Friday, September 23, 2016

Celebrate Bisexuality Day Special - THE RUBBER GUN (1977)

I normally don't participate in unofficial holidays, such as National Kite Day or National Hot Dog Day or National Prank The General Populace To Celebrate Your Bizarre Fetish As An Unofficial Holiday Day.  It's not that I hate fun or holidays, it's just that I never know about these things until the day is half over and there are so many of them that even if I wanted to keep up with them it'd be just a tinge less than impossible.  That being said, earlier today I opened up Facebook and in my Trending feed was a notice for Celebrate Bisexuality Day, an unofficial holiday that I'd not only missed until half the day was over but had also never heard of before.  And you know what?  It's high time for a bit of biwareness.  And it's also high time for me to get that one last foot out of the closet.

My good friends and close family already know that I'm bisexual but I almost never bring it up in conversation and haven't bothered to come out to colleagues and other acquaintances.  My usual tack is that my sexual orientation is almost never relevant to the kinds of discussions and situations I find myself in during the day, and it's the kind of information that I don't like having to talk about without a good reason; I simply have no reason to talk about it.  It's part of my general social and political attitude towards how I feel sexual orientation should be treated, which is as a harmless cosmetic attribute of daily life that has little effect on others and doesn't affect how people go about their business.  I'm not a particularly political person to begin with, considering myself someone that focuses on ethics rather than machinations and posturing, and when I came out I realized that I was suddenly forced to have an opinion on a political issue at a time where I would much rather be left alone.  The thing about "coming out" is that you don't just come out once, you make a decision whether or not to come out to every new person you meet for the rest of your life.  Anybody in the Queer* populace who's had the unfortunate experience of being asked point blank if they're gay, as I have been, knows what I'm talking about, and it takes a great deal of patience not to just snap back, "I dunno - are you?!" and walk out of the room.  It's just a rude question 99% of the time, kind of like asking someone if they use toilet paper or how frequently they masturbate.  It infuriates me that sexual orientation is a political issue at all, and in an ideal world people wouldn't have to take sides and make stands based on a flimsy connection with who you sleep with and who you vote for.

And then there's that "taking sides" thing, another reason I don't talk about my sexuality much.  Few things make me feel like I've been unjustly nudged out of the room like the notion of having to pick sides of either being straight or gay.  I "pass" for straight almost all the time, not because I'm trying to appear that way but because I simply grew into my personality and didn't change it very much when I came out - if anything I just became happier and more self-confident.  I'm sure quite a few people I interact with very frequently would be a bit shocked if I gave them the scoop, and a good number of them would suspect, vocally or secretly, that I'm faking it and am either straight and just want attention or gay and playing it safe.  The public perception of bisexuality, while definitely improved vastly over the decades, still clings to some creaky misconceptions.  Female bisexuality is largely treated as a novelty, something to titillate straight men more than a real aspect of the women themselves, or a phase that they'll get over once they meet Mr. Right.  At the other end of the spectrum male bisexuality is treated as the aforementioned ruse, or, in the case of media depictions, a perversity that hides sociopathy or malice.  

