This excerpt is Part 1 of the third chapter in this series, "Queer Theories".
Go back to "Red Shirt -- Part 3" , the previous excerpt from Chapter Two.
The narrator is Professor Ben Bruckner.
Rated PG-13, and contains no warnings or spoilers.
Summary: Ben is taking part in a tribute to his old friend, filmmaker Ron Rosenblum, who is being honored at the Carnegie Mellon Gay/Lesbian/Transgendered Film Festival. Takes place in December 2001.
Author's Note: The film people mentioned (excluding Ron, of course, who is completely fictional) are based on real people, making this a bit of a roman á clef.
Disclaimer: This is for fun, not profit. Watch Queer As Folk on Showtime, buy the DVDs, videos, and CDs. Read the stories and enjoy.
I've known Ron Rosenblum for almost ten years and always found him a total enigma.
I first met him when I was a student, just out and getting heavily into Queer Theory and Gender Studies, still trying to figure out how I was going to let my parents know that they were paying for an education that I was planning to dedicate to studying the imagery of homosexuality in contemporary culture.
Ron was what I guess would once have been called an "underground" filmmaker -- his films were very low budget and on subjects that were, even in the late Eighties and early Nineties, pretty out there. His documentaries had won awards -- albeit mostly at gay and lesbian film festivals. He'd made some innovative music videos for a number of bands and singers, both gay and straight, which made him the cash he used to finish his own projects. He had even, if the truth be told, written and directed some porn under various noms de cinema such as Jiffy Lubner and Moishe Hardwicke. He doesn't like to talk about them, but they are both hot and funny -- there's a good conference paper in those films that I plan to write some day.
The small romantic movies that he did for Navarro Video throughout the Nineties earned him the tag "The Gay Woody Allen" -- and although he hated it, it was rather apt. They were quirky and charming and always took place in and around Manhattan, featuring a continuing cast of regulars, a few of whom even broke into mainstream films and television. "Dog Walk," the one about the hapless dog walker who falls into hustling because he is just so good-looking and accommodating he can't stop picking up guys sounds like the plot of another of his porno films, but is in fact a sweet love story. "Honey, I'm Home" is a romantic comedy about two guys trying to live together in suburbia, "Wild Bears" about a disastrous camping trip, and "Gershwin" about a guy who plays in a Midtown hotel piano-bar and falls in love with a tourist from Boise, Idaho. All of them have a certain amount of sex in them, but it's the humor and the relationships that they portray -- and the basic normality of gay life and love -- that set them apart.
Ron's rather graphic documentary on the transsexual strippers, "Lollypop," was probably the most infamous of his films and the one that brought him to the attention of the general public, having been blasted on the floor of Congress by none other than our good friend Senator Jesse Helms, assuring Ron of lasting status in the canon of "persecuted" queer artists, along with Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley and that ilk.
In fact, Ron was always the most unlikely kind of gay icon. Very tall and gangling (some nick-named him the Jewish Condor), with glasses and a disheveled demeanor, he fit no stereotype, either as an artist or as an out man. He didn't care about the surface things that often obsess gay men -- that often obsess me, I will admit. He wasn't buff, he wasn't outspoken, he wasn't even particularly political. His focus was always completely on his work and its perfection and reception. An old boyfriend of mine was always amused by Ron and his seeming normality and used to joke that we would eventually learn Ron's deep, dark secret: that he was really arrow straight, with wife and kids closeted away in Connecticut, while he collected accolades from queers around the world.
And now he was getting ready to direct his first big budget Hollywood movie, starring a very A-list star, James Hardy, an Academy Award winner who, from all reports, was very straight but also very queer-friendly. Ron had met Jimmy when he worked as an assistant director on the film Jimmy won his Oscar for, the AIDS drama, "Liberty." Yes, I know -- a lot of it is a cop out. The studio wouldn't let them show the main character and his extremely hunky lover kiss or show much affection. A scene in bed had been filmed, but cut after the first preview when the audience, according to reports, showed "distaste." Apparently Jimmy, to his credit, was disgusted by the studio's attitude and had promised Ron, who had become a good friend and a sort of guide to gay life during the shoot, that they'd one day make a mainstream movie that wouldn't pull any punches. Now that day had come.
