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In With the Out Crowd

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THE OUTSIDERS

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Yu Kan-Ping

Written by Shiang Yeong

With Shao Hsin, Sun Yueh, and Chiang Ho-Jen.

THREE BEWILDERED PEOPLE IN THE NIGHT

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Gregg Araki

With Mark Howell, John Lacques, and Darcy Marta.

METEOR AND SHADOW

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Takis Spetsiotis

With Takis Moschos.

The notion of a "gay sensibility" has been dismissed by more than a few gay artists and critics. The novelist Gore Vidal, whose 1948 The City and the Pillar broke literary taboos in depicting homosexual life in America, said to me when I was interviewing him for GayLife newspaper a few years ago that he didn't believe in a gay sensibility any more than in a straight sensibility: "Take Bernard Berenson and Lyndon B. Johnson," Vidal said. "What did they have in common besides the fact that they liked to sleep with women?" Pressed on the matter, Vidal did acknowledge that gays, like other marginalized groups, might share an "outsiders' sensibility," but that was something different.

Three films being offered as part of the seventh annual Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival--two U.S. premieres and one Chicago premiere--highlight the question of whether there is a gay or outsiders' sensibility, and to what extent the two notions interact. Reflecting three distinctly different cultural milieus, the films portray their protagonists--all homosexuals, none of them questioning that condition--as social outcasts, partly by circumstance and partly by personal inclination.

One of the films--the best in terms of clarity of purpose and emotional engagement of the audience--is in fact called The Outsiders, taking its name from its source, a 1983 novel by Kenneth Pai. Directed by Yu Kan-Ping and released in 1986, it's the first film with a gay-related theme to be licensed for distribution by the government of Taiwan, where it was made and is set. Yet except for its oriental location--filmed beautifully, with deliberate emphasis on the contrasts between lushly flowered countryside, tawdry village, and glittery big city--this is a story that might have come straight from the pen of Charles Dickens after a slight dalliance with Emily Bronte.

The film begins with Ah-ching, the hero (played by a gravely beautiful young actor named Shao Hsin), being chased out of the house by his violent, stick-wielding father, who is enraged because he has discovered that his son is a "degenerate." Running away to the big city, Ah-ching is found and given refuge by Wang (Sun Yueh), a middle-aged photographer with a soft spot in his heart for needy youths. That description may sound sarcastic or disingenuous; but in fact one of the great strengths of The Outsiders is its focus on the nonsexual ways in which gay men relate to each other (though there is considerable romance, too, elsewhere in the story).

Wang and his landlady, a bossy former actress whom Wang weaned of a heroin habit, are the de facto heads of an extended alternative family populated by a cadre of street kids--runaway-throwaways ejected from their homes because of their parents' disapproval of their homosexuality. Soon, like Oliver Twist, Ah-ching has been made one of the family; instead of theft, and as an alternative to prostitution, Wang and the actress decide to pool their savings to open up a disco, with the kids earning their keep as a bevy of comely waiters. As a subplot, Ah-ching falls into a mysterious affair with Dragon (Chiang Ho-Jen), a dark and dangerous-looking fellow who stabbed his lover to death in a fit of rage ten years before, and is now afraid to love. Viewers hoping for a gothic romance-thriller will be disappointed by the way director Yu resolves the relationship between Ah-ching and Dragon; but morbid romanticism isn't what's on The Outsiders' mind. The film instead steers us toward an implied reconciliation between Ah-ching and his father (though only after a very funny scene in which Daddy makes a surprise visit to Ah-ching's home to find Wang in ladylike cold cream and the house playfully decorated with dildos).

The reconciliation is the least convincing part of the film; the strongest part is its surprisingly candid and nonjudgmental treatment of life among the street hustlers. The kids cruise a Taipei park nicknamed "the Office," looking as much for affection as payment, risking the occasional police raid (asks a cop of one of the busted kids: "Are you a yin or a yang?"), and forming their own urban island of lost boys where they don't have to put up with the pretenses of straight society.

