directed by Marc Huestis
at the Coolidge Corner
"Sex Is...," director Marc Huestis' unabashed documentary on the sexual lives of 15 gay men, opens breathlessly. The film's dedication to the memory of Jesse Helms, shots of gay porn star Eric George running his hands over his body, brief answers to the title question given by the film's subjects and a hilarious attempt by Helms to pronounce "sadomasochism" certainly grab our attention. Once it has our attention, however, "Sex Is..." settles into a refreshingly honest discussion about gay sexuality in the last 30 years.
The talking-heads format used in "Sex Is..." may seem familiar to anyone who has ever watched PBS, but this is no PBS movie. The interviews are complemented by brief snippets from gay pornos, as well as bits from cheesy "health education" films from the `50s. There is a priceless segment on the special attachment that a little boy will have for his best friend.
Huestis introduces us to a quite diverse group of men, ranging in age from 19 to 73, and in profession from church pastor and writer to porn star and a transvestite prostitute named Madame X. Most of the men live in San Francisco. There is also diversity of race and ethnicity. "Sex Is..." has one Asian, one Hispanic and three black men. These men fill the film's 80 minutes with candid talk about what sex means to them and the impact that AIDS has had on their lives.
Huestis divides his documentary into sections, beginning with the topic of coming out. We hear the 73-year-old minister's poignant admission that he could have sex with his wife only by pretending that she was a man. Bob Hawks, a film exhibitor in his fifties who is also the documentary's most wonderful raconteur, discusses a teenage fascination with the young Robert Stack's "perky nipples," Hawks provides a marvelously detailed Proustian picture of gay bars in the `50s. He remembers "the thrill of having wool pants on that itched, and a white collar shirt that cut into your neck, and you were slow dancing with a stranger, and you were so hot and you were so uncomfortable with it all. And it was so delicious."
The film goes on to detail gay life during the `70s in San Francisco, referred to by one man as "Babylon," an orgy of sex, alcohol, drugs, and disco music. One of the men says that, "there was a man behind every tree, every rock." In discussing the bath houses, Lulu, described as a "single housewife," recalls being scared and feeling like he was in "a heavy-metal nightmare."
The men's remembrance of those days of liberation and excess segues into a recollection of the coming of AIDS. The men depict a landscape of fear, ignorance, and sorrow. Wayne Corbitt, a Black performance poet and play wright, begins to cry as he recalls the his lover's death of AIDS. It's a difficult moment, painful to watch, but one that demonstrates the extent to which the men in the documentary bared their souls for the camera.
The film refuses to get mired in grief, however. The libido reasserts itself, and the men turn to discussions of safe sex. Huestis' documentary does not shy away from portraying some of the extremes of sexual expression among gays. Sadomasochism is treated the same as monogamy or celibacy. For Huestis, all are equally valid options that gay men have today. Corbitt, for example, speaks about refusing to have either the gay or the Black communities tell him how to live his life. He denies any political significance to his being whipped by a white South African, stating that his penis has a mind of its own.
The movie, too, has a fierce mind of its own, and is never hesitant to speak it. This forthrightness and bravery set Huestis' documentary apart from other movies dealing with gay themes. Funny and illuminating, the film ends with a climax, literally. In the end, "Sex Is..." justifies the ellipsis in its title, for, if anything, the film posits sex as limitless possibility. And with a point of view like that, "Sex Is..." for everyone.