This latter version of male bisexuality got me to thinking back on all the Queer characters I'd seen in fiction and take a hard look at them in search of that elusive character, a bisexual who's not closeted and is a positive presence in the story.  This is much harder to find than you might think, especially with how many positive, assured gay characters we've seen in recent years.  The times are definitely a-changing, so much so that Archie comics, one of the most resiliently old-school child-oriented comics around, introduced an openly gay male character a few years ago, Kevin Keller, and not only was the response in some circles overwhelmingly adoring some of his comics sold out (I'd also argue that he has no personality outside of his orientation, but whatevs).  On the TV series Mr. Robot, the boss of Elliot, the main character, is gay, and as the series progresses he ends up being the only completely kind, decent character in the show.  Heck, ParaNorman's side characters include a gay guy who's orientation is only revealed in a throwaway line at the end of the movie, a first for a mainstream family flick.  Meanwhile, female bisexuals in movies and TV are almost never treated with more depth than with that dark-eyed waif on House who has a long-term romance with her irritating male hunk colleague but'll do a belly button shot off a stripper if she think it'll boost ratings.  There's a lot of inconsequential female bisexuality in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland but its inclusion is pointless and kind of distracting, only adding to the vast pit of shrieking hell that is that film's innumerable problems.  Lena Dunham's semi-autobiographical Hannah Horvath in Girls has a handful of sexual moments with other women throughout the series but it adds little to her character except to reflect her scatterbrained lust for social adventurousness and flighty immaturity that the show depicts as part of her whole generation's emotional deficiencies.  As for male bisexuality there's...well, there's Frank Underwood in House of Cards, but his attraction to men serves mainly to add yet another sword of Damacles over his head rather than add anything substantial to his character and serves more as a refection of his lust for power and control than anything else.  A case could be made for the protagonists of Brokeback Mountain, both of whom maintain marriages with women during their decades-long affair, but the environment they're in is so repressive that they're obliged to bend over backwards to maintain a facade of normalcy and Jake Gyllenhaal's character is only shown having any real interest in men.  An interesting case can be seen in The Disappearance of Alice Creed, a kidnapping three-hander wherein two men kidnap the daughter of a rich man for ransom, only for one of them to reveal himself as her former lover and tells her he'll keep her from getting hurt and plans on splitting the money with her.  However, it's later revealed that he and the other kidnapper are lovers themselves, and the layers of deception and twisted alliances grow heavier and heavier as the movie progresses.  It was a really interesting use of the format and the movie did a good job of painting the first kidnapper as truly torn between his past love and current one.  It's also a use of bisexuality as a symbolic anchor for the themes of the story, and while it was done very well in the film the men are still the villains of the piece and the situation eventually blows up in everyone's faces.  An odd example is the 1990's computer game Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh, wherein an office drone at a secretive company tries to solve a series of gruesome murders in his workplace while at the same time sleeping with a female coworker and sheepishly growing attracted to a gay male colleague.  In the finale (SPOILERS) it's revealed that the Big Secret of the company has to do with alien experimentation and that the protagonist is actually an alien/human hybrid borne out of an accident.  His sexuality adds up to little more than a reflection of his split identity, and while he gets to have a pair of wild, fetishy sex scenes with women he gets little more than an attempted kiss with his male crush, only to see said crush get killed seconds later.  I suppose you could point to 1982's Making Love, once a very controversial film, where Michael Ontkean and Kate Jackson's marriage is threatened by Ontkean having an affair with Harry Hamlin, but this late-blooming sexuality thing is the entire plot of the film and therefore assumes the role of the "villain".

After much thought (which leaves out butt-tons of material that could have better examples than the ones I'm about to give) I could only think of one instance apiece in film where a male or female protagonist is bisexual, they are unquestionably a positive influence in the story, and their sexuality isn't the entire plot or brought up more for symbolic purposes than as a legitimate character trait.  For women the example is a bit shaky as the film is of that most dreaded early '90's genre, the erotic thiller.  The goofy DTV mystery Desire featured Kate Hodge of She-Wolf of London and Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III investigating murders that relate to the perfume business, and (SPOILERS) the villain is revealed at the end to be a woman Hodge was sleeping with back in the day.  At no point will I try to tell you that this is a good movie (or that I've seen much more than a clipshow version of it), especially considering that one of the film's red herrings is a man who hits on Hodge (successfully, I might add) by claiming his nose is so good he can smell whether or not she's wearing underwear.  One could easily say that the bisexual angle was tossed in to rile up male viewers, but the strength of Kate Hodge's character and the substantial enough plot keep the film from being just a porn with no sex scenes, so I can give it a begrudging gold star for Bisexual Effort.  For men, however, I can finally talk about a funky little flick that has been on my talk-about-yes-sir list for a while now: The Rubber Gun.

Canadian cinema is all too often left in the conversational dust in American cinephilia, and that's a shame as the country is just as capable of producing quality directors as anywhere else.  David Cronenberg is one of my favorite directors and is one of the most respected voices in modern horror filmmaking, and Atom Egoyan got a lot of critical appraisal in the US before scoring a bonafide hit with The Sweet Hereafter, one of my favorite movies ever.  Right now one of the most exciting directors working in Hollywood is the Quebecois Denis Villeneuve, who produced a string of acclaimed French-language films before making Prisoners and Sicario, both among the best movies of their respective years, and Arrival looks like it'll be just as wonderful from the trailers.  A more flash-in-the-pan director is Allan Moyle, whose sophomore effort, Times Square, is a touching and subversive teen flick where a high school girl is spirited away by a brash runaway and goes on an adventure of punk rock, rule-breaking and self-discovery in a pre-Giuliani'ed Times Square.  He would later go on to direct the Christian Slater DJ movie Pump Up the Volume, but today we're talking about his first film, released in 1977 to exclusively Canadian praise and being nominated for two Genie awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars.  It's total obscurity in the U.S. is accounted for by it never having hit video, back then or now, and so its reputation is based on what bootleggers and people who like watching movies on YouTube feel about it, which is thankfully positive.

