Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jan 30, 2016 5:09 pm 
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A most welcome reissue

When budding Sandusky, Ohio gay youth Eric (Chris Stafford) makes his first foray into the local gay bar, Universal Fruit & Nut Co. in the just reissued 1998 movie Edge of Seventeen, he orders an Eighties cocktail, a "fuzzy navel," a mixture of orange juice and peach Schnapps. Of course the sound system is blasting the Eurythmics and Bronski Beat. His enamored "best friend" Margie (Tina Holmes), doesn't want to know which way he's trending when she cuts and tints his bob and puts eye liner on him for the high school dance where his coiffure draws the comment, "Who did your hair, Boy George?" and his wild dancing gets a "What are you, queer?" -- which sends him off in the big Seventies car to the gay club. There he's welcomed by the feisty lesbian supervisor at his summer fairground food concession job, Angie (Lea DeLaria of "Orange Is the New Black"), who puts his fuzzy naval on the house. Full on club scene, in Sandusky, Ohio? Yeah, girl! And quintessential disco, vintage 1984, right there.

It's a pivotal moment of many. High school senior Eric, whose loving parents are going to do everything to insure he can live his dream of going to school in New York, will become a regular at the bar where Angie presides as emcee, jazz singer, coach and counselor. It's a coming out of sorts, though he will still have to make up his mind, and accepting that he is her pal but can't be her lover will be as hard for Margie as it will be for Eric to see that gay college student and fellow restaurant employee Rod (Andersen Gabrych) who breaks him in with gay sex was only having a little fun, not starting a relationship.

What made Edge of Seventeen recognizable as an instant classic gay coming of age movie when it came out in 1998 was a combination of factors. First of all, its great sense of time and place, and its choice of something so iconic as 1984 as the time and so unexpected and eye-opening as a bland corner of the Midwest as the place. Second, Chris Stafford, whose combination of good looks, readiness and innocence is so winning. (What ever become of him? Apparently, he went on to become a lawyer. Our loss.) And then, niceness. Eric isn't tortured. Growing up gay in a conventional straight world is hard enough without personal trauma or family disfunction. Eric's mom (Stephanie McVay) is particularly kind and understanding, when the truth comes out.

There is a certain originality in this. Eric is dealing with a particular variation on growing up, that's all. It was healing and enlightening to experience a movie in which growing up gay wasn't seen as a tragedy, a comedy, or an epic. Though Rod is, basically, an asshole, and no role model for Eric at all. Nor are a lot of the drunken old queens at the bar.

Then there are all the little specific touches. Gay of course isn't a "lifestyle", but Eric's successive more hip clothes and haircuts show who he is becoming. Roger Ebert misunderstood (everything), saying that Eric has not time for "love" but wants right away to turn into a "slut." The movie's validity and usefulness for gays is that it's honest about the mechanics, such as that anal sex can hurt. Where else has that ever been shown? (Anal sex is discussed, with enthusiasm, by Nathan Maloney, Charlie Hunnam's character, after his first time in the original 1999 British TV show "Queer Aa Folk".) This is one of Edge of Seventeen's chief virtues: it's specific, practical, and detailed.

Eric is soon forced to realize Rod is not his great love ("He doesn't give a shit about me," he ruefully tells Marge): getting hung up on romance would have made the movie "universal," and meaningless. But he desperately turns to Maggie for sex (uselessly) after he's found himself used as a sex object by older gays. It's a process he has to go through. Edge of Seventeen is partly a critique of the gay scene. Still, old queens and drag queens at the bar become Eric's support group when his girlfriend and mom are too busy adjusting to help and the guys who want to trick with him are all dicks.

There has been a lot of stuff about homosexuality in movies but valid coming out/coming of age films are rare. By coincidence, one of the others appeared in England in this same year of 1998, Simon Shore's Get Real, which comes as a lesson in homosexuality's blindness and in moral strength. It's the handsome school jock who could have any girl he wants, who turns out to be gay, and to have the courage to accept it. Before that, in 1996, Hettie Macdonald's Beautiful Thing, set in a working class suburb of London, was another groundbreaking film about gay youth. In the year 2000 an equally strong movie came (made for TV) in France, Christian Faure's Just a Question of Love, where a hunky young budding poet and agronomist has to fall in love with a braver slightly older guy to develop, through his example, the courage to come out to his pretend girlfriend and his conservative parents.

Each of these movies is terrific in its way and has been tremendously important for young gays, and as necessary for older gays who didn't have anything like them when they were that age. These aren't the great tragic romance that Brokeback Mountain is but they perform a helpful healing function Ang Lee's film doesn't offer. It's great that Strand has brought out a remastered and re-released version of Edge of Seventeen on DVD and Blu-ray. It's an iconic gay film that has withstood the test of time and is worthy to be in any library.

Edge of Seventeen, 99 mins., named after the 1981 Stevie Nicks song, written by Todd Stephens, was showcased at a raft of gay film festivals 1998-2000, and on its June 1998 theatrical release in NYC received a most sympathetic and perceptive review from the NYTimes's Stephen Holden about all the things this movie gets "exactly right" -- from its "small slice of 1980's middle-class Middle American life" to its turbulent adolescent desire to its explicit gay sex to the gay-tinged teen disco culture of the time to its protagonist's growing fear of turning out to be different, a destiny he can't escape. Dennis Harvey's Variety review, which notes the film's kinship with 1980's John Hughes teen flicks, was equally appreciative and perceptive. (Among many homages Gay Vegas bas a lavishly illustrated one.)

The new Strand Releasing DVD and Blu-ray discs are available from 2 Feb. 2016.

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