Sunday, December 09, 2007

Vince and Stuart Go West

Queer As Folk & Queer As Folk 2
by John Demetry

Subject to its t.v. medium, Queer As Folk is an actor- and writer-based work, but it still makes imaginative use of distinctly cinematic language and theatrical tropes. The collection of directors sustains expressive visual motifs. Slow motion, overhead shots, freeze-frames, cross-cutting, and Gregg-Araki-style monologues set against blasts of kitschy color underscore the emotional and social consequence of the characters' travails.

In a combined six-plus hours, writer Russell T. Davies creates a massive, Altman-style spectrum of characters refracted through the three leads. Turning 30, somewhat stuffy Vince Tyler (Craig Kelly II) lives vicariously through the man for whom he's sustained an unrequited love since they were both 14. That man is-say it with the most wistful British accent you can muster-Stuart Alan Jones (Aidan Gillen). Jones finds a new trick or two every night. He's hot stuff. As the series opens (and the dance clubs close), Stuart picks up 15-year-old virgin Nathan Maloney (Charlie Hunnam).

Their sex scene is a breakthrough in sexual representation and meaning. A moment of rim job ecstasy sets a powder keg to the rest of the piece. For Nathan, it's love-and liberation. A deft irony, it's also the night Stuart is introduced with the responsibility of having a child-in both senses of the word "having." "Bang!"

The shockwaves rebound throughout these characters' biological and makeshift families. We meet their parents and consider their individual responses to their sons' sexuality (from Vince's mom, who's been partying with him at the gay clubs since he was 15 to Nathan's father, who rear-ends Stuart's car). Friendship and "family" becomes indistinguishable out of social necessity. Stuart provides the spunk to impregnate his lesbian friend. Vince's mother takes Nathan into her home to keep maternal watch over his entrance into the gay scene. Stuart and Vince are referred to as "an old married couple." "Except we don't shag," quips Stuart. "That is a married couple," his friend retorts.

With his deftly constructed narrative, Davies focuses this post-AIDS crisis reconsideration of the "queer family" with a funeral in Part One and a wedding in Part Two. A sense of communal and personal responsibility, political and psychological growing pains, creates a tribe of conflicted individuals. Death and love has made us realize the magnitude of queer experience-and its moral challenge. Davies reconciles that revelation with a rainbow-flag view of human experience. He explicitly offers "Queer As Folk" as queer folktale while also exploring the need for the ritual celebration otherwise denied us.

Davies (and the long running time) gives each supporting character-family, friend or foe-narrative space to create piquant portraits of social diversity (Nathan's best school friend counters his accusation that she is just another fascist heterosexual oppressor: "I'm Black and a girl. Try that on for a week.")

The three leads, particularly, are spectacular-as richly drawn a triangle of masculinity as that which anchors Those Who Love Me. An extra-critical note, all three of them are hot. Significantly, in very different ways. The camera constantly luxuriates in their faces at moments of important decisions-each of these motion portraits gives off a different heat.

As brought to life by Gillen, there's no wonder that Vince and Nathan are head-over for Stuart Alan Jones. Gillen and Davies collaborate on a classic characterization; Stuart's a seductive asshole. His line-readings are quick-witted and lacerating, but he just as easily slips in earnestness and intelligence. His "King of the World" swagger is a turn-on, but it's a blatant cover; not a bluff, but not really earned either.

Stuart sees his constant shagging as a rebellious act, bolstered by showy displays of dissent. The crowd went wild when he smashes the jeep he's about to buy through the office window of a homophobic car salesman. Unfortunately, Stuart is also a manipulator, a drunk and a drug user who prefers a fuck to love. He sees that as flip-sides to the same radical coin, but it's made safe by his pampered, high-class life and by Vince's adoration.

That's what frustrates and attracts both Vince and Nathan. They live vicariously through Stuart's wild ways, but also suffer the heartbreak. Vince may not have the guts to do more than say "Fuck off!" to the subtle and not-so-subtle acts of homophobia that increase his shame, but he does have the guts to love Stuart even though he thinks he's unworthy.

