Friday, April 16, 2010

Bette Gordon's HANDSOME HARRY opens... the door to a discussion of male sexuality

 
Having earlier this week used Bette Gordon's new film to demonstrate the difference between a gay movie (Pornography: A Thriller) and a movie with a gay theme (Ms Gordon's HANDSOME HARRY), TrustMovies finds he must give away spoilers in now writing at length about this powerful new film. There is no way to properly discuss the movie without going deeply into Handsome Harry's homosexual element.

You can claim, with some justification, that Gordon's film (the director is shown at right) is really about love -- strong, passionate love -- and about fear, guilt and the slipperiness of memory.  But because the love story at the heart of the movie is between two men, there is no avoiding the homosexuality here, though god know, the men in the movie (including our Harry) try to do this and, in fact, have been doing it for most of their adult lives.  The more-than-serviceable screenplay, complete with some excellent dialog, comes from Nicholas T. Proferes and points up, without undue exposition, the various shape in different men that this avoidance takes.

Harry (a sterling, revelatory performance from Jamey Sheridanabove, that ought to be remembered at awards time), is a widower who has relocated to a small town where he's a small business owner now somewhat estranged from his adult son, who lives in another state.  He is also clearly the town's good-looking and most sought-after older man.  In one of the early scenes, the waitress (Karen Young) in the local diner propositions him, and his reaction to her offer of a blow job seems strikingly off-base.  Then an old navy buddy (Steve Buscemi, shown at right, below) calls to inform Harry that he is dying and needs to do penance for the past -- setting off a road trip that brings up everything Harry has spent the last 30 years trying to keep buried.

Hardsome Harry is a gorgeous film to view. Gordon, her cinematog-
rapher (Nigel Bluck) and editor (Keiko Deguchi) steep the frame in smoky beauty and keep the images coming -- and changing often enough that we never tire of looking.  The past is recalled as a kind of paradise -- whether it be the music of a piano duet, listening to jazz in a 60s bar, love, sex or companionship.  The hell of the present is envisioned via the lives of Harry's four ex-Navy buddies (Buscemi, John SavageAidan Quinn and Titus Welliver).  Each actor is sensationally right in his role, bringing a full measure of truth and an emotional grounding to his few minutes of screen time.

Handsome Harry is about a man for whom the ultimate love of his life is another man. Because he could not acccept that state of affairs, he has betrayed that man and himself and seen his entire life go by for naught.  It's a shorter, leaner Brokeback Mountain, and another volley  in the cinematic war on America's blinkered view of sexuality, particularly male sexuality -- realizing that this is much more complicated and varied than either religion or the state is ready to admit.

Harry is certainly capable of having sex with women: Married for years, he fathered a son, even though the marriage at last collapsed.  Even now he gives over to a rousing roll-in-the-hay with one of his mates' soon-to-be-ex wife (an at-first angry, then beautifully open performance from Mariann Mayberry).  But his deepest attraction is toward that early male partner from his Navy days, brought to rich life as an older adult by Campbell Scott (shown above).

Music plays an important part in Harry's life and that of the film, and it is very well chosen, from the individual numbers and the piano duet by the young lovers (above) to the a capella singing done by Harry and his group and the impromptu duet with his ex-Navy friend's wife.  The women on view -- the waitress and the wife -- are given their due, via the performances and the screenplay.  Though Harry is a decent guy, he cannot conceal his lack if interest in Young (shown at left, below) at the dance they attend.  She sees this, and responds in kind.

The film is far from perfect: The set-up is obvious and the individual meetings between Harry and each man feels somewhat manufac-
tured -- occurring at precisely a time of dramatic change (the character played by Savage) or as a very odd intrusion (during Aidan Quinn's university lecture).  Yet the dialog is always believ-
able and honest, and the performances are all you could wish for. Here is a film, like the recent IFC On-Demand Overbrook Brothers that sheds increasing light on the variations of male sexuality and the  prohibitive cost that society still charges for these.

Handsome Harry, another excellent film distributed by Paladin, opens Friday, April 16, in New York and Los Angeles.   Click here for complete information on cities, theaters and further openings.

2 comments:

Amaris Castillo said...

Jim, thank you so much for reviewing this film - I loved the way you described its cinematography. From what you wrote, it sounds like an interesting film, definitely different from what I've seen. I will look into watching it while I'm still in the city.

James van Maanen, said...

And thank YOU, Amaris -- for the comment! Handsome Harry probably skews toward an older demographic, but I will think you'll find it interesting. In any case, let me know!

When you say "while I am still in the city," does that mean you are leaving NY? Hope not!