film note: The Graffiti Artist

Art boys are in the street

The Graffiti Artist
Directed by James Bolton
80 min, USA, 2004

American cinema contains plenty of stories about ordinary gay guys of a particular type. You might not think so hearing gay critics whine about it. The movies generally follow a immediately recognizable narrative arc: they are either coming out stories or love stories or both, peopled with often stock characters that even your average suburban heterosexual teenager would recognize. These gay characters are almost to a one defined by a cultural allegiance to the Urban Gay Ghetto, or UGG for short, and they almost always end up embracing uncritically all that goes with living in an UGG.

But what about characters who have no such allegiance, who make connections with others based on different shared affinities, not simply their sexualities or their addictions to dance clubs and contemporary fashion. In fact, what about those people who, because of their affinities, are completely unable to live comfortably in an UGG? Where are their stories?

There are a few. My Own Private Idaho – Criterion Collection comes to mind. Long out of print it’s finally available in a pristine Criterion version. The Slaughter Rule, about the relationship between an older man, who may or may not be queer, and a younger man, who may or may not care, is also on my short list of stories that needed to be told.

Both these movies share some things in common. The characters are not immediately or easily likeable, although the performances are often powerful, particularly David Morse in Slaughter, and these characters are certainly not defined by their sexualities. Desires, yes. They are often conflicted or even anguished, the implication being, given their choices and their affinities, is that they have no place to be. Both movies nevertheless depict in close detail their particular milieu; in the case of Idaho, it’s the Seattle rent boy scene; in the case of Slaughter Rule, there’s no gay scene visible anywhere. It’s rural Montana where rough-and-tumble six-man football is the driving obsession and the definer of masculinity.

The Graffiti Artist similarly immerses viewers in a specific place and distinctive atmosphere. It’s set literally on the streets of Portland and Seattle. The obsession of the main protagonist Nick is tagging and graffiti and along the way we learn a little about that art and lifestyle. Nick is homeless and alone – we never learn why but we can guess – until he meets another tagger who shares his love of graffiti art. When Nick first spots Jesse, it’s the lowest-key cruise imaginable. His new white friend ends up being well-off though, with money provided by his mother, has his own apartment – tagged and painted on the inside of course – and he invites Nick to stay with him. They wander around Seattle collaborating on public pieces of art, riding skateboards, eating at Seattle coffee shops and occasionally stealing for their art. Nick’s attraction to Jesse is obvious, although rendered subtly by lead actor Ruben Bansie-Snellman. After a long day spent tagging and painting the town, Jesse invites Nick into his bed. They have the sort of sex that boys have who have previously primarily identified as straight. It’s easy to tell whose dreams are coming true, though, from the close-ups of tightly-gripped shoulders and arms and the low but lust-filled gasps.

Predictably enough, for Jesse the sex is a one-off; for Nick, well, he thought it was the start of something, and says so. He’s no victim, though, and makes only two attempts to pursue Jesse, to ask him what the fuck happened. When Jesse finally does reject him Nick comes out with the movie’s funniest line, and also one that demarcates how far he’s willing to go: “Dude, you kissed me!” In other words, if you want to make a go of it I’m with you; but if you’re too much of a chickenshit to admit you’re the one who put the moves on me, then fuck you.

Nick’s obviously got bigger things on his mind than wasting his time pursuing some possible closet case. So what if Nick’s homeless and no one knows him except from his tag? That seems to be the way he wants it. With the final sequence – Nick painting his manifesto on the side of a train, just after spending four months in juvy for graffiti crimes – the film disconnects sexuality from self-actualization, makes it secondary to just doing cool shit.

That’s not the sort of lesson we’re used to getting in typical gay cinema.

Still from The Graffiti Artist

The Graffiti Artist – 2004