around the gym, slamming open the doors of janitor's closets and toilet stalls, and calling out his name. "I know you're looking at me from someplace, Bob. I'll show you what I know you want. You just have to ask for it." Exhibitionist Tim craves to see the expressions on the faces of anyone admiring his physical attributes, his tight boxer's body, his ruggedly handsome good looks; and the few who may even be turned on by that occasional split lip.
Bob, on the other hand, is strictly a voyeur, and uses his glimpses and memories of Tim to spark his masturbatory fantasies. His voyeuristic intent is to watch without being watched in return. When Tim "stalks" Bob and breaks into his house, he strips himself naked and challenges Bob, "Take a good look! Isn't this what you want?" Bob, however, immediately covers his eyes. They both reveal their psychological motives and emotional needs during this confrontation, and it ends on a surprisingly tender note.
Unlike the "Danny and Tony" segment, there is no bloodshed at all in "The Boxer and the Stalker," but an atmosphere of threat and pending violence imbues every scene between Tim and Bob. Add to this the sense of frustration both men feel: Bob is trying harder to seduce Tim out into the open—without using a towel or his hands as a fig leaf. Tim is saving that "peek" as a last resort, thinking, If I allow you to look at me, so I can watch you watching me, then I'll do it. In a way, this makes Tim even more of a loser because, basically, he's been reduced to hustling—not for money, but for attention.
The third couple involves Elaine (Conny Van Dyke), who is Tony's roommate and Tim's sister, and Reg (Seth Harrington), a man she's just started dating. This is the weakest and least satisfying section of the film. The characters have no depth, and their relationship is nicely summed up on the back of the Shiner keepcase: "When an argument turns physically violent, it takes their intimacy to a new level." It all comes down to "I'll smack your boobs if you punch my pecs. Then let's eat some cake!" Elaine and Reg seem to have been created to point out that heterosexuals have similar "kinks"—or, perhaps, to just pad out the running time. I'll opt for the latter.
Director Calson admits having photographed all of their bedroom scenes himself. Reg and Elaine are bathed in a soft-focused golden glow, and it looks absolutely terrible, especially when compared with the imaginative cinematography by Pyongson Yim, who lensed the rest of the film. She knows how best to deploy spot lighting to enhance the ambience and colors of on-location shoots rather than wash them out; and she has an uncanny eye for composition. Most impressive are the scenes in an underground parking lot, the gymnasium, and nighttime alleyways.
Editor Jon Teboe does a terrific job of weaving together the strands of the three relationships for maximum effect. Scenes build to physical, emotional and sexual climaxes; and, by crosscutting at pivotal moments, Teboe heightens the intensity of pain combined with pleasure and sexuality, thus bringing out the psychological changes taking place within the characters. But, still, those "golden" scenes with Reg and Elaine are downright distracting, and often neutralize the sharply edited impact of those involving the other two couples. I would really like to see Calson and Teboe deliver a compact one-hour-plus version of Shiner, without this irrelevant and poorly executed episode.
Conny Van Dyke and Seth Harrington are both attractive, but have little to do in the underwritten roles of Elaine and Reg. Scott Stepp and Derris Nile are spot on as Tony and Danny, and they make an almost unimaginable relationship ring true. Nicholas T. King and, especially David Zelina, as Bob and Tim the boxer deliver the most nuanced performances. Zelina is a powerhouse of brooding, internal frustration on the verge of a meltdown. His glaring expressions, line delivery, and body language make Tim all the more volatile and terrifying.
Shiner flashes a lot of male D&A. Some filmmakers try to pander full frontal nudity as a selling point. Sorry, folks, but there is nothing in this film that is in any way gratuitous. Should you choose to watch it for that sole reason, you'll have to contend with two complex storylines and some damn good acting, both of which are guaranteed to keep your eyes well above the waistline.
The anamorphic transfer on TLA Releasing's DVD is quite amazing for a film shot on high-definition video. All of the footage by cinematographer Pyongson Yim has excellent color saturation and sharply defined images. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo makes for crisp and clear dialogue, so there is no need for subtitles. The quirky score by Hydraulic Clown Head provides appropriate background music and some jarring cues during crucial scenes.
The Extras include "Experiment in Sleep Deprivation," a pointless 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette about the making of Shiner. The commentary by director Calson and some of the actors is both funny and informative; in some cases, Calson points out a few things I'd rather not have known. During one of the "Danny and Tony" beatings, Danny gets punched so hard, he spits blood all over Tony's face. This didn't bother me at all when I watched the film for the first time. But during the commentary, Calson refers to it as a "blood orgasm." That image and statement haunted me for almost two weeks. Four trailers for TLA Releasing's DVD and current theatrical releases round out the package.
Shiner is an excellent example of guerrilla filmmaking at its best. Shooting in just under two weeks, Calson and his cast and crew worked long hours into the early morning, often under the most difficult circumstances. The sets reflect the extremely low budget, but to boost the look of the film, Calson infiltrated exclusive gymnasiums, executive bathrooms, and "secure" parking lots and garages—all after hours and without a permit.
Calson takes to task anyone who refers to Shiner as "a gay Fight Club." The centerpiece of the film is "The Boxer and the Stalker," but the sensationalism and intentional exploitation of Danny and Tony's story overwhelmed audiences and critics alike. There is a lot of blood in this segment, obviously fake, but still enough to make some squeamish. It's the brutally bizarre nature of their relationship that holds one's interest, and gives it a slight edge over the bloodless, but more intimate give-and-take of Tim and Bob.
Shiner may be a little rough around the edges, but it's a well-made independent film that is two-thirds successful, with the other one-third being negligible enough to dismiss.
Not guilty! Shiner is a bold, one-of-a-kind cinematic experiment. And I'm not just saying that because someone might "hit me" for stating otherwise.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
• Commentary by Director Christian Calson and Selected Cast
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