Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Strand Releasing's intriguing franchise of short films (BL)


Strand Releasing (link) has always intrigued me as a small indie movie distributor, mostly of GLBT films. A few of the films are relatively ambitious relative to the whole independent art market, such as “Loggerheads,” or recently “The Yacoubian Building”, an ambitious political thriller from Egypt with a GLBT subplot. I love the corporate trademark, a black and white picture of the Manhattan Skyline with 40s style film noir music playing. It makes me think of Ayn Rand and “Atlas Shrugged.” Miramax also uses a NYC skyline as a trademark.

One series of interest is the Boys Life franchise, of now up to six collections of short films. The series appears to be having fun with the “Boys Life” magazine, from the Boy Scouts of America. I knew the magazine back in the 1950s. We all know the controversy of the BSA’s policy on gays and the Supreme Court ruling on it. Since Strand is using the name for a different business line, apparently this is permissible in trademark law.

A number of individual shorts deserve review here. From “Boys Life 3” the film “Pool Days” (Brian Sloan, 1993) has a lifeguard Justin (Josh Phillip Weinstein) on the lookout for misbehavior when he must deal with his own temptations. The visual concepts of virility are striking, even within the bounds of normal taste.

Boys Life 4 (“Four Play” (2003)) first caught my eye because the short “This Car Up” was shot in a downtown Minneapolis skyscraper while I lived there, and the film used an odd split-screen technique. “Bumping Heads” has a friendship developing from an emergency room encounter at Greenwich Village’s St. Vincent’s. Andersen Gabrych (from “Edge of 17”) appears, hurt in an atypical (for gay clubs, though I saw one in London) bar room brawl. The film mentions that dancing is allowed in very few New York City bars. The most striking film in the set, though, is “O Beautiful,” (Allan Brown) shot on a snowless January night in New Jersey, where a “Christian” high school athlete harasses a local gay boy and then tries to atone, at one point offering his chest (for which, according to the commentary, the actor David Rogers had to endure a pre-production ritual.

Boys Life 5 (2006) offers as its main draw Eytan Fox ‘s 40-minute short “Time Out” about gay soldiers on pass from the Israeli Army. Fox is known for exploring the acceptance of gays in the Israeli military in film as his contribution to opposing America’s “don’t ask don’t tell.” Andy Salky’s “Dare” is pretty well known (in GLBT film aficionado circles) as a thespian rehearsal in a swimming pool (again), with some antics.

Boys Life 6 (2007) came out pretty quickly, and has a couple of the most interesting Strand shorts ever. Mark Christopher’s “Heartland” (14 min) explores the troubling and infrequent subject of gay filial responsibility, as a Columbia University student (Corey Sorenson) is called back to his Iowa farm when his father falls ill. He finds that his father has trouble with the bottle (and therefore is morally responsible for his own problems), but he meets a new “friend” in real space.

But the real sleeper of all of these sets is “Bugcrush” (2006), directed by Carter Smith, about 36 minutes. This horror film draws the viewer in to a world of erotic suspense, structured as a road movie leading to a ritual initiation and possible catastrophe. The concept could work with straight men, but here there are a couple of subtle visual foreshadowings, tasteful enough, that gay male viewers are much more likely to get than straight viewers. What really makes this film work is the likability and innocence of the introverted “inititiate”, high school student Ben (Josh Barclay Caras), acted perfectly. Being in the “wrong place at the wrong time” he gets detention when school newcomer Grant (Donald Eric Cumming) is caught smoking. He soon learns of Grant’s odd interests in insects and is drawn in by Grant’s charisma and social connections. He goes on a road trip (the movie is set in rural Maine, as if an homage to Stephen King) with Grant and two of Grant’s “buddies” to a retreat to see Grant’s bug collection and find the intimacy that he craves.

