Ask anyone what gay film they think of, and by people I mean straight white males, and for many the default answer will probably be Brokeback Mountain, maybe even said with a snicker. Such is the state of gay cinema in America. You’re either a stereotype (ala someone’s best friend) or you’re portrayed by two incredibly handsome and quantifiably cis het white men and sold to the masses as a demonstration of the gay experience in America. This may sound like snark or a cynical look at what is undoubtedly one of the first mainstream gay films to come out of Hollywood, and yet I say this with genuine affection for the film and as a panexual man. But there comes a point where I sigh and tell myself Oscar bait and capturing the true essence of being gay in a country that still struggles with the idea of homosexuality is not a codification of my identity. Brokeback Mountain tugged at my heartstrings and presented the pain of coming out, but it didn’t capture the essence of who I am or what I come from.
To be honest, I’m not even sure what could.
Being gay is a certain mark of exclusion and stigmatizing, as well as tokenizing. You’re the dude girls can talk to and be safe around. You’re also probably hypersexual and always looking for dick. At least that’s what you’re presented with in you’re in your 20s. Good luck if you’re overweight. And even better luck if you don’t go bar hopping every weekend looking to crush some ass. No one takes you seriously.
Perhaps that’s a little bitter and one sided. I can’t pretend to speak for every gay white male in America, nor for any in my immediate community. I can only speak for my own community and the same bullshit I saw as I came out and introduced myself to the “gay” community in Toledo, Oh. What I saw was the same shit I saw in every other culture in America. You’re either like them or you’re the outcast. I never felt more lonely being around gay people who were to willing to judge me because I liked vagina just as much or even more than penis, or the fact that I didn’t have a 6 pack.
And yet I can’t also quite say all gay men in their 20s are quite as shallow. Just enough of the one’s I met there were enough to confirm my own code: follow the beat of my own heart and not the footsteps of others.
Now I’m 30, and I’ve been “out of the closet” for close to 6 years, tho in many ways my identity still remains hidden to most I know. I’m not your stereotypical queer: I don’t have an obvious lisp or traditional “feminine” qualities. I’m not overtly sexual; I don’t remind people of my own sexuality because I know I have the privilege of slipping in and out of traditional heterosexual male spaces with the ease of pretending I’m simply straight just by not projecting my own bisexuality. I could live my whole life as a straight male and be fine. And yet I would feel silenced and chained by a society that isn’t willing to accept a nuanced portrait of homosexuality, one that doesn’t conform to a binary system. I wouldn’t be me, but rather a portrait of what a straight me should be. I’m not sure what the long term effects of such a life would be. I’m not sure I want to find out.
Maybe that’s why watching the independent film The Trip from 2003 was such a revelatory experience, made doubly so by having the comfort of watching the film with a gay friend who understood why I found the film so pleasurable. We were two queens entranced by a film that knew us, even if it spoke to a different generation and mind set. My friend is by the far the more “gayer” one of us, and would willingly and happily concede such a point. And yet as a far more traditional hetero-style man, he knew this film would speak to me. We watched it off of his recommendation, him being far more versed in gay cinema, simply off the knowledge that I am a political person and that this film was the real deal. I am simply thankful for knowing him and trusting his judgement.
There’s no doubt in my mind that The Trip is the real deal as far as representing the gay experience in America, at least the experience of the gay white male. In many ways it codified the experience of enduring a stigma in a culture that celebrates toxic masculinity without pandering to Hollywood tastes and sensibilities. This is a “gay” film from head to toe, straight from campiness to it’s unabashed look at gay sexuality and fascination with feminine ideals. It also suffers somewhat from being too entrenched in its own worldview–that of the gay white male–while subjugating its female characters as mere caricatures of their own stereotypes–namely white women who enjoy the company of gay men and tend to be a little kooky on their own.
It’s just a narrow view of gayness tho that captures the experience of identifying as a gay male in America. You are your own best friend and your own worst enemy, fighting for equality while also ignoring other people and their experiences.
