When I went on my writing retreat a few months back, I didn’t come straight home after my internet-free cabin sojourn. For what was supposed to be two nights but ended up being only one, I made my way to the outlying areas near San Marcos to a separate isolated location, and that place did have internet, and a Roku TV, which I had never encountered before. I found my way to the Tubi app and was shocked by the width and breadth of its LGBTQIA content, although while scrolling through the trailers that the app featured, I realized why: 70% of them were releases from either TLA Releasing or Breaking Glass*, which both had major runs in the post-Brokeback pre-Trump era of independent filmmaking, churning out gay flicks at a rate faster than Blumhouse can pump out installments of Into the Dark. Most of them … are bad. I imagine they’re also very cheap to license, especially if you’re looking to fill out a free streaming service. Releases from these distributors are rarely just bad movies, they’re bad art— not in the sense that they’re bad at being art, but in the sense that it’s a true, pure, intense look into the soul of the writers and directors (in this genre/time period, they are often one and the same), poorly made. These films are inscribed by limitations on their quality in every way, from material to performance to equipment. Most YouTubers now have better hardware than a lot of TLA releases from that time, and it shows. Sometimes, however, they manage to break through and somehow manage to be better than the sum of their parts.
I didn’t end up watching any of those movies in the hills outside of San Marcos. I happened to be driving through (and having to kill time while also following strict COVID protocol) on the day when Texas State was having their graduation. I had hoped to set up somewhere on or along the riverwalk to get some more writing done or finish reading Alias Grace, but all of the picnic tables were covered in plastic wrap to discourage congregation. After walking around the park for a while, I drove around aimlessly, seeing lots of young graduates and their families (following less strict COVID protocols) and ending up on-campus accidentally, where people who now seem impossibly young to me were leaving their dorms and loading up their cars to go home for Christmas. In that cabin just a few short hours later, I couldn’t bring myself to watch dated, ugly movies from the time when I was that same age, a time that was such a short season ago but which was nonetheless a completely different world, one without marriage equality or queer intersectionality or that extra decade of distance from the AIDS crisis. But knowing that they were out there meant that, eventually, I would be drawn back to them, moth to flame.
I recently watched three such films chosen at random. As luck would have it, the first one was a Breaking Glass film and the second was a TLA release, with the third actually coming from Wolfe Releasing, which is cut from the same cloth but seems to have a … let’s say “classier” output. All three also contained go-go dancing/dancers prominently and extensively, which was not something I sought out as a thematic throughline, but that encapsulates this era in gay cinema better than the previous two paragraphs did, doesn’t it? (Not better than the footnote, though.) The first of these, from Breaking Glass, captures what I think of when I think about their other distributions: a lead actor aiming for deadpan and missing, landing in the realm of dull surprise; a gay twist on one of the nine basic well-worn romcom templates (in this case Cyrano de Bergerac); a cast consisting mostly of actors with only two other credits and no headshot on IMDb; and one older gay delivering withering barbs and alluding to youthfully sleeping with Tennessee Williams. You know, a tale as old as time.
Is it Just Me? opens with our hero protagonist waxing fauxlosophical in his Carrie Bradshaw-esque lifestyle article/voice over about wanting more out of life than sexual liberation, although he doesn’t phrase it that way. Meet Blaine (Nicholas Downs), who writes pseudonymously as the “Invisible Man” for USA ToGay, his pen name reflecting how he feels in the gay community of L.A. Part of what makes him feel invisible is that he shares his living space with super hunky Cameron (Adam Huss), a go-go dancer who’s forever hooking up with someone, and against whom Blaine compares himself and falls short. “Is it just me,” Blaine asks his readers, “or am I the only one in this town who’s interested in more than what’s behind a man’s zipper?” Blaine has a meet cute with handsome, guitar-playing Texan Xander (David Loren) at a local cafe, and the two coincidentally start chatting online shortly thereafter, then graduate to spending hours talking on the phone. Xander reveals that, improbably, he actually reads Blaine’s column and, even more impossibly, he likes it. When Xander shares his photo after the two get to know each other better virtually, Blaine is delighted by the serendipity of the situation, until he realizes that Cameron had left himself logged into the dating site when Blaine got online, so Xander thinks Blaine is Cameron. Whoops.
This is actually a cute premise, and I wish that I could say that the movie pulls it off, but it doesn’t quite pass muster. Downs’s credits list a lot of lead performances in short films and web series and bit roles in well-known properties (I feel like, if you’re reading this site, you know exactly what I mean when I say that he’s has the credit “Bellman” on NCIS: Los Angeles and a lot of credits in the exact same vein; you know what I’m talking about). The one that stood out to me most was a short entitled Orion Slave Girls Must Die!!!, obviously about Star Trek; I watched the trailer for that and he’s not giving the same flat performance in those clips as he is in Is it Just Me? In this, he delivers every line in an inflectionless monotone, and it seems to be a deliberate character choice, but—no disrespect to the actor—it doesn’t work. When a man in a bar flirtatiously asks Blaine what his sign is and he replies “Exit” and leaves, he doesn’t seem witty or sharp; he seems like a dick. Contributing to this is Blaine’s actions and attitudes regarding his desire for a monogamous, traditional relationship; that’s a perfectly fine goal and there’s nothing wrong with wanting that (I certainly do), but Blaine expresses his frustration with his lack of a solid relationship through slut-shaming his roommate and other queer folks who are still sowing their wild oats. Consider this exchange:
Antonio: “I totally wanna write for USA ToGay. I’m working on this sample column called ‘Circuit News.’ It’s important news for, you know, circuit people in the crowd.”