Meanwhile, back in Pittsburgh, it was another tribute to Ron Rosenblum. We were showing a retrospective of his major documentaries, videos, and features (but none of the porn, alas! Ron's request, and not university censorship, just to be clear). Personally, I always preferred his more intimate works, but especially his first film, the documentary he made while still a graduate student, "Red Shirt." That was the film we were featuring in what must have seemed to Ron just another fag fest where he'd be wined and dined and given a plaque. But he was doing it, I knew, because I was an old friend, and because it really signaled the end of an era for him: the end of his ghetto-ization and his emergence as one of the few openly gay directors in Hollywood.
Not everyone -- especially some of the gay press and my more militant students -- was that happy about Ron's "defection" into the "straight" world. Of course, Ron didn't give a damn what anyone thought. He was a writer and director and he was going to make movies. And knowing Ron, he wouldn't compromise. He was like the architect in "The Fountainhead": the man who would rather destroy what he had created rather than let others impose their ideas on it. Luckily, Jimmy Hardy was starring in and producing the film, "The Olympian," and was powerful enough in Hollywood to have the final cut -- and he was giving that cut to Ron, guaranteeing that his vision was secure. At least, that was the plan.
I hadn't seen Ron in a couple of years, although we'd kept in touch by mail and phone. I'd written extensively on his career and was even thinking of doing a book, a project I thought very apt now that he was on the verge of a bigger career. "Red Shirt" was about to be released on video and DVD, which pleased me. For years you could see it only at film festivals or on badly dubbed VHS copies because there had been an altercation over the rights to the thing for years. When Ron finished the film, his advisor and committee refused to approve it until he made substantial cuts, excising material that Ron felt was the heart of the film, but especially the controversial ending. Ron made off with his finished cut and raw footage -- all of which the university claimed it owned -- to a festival in Germany. It promptly won Best Work by a New Director and an honorable mention for Best Documentary. I admit this was a pretty small venue, but the gay press picked it up and, along with it, the wrangle over ownership, made it a cause celeb, and made Ron's reputation in no small way.
The university eventually backed down. They also refused to grant him his degree. Ron got the last laugh, of course, when about three years ago they gave him an "honorary" degree and the same people who had reviled him before sat on the podium with him, smiling and nodding. That is until Ron, in his thank you speech, blasted them for their philistine attitudes toward artistic integrity, their petty jealousy, and their not-so-veiled homophobia. Now, Ron had completely won back his rights to the film and was anticipating its re-release, as well as that of his entire oeuvre.
I picked him up at the airport and was surprised at how different he appeared. Ron was a little stoop-shouldered but also very sleek and successful-looking. An expensive suit replaced his usual "unmade bed" look, he'd traded his thick glasses for contact lenses, which brought to the fore his piercing blue eyes (his best feature, in my opinion), had his black hair, with a touch of grey at the temples, carefully styled, and was sporting a trim beard that made him the epitome of the serious filmmaker.
As usual, he was by himself. This was another source of constant speculation in the insular world of Queer Studies. While gay film festivals and conferences often resemble more intellectual versions of the White Party, Ron had always held himself aloof. He never arrived with anyone, he never left with anyone, he never seemed to connect with anyone. And yet there was nothing remotely asexual about him. I'd always gotten a strong vibe from Ron -- as had many others -- but nothing ever came of it. I imagine that he sublimated all of his energy, sexual and emotional, into his work. Ron just seemed to be a solitary bird, flying his own way, perpetually alone.
I arrived at the auditorium as soon as I could after the afternoon faculty meeting, but I knew I'd missed most of the feature. I hadn't viewed "Red Shirt" in a number of years and was looking forward to seeing if time had distorted my perception of it as a little masterpiece. But, glancing at my watch I knew that it was almost over. No matter, I could catch one final screening the next evening. It was scheduled to go on again right before Ron's final "Q & A" and the presentation of (another) award as "Gay Filmmaker of the Year" (at least at this festival). Then the next day Ron was heading back to L.A. for the pre-production on the filming of "The Olympian," which was due to roll in early March.
