Kisser of Men
A few words with the men behind "Straightman"
By Ray Pride
AUGUST 21, 2000: "Straightman" is a rough-hewn, sometimes indelicately shot, from-the-heart story about male friendship, and it's the most important Chicago independent film in memory.
Why? Working in a style derived from backgrounds in acting and improvisation, director/co-producer/co-writer/co-star Ben Berkowitz, 27, and co-producer/co-writer/star Ben Redgrave, 26, play roommates with cluttered lives. David (Berkowitz) overweight, bearded and furry, manages a comedy club with comics from an off-brand hell, and pursues, with clumsy aplomb, a succession of flings with women who pass through the club. Jack (Redgrave) works construction jobs, scowling at the world and his live-in girlfriend from behind a heavy handlebar mustache. A few small tremors in their lives, and the pair become roommates. David is manic; Jack is unhappy: while David thinks Jack is straight, he is, in fact, pursuing sex with strangers in stairwells and men's rooms across Chicago. Eventually, Jack confronts the reality of his life, and the performances--searching, seething--and the writing of the scenes--never judgmental, only descriptive--make for a modestly scaled film that has remarkable nuance and texture. It's a Chicago film through and through, and the people on screen? They're probably your friends.
"Straightman" could be described as being somewhat like a Cassavetes film, but the more intriguing reference point would be the work of Mike Leigh. After the filmmakers held extended workshops, a series of improvisations and conversations, many videotaped, with each other and other actors, they discovered that their process paralleled Leigh's. (Similarly, Redgrave discovered Charles Burnett's intense, equally taciturn "Killer of Sheep" during editing; not an influence, but a confirmation of their instincts.)
The small-budget feature-small as in "don't even ask"-received completion moneys from CUFF's new grant program, and has made a half-dozen stops on the festival circuit before its Friday debut at the Fine Arts, including at an Independent Feature Project showcase at the Berlin International Film Festival; the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival; the Inside Out Toronto Film Festival; and it took a Special Jury Prize at the New Fest: New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. While "Straightman" doesn't have a distributor yet, the Bens have gotten support from leading independent film personages, such as film rep Bob Hawk, who brought "Clerks" to the public eye.
Berkowitz is more of a joker than Redgrave, but both can be pointed when necessary. A notably slimmer Berkowitz jokes, "I intentionally gained weight, that Robert DeNiro thing. I wound up gaining way more than I ever wanted to, and during editing, even more than that. Marlon Brando was calling me a fat-ass."
Part of the film's authenticity comes from shooting on the streets around Wicker Park, taking in establishments like Gold Star, the Rainbo Club and the now-defunct Okno. "We had no money," Berkowitz laughs, reminded of all the exterior shots and walking-and-talking scenes. "Even when we shot inside, we had to shoot really tight because we had no extras." That limitation is an asset, suggesting a further intimacy, and out on the street, we get an overcast and dirty looking Chicago, with plausible topography.
"We knew some scenes had to not be two people sitting in an apartment," Berkowitz says. "At Sundance the year before, I heard someone complaining, it's one of those two-guys-in-an-apartment movies. I knew our movie was still gonna be a two-guys-in-an-apartment movie, but I can at least bring us out on location once in a while." Working without permits, the pair shot a scene on a Western Avenue bus, guerrilla-style in the middle of the night. "I had bribe money ready, had M&Ms ready. He [the bus driver] was totally cool, three in the morning, his last run up north. We did it four times all the way up to Foster! I thanked him, he said, 'You ain't going no Academy.' I said 'Excuse me?,' and he said, 'You ain't getting no Academy Award with that fake friendship!'"
The bus driver's insight aside, the performances are the film's great virtue. The characters are just confused, living their lives. The story never stops to apologize, offer lessons, say more than "This is this." "Straightman" is descriptive, not prescriptive, and the lack of pop culture references is also a relief. Redgrave says he's been surprised that the film has done so well on the festival circuit, and more voices haven't been raised against the film.