Blaine: “That’s a great idea. Another guide to where you can find cheap, empty, unfulfilled, drug-induced sex.”
Blaine: “That’s a great idea. Another guide to where you can find cheap, empty, unfulfilled, drug-induced sex.”
Blaine. Dude. Just keep that shit to yourself.
Gay romances of this era always have a lady best friend for the lead, and this one is no different. I honestly can’t tell if Michelle (Michelle Laurent) is intentionally comically toxic or just utterly superfluous. Her only role in the film is to give Blaine bad advice while they’re jogging. If it’s intentionally bad because she likes drama, that’s actually pretty funny, but if the script is simply defaulting to having her give bad advice because she’s not actually allowed to affect the course of the plot, that’s less funny. Her role as Blaine’s friend and confidant is duplicated in Cameron, who’s surprisingly helpful, thoughtful, and generously patient with Blaine’s nonsense, especially given that Blaine’s internal monologue regarding Cameron is dismissive and, frankly, mean. At one point, Michelle tells Blaine explicitly that “Cameron is [his] roommate; he’s not [his] friend,” but Cameron is a better friend to Blaine than (a) Michelle is or (b) Blaine deserves.
Blaine drafts a reluctant Cameron into pretending to be him, and vice versa, in order to meet Xander IRL for the first time. Cameron warns Blaine that this is doomed to failure, but Blaine is for some reason convinced that wacky sitcom hijinx will have a better outcome than just being honest about the mix-up, because this is a romcom and there wouldn’t be a plot if there wasn’t unnecessary farce. Cameron-as-Blaine does his level best to be friendly with Xander while gently pushing him towards Blaine-as-Cameron, but the miscommunication takes another twist when Blaine overhears Cameron-as-Blaine helping a vomiting-drunk Xander navigate their apartment’s bathroom in ambiguous, offscreen dialogue that mirrors the noises Cameron makes when he’s fucking. Now Blaine thinks that Cameron broke his trust too, and when Michelle hears about it she eats that shit up with a spoon because she’s messy.
Xander has his own sounding board in Ernie (single serving sci-fi vet Bruce Gray from Cube 2: Hypercube), an elderly gay man, long-widowed but scared to re-enter the dating scene. Ernie has a popcorn machine in his movie den and I covet it. He generally wanders into a scene to cut the dramatic tension, and every time he exits the screen it’s accompanied by a line about his dog shitting in the house. He delivers little nuggets of wisdom like “Listen: writers [like Blaine] — when they’re alone, they’re prophetic; when they’re with people, they’re pathetic. They’re just too in their heads.” He’s really as superfluous as Michelle, but if we didn’t cut to them from time to time, the threadbare nature of this plot would be even more exposed.
Obviously, Xander eventually realizes that he’s been lied to (from the credits of a slasher movie in which Cameron played a camp counselor, no less) and confronts Blaine, feeling betrayed and angry. But then he decides to give it a chance anyway and writes a song for Blaine, Blaine (and I cannot stress this enough — impossibly) gets a job offer from the L.A. Times as a columnist, and Ernie gains the courage to start dating again. Everyone lives happily ever after, I guess.
There are cute moments scattered throughout this film, but on the whole it’s desperately lacking in critical areas. Not every narrative needs to have a main character that we empathize with or even understand, as long as we can form some kind of emotional attachment with them, but Blaine is a character that defies any attempts at empathy by virtue of being a complete dick. I don’t want to blame Downs as an actor without seeing more of his work, but although Blaine’s bon mots seem like they would work really well on the page, as delivered here, it just doesn’t work. Loren’s Texan accent is inconsistent and distracting, but Xander is so likable (if naïve) in comparison to Blaine’s bitter, jaded little pill that it’s a relief when he’s on screen. The MVP here, however, is Huss, who not only never skips chest day, he turns up the charm to distract you from some of the film’s larger, more glaring issues.
Although this happened to be the first of this loose non-trilogy that I saw and thus in a very literal sense it was my first choice, in a larger sense, this wouldn’t be my first choice. It’s a prime example of the TLA brand when it comes to its politics, style, and structure, but with the least effective love story of the lot. Even when Blaine is supposed to be hitting it off with Xander (like discovering that they like the same obscure band), he feels more like a gatekeeper than a keeper because of his monotone delivery. I’ve seen worse—a lot worse—but I still can’t recommend it.
*No one ever seems to talk about this, probably because no one cares but me, but these two completely eclipsed Ariztical Entertainment, didn’t they? Ariztical’s bread and butter were a sex comedy franchise that had pretty severe sequelitis and vanity projects like Ben and Arthur (edited, produced, written, directed, scored by, and starring Sam Mraovich), but I can’t remember the last time I saw that logo in front of anything. Their website still has a New Releases section that lists a movie that came out in January, but their homepage is also full of broken Quicktime plug-ins, so take from that what you will. The catalog page for Eating Out 3 has still-visible deadlinks to the film’s Blogger, Facebook, and MySpace pages, as well as a suspended Twitter account. A lot of their films are unsearchable on JustWatch, and as much as I’m interested in seeing their adaptation of Other Voices, Other Rooms, I can’t justify paying $18 for it, especially since it could end up being in a file format that won’t play on anything I own. All TLA had to do was release their own so-so sex comedy and Ariztical basically disappeared from the marketplace. At least Eating Out will always have longevity and legacy over Another Gay Movie with regards to sequels (Another Gay Sequel featured Perez Hilton as himself and was DOA). At least we’ll always have The Gay Bed and Breakfast of Terror.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond