Independent cinema was once regarded as the cinema of the disenfranchised. It's common knowledge now that the parameters of what was once defined as "indie" have been dissolved, and pat, mainstream, easy-to-swallow do-gooder liberal fantasies like "Good Will Hunting," "Chocolat," and "Crash," still labeled as independent, have all but replaced the films of the true trailblazers in the public eye. Likewise, the indie subsets, films made by those even further outside of the white straight male hegemony, films by African-Americans, gays, Hispanics, and other voices kept out of the mainstream except when propped up as comic relief stage right, have also descended into their own form of staleness.
Because of gay-themed films' specialized distribution--theater outlets like New York City's Quad Cinema, video retailers like TLA, indie distributors like Regent--more often than not, they will find a home, regardless of their admittedly varying quality. Ask any gay man in New York about the state of gay cinema, and unless the new Almodovar is out, you'll probably be met with an eye roll. The veritable influx of titles ranges from goofy rom-coms ("Latter Days," the forthcoming "Adam and Steve") to creepy international S&M-a-thons you'd feel rather oogy about buying a ticket to alone on a Saturday afternoon ("A Year Without Love," "O Fantasmo"), to of course, the most good-natured and palatable: the coming-of-age flick. The gay coming-of-age picture has lately become one of the most moribund, yet also one of the least discussed, because honestly, who wants to trash something so well intentioned and seemingly non-geared towards the majority palate.
Though we still have yet to see a vibrant gay teenage film come out of Hollywood and released on 2500 screens (and honestly, studio fools, listen up: what a hit that would be), the mini-genre has been flourishing for a good decade now, with the lovely 1996 kitchen-sink-ish British tearjerker "Beautiful Thing" being the standard-bearer. That film, and to a lesser degree "Get Real" (also British), captured that not-always-easy balance between youthful angst and nimble optimism without falling into hopeless cliche. (The sexually explicit Sebastien Lifshitz's "Come Undone" and Andre Techine's "Wild Reeds" may be the greatest of coming-out flicks, yet as more politically targeted toward wise, wistful adults as opposed to a younger, needier demographic, they don't exactly fit in to this discussion.) Knowing you're different, yet wanting to be accepted just as anyone else, yet also wearing your difference as a badge of honor and protective shield: the gay coming-of-age movie should strive to do all these things, just as any self-respecting human being should.
This past year's rare American entry, the eensy-weensy budgeted, shot-on-video "Dorian Blues" developed into a witty and surprisingly layered portrait of familial relations, even if its lovely, casual insights were often surrounded by touches of crassness. And the wildly successful Taiwanese teeny-bopper "Formula 17," another good-natured, color-saturated look at a young man moving to the big city to discover his sexuality, was somehow unmoored by its reliance on pandering pop iconography. The examples are countless, yet with these titles, as well as with Marco Kreuzpaintner's new, Munich- and Montreal-festival-award-winning German movie "Summer Storm," the result is always disconcertingly light, somehow unsatisfying--like in any tired genre, every plot turn is predicted from the first moment and problems are resolved too easily. Not that Kreuzpaintner's film is without merit: its gawky, giraffe-like star Robert Stadlober is a nice mix of fragile and resilient as the sexually awakening Tobi, who heads off to a summer camp with his sweet-faced rowing mate and obvious obsessive-crush Achim (Kostja Ullmann). When there, alongside their far more boisterous and macho oarsmen, they find that they must compete with an all-gay group of athletic, chiseled rowers, called, meh, the "Queerstrokes," who will, eventually, bring Tobi out of his shell.
As with countless gay films, which want to alternately break free of convention yet feel the need to pander to its own niche, "Summer Storm" just as often falls into embarrassing stereotypes as much as it thinks it's bursting them. A truly bizarre and wrong-headed moment features one of the homophobic rowers bursting in on a gay rower's tent and finding a parody of a domesticated living space, complete with elaborate meals, barely-concealing skimpy aprons, and limp wrists, all scored, oddly, to the Muppet Show's catchy classic tune "Mahna Mahna." And its opening credit montage, with its uncomfortable slo-mo shots fetishizing the two teenage male leads' short-shorts and sweaty limbs, plays like an awkward goof on Brian De Palma's opening shower scene from "Carrie."
Of course, even though "Summer Storm" seems to give the audience what they want, in Germany, perhaps the benefit of the doubt is in order, as 1990's "Coming Out" was the first widely commercial German film to portray a homosexual character with sensitivity. Yet subject matter aside, Kreuzpaintner's narrative doesn't quite hold up to such scrutiny, the entire web of raging hormones and sexual confusion devolving into a rain swept denouement of verbal barbs and fist fighting so poorly harnessed as to be completely incoherent. Ultimately, it's structural mediocrity and lazy storytelling like this that consigns films like these to languish on the "alternative lifestyle" video store racks.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well the editorial manager at the Criterion Collection and a contributor of Film Comment.]
By Kristi Mitsuda
At what point does the statute of limitations run out on good intentions? Does every contribution to the cause of bringing the marginalized to greater visibility necessarily entail a relaxing of applicable standards to what would--aside from a tint of social significance--otherwise be mediocre movies? (And yes, I am thinking of "Brokeback Mountain" here as well.) Marco Kreuzpaintner's "Summer Storm" had me contemplating these questions. Because much as I may want to stand in solidarity with this well-meaning effort to expand inclusiveness, it's hard to get passionately behind a movie that incorporates the rowing club cheer, "Making Waves! Queer, queer, queer!" into its lexicon.
To be fair, I'm not sure how "Summer Storm" defines itself within the context of German film history. Given the country's not-so-hot past Nazi persecution of gays under Paragraph 175 of the Penal Code, perhaps this slight contribution feels as revolutionary within the scope of its national cinema as "Brokeback"'s epic grandeur does within America's, flaws notwithstanding. But, though low-budget and "foreign," this teen summer camp romp is as predictable as any Hollywood production. While I may not have seen this central slant applied to the coming-of-age genre before, it feels as rote as if I've seen it a million times. Running down a checklist--yes, the churlishly repressed Tobi will come out of the closet and, of course, the movie will end in a feel-good fashion with lessons learned--the didactic structure precludes the spontaneous enjoyment it strives to deliver, and the half-farcical formulaic tidiness renders the representation far removed from the sticky reverberations of reality.
Still, as ho-hum as it plays out, "Summer Storm" at least offers twin trysts amidst the sylvan setting which nicely captures the pure naturalism of Tobi's first homosexual encounter and, following quickly on its heels for underlining contrast, the palpably awkward forcedness of his first heterosexual one. After all, the film seems to say, isn't what each of us wants simply someone to peel our sunburned backs for us, to kiss and make the sting better, as Leo later does Tobi's?
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and maintains the blog artflickchick.]
By Chris Wisniewski
Lest we allow ourselves to mistakenly believe that American cinema has a proprietary stamp on camp tent homoeroticism and Red vs. Blue state culture clash, Marco Kreutzpainter's "Summer Storm" serves 'em up German style. A Bavarian rowing team, led by sexually confused and hopelessly lovelorn Tobi (Robert Stadlober), sets up camp next to some bona fide Berlin queers; as both teams prep for a climactic competition, various climaxes of another variety preoccupy this motley crew. Yes, my friends, the hormones are a-raging, the angst is a-stirring, and a metaphorical summer storm is a-brewing. Needless to say, a literal summer storm follows, and it's every bit the deus ex machina you might expect.
That said, "Summer Storm" isn't as lousy as it could have been. Though the first ten minutes portend soft-core locker room fantasy, the adolescent sex is actually tasteful and sparse. And whatever its coming-out-cum-coming-of-age narrative lacks in originality, it easily makes up for in earnestness. Admittedly, it's hard to forgive the pointless musical interludes (if I want "Mahna Mahna," I'll turn to Muppets, not Germans, thank you), an utterly useless subplot about one rower dropping his weight to improve his team's performance, and the seemingly endless about-faces during which character motivations bow fully to the contrivance of plot ("You just broke my arm; let's fuck"). By film's end, I had quite literally no idea what was going on seriously, if someone can tell me where the last scene even takes place, I'd be grateful--but I knew Kreutzpainter's heart was in the right place. And that's saying something. If "Summer Storm" isn't very good, and it isn't, at least it's not evil.
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, and has written for Interview and Publishers Weekly.]