Punks Reflects Authentic Listening to a World Hollywood Usually Ignores; Linklater Hammers Us with Tape

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

The title of
Punks comes right out with it. Four black gay men defy the traditional
homophobic putdown by putting it in your face. From the bull session heard under
the credits as the quartet states its opinion of various sexy men ("Ricky
Martin? La Vida No Ca!" "Method Man? Yes! I photographed
him for Vibe magazine!"), it’s clear that the film’s comedy
will serve up insider, subcultural dish. Much of Punks’ appeal lies
in its casual depiction of a rarely glimpsed society. Four snapping brothers–Marcus
(Seth Gilliam), Hill (Dwight Ewell), Dante (Renoly Santiago) and Chris/Crystal
(Jazzmun)–make their own community within West Hollywood’s white gay
ghetto. They hang out at Miss Smokie’s, a bar catering to mixed clientele
but featuring a drag show where Chris/Crystal performs as part of the Sisters,
a Sister Sledge tribute act that also symbolizes the brothers’ radical
camaraderie. In his debut as writer, director and music-scorer of Punks,
Patrik-Ian Polk has made a minor film, but a major event. (Consider that mainstream
Hollywood movies are usually the opposite.)

a long way from the 1991 Marlon Riggs/Essex Hemphill Tongues Untied with
its repetitive litanies ("Brother to Brother to Brother to Brother,"
and "Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act of the 20th century").
Polk has moved to the next phase of self-dramatization. Punks’ black
queer comedy shows self-acceptance is crucial to community acceptance and social
recognition. Each man’s love drama and sex hunt become the basis for welcoming
a newcomer to their fold–the bisexual musician-athlete Darby (Rockmond
Dunbar, first seen in beefcake slo-mo), who moves next door to Marcus. Even
a tale this simplistic (written in eight days by Polk, a former production executive
with Edmonds Entertainment, producers of the 1997 Soul Food) can’t
take away from Punks’ breakthrough. Polk’s determination to
make black gay life entertaining encourages both the African-American and independent
film scenes to show diversity (something that’s never guaranteed unless
someone takes the plunge).

In 1986 Carl
Franklin’s own directing debut, titled Punk, addressed the stigma
of a young black gay man whose desperate acts exposed his isolation in the black
community. Polk refuses to be as grim or as confrontational. Punks is
made in a deliberately glib style, like the enjoyable All Over the Guy, The
Broken Hearts Club
and Trick. Its drag numbers (at one point the
Sisters appear as nuns in black vinyl habits) are derived from the fantastic-optimistic
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
, with Sister Sledge serving the same
mainstream bridge ABBA did in that film. Every element of Punks,
like its high-rent WeHo setting, is part of Polk’s social ambition. The
relaxed humor ("Is you or is you not a punk?" "Telephone, telegraph,
tell a sissy") may have taken just over a week to write, but it reflects
years of authentic listening to a world Hollywood usually ignores.

light entertainment carries a sense of mission, making up for the industry’s
homophobic deception, cowardice and insufficiency. Darby entices the quartet
as a closer-to-heaven hunk, but he clearly stands in for the many distanced
(closeted) black gay icons. Rockmond Dunbar, who looks like a muscled-up Michael
Boatman, takes Boatman’s Spin City dare (playing a stable black
gay man) even further. Given the difficult straits of employment and image-management
black actors face, it’s reasonable to declare Punks’ cast courageous.
They brave charming, brotherly rapport–especially Dwight Ewell, whose love-hurt
Hill shows more dimensions than the token Uncle Tom-ish queens he was limited
to in Chasing Amy and Flirt. Gilliam, Santiago and Jazzmun also
have moments as funny as they are tender. None of these black actors was willing
to take the usual route of abandoning humanism for cash. Their impudence (and
Polk’s) makes it possible to publicly ask some tough questions: Why is
it that Denzel Washington cinches an Oscar bid playing a monster in Training
? Wouldn’t E. Lynn Harris’ popular gay and bisexual novels
provide legitimate vehicles for Washington and his ilk?

Why black Hollywood
won’t touch E. Lynn Harris might be understood by comparing Punks
to the documentary Trembling Before G-d, in which gay Orthodox Jews struggle
with coming out while staying within the tenets of their religion. Director
Sandi Simcha Dobrowski’s impulse to find a subculture within a subculture
was similar to Polk’s. But instead of unifying those upstarts found in
gay Orthodox sects in Israel, New York and San Francisco, Dobrowski leaves them
dispersed (some faces hidden, others functioning behind a scrim). Documentary
seems the wrong form for the kind of self-dramatizing indulged by Dobrowski
himself and a 58-year-old tour guide who gave up Orthodoxy yet admittedly longs
"for Daddy’s approval." Comedy (such as Dombrowski’s sneaking
a camera inside a yeshiva) seems healthier.

