Notes on 7 gay short films: Men From the Boys

With at least three exceptional shorts, FilmDoo's gay short compilation, Men From the Boys, is more than worth a look.

New Queer Visions: Men From the Boys
Gay-themed short films by various directors
Distributed by FilmDoo on Vimeo

Cigano
Directed by David Bonneville
18 mins, Portugal, 2013

I’ve watched this short from Portugal twice now and I’m still no closer to understanding why it exists. Even more baffling is what it’s doing in a gay collection

A wealthy white guy (Sebastião) casually observes a group of Romani men and boys fooling around near where he parked his expensive car. The white guy realizes he has a flat tire. An observant young Romani man (Zé-Tó) offers to help and eventually insists that Sebastião give him a ride.


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Inside the car, the film then becomes a subtle game of chicken in which Zé-Tó teases Sebastião repeatedly about his assumed racism, classicism, and fear of poor people, while Sebastião, who barely speaks and emotes even less, tries to figure out a way to ditch Zé-Tó without coming right out and doing it or declaring his desire for it.

The film depicts these teasing behaviors as mildly threatening but it’s not clear that the rich white guy feels threatened at all, rather merely exasperated.

The scenario felt familiar to me as I’ve encountered Romani dudes in both the Czech Republic and Romania who either wanted to insinuate themselves into my apartment — you can guess at the possible reasons — or into my group of friends at a bar, or some other public place. Many of my closest buddies were Romani anyway, so they often took care of these situations for me.

Often these behaviors, although annoying to non-Romani, are nothing more than a form of ball-busting, or cultural challenges, or even just an impulse to be able to tell a good story afterward. Sometimes it’s something else.

Robin Campillo’s Eastern Boys dramatizes a similar encounter, although in that film’s case, the intent and the outcome is serious — and more dramatic than what happens in Cigano. Not all of the kids and young men in Campillo’s film are obviously Romani, either.

Cigan or cigano (gypsy, literally) can both be used as slurs in certain contexts, although I knew many Romani who used the term gypsy when they spoke about themselves in English. Based on what gets shown and not shown in this short film, I’d say the ambiguity is intended. But I would not argue too hard against a negative reading. Still, there’s some truth in the scenario if no insights.

A few quick close-ups tracking Zé’-Tó’s tanned harline, neck, and arms imply that Sebastião might be surreptitiously checking out the bod of his unwanted passenger. But since the POV isn’t exactly that of Sebastião and there’s only 3 or 4 of these shots, the meaning again feels ambiguous.

The final shot of Sebastião hurtling madly down a dirt road in the middle of a wooded area suggests ever so slightly that he’s taking Zé’-Tó to an outdoor gay cruising area, a la Stranger by the Lake, but again, it’s far from clear.

The only thing that is clear is that Sebastião is at least trying to turn the tables. Perhaps inhabitants of Lisbon would recognize the area. I didn’t and didn’t care that I didn’t. Whatever the reasons for revealing so little in Cigano, I found the film to be empty rather than suggestive.

On the other hand, director David Bonneville’s black, comic, horror short, Heiko (14 mins, Portugal 2008), which appeared in another gay shorts collection, Boys on Film 4: Protect Me From What I Want, starred a much younger and twinkier Jaime Freitas who plays Sebastião in Cigano. After a bout of drugged-up dancing to techno music in a high-rise, his title character ends up in a darker place.

Heiko exhibits some of the same arty evasions and occlusions of meaning but I found it to be funnier and more clever, not least in the blocky architectural editing patterns and shot constructions. IMDb viewers disagree, according it a 3.8 rating.

Talking to My Mother
Directed by Leon Le
18 mins, USA, 2014

Although an honorable attempt, this maudlin film left me unsatisfied, mostly because of its confusing structure.

A closeted Asian-American gay man converses with his mother on the day of his forced marriage to a woman. Mom helps him come out and be true to himself. Thanks to her guidance, he cancels the marriage.

The final scene depicts her burial and a kind of familial reconciliation at the gravesite, with the main character standing next to his male lover.

