Retake: Restaging Love with a Hustler

One can only hope director Nick Corporon's shorts (I've seen two) and his feature debut, Retake, are not autobiographical. All of his male characters are semi-despondent romantics. They find true love, lose true love, or are confronted by a world ready to quash them if they don't assume heteronormative stances or watch Vin Diesel films .

In the poignantly wise, 13-minute "Barbie Boy" (2014), seven-year-old Bobby (Trent Carlton) learns from his dad that boys don't play with Barbie and Ken dolls in public or nearly anywhere else. It doesn't even matter if Bobby just allows the plastic couple to scuba dive in the kitchen sink, smooch in their Dream House, or go out for lattés; the testosterone-fueled world will frown on such carryings-on and possibly do worse than frown. So will the blond-tressed lad stand up to societal pressure and grow up to be Alexander Mc Queen? Or will the little chap hang his head low and ask Mom for the squat, sexless Motorized Attack Robo Squad robot as a substitute for Ken the next time they are in Toys"R"Us? Here's a must-see starter for any genderqueer discussion.

For those in the mood for a male-on-male Twilight Zone entertainment, "Last Call" (2009) will fill the bill. The alcoholic Gavin (the easy-on-the-eye Travis Dixon) has just died in a car crash, but doesn't know it. Instead, he finds himself in a pub that he can't leave. When he tries to exit, he winds up reentering the establishment. Can the bartender (a solid Jody Jaress), who might just be the Keeper of the Pearly Gates, make sense of what's going on?

Lining up a bunch of filled shot glasses, she states that each gulp Galvin takes will bring back a memory. He immediately starts imbibing, and as she said, with each swallow, a chunk of his past reappears.

Flashback time: the hunk discovers he once had a lover (David Devora) who played the guitar. Between tunes, the pair was getting ready to adopt a child, but Gavin, afraid of responsibility, became incapacitated yet again, and left the one person who cared for him. Kerbang! Bye, bye to life, auto, and diapers. But is there a future after death?

Made for a trifle, the 17-minute-long "Last Call" is an ambitious, early work that displays Corporon's intriguing talent in an unpolished manner. A bit excessive in spots, but worthy of a quick gander online.

Now comes the helmer's full-length debut, Retake, a totally uncynical look at the insanity of love and its accompanying sadness in the new millennium. Corporon's sort of the anti-Woody Allen. Imagine Annie Hall with no witticisms.

Astutely cast and well directed, here's the tale of the middle-aged Jonathan (Tuc Watkins of Desperate Housewives and One Life to Live). He's a stick-in-the-mud type of guy who goes to San Francisco yearly to pick up a hustler to roleplay a chap named "Brandon." For a sum, the chosen streetwalker has to wear a special wig, spritz himself with a certain cologne, smoke cigarettes, and be a bottom.

The first hustler Jonathan chooses doesn't quite work out. However, his second (Devon Graye, possibly best known as the teenage Dexter) is a near perfect fit. His reward: an all-expense paid trip to the Grand Canyon with Jonathan, as long as he keeps up his new alter ego.

Jonathan: "What are your plans the next few days?"
Hustler: "Why?"
Jonathan: "I thought I might keep you around for a while."
Hustler: "That's definitely more than blowjobs and ass-play. That's like talking and shit. Personal stuff."
Jonathan: "I'll double your nightly rate. Give you $500 extra at the end."

So what we've got here is quite a pair: a pouting grump trying to re-experience the passion he once felt for a long lost inamorato, plus a young man, who's been thrown out on the street for being gay by his "Bible-beating" kin and is now playacting someone who is adored. Will the two connect? Eventually. But will they live happily together forever? Anyone who's seen the final minutes of "Barbie Boy" knows Corporon will strive for an unexpectedly honest finale.

Yes, in the end, especially due to Graye's superbly buoyant, multilayered performance, here's a road movie that could and should break your heart. There are several factors, though, that prevent Retake from totally taking you on that ride.

Firstly, there's the character of the dour-yet-well-built Jonathan. Now I don't know about you, but if I were a hustler, and this gent took me up to his hotel room, had me put on a cheap wig and squirt myself with some scent from Macy's, and then barked, "If I ask you to do something, do it!" I'm not sure I'd hop into his car right away to view an abyss in Arizona. Then when "Brandon" asks his john some personal questions, the young man gets the following kindly response: "I'm paying you. You should show me some respect."

Is Jonathan a repressed nut job? Happily not, but he might have the more cautious boytoy running for the hills.

Secondly, there's Stacy Schneiderman, the key hair stylist for the film. This young woman has come up with one of the more craptacular hairpieces in modern American indie cinema for Mr. Graye. These tresses are so off-putting, that for the first 36 minutes, you can hardly concentrate on the actor's fine performance. You keep staring at his hairline and asking yourself, "What is it? Will it bite? Will it get up and walk off the set by itself?" However, after "Brandon" gives himself a haircut, you can relax and focus back on the couple as they near the Grand Canyon.

Bouffants aside, Retake, a superb film for depressives seeking images of themselves on-screen, is an interesting addition to the representation of male prostitution in film, one that makes Midnight Cowboy seem like a Marx Brothers offering. (For a thorough exploration of this topic, check out the chapter on cinema in the engaging Male Sex Work and Society, edited by Victor Minichiello and John Scott.)

Here you have two folks trying to break out of the parameters that first brought them together. As a john, can you ever surmise that the affection you are receiving from a paid escort is genuine? And if you are a hustler, can you ever convince your buyer and yourself that you're a genuine, trustworthy soul who's willing to forgo remuneration for a chance at having your heartstrings tugged at? For minutes at a time you can. Those pre- and post-orgasm hazes are dream makers. But once the cleanup tissues are in the can, reality sets in.

And the reality here is that while Retake will probably fail to attract much of an audience, Corporon is still a real find, even though he could benefit from some Xanax. I write that now because I'm reading his press notes and discovering the film is autobiographical to a great degree.

From the filmmaker's statement: "My longest relationship was three years long. The first year was great and we spent the last two years trying to get back to what we had in the first. As soon as it was over, I went to that weird, nasty place we human creatures can go into after a breakup. I sought to replace him with an exact copy."

Well, if Corporon's life doesn't pick up, he can always become America's Terence Davies, Britain's master of forlorness. - Brandon Judell

(Retake is currently on VOD and on DVD.)

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Mr. Judell has written on film for The Village VoiceindieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.

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