Polk uses humorous
self-dramatization to justify independent lifestyles in his own ethnic group.
Punks’ romance and charm come from the various bonds of friendship–a
political challenge Dobrowski still can’t risk. Polk’s diva-like faith
in Sister Sledge’s lyrics is precisely the "saving remnant" of
a rebel culture that Dobrowski refuses to believe in. Most mainstream black
filmmakers are similarly panicked. They deny the sustenance and kinship of Harris’
fiction about sexuality on the down-low. They’re trembling before Hollywood

by Richard Linklater

Visually abhorrent,
Tape looks like surveillance camera footage. It’s worse-looking,
in fact, than Dancer in the Dark, Bamboozled, Julien Donkey-Boy
and most of the other digital-video con jobs that fail to pass as entertainment
and so pretend to be art. The title is probably a joking reference to the director
Richard Linklater imitating the Dogma 95 hoax, trying to make modern audiences
think they’re witnessing a new era in visual storytelling. (The story is
actually about a secretly recorded audio tape.) But here’s a heads-up:
It cannot be said clearly or often enough that the current theatrical projection
of video tape as film is not acceptable.

Falsely advertised
as "a film by Richard Linklater," Tape is the latest proof
that digital technology–the trend of shooting cheap then using an absurdly
expensive transfer to 35 mm celluloid–can never be "film." First,
the method lacks inspiration; there’s no effort to make the world vivid.
Instead, it’s stupidly literal-minded to suggest that a scaled-down production
comes closer to realism–especially since Tape’s plot is so
obviously contrived: Vince (Ethan Hawke) summons John (Robert Sean Leonard)
to his motel room in Lansing, supposedly to celebrate John’s directorial
premiere at a local film festival. It turns into a bum vs. preppie contest as
Vince, a rowdy, drinking, dope-smoking volunteer fireman, taunts clean-cut,
on-the-rise John about jealousy, honor and a shady, unresolved event involving
Vince’s old girlfriend Amy (Uma Thurman) during their high school days.

Linklater and
Hawke derived Tape from a one-act play by Stephen Belber that was produced
at Actor’s Theater of Louisville as part of the Humana Festival 2000. It’s
a portentous, undernourished concept belying the canard that video makes it
possible for underfinanced artists to produce more personal, daring and imaginative
movies. Fact is, there hasn’t been a single one of these video-shot features
in the past 10 years that was not creatively deprived, narratively banal and
insipidly personal. There was no need to film a drama as routine as Tape
except to satisfy Linklater and Hawke’s delusion that Belber was saying
something bold or relevant. Apart from the Monica Lewinsky-Linda Tripp situation,
the trust-between-friends concept is lame. And the tension-between-competitive-males
thing plays like warmed-over Mamet–even with Uma Thurman on hand to beautify
Amy, the catalytic female.

Maybe Linklater
simply felt a crazy urge to imitate the misanthropy of that indie chiseler Neil
LaBute. To be honest, there’s an exchange between the two men–Vince
asking John "Can I have that back?"–that proves a good, psychologically
revealing gesture, superior to anything LaBute has written himself. (Too bad
Belber hasn’t pushed his own way to prominence.) Hawke and Leonard subvert
their Dead Poets Society reunion by raising hostile vibes but they’re
overemphatic–stagy–because Linklater still can’t trust the camera
to reveal emotion. He could do with a course in Altman’s, Mike Leigh’s
or Patrice Chereau’s perceptive penetration. For variety Linklater piles
on between-the-legs shots, several under-the-armpit shots and on two occasions
he relies on nonstop swish-pans from one speaker to the next. Tennis, anyone?

Actors don’t
have to talk to hold attention, but there’s nothing in the dialogue-less
opening scene to make it visually interesting. Cinematically, Tape doesn’t
"read." As Linklater frustrates your desire to leave these dullards
in their motel room, you wish that it all had been turned into a cartoon, like
Linklater’s Waking Life. Scanning these grungy, brownish-green images
for a sign of life, one may as well be scanning for weapons at an airport security
check. Filmmakers’ current embrace of ugly digital video (and critics’
endorsement of it) suggests that the whole history of film has been underappreciated;
if people ever really looked at movies as a visual art, then they couldn’t
tolerate this visual swill. Tape was produced by an outfit that calls
itself InDigEnt (Independent Digital Entertainment). Don’t they even know
the meaning of "indigent"? Tape may be fashionable, but it
lacks basic esthetic means. InDigEnt abuses the root word "indigene,"
which would mean a person or thing possessing cinematic essence. Having previously
resisted most of Waking Life, some might think I am hammering Linklater.
Maybe he’s hammering us.


Technical Difficulty.
American Movie Classics used to be a cable oasis–great old movies shown intact
and recently featuring the best of the 20th Century-Fox catalog. (Letterboxed
Hello, Dolly!, Bus Stop and Altman’s Countdown were
choice; so was the pristine broadcast of Preston Sturges’ The Beautiful
Blonde from Bashful Bend
, and I’m still waiting for Pretty Poison.)
But the channel has gone to crap with commercial interruptions (completely unjustified
on subscription cable), force-feeding monster movies and Elvis movies. A channel
surfing boycott isn’t enough. Once a convenient bastion of film history,
AMC has destroyed itself.