There are a couple twists created by a series of elliptical cuts that confound a traditional linear narrative structure, allowing us to consider one outcome while another slides into place. These fakeouts felt awkward rather than elegant. It’s also unclear whether the character’s mother is alive during the conversation that opens the film. There’s a couple quick, close-up inserts of a reel-to-reel audio tape recorder that suggests symbolically that the conversation between mother and son took place…in the past? In the son’s mind? It’s unclear and out of place in terms of narrative tactics.

Since the command of style and form of the film differs significantly from Le’s other entry in this omnibus, mentioned next, particularly in the performances and overall sorrowful tone, I’m guessing they were borrowed from genre films, perhaps Vietnamese, Le’s culture of origin.

Talking to My Mother might reward other viewers differently. Despite the above caveats, I still think it’s worth seeing.

Dawn
Directed by Leon Le
11 mins, USA, 2012

Director Leon Le’s Dawn unfortunately if more sparingingly employs the digital frame-rate manipulations that marred the look for me of Talking to My Mother. But the playing-around with linear time succeeded in surprising in more satisfying ways.

Scott Manuel Johnson’s performance as Tye impressed me, as well, although it provided an unfortunate contrast with the film’s other leads. Tye is a young African-American man in Los Angeles with a chip on his shoulder about perceived [Asian] racism and with a serious gap in his understanding of his brother’s sexuality.

I won’t go into any detail about the plot since the surprises provided by the storytelling, along with Johnson’s performance, are the main attractions.

Watch Dawn for free on Vimeo.

Spilt Milk
Directed by James Dunstan
23 mins, UK, 2016

I can highly recommend this sensitively directed short that manages to stuff quite a few plot details and character beats into its accomplished 22 minutes.

We’re shown the two central characters of the film first as children — a young girl runs from her father into the boat of a young boy who is just about to row out from a pier. He hides her and lies to her father who comes looking. The boy and girl then appear in the film as teenagers about to go to prom. They’re close, best friends but the boy is closeted and the girl is in love with him. During and after the events of the prom, the boy comes out (in a frock, no less, not a trope I’m particularly fond of) and we find out why the young girl had been running from her father, not just that one time but all her life.

Director James Dunstan imaginatively tells this poignant story mostly through the perspective of Scarlett, sensitvely played by Lucy Chappell. The pull on Scarlett of her love for Frankie (Tom Rhys Harries) and her need to rescue herself from her painful past and present eventually results in a formal divide, as well. Dunstan splits the screen to show Scarlett’s fantasy of prom night, in which Frankie finally kisses her, and the reality, in which Frankie loses his gay virginity to a classmate in the back of a car.

Editor Matthew Cole deserves a lot of credit for facilitating the deceptively easy storytelling. I thought it was a risk to cut directly from a shot of Scarlett in bed, mordantly pondering the future, to the first split-screen frame showing the curtains spanning the entryway to the high school prom. The shift could have been jarring but it works and rather than casting doubt on what we’re seeing, the contrast — in color pallette and saturation as well as location — suggests the entropic dangers of living too much in one’s head.

More impressive perhaps that Cole’s editing or Dunstan’s estimable direction of the young actors, cinematographer Kate Priestman gives Spilt Milk its specificity, its sheen, its dreaminess, its intimacy: the coraline pinks of Scarlett’s room, the purple-blacks of prom night, the autumnal palette and selective focus in the film’s outdoor opening scene, the perfect choice of a ‘scope/1:90:1 aspect ratio. This doesn’t look like the work of someone with only two other shorts in her reel. Priestman deserves a feature of her own.

Even more remarkable, Spilt Milk was a project at university.

Dinner Confession
Original title: Chin Mi Kao Pai
Directed by Chih-Jen Lin
12 mins, Taiwan, 2015

In a couple of aspects, Chih-Jen Lin’s Dinner Confession is the most ambitious and exciting entry in this omnibus if also counter-intuitively the simplest and most modest.