To be honest, despite these perceived “shortcomings”, this might be one of my favorite films in the long run, one that I won’t regret paying $13.99 to outright purchase on Amazon. And I’m a pretty frugal dude.
The beauty of the film is how it embraces its own independence and refusal to conform to what many cis het white male film critics would deem “good” quality. The film embraces its own stereotypes of the hypersexualized gay man, in this film represented by the late and great Alexis Arquette in a thankless role that many may find too broad and possibly even offensive. Her character’s name is Michael, an obviously stereotypical homosexual from the 70s who is too happy to chase after a shirtless and buff man without caution or humility. Arquette imbues the character with reckless camp, a cartoon in a film that is somewhat politically and emotionally deep in regards to the gay experience coming out in the 70s and 80s. And yet his portrayal is an affirmation of what it means to feel liberated from a patriarchal and very straight American society. Sometimes you just want to say fuck it and dance like the dude in In and Out, and frankly, just the let the gay out. Sometimes you just want to hit on a dude and not worry about him judging you for sizing up his penis in your mind while you mind fuck him. It’s bold and daring, and damn if that humor is too often ignored as silly or stupid when Ang Lee is making woman weep at a gay man being told he has no place in this world. It may rub a heterosexual’s taste the wrong way, but for this man, it was an authentic trope that spoke to my own tastes.
And that is just my thoughts regarding a very minor character in a film that largely focuses on its two main protagonists Tommy and Alan. Tommy is a gay rights activist on the outskirts of society, unashamed of his own sexuality and well aware that his new pal Tommy, a “straight Republican”, may be romantically interested in him. Tommy plays the more reserved character, at first a writer trying to capture the gay experience in the form of a book but also denying his own feelings.
When Alan first meets Tommy he’s at a party hosted by a very rich and powerful gay man, somewhat shy and timid and pretty shocked to stumble onto a room where men are snorting coke and giving each other blowjobs. The actor, Larry Sullivan, has an awkward charm, a somewhat dorky looking dude who just coincidentally kind of looks Jake Gyllenhal. He isn’t your typical Hollywood handsome, but rather a boy next door who slowly wins over your heat rather than winning over your genitals.
Alan has a girlfriend, the aforementioned kooky female played by Sirena Irwen, who is into chants and new ageism hippy spirituality and is completely blindsided when she catches on to the fact that Alan seems to be infatuated with Tommy. Much like Alexis Arquette’s character, Sirena plays the character broad and with a certain self-winking to the camera, letting us in on the joke that this film is comfortable with presenting stereotypes to the amusement of its audience.
One of the first things you learn when you come out is that it’s okay to treat yourself with a little dose of humor. Being gay is like being a pariah in many circles. You either find sadness in that reality or you laugh and recognize maybe America is just a little silly at times. But damn if you’re not going to have a good time living in that world. And that is just what Sirena captures, albeit through a proxy of a straight white woman.
But the film is balanced out with a rather more nuanced and subtle portrayal of gayness in the form of the actor Steve Braun who plays Tommy, a social activist who isn’t afraid to be open about his own sexuality. Braun’s performance tip toes the line of amateurish and earnestness, which might rub someone expecting something more mainstream the wrong way. I’d argue however that the performance is perfect for how an openly gay men in a divisive era that was the 70s can feel awkward in one’s own skin.
But going beyond that simple observation, what makes his role so memorable is how he isn’t a classically handsome man like Jake Gyllenhal or Heath Ledger (which isn’t knock against either of those fine actors, who are both pretty good talented), but rather has a boy next door charm. His smile is slight and his mannerism relaxed. It’s a natural performance that is a far cry from the “realistic” expectations demanded by Hollywood.
The real joy of the film goes beyond the actors tho, and straight into the heart of how it embraces its camp and silliness while still aiming to hit serious notes thru the form of the character Tommy getting what must be AIDS and dying at the end of the film.