The circumstances faced by the youths in The Outsiders are pretty desperate--homelessness, being forced into prostitution to stay alive. By contrast, the roving youngsters in Gregg Araki's Three Bewildered People in the Night seem, if not exactly wealthy, at least content and protected, able to afford the luxury of soul-searching and existential ennui. "I'm 25 years old and I have no fucking idea where I'm going," says Alicia (Darcy Marta), a prettily punked-out video artist who's not sure whether she's happy or bummed that her relationship with Craig, her hunky and thoroughly likable live-in boyfriend, is so well adjusted. Alicia's confidant and companion in alienation is David, a performance artist for whom being gay does not mean being happy. Not that David is one of those tormented, stereotypical sad-eyed fags--just that he thinks he is, or thinks he should be; he's bored with life in general and jadedly detached about sex. (However, the asexual phase David is in doesn't seem to relate to AIDS fear--indeed, AIDS is never mentioned in this film, despite its contemporary setting.) Young Craig, an aspiring photographer, is annoyed by his friends' disenchantment with life; straight as an arrow but, apparently, perfectly accessible to David if only David would make the right moves, Craig is the mirror that reflects Alicia and David as they were when they had ambitions about their art.

Araki, who at age 27 can be presumed to be drawing at least somewhat on his or his friends' own lives, has set his film almost entirely at night, in a bleak but bright urban landscape of 24-hour laundromats, coffee shops, and convenience stores, with an occasional stop at a dance club. Music forms a fairly constant background to his characters' lives, as it does to the activities of the boys in The Outsiders--only instead of the disco-fied, Carpenters-go-to-Taipei pop of the first film, the score of Three Bewildered People is your standard American postpunk rock.

Alicia, David, and Craig are distracted by the doldrums of the mid-80s, but the unresolved, unacknowledged sexual and emotional malaise that nags at them has more to do with their being in their mid-20s. Certainly it has very little to do with their being gay or straight, except in David's selfdeprecating jabs ("We fags have disco in our blood," he jokes, completely unnecessarily, to the thoroughly accepting and mildly attracted Craig). Three Bewildered People often threatens to drown in its characters' self-absorption; but Araki has a talent for capturing the realness of a situation without falling quite into the cinema-verite trick bag, and the recognizability of Alicia, David, and Craig--a band of outsiders more by choice than anything else--makes the film not uninteresting to watch, at least with the right friends.

The old-fashioned elegance of Meteor and Shadow--the luxurious interiors and gently played classical piano music with which Takis Spetsiotis's 1985 film begins--seems a refreshing change of pace from the modern buzz of The Outsiders and Bewildered People at first; but fairly soon the audience find themselves in terrain strangely similar to that of the more contemporary movies. Here, as in Bewildered People, is the aloof, alienated artist drifting through the world without any connection to it. And here, as in The Outsiders--only set 70-some years earlier--is the prowling gay nightlife of parks and street corners populated by a subculture whose inhabitants come together in defiance of (and expulsion from) the social mainstream. Honored for best actor, set, and costume design at the 1985 Thessaloniki Film Festival, Meteor and Shadow is a portrait of a Greek poet, Napoleon Lapathiotis (1888-1944), who apparently wandered from bourgeois complacency to a haunted, isolated existence heavily permeated by drugs. Lapathiotis (Takis Moschos), the pacifist son of a rich but politically controversial general, admits that he has no ambitions to publish his poetry; he writes because he likes to write, and he flirts with the underworld--anonymous street cruising and illicit dope parties around a secluded campfire--because he's intrigued by the people. His family seems to tolerate his idiosyncrasies, even though his overt effeteness offers ammunition to his father's political enemies. But after his mother's death, though he's financially well taken care of, Lapathiotis seems to lose interest in keeping up appearances or involvement even with his friends.

Perhaps a Greek audience more familiar with the poet (though he seems a decidedly minor figure) would get more out of Spetsiotis's treatment of his life. To this viewer, despite a strong start, Meteor and Shadow ends up rambling, depressing, and uninstructive. It offers no insight into what drew Lapathiotis into his patterns of self-destruction--unless perhaps it was that he had nothing to rebel against. Pampered by his family and financially independent, he wafts through life in a state of decorous but motiveless languor, sartorially imitating Oscar Wilde (who in 1919, when much of the film is set, was still a fairly recent martyr to antigay intolerance) but with none of the Irish writer's intense involvement in the world around him. By contrast, the three bewildered people in Araki's film are looking, though without quite knowing why, for an escape from their torpor--a sense of life's meaning that they find in their connection to each other. And the homeless kids and the maternal old man who unofficially adopts them in The Outsiders, whose lives are the most difficult, even desperate, of anybody's in these films, are the ones who find the most fulfillment, by forging among themselves a new family based on outsiderness and on self-acceptance, love, even pride. Out of such feelings emerge the beginnings of a community.

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