"There's never been a gay artistic critic who don't get it," Berkowitz says, "but inside 'Indiewood,' there's now 'gay Indiewood,' and [several of these influential names] seem very uninterested in edgier work any more. I don't think anyone has a problem with the fact that [Ben and I] are straight, I just don't think they want to see un-p.c. gay characters. More importantly, they don't want to see guys who look like me being friends with guys who look like Ben and Joaquin [de la Puente, who plays a partner of Jack's]. For some of them, Ben and Joaquin aren't hot enough. What does that say about me? If they aren't hunks, what the hell am I? There was a gay distributor in Berlin, from Amsterdam, he was looking at me like I was Quasimodo. 'I cannot distribute a movie with someone who looks like that!'" But Berkowitz has found some solace: "There is a whole subculture of men who like bears, bigger, hairy men--and they love me!"
"They're all disappointed he's lost weight," Redgrave jokes.
"It's basically about acting," Berkowitz continues. "The reason a lot of the audiences at gay festivals and the juries have liked it is because they appreciate we're trying to tell the truth."
The pair met in an acting class, taught at the School of the Art Institute by Tom Jaremba, who they consider their first great influence. "Ben and I met as actors," Berkowitz says, "but we became partners as writers. Even though we didn't write a traditional script, I think what we did and with our actors is the process of writing. We left ourselves open to chance, which is what improvisation is about. But it certainly wasn't jumping in front of the camera and making up shit. In the early stages of wanting to make a film, I asked Ben if he would act in it, and he said, Only if I can be your partner and help you make it. It's like a Hollywood romance, we make a movie about best friends and become best friends!" He laughs raucously.
But they did take their time in finding their way to "Straightman." Berkowitz had the idea of working with his experience with a roommate who came out while they lived together. They didn't even know if they'd ever shoot a film. "I wasn't really concerned when we were writing and doing the acting with how it would be perceived," Redgrave says now. "I didn't know how many people would see this."
"We never knew if it would even be a film." But, Berkowitz continues, "I can remember getting good notes when we showed the videotapes around, and then I graduated, I thought I could get a job, or wait, maybe we can make that film. But we didn't have any money. It was one of those things, boom-boom-boom, we have like ten grand and a cinematographer and these actors who have been rehearsing for four months. It would have been a crime not to do it."
"There was a level of freedom since I had no idea that so many people would see this, the idea of how people would take it was never a question in what we made," Redgrave says.
Berkowitz laughs, interjecting, "This is where we differ!"
"I know," Redgrave says, "This is something I'm aware of whenever I work on anything now, is to keep that same [pure] mindset, otherwise, you're making it trite. All the theoretical questions that Ben and I discussed very early on are in the film. Talking about the consequences of coming out, and how lots of people have a similar experience, revealing something about themselves that doesn't have to be about sexuality, but confessing who you are to someone else and the importance of achieving a good opinion of yourself."
Berkowitz isn't done. "As director, I had to figure how are we going to do this? While I didn't know if it would ever be done, I had all these actors, the shooter, people with money, I always felt an overwhelming responsibility to pretend like it was going to happen. I had to think, this is definitely going to go to Sundance, it's definitely going to be distributed by Miramax. It made me more respectful of it, considering it as being in the public eye." It didn't; it isn't.
And being there for his friend was Berkowitz's genesis of the story. "I mean, I'm not a great person, y'know, I fuck up all the time," he says. "But my relationship with my best friend was probably the most important thing that I had at that time. If I can't make a film about that, what can I make a film about? It's not like I set out to make a gay film, but this is an important element in my straight life. So taking that into consideration, ["Straightman"] was really easy to make. I had spent years listening to that shit! It's easy to be the liberal, straight guy, and say, oh, I support that, but that's not my life. When you're living with a guy who's coming out... When I met Ben, I didn't know if he was straight or gay, and I didn't care. He was just the best actor in the class, and I wanted to work with him."
The confusion convinces, and several women who have seen the film have talked about being turned on by the film's various grappling, sweaty encounters (including, memorably, some male-female rugburn). There's an erotic urgency of great specificity. What about the sex, inquiring minds want to know. "What's important is physical desire," Redgrave says. "Transferring the gender of that object, or the receiver, is not a problem. It never really occurred to me that it would be. I know when men are good-looking, everyone does, but do people cop to it? It just wasn't a difficult transference of desire to have it be for men."
"I love it when you tell people, 'I'm not gay, I've never slept with a man, but I have an active imagination,'" Berkowitz prompts.
"Right," Redgrave says, grinning a big grin, reaching for the merlot as Berkowitz reaches for his cell phone.
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