It’s never exactly clear how Tommy has attained the virus to the mind does begin to assume that he probably was living a promiscuous lifestyle, considering this portion of the film takes place during the 80s. That was a time marked by excessive drug use and post-hippy sexual adventures, one dominated by bath house in California and the hedonism on display in Wall St. My question tho is why Tommy is in Mexico to begin with? Has he gone there to distance himself from a non-stated but well known prejudiced America, one that would spit on the gay community for their supposed sins? I can only assume, and yet the location remains impactful but it is symbolic of Tommy’s own disgrace after his fallout with Alan. Whereas Tommy was once a proud gay man, he has now cut off his hair and made himself a pariah in an unforgiving environment that is the Mexico desert.
And that is what makes the back half of the film so special. What could be played for straight up tears and sorrow is instead playing for a healthy laugh and sigh. Alan, stuck in a dinner with a rich man’s parents, is whisked away to Mexico by his mother and former girlfriend in a humorous scene involving the two women crashing the dinner and destroying priceless artifacts found in the rich man’s home.
Alan is alarmed at first but eventually caves in to the women’s suggestion that he fly to Mexico to see Tommy again, this coming off a decade long separation. Much to Alan’s own delight, his mother has already purchased the plane ticket and convinces Alan to leave that night to reconnect with his former love.
And that is where the film makes its beautiful turn from a pseudo documentation of the white gay male experience in America to a fantasy of a doomed romance. Alan finds Tommy desolate on a ranch, essentially waiting the die. The two reconnect and decide they must return to America. What ensues is a hilarious and moving road trip, hence the title of the film, in which Alan and Tommy find themselves robbed by a Mexican gas station owner and being chased by a sheriff.
The two escape the clutches of the sheriff and eventually steal the sheriff’s car in a funny twist involving what can only be described as a very gay striptease on the hood of a car. I’d mention more of this scene but it must be watched to be believed.
And herin is what I would argue makes the film so special and separates it from the genuine and yet phoniness that is Brokeback Mountain..Whereas the latter wallows in its despair and longing for a lost and forbidden love, which is true to some gay men’s experience in America, the former is a celebration of that which scares us, which I would argue is the true of mark of being gay in America. Yes, we are outcasts and pariahs, but damn if we’re not proud and open as well. And that is what this encapsulates.
And yes, Tommy does end up dying on that road trip, never getting the joy to see America again, which could be seen as a damnation of this country. A gay man has essentially been driven out of his homeland only to die trying to get back in, which is both sorrowful and damning at the same time.
It’s touching and beautiful, and campy and overacted, and yet so true to what it feels to be gay in America. Yes, we have feelings, and yet we are the ones who shoulder the burden of a disease that no one should burden, one that has haunted our community for years. Only tears can bring catharsis to this epidemic.
Despite the sadness on display during the last half, the film does end on a happier note, with Alan writing a book about the trip. At a book signing, a younger white man walks up to him at his table and requests a signature and tells him that this book helped him come out of the closet, followed by a smile from Alan and cut to the credits.
Yes, it’s obvious and on the nose, and yet it’s such a wonderful and happy ending that reminds us how our own stories can help overcome other people’s obstacles. And yes, that is why this film is the defining gay film in my own life. Brokeback Mountain may speak to the sorrow of being gay in a culture that despises that very culture, but The Trip is a film that simultaneously embraces and despises the culture, and dares to end on a note of triumph, even in the face of sorrow. Which is exactly what being gay is to me.
Special note should be paid attention to the visual texture of the film, which can only be described as indie 90s with it’s blurred image quality (I really need to figure out the language to describe this) that no doubt was a result of its budget. What could be used as a knock against the film only reinforces its own celebration of gay culture, which by default would be indie and pushed aside compared to greater looking films. In this regard, the cheapness of the film stock only enhances the beauty of its message, which is that being gay isn’t about Oscar winning performances and cinematography, but rather the celebration of what makes being a gay white male in America so unique: that being we are all pushed to the margins and must find a way to make our mark on the world while maintaining a sense of fun and frivolous. Even if that means chasing after a buff shirtless male running in the beautiful California sun.