Could using talking mouse puppets truly open up discussion of an emotionally tricky subject? Emily Morus-Jones’ short animated film “Diomysus” entertainingly shows the advantages of such a technique.
The subject of Morus-Jones’ short is polyamory and the people who are in such relationships. Popular misconceptions about the sexual practice include perceiving it as glorified libidinousness and thinking such relations are weaker than monogamy. The men and women whose words and voices are heard on screen strongly beg to differ. Consent from all parties is a huge part of polyamory. Also, just because monogamy is the most frequently seen type of human relationship out there doesn’t mean it’s the only possible form of stable human coupling.
If what’s described sounds like a talking heads film, that’s because “Diomysus” is essentially one. But not seeing the human faces of the speakers means the viewer doesn’t get distracted judging the speaker positively or negatively based on their physical appearance. There’s also a greater likelihood of the viewer actually engaging with the meaning of the speaker’s words and “unconventional” ideas.
Jealousy does turn out to be an issue in polyamorous relationships, but not as a disincentive to engage in such relationships. Rather, the flaring of such emotions prompts self-examination to determine whether what’s being felt is actually envy.
Fortunately, Morus-Jones doesn’t smother her film in complete self-seriousness. The familiar relationship cliches about being trapped or having one’s cake and eating it becomes fodder for light lampooning. Contrary to repressive scolds’ paranoia, “Diomysus” isn’t interested in “recruiting” anyone to become polyamorous. It’s more interested in offering a window to see the polyamorous as they really are.
Babatunde Apalowo’s film “All The Colours Of The World Are Between Black And White” takes viewers to contemporary Nigeria. Solitary motorcycle delivery driver Bambino and betting shop owner Bawa are definite friends. Could these two men reach a richer emotional connection? In Nigeria, homosexuality’s illegality puts anyone even accused of the crime at serious danger of open beatings and.even public immolation. Simple acts such as a wristwatch gift may lead somewhere deeper, but excruciating visual detail injures viewer curiosity.
At least the Black protagonists of Stephen Winter’s “Chocolate Babies” have the power to attack those who oppress them, even if the attacks are only satirical in nature. The 25th anniversary restoration of this 1996 film shows time has not subtracted the power of this entertainingly anarchic tale of gays acting in the best zero f**ks tradition.
Max Mo-Fresh, Larva, Jamela, Lady Marmalade, and Sam are a group of queer activists and friends living in 1990s New York City. The group launches satirical attacks on indifferent and hostile politicians over such issues as housing shortages and their inaction in dealing with the AIDS crisis. But while the authorities helplessly sputter about the activities of these “f***ot terrorists,” the activists’ real challenge might be sticking together as a group of friends if nothing else.
If the plot description sounds sketchy, that’s because “Chocolate Babies” is not an exercise in revolutionary activism porn. The group’s activism comes out of the “Me And Bobby McGee” school of motivation, where freedom is treated as another word for nothing left to lose. Max, Larva, Jamela, and Lady Marmalade have nothing to lose because they’re poor, Black, and HIV positive. For people like them, they have no access to life-saving AIDS drugs.
Sam is a different case. He’s Asian, HIV-negative, and Max’s lover. His idealism leads him to project onto Max’s group more political effectiveness than they actually possess. Max’s almost comical detention of a city councilman demonstrates that Carlos the Jackal need not break out of prison to size up a possible competitor.
Then again, the personal flaws and quirks of Max’s group loom as a far larger defining characteristic than their political actions. Drag queen Lady Marmalade has a drug addiction problem. Larva’s sarcastic wit and aristocratic airs mask a reluctance to take risky action. Sam is dangerously naive. Jamela worries about her baby’s future and the cat-herding dynamics of the group. Max has adopted a nihilistic attitude towards life. Yet these flaws matter little compared to the group’s unwillingness to let the social systems around them assume their lives don’t matter.
Sam’s supposed political purity does seem questionable given his one-night stand with his boss Councilman Melvin Freeman. The Councilman is particularly odious given that he may be willing to crack homophobic jokes with colleagues yet is on the down low. Like many ambitious politicians, Freeman’s primary concern is using anything and everything to advance his career interests. Whether Sam joins him on the ride or not is ultimately a secondary concern.
