Dirk Shafer's Circuit


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The Piano Teacher and Y Tu Mama Tambien are the kinds of hit movies that make you despair of unexamined popular attitudes. Audiences go to them out of simple prurient curiosity, but these films are encrusted with pretense rather than delight. The first exploits bourgeois neurosis through the story of a pent-up European classical musician, and the second exploits youthful recklessness by following two Mexican students' Third World road trip; both movies corrupt pleasure. Midway through each, you may wonder why you're watching. The commentary on either European stultification or Latin machismo is predictable to the point of feeling hackneyed. It's far more interesting to pull oneself through Circuit, an expose of the shadily financed, not-quite-underground gay party scene, because its familiar sexual attitudes are indeed examined?at least partly.


Surely the appeal of The Piano Teacher and Y Tu Mama Tambien starts with the empowered, socially sanctioned view of heterosexuality that most moviegoers are accustomed to watching and affirming?even though Michael Haneke, who directed The Piano Teacher, and Alfonso Cuaron, who directed Y Tu Mama Tambien, emphasize heterosexual kink. Circuit benefits from taking particular kinks?dependency on drugs, looks, money and the dance club's removed yet intensified atmosphere of license?as the stuff of urban gay drama and making it perplexing. Director-writer Dirk Shafer differs from Haneke and Cuaron in his effort to sum up and legitimize subcultural experience. Admittedly less accomplished than Haneke or Cuaron, Shafer's effort is more meaningfully ambitious. He takes a wider social perspective that, despite some half-mawkish episodes, is honestly, personally revelatory.


Shafer's first film was the 1995 documentary Man of the Year, about his own hoax as a gay male Playgirl model?a rare look at cultural imposture. Circuit's three lead characters?Johnny Webster (Jonathan Wade Drahos), a white Midwestern ex-cop who moves to L.A.; Hector (Andre Khabbazi), a Latino hustler; and Bobby (Paul Lekakis), a stripper and model?are caught up in their own self-deceptions, a result of competing in an environment?West Hollywood?that requires reinventing oneself as a libertine ideal. Shafer and co-writer Gregory Hinton are clearly fascinated with the move past coming-out?the leap beyond conventional romantic relationships that is inherent to most gay men's self-realization. The characters, well into adulthood, hazardously come of age in a culture that insists on youthful audacity. Seasonal circuit parties?the Red Party, the Black Party, the White Party?are where they meat and greet.


This gives Circuit a genuine, rich subject, whereas The Piano Teacher is, essentially, a highbrow freak show with the glum Isabelle Huppert getting off on a humorless secret life as a masochistic dominatrix. And Y Tu Mama Tambien is just a puppyish sex romp in which two 17-year-olds (Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna) and a slightly older woman (Maribel Verdu) don't get past their adolescent selfishness. (Set in Mexico, it's a long day's journey toward American Pie.) If it weren't for the hegemony of big-screen hetero sex, audiences might reject those films' "seriousness" as sham. Neither picture offers the currency of the moment to be found in Circuit. Shafer seems entranced by the music (a soundtrack set on perpetual ecstasy) and the bodies?prerequisites for any filmmaker exploring sex in contemporary society.


More scene-conscious than profound, Circuit's more than two-hour epic format is quite an advance after a satirical documentary. Shafer may not be telling all he knows about the gay pillage-and-plunder demimonde (there's a hustling scene shot from a voyeur's point of view, not an artist's) but he shows an amusing, highbrow/lowbrow aspiration: to be Stendhal writing a gay Valley of the Dolls on film. As it opens with Johnny passed out in a toilet stall, you wonder: where can the story go? But that's the point; Shafer's urge to reveal just makes him inexact about telling it. Johnny's Illinois backstory ("Have you ever considered relocating to an environment more compatible with your lifestyle?" his captain asks) suggests a movie mostly located in his mind. He didn't need to go to L.A. to cruise T-rooms, but L.A. is where a little-recognized genre of gay neo-humanism has been developing. Movies like Punks, The Broken Hearts Club and the moving It's My Party obviously inspired Shafer by presenting WeHo realness and some memorable characters (like Paul Winfield's aging sugar daddy in Mike's Murder) while offering Hollywood allure.


