Joseph Graham can't put his finger on exactly what gay men are looking for, not even when his characters are putting their fingers (and more) into intimate places and spaces--both physical and mental. That's why he's titled his superb new movie Beautiful Something. This film, about six Philadelphia men whose lives criss-cross overnight, works like poetry. It is a figuring-out of various desires through movie codes and poetic form.
Central figure Brian (played in full dimensions by Brian Sheppard) is a poet going through more than writer's block. Words may describe his feelings and observations, but he can't find the exact word--or recipe--to relieve his lonely, horny anxiety. He's in existential heat as depicted in Graham's opening scene that is itself a quote of Faye Dunaway's legendary existential heat at the beginning of Bonnie & Clyde (1967).
Brian feels caged by his emotions and his intellect; before going out to the bar, he exercises and checks himself out in a blurred mirror. Sweaty and randy, he catches a fallen eyelash on his finger tip, makes a wish and blows it into the air--like the also legendary transition to the desert in Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
Years ago, these movie quotes would have won Graham acclaim--like a romantic Tarantino or an American urban Andre Techine. It's not too late for that because Beautiful Something--the best film in years by a gay director from the U.S.--shows that Graham has his finger on that seldom defined something that connects gay male yearning.
The typewriter in Brian's apartment is an artifact from another age but it's also a pre-Grindr tool for expressing the impulse to connect; its significance is only as outdated as the film's bar- and club-hopping rituals, keys to gay city life. Graham treats that nightworld poetically--he replaces realism with almost surreal, romantic noir atmosphere and a series of erotically-charged encounters that are the best thing this side of Julian Hernandez. The smiles are sexier than the thrusting.
The men in Brian's world may be figments of his poetic imagination--or memories: Jim (Zack Ryan) is an actor caught in a sexual fever of possessiveness and obsession with sculptor Drew (Colman Domingo). Bob (John Lescault) is a casting agent who can't make the ultimate personal decision. Sergio (Matthew Rios) is a street kid looking for more than fun. Dan (Grant Lancaster) can't move on without being drawn back into Brian's passion.
Each man is introduced in separate episodes after Brian instructs both a sardonic bartender and a new trick, "Gay is a comforting myth." These modern men are mythic, each suggests an individual poem that symbolizes and reflects their common humanity. The intensity of Jim and Drew's humping (and its daunting racial undercurrents) anticipates the pang of Brian and Dan's past and that craving is echoed when Sergio appears. Beautiful Something evokes the intangibles of gay experience while most gay American movies are literal-minded depictions of social and political behavior. This is deeper.
The sex in Beautiful Something is casual but the need goes deeper. When Brian finally recites his poem, it is actually by gay poet Richard Siken whose recent admission to an interviewer also describes this movie: "How do I make room for the possibility of deep care and tenderness between men who aren't fucking if I sexualize every male/male relationship I encounter? Perhaps the subtleties come later. Perhaps we need to push all the way into highly erotic realms to allow ourselves the room to pull back into places of possible non-sexual tenderness."
In Graham's own interviews he says he wants to make horror films--as if scared of what he knows. But Beautiful Something is worth seeing because Graham touches on tenderness.