Sam and Max’s relationship provides the movie’s emotional core, even if it is a far cry from that of a similarly named freelance police duo. Sam’s frustrated by Max’s inability to take his big revolutionary idea seriously; Max is painfully aware of the gap between how little time he has left to live and what he can do in that time. And yet, when the viewer sees both characters’ relationships to their respective parents, the similarities between them become clearer.
“Chocolate Babies” is not a film for those who prefer the energy of their stories channeled like Mapquest directions. Its storytelling style is more akin to a jazz group composition, where the individual members of Max’s group are given dramatic solos to individually shine. Larva gets the film’s best one-liners, such as one involving his being the only HIV+ person he knows who’s gained weight since getting the disease. Seeing the group hang out together, whether partying on a rooftop with friends or having a picnic on the pier, may not advance the story yet feels like a precious moment worth experiencing.
The program notes mention that despite playing at SXSW and the Berlinale, “Chocolate Babies” had trouble finding a distributor. One does not need the distance of time to see how Winter’s film still resists the easy categorization and commodification that makes a film salable. Yet must all LGBTQ+ cinema be worth making only if it hews to the coming out story or the doomed romance genres? “Chocolate Babies” is the New Queer Cinema film that didn’t get its due alongside its cinematic contemporaries. Hopefully, this restoration will be greeted by an audience now ready for its “unsafe” attitude.
The opening minute of Elizabeth Purchell’s clip compilation film “Ask Any Buddy” lays out the best way to approach watching her film. That minute features a warning: “For your enjoyment, do not try to understand this film: there is nothing to understand. It is only real people doing real things and making them real together.”
The realness part of the warning might be a bit of a stretch. Purchell’s source material is over 125 gay pornographic films from the 1960s through the 1980s. The directors of these films include such well-known names as Pat Rocco and Wakefield Poole. There are plenty of shots of men with penises large enough to spur male viewers to textbook demonstrations of penis envy.
But Purchell’s compilation isn’t primarily aimed at helping the gay male viewer get off (although it’s doubtful she’d mind if that happened). Instead, it uses its gleaned moments to create a composite portrait of pre-AIDS gay life. If an organizing principle is needed, call it an ur-day of gay life during the days of 1970s liberation. A viewer will see cruising at decrepit waterfront warehouses, a trip to a bathhouse, evening at a gay bar, and even attempts at the right type of eye contact on the subway. More than a few clips are set in New York City. Historic context gets provided by a shot of Harvey Milk at a Pride Parade and a couple of references to late unlamented Florida homophobe Anita Bryant.
For viewers who lived through the period, the gathered images will bring back memories. For the newbies who’ve read accounts of the period but lacked context for understanding what various slang terms such as glory holes referred to, there will be images that will finally clue them in.
Celebratory might not be the right word to describe these scenes of covert sex, even given one oddly beautiful image of two men having sex in a waterfront warehouse’s shadows while a boat full of passengers zips by unaware. Surviving and realizing one’s desire might be more accurate given the period’s refusal to allow gays and lesbians to have PDAs onward in the same spaces as their straight counterparts. In a way, being able to satisfy personal sexual desire in a physically wretched space might be described as a quiet act of defiance.
Purchell, to her credit, also sprinkles in clips that prevent her compilation from displaying an ouroboros-like self-seriousness. Graffiti around a glory hole reads “Edith Head gives great wardrobe.” Indecision about choosing the right outfit for a Pride Parade trip leads to one choosy man revealing a nice bottom in a yummy pair of red boxer shorts.
“Ask Any Buddy” offers no penetrating sociological explanation of gay life in the period covered by its many clips. What it entertainingly delivers is a fun opportunity to vicariously experience and cherish the joys of life as a gay man in the pre-AIDS era.
(“Diomysus” screens as part of the “Fun In Shorts: The Joker Tarot” program screening at 11:00 AM on June 18, 2023. “All The Colours Of The World Are Between Black And White” screens at 4:00 PM on June 18, 2023. “Chocolate Babies” screens at 1:00 PM on June 19, 2023. All these screenings take place at the Castro Theatre. In addition, both the “Fun In Shorts: The Joker Tarot” and “Chocolate Babies” will be available for an online streaming encore between June 24 – July 2, 2023.
(“Ask Any Buddy” screens at 10:00 PM on June 20, 2023 at the Roxie Theatre.
(For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go here.)Filed under: Arts & Entertainment