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Gay, Straight, Alien?
on 16 April 2000
This film looks like an amalgam of Magnificent Obsession (Rock Hudson learns brain surgery to cure the blind) and The Faculty (American students freak out when they can't tell if their classmates are 'gay, straight, or alien'). Here, the hospital bedside scene is generated by a gay bashing outside a university campus. Defiantly out Pete is frustrated by the reluctance of John, his boyfriend, to come to terms with their relationship. After a fraught scene in an alternative coffee shop, 'Griff' drives off in a huff while the dejected Pete walks off into the dark to a date with queer-basher fellow students. Before Griff can identify the bashers he has to start the process of coming out, in a same-sex student residence afflicted by galloping homosexual panic. He follows Mohammed into the wilderness and communes with nature. The sight of California scenery seems to knock some sense into him. Like brain doctor Rock, Griff is there when his bashed boyfriend comes round from his injuries. He didn't have to learn brain surgery, but he did have to get to grips with the idea of coming out of the closet. The ending is very Hollywood: everyone sees the light, including homophobic sporty types and anxious parents. The perpetrators of Pete's near fatal injuries are carted away, shame-faced, in a police car. Unfortunately, the script's vocabulary doesn't keep up with this optimism. No-one in the film can bring him or herself to refer to a same-sex love interest as boyfriend or girlfriend which creates an impression where it seems as if the film is hopping on egg shells around main issues.
Although Defying Gravity makes playful reference to Magnificent Obsession, it doesn't share the Sirk melodrama's production values. It looks and sounds like a made for TV movie, with fade-out scene shifts effected with commercial breaks in mind, and an irritating guitar which strums over nearly all the dialogue. The packaging on my copy of this tape says the film was made in 1998 and its produced-in-a-hurry look made me wonder if it was a TV response to the off-campus murder in October 1998 of gay student Matthew Shepard. There are many resemblances between the Wyoming hate crime and the one in the film, although Pete is luckier than Matthew Shephard was and lives to see justice. Initially I was ready to chuck this film in the annoyingly persistent gays-must-die/be ill/suffer genre and forget about it, but it made me remember about the murder of Matthew Shephard and confront the fact that the film's tragedy is not necessarily prescriptive, but descriptive. The tragedy is that the story in this film is almost a true one, not that this is yet another near-miss addition to Vito Russo's necrology (in The Celluloid Closet). The Internet Movie Database gives the production date for Defying Gravity as 1997, which means it predates the Laramie hate-crime. Either way, the overlap between headlines and script is troubling. It would be nice to think that gay bashing and hate crimes were just some cliche-ridden scriptwriter's lazy way of fleshing out a film treatment, but in this case the film's social construction and the newspapers' social reality are all too approximate. Defying Gravity could be a documentary, but only if the picture it painted were even more bleak.
Daniel Chilson plays Griff as someone who's totally spaced-out and slightly twitchy. Although this makes for a seductive performance, it doesn't completely explain the title. The only time 'defying gravity' is mentioned is in a voice-over of Griff's recollection of the first time he and Pete were physically intimate. It's not clear whether the audience is supposed to take this at face value or to assume that defying gravity portends something worse. Outside of schools for astronauts, the only place you can defy gravity is outer space, and if being gay means having to defy gravity then prospects on Planet Earth for the homos don't look too good. Coming out in space would probably be easier than in the higher education establishment depicted in the film. These students are perturbed by the 'unequal division of global wealth' but drive around in private vehicles and have plenty of money to throw at parties and their wardrobes. But they have almost no freedom. Griff disappears for five minutes of own-life and his house mates are ready to call the Missing Persons Bureau. The fact that the characters are cooped up in neurotic fraternities and sororities seems to play a part in how some of them go off the deep end into queer-bashing and hate crime. Possibly there's another layer of criticism going on here which makes the film worth a second-look. Matthew Shephard's murder prompted President Clinton to say that 'All Americans deserve protection from hate'. The chilling premise of this reassurance is that hate is never going to go away - you had just better get protected from it. Defying Gravity says something similar.