Much has changed for urban gays in the two decades since William Friedkin's Cruising. That controversial serial-killer thriller -- set in the leather bars and after-hours sex clubs of New York's West Village -- was derided by gay-rights activists as a piece of cheapjack sensationalism leading only to trouble, seemingly designed to exacerbate the perceived divide between the straight "us" and the gay "them." Since then, serial killers both gay and straight have become the staple of cable infotainment programming, and the fabled darkness of the gay underworld has been completely overshadowed by the genuine abyss of AIDS and the organized homophobia of the religious right.
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Matthew Shepard's murder has put a face on all the overlooked lynchings of gays that came before. Consequently, the gay-straight divide today seems more a sidewalk crack than a sinkhole of Grand Canyon proportions, and all of this is reflected in Jon Shear's brilliant new film Urbania. Adapted by Shear and writer Daniel Reitz from the latter's play Urban Folk Tales, Urbania revisits many of the same West Village streets Friedkin lurched through so awkwardly. And instead of a Mondo Cane-style peep show, it offers the Long Dark Night of the Gay Soul for urban everyman Charlie, who -- as popular parlance would have it -- "just happens to be gay." Dan Futterman (best known to audiences as the straight son in The Birdcage) plays this most sympathetic fellow, who appears at first to be nursing some deeply personal hurt from a love affair gone awry. But as we follow his comings and goings, we learn there's a lot more to this gay "lonely guy" than meets the eye. And because of the supremely artful way Shear and Reitz have pitched the story, it reaches into places few films, gay or straight, have gone before. For, as Jean-Luc Godard would say, it has a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.
At first, it would seem, Charlie's looking for a new love to replace the one he's somehow lost. A neighborhood tough guy named Dean (Samuel Ball) appears to have caught his eye; a sympathetic bartender (Josh Hamilton) gives Charlie the lowdown on him. But then our hero is equally attracted to another similarly butch type named Ron (Gabriel Olds), although that would-be encounter comes to naught. Moreover, there are other people, places and things crossing Charlie's past. A visit to his friend Brett (Alan Cumming) stirs tender memories of his lost love Chris (Matt Keeslar). And then there's that strange woman with a cell phone (Paige Turco) who keeps popping into view, not to mention the half-mad street tramp (Lothaire Bluteau) lurking in every doorway. The sense of eerie interconnectedness Shear gives these seemingly disparate scenes underscores the fact that we're a long way from Cruising and a lot closer to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
What holds it all together is the running non-gag of urban legends that pops up in the plot. Like the one about the man whose kidney was stolen by a casual pick-up. Or the one about the woman (Fassbinder goddess Barbara Sukowa) who is willing to pay an unheard-of amount of money just for one glance at a man's penis. And let's not forget the poodle in the microwave. They're all here, held together by Charlie's obsessive refrain: "Heard any good stories lately? I've got a good one. And this one really happened. Give me a second to figure out the ending." The ending that Charlie has to figure out has nothing to do with any story, but everything to do with what happened with his lover Chris -- something viewers of Urbania would be best left to discover for themselves. It also has to do with the edginess of city life, and the soupçon of threat -- real or perceived -- that haunts all sexual desire.
Shear accomplishes all of this by turning his back on the machinery of the mainstream: Urbania was shot on Super 16mm and processed via digital video. The result is a film of extraordinary visual intimacy: We're this close to the characters at all times. So Shear can evoke marvelously subtle tension in a scene in which Charlie verbally assaults a smug straight couple (Gabriel Olds and Megan Dodds) and can let a skilled performer like Cumming (who does a stupendous Glenda Jackson impersonation) work wonders in a seemingly casual scene. More important, he can get things on screen that haven't been there before. Like the way gay men who aren't lovers relate to one another, the aching loneliness of AIDS underscored by the pile of dishes in the friend's apartment and, most striking of all, the meaning of love between people who just happen to be of the same sex. Not to mention a climactic nighttime prowl of gay trysting places, in which we find the illicit thrills Friedkin sought out in vain. Shear never shirks from the horrors of gay city life -- but he doesn't ignore the tenderness, either. Thus, with Urbania, he gives the love-story film a new -- and bracingly queer -- lease on life.