Bear necessities

The Out in Africa (OIA) gay and lesbian film festival moved from the cinemas of Ster Kinekor to those of Nu Metro a few years ago.

Hence Ster Kinekor set up its own mini-festival to catch some of the interest in all things generally queer that blossoms along with the jacarandas at this time of year, when Johannesburg’s Pride parade puts alternative sexualities, however briefly, in the spotlight once more.

Ster Kinekor’s mini-fest is somewhat boringly labelled Pride Films and features four movies, released in a staggered pattern over the next month.

The press release says these movies will show for two weeks only, but I’m sure that’s just a publicity feint to encourage moviegoers to get there.

If they are successful they may well stay on screens a bit longer. I certainly hope so. Very little of what actually gets shown at the Cinema Nouveau “art house” truly qualifies as an art movie.

Usually such films are simply indie flicks with no big stars or blockbuster budgets or heaps of special effects.

Perhaps three or four a year, and I’m being generous here, are films that genuinely challenge the mainstream conventions enough to be called an “art movie”.

I wouldn’t say the movies on Pride Films are “art movies” as such, but I suppose they exist outside the mainstream simply because they are not about heterosexual people.

One of them, The Kids Are All Right, has big stars in it (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore), but none of the other three do. Only one, the excellent Eyes Wide Open, is from a country other than the United States.

That said, the first two Pride films to open—Eating Out: All You Can Eat and BearCity—offer amusingly contrasted perspectives on how sexual diversity is viewed in the American cinematic imagination.

Read as sociological documents, they show how differently such issues can be approached and depicted.

All You Can Eat is, as the title and subtitle indicate, a sequel. It’s the third in the series that began with Eating Out and continued with Eating Out II: Sloppy Seconds.

I can’t recall much of what went on in those earlier films, but episode three is in that vein: the general impulse is comic, yet there is also some mandatory treatment of gay-community issues, mostly with a liberal icing of sentimentality.

Here, it’s appropriate to refer to “gay” instead of the more politically correct portmanteau term we are now getting used to—LGBTI, as in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexed. (Some add Q for queer, which I myself would prefer as a single umbrella term, but not everyone is happy with that.)

All You Can Eat takes place within a fairly stylised world, one in which gay identities and behaviours have been largely absorbed into a mainstream value system and a conventional cinematic sensibility; this is what is called hetero-normativity.

Of course many inflections specific to gay life continue to subsist within that frame, but it feels like they are also being mainstreamed (or treated in a way you might call anthropological).

The idea of a “fag hag” is broadly understandable, for instance, and the thematic opposition of promiscuity versus romance seems to be the new embedded binary in such movies.

But All You Can Eat is still a comedy, and some of it is very funny. Funniest, though, is a woman: Tiffani (Rebekah Kochan), the only survivor from the first two films. Literally the only survivor—the movie opens at the funeral of one of the previous movies’ protagonists.

The plot revolves around (which is to say it goes round a few times) the usual mishaps of romance, with some mistaken-identity stuff that goes back at least to Shakespearean comedy. (Imagine if Shakespeare had had dual sexual identities and internet dating to deal with!

Twelfth Night could have been a mini-series.) Basically, under Tiffani’s watchful and bitchy eye, boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy regains boy, and so forth.

It’s all fun, with no real emotional heft, which is not helped by frequently wooden acting. Some of the interactions of the two male leads, cute though they are, are no better than the pre-shag dialogue sections of a porn movie.

Beside the romance and the comedy, All You Can Eat attempts to shoehorn in a few issues too: the future of a gay community centre, with the regulation stirring speech. There is a light touching upon ageism, but it’s not explored.

The focus here is on lurve, though lurve undeniably sexed up as much as possible, with an added layer of sometimes icky comedy and bitchy wit.

Apart from Tiffani, who should really be a screaming queen, the key characters fulfil the requisite official criteria of attractive masculinity.

BearCity, by contrast, challenges the very idea of what an attractive man might be; it makes a key part of its thematic motor the notion that not everyone is seduced by gym-shaped bodies and Hollywood faces.

Early on, there is a rather startling sex scene—startling because how often do you see a male/male sex scene of any kind, let alone one in which a participant is older and overweight?

It’s only slightly more surprising than the fact that when the overweight guy expresses his desire to lose weight (through a stomach operation), the other is horrified.

That’s the kind of thing BearCity tackles, and I found it very refreshing. It’s described as “a hirsute Sex and the City”, but that is merely a pick-up line. It’s more than that.

Focusing on a group of friends in or entering the “bear” scene in New York, it takes a variety of angles on the issues of community, self-image, friendship and sex, plus “open” relationships versus what is still called monogamy, even if no woman is involved.

It’s interesting, too, in the way it shows the diversity and the cross-currents within what might be seen as a strictly coded group standard based on a particular look. It’s also often very funny.

I was trying not to conclude with a joke about physical heaviness, but it seems unavoidable.

Like their protagonists, All You Can Eat is cute but lightweight, and it’s BearCity that carries the weight of substance.

Eating Out: All You Can Eat opens on October 15 and BearCity on October 29 at Cinema Nouveau Rosebank (Johannesburg), Brooklyn Mall (Pretoria), V&A Waterfront and Cavendish Square (Cape Town) and Gateway (Durban). Eyes Wide Open and The Kids Are All Right open at these venues on November 12.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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