At a Montreal bookstore Allan (Moyle) meets Steve (Stephen Lack), a young artist, and the two of them hit it off, with Steve inviting Allan to meet the other people who live at his apartment in a loose kind of commune/drug den.  Allan happens to be a university student going for a sociology degree, and decides to join Steve's circle of friends while secretly recording his experiences for a paper based on testing to see if a drug community can have a positive effect on its members in the right circumstances.  Things are mostly loose and relaxed in the "family", where Steve and the others share drugs and sleep with each other freely, including between Steve and Pierre (Pierre Robert), a prostitute and heroin addict.  Allan keeps a certain distance, staying off the hard drugs and refraining from intercourse, but things get tricky when Pierre proposes to rob drugs from a locker at a train station in a bid to gain control of the group, whatever that might entail.

Running a scant 75 minutes in the cut I saw, The Rubber Gun is a casual, poignant view into the lives of society's most harmless deviants.  It's the kind of independent film that could have only been made as a truly independent movie in the 1970's - the camerawork is loosy goosy, the dialogue is mostly improvised and the whole thing looks like it was shot in a weekend.  While that can spell doom for other films this one uses its tension-laden setup and brief runtime to its advantage, keeping the story tight while allowing the actors to lay it all out.  The mood is encapsulated by the performance of Stephen Lack as Steve, at once hip and affectionate, too cool for the room but never ignoring the needs and feelings of his friends.  Fans of exploding heads may recall Lack as the frustratingly wooden, terribly miscast protagonist of Scanners, and no amount of viewings can make Lack's awkwardness easier to look at.  The truth of the matter is that Lack was never really an actor - he's a painter and sculptor who slid into acting a handful of times, and in The Rubber Gun his presence works because he's allowed to just be himself.  It also helps that he co-wrote the script with Moyle, and because he was clearly working with friends - the music consists of quirky cabaret/bar rock songs by Lewis Furey, an underground Canadian musician who commissioned Lack to make the cover of his first album in '76.  The other actors also come across as non-actors but this kind of movie doesn't necessarily require Shakespearean emoting, just sincerity and a minimal number of flubs.

While the movie is certainly worth viewing in its own right, its take on sexuality is remarkable and remarkably ahead of its time.  Both Steve and Pierre are indisputably bisexual and are totally comfortable talking about their sexual experiences together with the rest of the "family" and Allan, and at one point Steve offers to sleep with Allan, an offer Allan would clearly like to take him up on but can't because of his need for distance in his duplicitous study.  While Allan's sexuality is left ambiguous it's never questioned or really brought up, and Allan never feels the need to pry into Steve or Pierre's orientation.  It's just part of life in their little community and has little effect on the story, and the film could have easily been rewritten to make everyone straight without changing the plot at all.  And the thing of it is, the film makes life in the commune look pretty appealing and ethically reasonable, even though the furniture is junky, nobody has any money and, well, heroin.  Steve remains a positive presence in the film even after the fit hits the shan, and there's no comeuppance or punishment for his sexuality or choice to live on the fringe, and the viewer is left with a weird admiration for what the "family" was doing.

Because of the film's miniscule impact I can't say it's had any influence on depictions of Queerness in the movies, but it does stand as a good example of having multiple main characters who aren't straight and go about the plot as if it doesn't matter, which it doesn't.  In the coming years I'm sure we'll see more solid bisexual characters on screens big and small but American culture still has a way to go wrapping its head around bisexuality and how it's OK to not "pick a side" or make a political statement with a small part of your identity.  Reviewing The Rubber Gun is a small reminder for me, at least, that not only is it totally OK for me to be bi but that I probably could use to have a bit less fear talking about my orientation, even if just to put as normal and reasonable a face on it as I can.  I'm bi and I'm fine, and it's a fine day to say it.

Here's the full movie


*I use the term "queer" as a blanket term for the LGBTQ community, not at all derisively but because it was the academic blanket term in the 90's and no more convenient term has come about since then.  Also, just because I'm saying "queer" that doesn't mean that I'll be totally cool with you calling me queer, bub.

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