Ron was in the lobby, leaning against one of the side walls. He saw me and smiled. "Times like this when I regret having packed in the cigarettes."
"Man, I know what you mean. Sometimes I'm dying for a smoke and it's been, what, eight years since I quit." I leaned up next to him. I could hear the film still playing inside. "Sorry, I was late. Professor shit."
"No problem. I have that dub I promised you in my briefcase. You can watch it at home and not have to wait for the official release."
"Thanks, I appreciate it. But I want to see it on the big screen. I'll catch the whole thing tomorrow." I began heading for the auditorium doors; he didn't follow. "Aren't you coming in?"
Ron shook his head. "I still can't watch the thing, even after all these years. I can't sit through it." He stroked his beard reflectively. "I think I avoided a lot of the legal stuff and getting my rights back for all those years because it meant I'd have to look at it again. It still feels like it all happened yesterday. That's the worse part. Especially seeing it in a clean, restored print. I can remember cutting it together and having one anxiety attack after another. Jane -- she was my soundperson, really, but she helped me with the editing, too -- she'd come in and pick me up off the floor, literally. I was pretty rotten to her sometimes, but I never would have gotten the thing done without her. She had been my girlfriend, too -- until...." He looked down at his shoes.
"What's she doing now?"
"She's a producer in local television down in Florida. Doing well, I hear. My old cameraman works for CNN -- doing what he always wanted to do. He worked the Gulf War and Bosnia, too. Good man."
"He must have been good -- I remember the quality of the picture. Beautiful stuff."
"Yes, wait until you see the restoration. It should look great on the DVD, too."
"You know, Ron, there really was nothing you could have done differently. I mean, about that kid...."
"I'd rather not talk about it. It's bad enough I have to constantly answer questions about it at things like these. At least I can keep a professional distance. But otherwise... I...."
"What you need is a good meal. And you are getting one tonight, as soon as they all clear out of here. I know you like Thai food. This place is as good as you'll get in New York."
"Sounds like just what Doctor Bruckner ordered!"
"It is. Oh, and you'll meet Michael, too."
"The comic book guy, huh? Is he cute?"
"The cutest. And a total sweetheart." I squeezed his shoulder. "I'll meet you in a couple of minutes. I just want to catch the very end of the thing."
He nodded and I headed into the auditorium. On the screen in front of me a younger Ron was confronting a grimy-looking pimp wearing a silky red shirt, while a group of rag-tag boys hooted and gestured. This was what Ron's advisor had wanted excised: the whole last section of the documentary, when Ron ceases to be an onlooker and becomes a part of the narrative. When his relationship with one of the boys, his "star" Jack, becomes explicit and central to the work, when it changes from a social problem documentary on runaway adolescents and turns into something singular: the filmmaker coming out to the world on camera.
I knew that the police had done nothing to look for the kid and done nothing to the pimp/pusher. He and the kids portrayed had pretty much vanished into thin air once the authorities got involved. No foul play had ever been proven, and although Ron had haunted various shelters, drug treatment programs, and even the morgue for months after filming wrapped, he never got even a single clue as to what had happened to Jack. Later, when he was making some money out in California, he hired a private detective to look into the matter, but the trail was so cold that it was impossible. It was as if Jack had never existed, but had been created out of Ron's desperate need for a subject. The detective told Ron just what the police had said: that Jack was probably dead, just as the dealer claimed, just another nameless casualty, out of reach and beyond everything but memory and a shadow on Ron's film, "Red Shirt."
I walked out with the crowd, mainly students and faculty, but also some familiar faces from various gay groups and causes around Pittsburgh. Some of them were buzzing pretty loudly about something. The film had apparently had an impact, which made me happy. People would be talking about Ron and his films and that might bode well for the reception of the movie he was getting ready to shoot.