The film’s location is a couch in a living room where a Tawainese mother (Wen-Wen Yang) and her son (Kuan-yi Lee) are eating dinner. Director and cinematographer Chi-Jen Lin shoots this 12-minute film from only three camera setups. The main one is a mounted wide shot of the room. The other two are hand-held from either side of the sofa, shot more or less over the shoulders of the conversation’s participants. This shot-reverse-shot setup changes the framing by using a different focal length during key moments, enabling closer close-ups.

Although the camera could logically include other locations, it doesn’t. For instance, with the introduction of another character, Che’s best friend (and boyfriend, we discover), the camera remains fixed. Che answers the door behind the camera; Mom checks on the soup in the kitchen over to the right.

So Lin maintains a formalistic discipline that manages to be expressive of one thought: The importance of what takes place and what gets said in this banal setting.

The dinner confession consists of two coming-out moments for Che, one accidental. occasioned by his mom finding a men’s muscle mag in his room and one intentional, facilitated by Che’s best friend/boyfriend, played by Tsung-Hua Yeh. Mom continues questioning the pair about their activities together and eventually gets the answers she’s been fishing for.

At first I set out to praise the subtle script for its conciseness, its fulsome character beats, its authenticity, its emotionality. And it is emotional. With the absence of a score of any kind and without any distracting edits or showy camera movements or compositions, we’re free to concentrate on the experience laid out before us: Mom’s sadness, resignation, confusion, and compassion; Che’s anger, embarrassment, defensiveness, and finally a tinge of resentment against his friend for spilling the beans without consulting him first.

But all of this was achieved without a script. An after-the-film, before-the-credits title states that it’s improv! Of course, one clue that it was improv is the actor playing mom could not possibly be old enough to have a teenage son. Yet I quickly stopped noticing. Realizing that, Chih-Jen Lin’s film feels like the standout on Men With the Boys.

Pittsburgh
Directed by Rory Dering
18 mins, USA, 2013

The mysteriously titled Pittsburgh depicts the breakup scene between a deaf gay man, who’s comfortable with his sexuality and his love for the other man in this scene (because scene is what it is) — a confused, closeted, possibly bisexual dude who won’t commit.

I liked the incisive dialogue, up to a point, although it read like the intellectualized version of what actually goes down in situations like these; and I loved that all of it was signed. But it’s flatly dramatized, the performances sentimentalized, and the film is just ugly. It would work better as a series of medium close-ups in a dark room with spotlit faces. That’s the theatrical setup I imagined after I watched it a couple times.

Also, I appreciate “found” mise-en-scène, but come on, figure out a way to shoot within it that doesn’t shout, “We had no money and the person who was originally supposed to shoot it didn’t show up. We had to use our phones!”

Kiss Me Softly
Original title: Kus me zachtjes
Directed by Anthony Schatteman
16 mins, Belgium, 2012

Although I initially dismissed it for its ostensible familiarity, after watching it several times I’ve come to realize that it’s perhaps the strongest conventional narrative on this compilation. It’s certainly the most like a short story in terms of idiosyncratic character details — the game-show loving mom of a gay son who’s bullied at school has a secret boyfriend and an embarrassing, boorish, and of course, homophobic father who wears a toupee.

What I like most about the short is the amount of time given to allow the character of Jasper to think, to contemplate, to ponder and look at himself. Something is on his mind, something more than just the sum of the people in his life or the things happening to him. Or not happening. He’s on the verge of deciding a course of action. We don’t find out what until the last shot during which, again, director Anthony Schatteman and editor Thijs Van Nuffel allow the camera to linger on Jasper and his father’s faces. The final frame belongs to Jasper, though, in some ways an inscrutable character. Actor Ezra Fieremans manages to convey calm defiance and subdued supplication all at once. It’s a unique coming out moment and worth waiting for.

Schatteman has made one other short film with Fieremans, Follow Me, playing the same character, Jasper. I’m going to have to track that one down, as well.


Despite some of my misgivings expressed above, Men from the Boys is well-worth checking out. All the films have at least some redeeming facet.



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