Originally published in Sight and Sound; London Vol. 9, Iss. 11, (Nov 1999): 55-56,3.
An uneven film but very interesting for all kinds of reasons, not least the way it was — and is currently being — distributed, the context in which I saw it and the film itself: it’s a greatly flawed but bold and daring work.. I happened on the film by accident whilst looking up what was showing at Cineworld, noted that it was only showing for one night without the benefit of any publicity and, following Pauline Kael’s advice that one should always try to see that which the major distributors seem to want to dump, I raced to see it.
Of course, we live in a world were films are not quite released in the way they were in Kael’s time, and this film has nothing to do with the major distributors. It’s a 71 minute indie out on DVD and VoD from Peccadillo Pictures. But the idea fuelling Kael’s advice, that we should make an effort to see what others have a stake in not wanting to show us, holds. The combination of being screened only once but at Cineworld was interesting enough to attract a considerable crowd though I suspect the greater part of the audience went to see it based on the title, probably expected a nice romantic comedy, and seemed first a bit surprised when it turned out to be a gay film, then somewhat more agitated when the hardcore fucking started onscreen. However, only a few people walked out.
The story is straightforward, Jesse (Jesse Metzger) a young performance artist whose been living in San Francisco for a decade has finally run out of money and his notion of options, and has decided to move back home to the Midwest. On his final night, his friends, community and the ex he still hankers for gather together for his leaving party. This sets the context for an exploration of gay relationships, the importance of sex, the influence of context on identity, sexuality and art, and what it might mean to be a gay man, an artist and an adult today.
Making the film about performance artists in San Francisco means it’s almost de-facto a bit navel-gazy and narrow. I generally don’t like it when artists make their subject artists and their struggles because it tends to generally be a looking in to the self – me, me, me! – rather than a look out onto the world. However, and perhaps paradoxically, I Want Your Love also seems comparatively more true to life than the standard film. Perhaps because the production values are low, and there probably wasn’t much of a budget for sets and costumes, one feels that how these people dress, where they live, and how they talk is an accurate and evocative representation. I remember living in flats like Jesse’s in my youth: never a straight surface, all wonky, with too many coats of paint and never quite clean. You rarely see apartments like this in American cinema.
What I liked best about the film was its star, Jesse Metzger. He looks shabby, alternative, handsome in an unassuming way, the way someone who doesn’t want to bring attention to his looks sometimes makes himself appear. His face is absolutely transparent and the longing, hesitation, speculation, awkwardness and fear that he conveys at various moments, is palpable. There are two other actors who make a very considerable impression but whose names I was able to neither get nor find: the chubby man with the Asian boyfriend who does a marvelous step dance on the sidewalk; and a thin nervy black actor who ends up making out with Jason’s ex Ben, the impossible object of his affections. The black actor manages to be funny, smart, ironically distanced and vulnerable all at the same time and is a joy to watch.
What the film will probably best be remembered for is its integration of hard-core sex into a narrative feature. Bruce La Bruce tried doing something like this over ten years ago with Skin Flick — a.k.a. Skin Gang (Bruce La Bruce, Germany/Canada, 1999), which perhaps interestingly was also produced by a company that specialized in porn, Cazzo (I Want Your Love, is produced by NakedSword). But it wasn’t quite the same as, if I remember correctly, La Bruce ended up with two different versions of the same film, the hard-core and the not hard-core, to be released in as slightly different way to different audiences. The non-porn version caused a sensation when it was shown at an NFTS screening which I hosted featuring a Q&A session with the director: members of the audience protested that the very idea of a skinhead gang raping a black man was unacceptable (such a depiction would be banned if as today’s Independent claims, ‘Possessing pornography that depicts simulated rape is to become a criminal offence in England and Wales ‘. Skin Flick was a daring if ultimately unsuccessful experiment functioning neither as porn nor as drama.
I Want Your Love does what audiences and critics are salivating Lars von Trier may do in Nymphomaniac – which is to integrate the representation of sex into a fictional narrative on film. I Want Your Love is a graphic gay romance whose main intent is to show sex as part of life rather than as something to make the audience come. The sex is emotional with elements of embarrassment and humour as is true so often of sex, but full on hard-core even though the accent is on feeling; and those faces ‘feeling’ sex is also so different from porn that it is, I don’t know what, different, new; I didn’t quite know how to process it. I found it alternately erotic and embarrassing as if you were being turned on by something you should’t be watching in the first place, but beautiful. Seeing it on a big screen and in public is a factor as well: it might very possibly just look like not-too-hot porn viewed on a monitor or small screen. In any case, I found that it worked in that I’d never quite seen anything like it (emotional hard-core sex; hard-core sex rendered to depict intimacy) but it also worked against the film in that the sex kicked your head right out of the narrative and focussed your eye right on the genital area no matter where the camera was placed.
We live in a pornographic culture. What I mean by this is the many products of the culture industries are designed to simply get you off; to place you on the quickest route to ejaculation, either literally or metaphorically, and which is not quite the same, to me, as orgasm much less jouissance. ‘ Getting you off’ is the American expression, or cumming, and that’s what porn is designed to do. That’s why we have food porn, and real-estate porn, and so on, it’s not about cooking but about salivating, not about helping you find or make a home but just about increasing your desire for spaces you can’t own at prices you can’t afford. It’s all about creating desires and about eliciting the bluntest and quickest physical reaction possible to make one feel that those desires have in some way been met. As Herbert Marcuse noted, it’s the very structure of ‘One-Dimensional Culture’.But such ejaculations, what the French nickname la petite mort, ‘the little death’, even in a hyperreal form, do chip away at a notion of what it is to be human. Representations affect and have an effect.
What’s so interesting about I Want Your Love is the attempt to reclaim feeling not only for the society at large that keeps insisting that queers are simply disobedient, disorderly, fractious, frenzied, headstrong, hysterical, impetuous, indocile, insubordinate, insuppressible, insurgent and lawless desire that is out of control. But also its attempt to reclaim feeling and intimacy from a commercial gay culture that teaches us that being gay is about having a particular look, going to particular places and having sex in particular ways. There’s an interesting split in that most gay men watch gay porn of various kinds that creates a particular way of being gay, entirely focused on particular kinds of sex; and then there are ‘gay’ fictional narrative films that overly sentimentalise romance and relationships. By integrating sex into love in the ways that it does, I Want Your Love is a protest not only against the mainstream culture we all live and participate in, but the commodification of ways of being imposed by commercial and/or official gay cultures themselves. A flawed film, yes; but a must-see one.
(July 22nd, 2013)