Just outside the auditorium doors someone spun into me.
I looked down to see a familiar face. A kid I knew from the clubs who was a student at the art institute. He was also the boyfriend of Michael's best friend.
"Whoa, Justin. Don't run me down."
The kid looked wild-eyed. He'd been involved in a very nasty incident earlier in the year where he's been bashed by another student at his private school and he still seemed to be feeling the effects of it.
"Professor Bruckner. I... just came with some friends. Jay, he takes your class in Queer Images in the Media."
"Sure, I know Jay."
"We just watched... that movie... it... I mean...." The kid was looking around as if he'd seen a ghost. I wondered if something in the end confrontation had been too much of a reminder of what had happened to him.
"Well, I hope you liked it. The director, Ron, is a good friend of mine. It seems to have affected you rather strongly. Maybe you'd like to sit down for a minute?"
"No, I have to go. Now." He took a step away and then turned to me. "Couldn't you, I mean, didn't you just see the movie? Didn't you SEE??"
"What are you talking about, Justin? I came in at the end. I was a bit late because of a faculty meeting. I'll watch the whole thing tomorrow night."
He backed away from me, his blue eyes bright. "I have to go. I have to go NOW." The kid practically fled outside. I was at a loss as to what had spooked him so.
I drove Ron over to the reception/cocktail party that was being held, supposedly, in his honor. The thing was in full swing by the time we got there. Mostly faculty, few of whom had actually attended the film festival, some invited grad students, visiting Queer Theory scholars, and various significant others. Including Michael, who looked desperately glad to see me.
"I am freaking out here, Ben. I can't understand half of what anyone here is saying and even when I can understand the actual words I have no fuckin' idea what they mean! Why did I come here?"
"You came because I invited you. Get another drink and I'll introduce you to Ron."
Ron, meanwhile, was basking in the perks of celebrity. Or at least the perks of celebrity in Pittsburgh. A couple of tenured professors were bringing him drinks, a couple of cute grad students were sidling up to get his attention, and one significant other was getting him to autograph a video of "Lollypop." It was business as usual, in other words.
Michael and I mingled a bit. There was a lot of talk about Ron's upcoming film and whether he was "selling out" by going with a major studio and a straight star. There was also some discussion of some recent issues in Queer Theory, mainly whether non-gay/lesbian/transgendered people could rightfully identify themselves as "queer" as a political move. There was also some discussion of Liza's recent weight loss and her engagement to a guy who looked like he wore more make-up than she did. Michael actually held his own in most of the conversations. When talking to academics the main thing is to agree with them and they will think you, too, are a brilliant theorist. Perhaps that is cynical, but I've been in the game a while now and found that it works.
After about an hour we collected Ron and drove to the Thai restaurant. We had a wonderful meal and, with a couple of glasses of wine and some Thai beer in him, Ron unwound enough to tell some scurrilous stories about famous actors (closeted) with whom he'd crossed paths in Hollywood, homophobic producers, faded old-time divas he had escorted to various events, and enough other dishy dirt to make Michael exclaim, "Emmett is going to shit, he'll be so jealous when I repeat this stuff!"
"Just don't assign the blame to me -- I never told you any of it."
"My lips are sealed."
We left an extremely mellow Ron at his hotel, while Michael and I headed back to my place -- we were feeling pretty mellow ourselves. But as I was pulling out of the hotel parking lot, Michael tapped my arm and said, "That's funny. That looks just like Brain's Jeep."
"Where?" I slowed the car down to a crawl.
"Over there." Michael put down his window and peered out.
"Michael, there must be hundreds of those Jeeps in Pittsburgh. And what would Brian be doing at this hotel?"
Michael gave me a look.
"Michael, get your mind on something else -- I'll make it worth your while, believe me!"
I forgot about the Jeep until much later.
Continue on to "Queer Theory -- Part 2".
©Gaedhal, April 2002
Picture of Robert Gant and Gale Harold from Showtime 2002.
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Updated April 30, 2002