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

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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.)

We're 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.

Polk's 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 Day? 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 hegemony.

directed 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.

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