There is a lot of discussion on the Internet about the ending, which I think is just ambiguous. Grant subdues Ben (telling Ben to "relax!") and then unmasks him (a scene excerpted for the DVD flyer). Pretty soon we learn the horrific sci-fi secret and can only imagine the worst. You can watch it on Logo (link ) and decide for yourself (you may need to play the ending several times and pay close attention to every second).

Now, I think that this really could have been a 90 minute horror feature with more money, and probably (if exhibited at the film festivals) attracted a larger distributor like Lions Gate. This film has a short beginning and a middle, and essentially no real conclusion. So imagine a more expanded beginning where we learn more about both boys, especially Ben, at school, taking the pains to explore the rural high school environment for gay kids carefully and realistically. Then for an end, one can imagine that Ben is somehow transformed by the experience (in some meaningful sense he must survive then) and escapes, or perhaps he dies and the police discover the crimes but with some additional surprise. I’m not sure that I buy as much use of the momentary blank screen and closeup on Ben’s eye (there are other examples of the latter: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and now “The Eye”), although in a short I see how these edits work.

I actually have a script a bit like this, but a bit more complicated, and a bit in Spanish style for horror. Ben’s character in my film is a heterosexual Dallas journalist, Justin, whose pregnant fiancĂ©e has disappeared in the high plains while jogging, and he is dating another woman. The town near where the girl was jogging is visited by a UFO and bizarre things start to happen. To clear himself, the journalist goes on a journey that takes him through the gay community, the New Age community, and leads to an “initiation” with a result that is either horrific or wondrous depending on your viewpoint. Justin, facing police suspicions, immerses himself in a world of fantasy that seems to challenge his training as a journalist, but then the clues start to fit together and lead to the shocking conclusion. Like Ben in the BL movie, he must cope with whether he really “wants it.” I call the script “Titanium.” Yes, they say you shouldn’t give away ideas you might give to an agent (studios won’t even open unsolicited mail or look at loglines without third party submission), but on this blog I’ll make an exception. I’ve done it before.

There is a video copy of "Bugcrush" at the Milkboys blog, not embeddable, here. I still find myself watching the last few minutes to figure out what really "happens". I did buy the Strand DVD, but it doesn't have individual scene links. Another good "photo" review, on Wordpress, is here.  Dread Central has a detailed review and says what this film does to you (last sentence), here.

On a flat screen TV, "Bugcrush" plays in 2.35:1 format.  It looks sharp and detailed when played in BluRay even though it is a conventional DVD.

Update: April 9, 2008

Carter Smith now has a "real" feature from Dreamworks / Spyglass, "The Ruins" (91 min), in which a bunch of young adults visit a lost Mayan ruin, are trapped by "natives" (actually "quarantined") with carnivorous plants. The visual horror concept is similar to that of "Bugcrush" -- things can burrow into people's bodies and grow and destroy them. Another analogy would be "flesh eating bacteria" or even MRSA. Jonathan Tucker plays medical student Jeff, who has both the gentleness of "Ben" and charisma of "Grant" -- but will he make it out? Carter Smith does not promise us happy endings.

There is a YouTube video where Carter Smith discusses both "Ruins" and "Bugcrush" at the Edinboro Film Festival:


Yes, "Bugcrush" still seems like a masterpiece, years later (in 2012).  I still watch the end on my DVD copy once in a while and try to figure out exactly what happens.

Update: Aug. 31, 2010

In view of the bedbug crisis, look at "Howcast's" 5 minute short for MSN, "How to Get Rid of Bedbugs", link here.  It's almost a "Bugcrush 2".  The camera is certainly interested in the "beauty" of the male, as it was in Carter Smith's film. Strand ought to pick this one up for another anthology. The female narrator gives the instructions in a satirical, mother hen tone. (MSN calls the series "Decor & Organizing," as if from Nate Berkus. Sure.)

(I tried to embed the video with the code given, and the Blogger template colors won't release. Weird. Never seen this happene before. But it works it you play it from MSN.)

Update: March 2, 2013

From a recent walk through the Redhook section of Brooklyn. NY.

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