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"Marc [Huestis, the film's director] and I were tired of always seeing gays portrayed in the media as monogamous or abstaining -- but with fabulous apartments," Helman elaborates. "From the onset of AIDS the media, whether consciously or not, have equated gay sex with death. What about the sexually active gay population? There are people who are HIV-positive who are still very active, experimenting. In most major cities the gay scene is still very strong. Lots of bathhouses closed down initially, but there's been a resurgence. Phone sex is big, safe sex clubs are popular, gay porno is a huge industry. It's time to honestly and openly discuss what is."
As you might surmise from those statements, Helman and Huestis's film doesn't pull many punches. It's a brash, saucy documentary about contemporary gay life that comes as a refreshing counterpoint to that somber major studio behemoth, Philadelphia. Where Jonathan Demme's picture is rueful and elegiac in tone and so calculating that it plays as if it were written by committee, Huestis's film is frank, funny, spontaneous, and in your face.
"To hell with the mainstream," says Helman. "This is a film by gay men for gay men. All this talk about Tom Hanks's bravery for taking the role -- bravery is anyone who's watched a friend or lover die. Waiting in line for AZT -- that's courage."
Although released nearly a year before Demme's film, Sex Is... feels almost like it was conceived as a feisty alternative to Philadelphia. While the latter film is a big-budget release featuring marquee stars like Hanks and Denzel Washington, it is also extremely tame. You see Hanks kissing babies at a family get-together, but you never see him kissing his screen lover, Antonio Banderas. Helman and Huestis's documentary, which was filmed for about 1/500th of Philadelphia's cost, does not shy away from scenes of men kissing -- not to mention masturbating, indulging in S&M, having anal intercourse, group groping, fellating, and ejaculating. Two minutes of hard-core gay porno footage is interspersed among the 80 minutes or so of talking-heads-style interviews that make up the bulk of the film. "Not to titillate, but to illustrate," says Helman.
The fifteen interviewees range in age from 19 to 74, and represent a broad racial, ethnic, and chronological cross section of the gay-male community. Their stories are controversial, contradictory, and colorful. An African-American performance artist with a fondness for S&M games describes his conflicting emotions while playing slave to a white South African master. A female impersonator and hooker named Madame X describes himself as "a community social worker. I bring joy to the lonely and the oppressed -- for a small fee." Gay porno star Brad Phillips laments the loneliness and emotional isolation he suffers as a result of his line of work. A young Latin male brags of being a slut. Several men fondly discuss their first homosexual experiences, often initiated by older men when the interviewees were still in early adolescence.
While the film is aimed squarely at a target audience of gay males, the passion, intelligence, and candor of its subjects is fascinating for viewers regardless of sex or sexual preference. The hard-core footage, of course, is not for the priggish. But Sex Is... isn't just about fucking and sucking. In one telling segment after another, for example, a handful of the interviewees, including director Huestis, matter-of-factly reveal their HIV-positive status. After listening to them disclose the most intimate details of their lives, you feel close to them and your natural reaction is to want to sympathize. But you can't, not because you don't feel for them, but because they don't want your damn sympathy. Not one of them expresses a wisp of regret or self-pity.
Part of Huestis's motivation for making the film was a response to the hypocrisy of Senator Jesse Helms's campaign against the homoerotic photography of the late Robert Mapplethorpe. He facetiously dedicates the film to Helms and includes footage of the senator from North Carolina making an ass out of himself on the Senate floor. But a larger part of Huestis's impetus for making the film was to begin a real dialogue about the subject of sex in the gay community in the age of AIDS. "Everyone wants to look through the peephole but they don't want to open the door," is how Huestis puts it.
Sex Is... opens the door, all right. But it doesn't knock politely first. It kicks the sucker in.
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