Kelly doesn't play Vince's puppy-dog devotion in one-note. It's constantly, heartachingly challenged and re-awakened, as are all aspects of his life. What Kelly intuits as an actor is how to portray this internal struggle to precisely mark what makes his love and his life worthwhile-and therefore expresses the worth of our lives and loves.

With the shifting tones in his voice when Vince breaks up with his coddling boyfriend and, unwittingly, makes a decision that saves Stuart's life, Kelly measures the degree of Vince's-and Stuart's-incompleteness. The director not only cross-cuts between Vince and Stuart in this sequence-moral decision cut with suspense-but also stages the breakup as a cell-phone conversation: "You're breaking up. We're breaking up." The cell-phone joke runs throughout the series, but here it's shown to be more than a clever gag on hip gay life, but rather one of many felicitous expressions of a modern challenge: "Only connect."

A "will-they-or-won't-they?" dramatic scheme given spiritual weight, Vince and Stuart's souls-indeed, everyone's-seem to hang in the balance in that overhead freeze-frame on the dance floor that concludes Part One.

More than the other two, Hunnam faces the risk of playing a symbol. Nathan represents Stuart's slipping youth, which makes him the ultimate, dreamy challenge to Vince's love.

In Part Two, Nathan is primed to be the next "King of the World," and Hunnam lives up to that challenge as an actor. He fulfills the promise we once hoped for from Leonardo DiCaprio, giving human scale to youthful angst, pleasure, and liberating sexuality. He never rests on undisciplined hamminess or Baz (Romeo & Juliet) Luhrmann and James (Titanic) Cameron's Tiger Beat camera idolatry.

The collaboration of these performers acts out Davies' cascading theme: the Politics of Love. The relationship between Part One and Part Two mirrors the transformations in the relationships of the characters. They complete each other, and together they create a dream realized. (It's not unlike the relationship between Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey, challenging social myths. It also links it to the two parts of Angels In America, moving from a constellation of social anxiety to a Brechtian heaven of spiritual possibility).

Part One establishes the dynamics of their tribe. It ends with the promise offered by this tribe teetering on the verge of catastrophe and hope. Playing the personal as political, it sets up the conflict between escapism (drugs, meaningless sex, infantalism) and connection (friendship, family, maturity).

Part One of Queer As Folk elevates the passions and foibles of queer lives to grand scale, through which the audience shares the most hopeful and painful aspects of our personal lives with our community. That's not Those Who Love Me-level transcendence, but it does benefit from Chereau's understanding of the power of cinema.

That would be a profound enough achievement to make Queer As Folk a great work of art, but Part Two, amazingly--magically!-takes us further. The awesome conclusion, neither esoteric nor campy, comments on the very story we've shared and expands it to epic, mythic proportions.

Part Two dramatizes the importance of Vince and Stuart consummating their love to the community they've built precariously around them-most explicitly to the queer future represented by Nathan. Queer people are essentially defined by the nature of their love; oppression cheapens that love-and our humanity. Vince and Stuart take that post-modern fairy-tale spaceship ride into liberation. (A final title card announces: There were many rumors about became of Vince and Stuart. All of them were true.") Hand-in-hand, they "Go West."

The allusion is explicit, but it does more than repeat the meaning of the great Pet Shop Boys cover of the Village People disco hit. It takes it to its profound conclusion. Evidence of human aspiration and tainted by terror, the mythology of freedom and manifest destiny represented by America was expressed in terms of the sexual revolution of the 1970s by the Village People. Then, in the face of the AIDS crisis, the Pet Shop Boys examined the dual meanings of this legacy. Now, Queer As Folk transforms it into a mythology of love.

Queer As Folk shows how queer people's capacity for love--a beautiful thing in the face of everything personal and political against it--is an act of revolution.

As condensed by Envoi, Moderator at UK & US Press.

Originally published by


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