It's this mix of pop gay attitudes?not extraordinarily observed like the British Queer as Folk, yet not glib like Will & Grace?that justifies Circuit's unresolved tumult of character types and social effrontery. Shafer's imagination cranks once Johnny meets Hector.


"You working?"

"Excuse me?"


"You know, hustling?"


"Uh, look. If this is your territory, not to worry."


"Well, even if you were working, I wouldn't worry. You're one type, I'm another."


"What type are you?"


"You'll never know."


At the heart of Circuit is this love story that dare not speak its vulnerability. The roundelay between Johnny, Hector and Bobby?and Johnny's documentarian cousin Tad (Daniel Kucan), Tad's ex-lover Gill (Brian Lane Green), his current lover Julian (Darryl Stephens) and Johnny's former girlfriend Nina (Kiersten Warren, who has a fine moment deliberately confusing "circuit" with "circus")?reflects something of the transience and delusions of urban sex life. This soap-opera naivete gives Circuit resonance, unlike the more sophisticated hits undercut by their blatant attempts at shock. Critics have likened Y Tu Mama to Bertrand Blier's thoroughly weird Going Places, but Y Tu Mama isn't weird enough. Its big scene (a drunken, reticent menage a trois) shows none of Blier's rebelliousness?which still shocks one's movie reflexes when Gerard Depardieu jumps Patrick Dewaere. Blier's impudence swayed more than machismo. Cuaron (who previously directed Gwyneth Paltrow in his intolerably daft update of Great Expectations) is primarily a sap with an Interview sensibility. He falls back on a sentimental sex/politics voiceover that is just a bad imitation of earlier French New Wave tropes Blier was bold enough to discard. Cuaron reduces Mexico to a NAFTA travelogue. Like Amores Perros, his film shows Mexico's new generation of filmmakers stealing second-rate status from the Australians; he arrives late at Western hipness.


Similarly, dread echoes of Jane Campion makes The Piano Teacher a trial to sit through?even though its obvious polemic on female sexual prerogative contradicts Campion's late feminist view. The German Haneke confronts middle-class hypocrisy (bolstered by Schubert recitals) as if Fassbinder never happened. He backs into a perverse view of feminism, aided by Huppert taking out her sexual frustration on gullible students and her snooping mother (Annie Girardot), and finally achieving humiliation from a randy male pupil (Benoit Magimel, the only fresh performance). In American movies Jennifer Jason Leigh has turned such quiet neurosis into humane lyricism; it's a bad cultural twist that Huppert gets overpraised for dimming her pathetic character's soul.


It's Shafer's attempt at soul?turning pretty boys into persons with emotional baggage?that validates Circuit. Drahos' tall, classically sculptured Y-torso puts Johnny in that Zak Spears/Fred MacMurray/Peter Jennings mold, a look of perfected Caucasian types that is the bane of the gay mainstream. When stoned or desperate, Drahos assumes a boyish Pierce Brosnan pique. From the moment he meets Hector (a Latino Dack Rambo type) their tension is largely social. Hector has gotten by in a world of sexualized racial elites only by measuring himself against their reflection. Telling Johnny, "You've got everything. You're educated, you're smart," he actually admits his envy of white, middle-class advantages, while Johnny simply calls him "papi." Shafer doesn't go much deeper, but his diffidence?exemplified by Johnny's putting on attitude sunglasses to druggily explain himself (a gesture recalling Jean-Pierre Leaud in The Mother and the Whore)?says a lot. He's daunted by the circuit scene's hidden tragedies.


By the end, Circuit breaks down into preachiness; one party twink says, "Drugs promote safe sex," another says, "We're killing ourselves." (There's even a wicked party promoter played by William Katt who beats his wife, played by still charming Nancy Allen.) But there's one moment of remarkable honesty when Johnny asks a veteran partier, "How'd you get through being gay?having all this incredible freedom?" The answer, "Things were different. Then, you thought you were getting away with something," cuts to the heart of sex-movie popularity?effectively exposing Haneke's and Cuaron's arrogance. This reality check may prove too thoughtful for Circuit to get away with trendy success, but who knows? It's opening in time for beach fiction.


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