Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Apr 05, 2004 12:20 am 
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Angels in Pocatello

The gay movie audience is still a demographic that’s looking for its story onscreen. You have to realize that, with any minority, any popular expression (if you can consider Later Days popular: there were only twenty people present when I saw it) is a statement of the whole group. It’s about our life. This is us. This is our story. It’s so important to see that story honestly or earnestly dealt with that quality comes second. Don’t expect this to be recognized by mainstream critics. And why should it be? They're reviewing for the mainstream, not for a specific niche starved for a public voice. In these terms Get Real or Edge of Seventeen or any other gay coming of age story that finds its way to the screen is pure gold. But in aesthetic terms – and gay men are nothing if not tasteful – we have to recognize that Latter Days is a bit gross.

And yet on a certain level it doesn’t matter that “Latter Days” isn’t “art.” That it’s not “Madame Satã.” That it’s not even “Queer as Folk.”

The story of Latter Days is full of clichés. But those clichés still have to be retold in gay terms. This is Star-Crossed Lovers, gay version; and unlike Shakespeare, C. Jay Cox has given his movie an upbeat finale. The gay community needs that too: not to see every gay story end in suicide or alienation. So here comes a Mormon missionary to L.A. He’s brought out by a cynical, buff gay gym rat who does it on a bet. Cliché number one: the seducer gets seduced -- Christian’s superficiality is overwhelmed by Aaron’s simple faith and goodwill. Aaron quickly gets the upper hand as his authenticity and passion shake the superficial Christian to the core. But Aaron is the more vulnerable one because he’s part of the rigidly anti-homosexual Mormon community. When he’s caught by the other missionaries kissing Christian, he’s sent back to Pocatello to be put on trial and excommunicated. His own father avoids him and his mother can’t understand. His fate is lurid: but this is the way a lot of gay Mormons see their background.

A soppy reunion intervenes. Rather implausibly, Aaron’s homophobic associate, Elder Paul Ryder (the intense young actor David Gordon-Leavitt, who was so strong in Manic) turns kind for a minute and tips Christian off that Aaron will have a five-hour layover in Salt Lake City. Which is followed by the even greater surprise that Christian finds Aaron in the airport – in the snow, yet -- and talks him into a night of intense lovemaking. But Aaron disappears in the morning, and then there’s a hellish interlude: first the lurid trial of Aaron by the Mormon council in Pocatello, where he’s condemned by his own father; then his wrist slitting and hospitalization, and finally his confinement to a sanitarium to be brainwashed and electro-shocked out of his natural desires – with crucifixion imagery thrown in -- while Christian tries at a distance to restore contact. The very fine Mary Kay Place as Aaron’s mother never condescends to her role or softens it. She’s bitterly unhappy at the news that gay is not just what Aaron has done, but who he is.

At this point the movie has already said way too much, mixing the authentic and the sleazy with wild abandon, but there are still other details, like Christian delivering meals to a gloomy AIDS patient (Erik Palladino) and hanging out with a black girlfriend who writes a hit song (Rebekah Johnson) coincidentally seen by Aaron in the sanitorium – which add redundancy and implausibility to the plot.

After the Mormon nightmare is done with, Aaron, his reprogramming a complete failure, goes back to L.A. to find Christian and sort out his life, who knows how. It’s not that the happy ending is too happy but that it’s too fast and careless. But for the gay audience, there’s more than just eye candy in Christian (Wesley A. Ramsey) and “Elder” Aaron (Steve Sandvoss). They play with conviction. And Sandvoss is as authentic and winning as he is cute and hunky. Paradoxically, his best and most touching scenes are the ones in which he delivers some of his corniest lines about God and the order of things.

Director/author Cox has a background not far from Aaron’s. He may have resorted to the obvious and the improbable too often in constructing his plot, but the underlying experiences referred to feel real. Besides Mary Kay Place, there is the classy Jacqueline Bisset in a larger role as Lila, the fag hag whose restaurant is where the bet is made and the reunion staged. She gets to deliver some of the most tendentious lines – but, as with all the rest, they’re words the gay audience needs to hear; and she gives the corniness a certain sad nobility. The final dinner at Lila’s restaurant provides a sense not only of the fellowship that Mormonism withholds from gay men, but also the community straight society in general fails to provide.

Latter Days is as touching as it is embarrassing. The acting is often more than adequate, but the movie is clunky looking as well as badly constructed. Why, for instance, does the supposedly hip Christian dress so badly? No doubt about it, despite some touching moments this movie tries to do way more than it’s capable of. But, aesthetic considerations aside, the distributor Maidstone was still "particularly cowardly," as Ed Halter commented in the Voice, to cancel a premiere of the movie in Salt Lakd City.

“Don't Mormons deserve the same schlocky gay entertainment as everyone else?” Halter asked.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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