Latter Days

| January 6, 2004

One of the unstated dogmas of the “gay indie” genre is to rebut stereotypes of gay/lesbian/transgendered persons in mainstream Hollywood cinema. During the last five years, however, many of these films have indulged in the very stereotypes it had so vehemently rallied against. Latter Days, a film by writer/director C. Jay Cox, offers such an example.
Christian, played by Wesley Ramsey, is a twenty-something stud living it up in West Hollywood. Extremely handsome with a bod to boot, he is quite efficient at seducing men and turning his life into a sexual playground. Julie, his roommate (played by Rebekah Jordan), is a young African-American singer who provides him with the no-strings companionship he needs. While sunning on the beach, they dish all the juicy details of his latest exploit before the next opportunity arises.
When a group of young Mormons move in next door, Christian and Julie attempt to be friendly, but the young men are clearly disgusted by their neighbors’ cavalier lifestyles. Julie bristles with indignation at the Mormons’ intolerance. Christian, however, sets his sights on tall, blonde Elder Aaron Davis (played by Steve Sandvoss) as his next and perhaps greatest challenge.
Fresh from the seminary, Elder Davis and his fellow Elders intend to minister and perform Christ’s teachings in sinful Los Angeles. Elder Davis betrays his own conflicted sexual orientation to Christian when he debates the ethical nature of Christian’s lifestyle. It becomes clear that Elder Davis wants Christian, but Christian is everything he despises about gay men: shallow, Godless, and immoral. When attempting to seduce him, Christian says, “It doesn’t have to mean anything.” Elder Davis responds, “That’s the problem.”
In a weak moment, Elder Davis’ resistance slips. The ensuing kiss is discovered by his fellow housemates, and he is kicked out and immediately sent home. Christian flies after him and they spend a night in a hotel before Elder Davis must return to Salt Lake City to deal with the fallout. Christian returns to Los Angeles to mend his broken heart, and finds that his appetite for casual sex has gone. Julie tells him he is better off, but he doesn’t think so, and longs for Elder Davis to return.
On its surface, Latter Days is fairly sturdy entertainment. The characters are strong, affable, and for the first half of the film, Cox is adept at conducting a fairly involving melodrama. The polar opposites of evangelical Christian and hedonistic party-boy make a compelling match, and both actors find enough nuances in their characters to make their relationship work. In the final third, however, the plot mechanics become incredibly clunky, high pitched and overly fantastic, and the actors cannot make the necessary shifts. Many of these faults are typical of low budget indie films, which could easily be forgiven if its ambition and insight can outshine them. Unfortunately in this case, they do not.
The film’s fatal flaw is its boilerplate stereotypes. Some might argue that melodramas allow for leniency in using stock characters, but since this film is ultimately serious about its themes of tolerance, it inevitably invites scrutiny.
Here, the party boy and Evangelical Christian are polar opposite “types.” Both embody different versions of beauty (physical/spiritual) and engage in ritualistic behaviors (anonymous sex/fundamentalism) to reject the trappings of mainstream society (puritan ethics/godlessness). Neither “lifestyle” is portrayed as legitimate, though both are. Instead of “celebrating diversity,” the film passes judgment on both and punishes them. In the end, its value system is just as conservative as the views it repudiates, and the film eats its own message of tolerance.
Not only is Christian a promiscuous stud who enjoys sex, he is also vapid, stupid, and shallow. Though he is beautiful, fun and likeable, his slutty lifestyle is seen as self destructive and an object lesson against promiscuity. In one telling scene, Christian delivers food to a person with AIDS, who looks at his biceps and daisy dukes and says, “I used to be you.” This gives Christian pause. When the man supposedly takes it back in the next instant, “I’m just fucking with you,” the joke is at the director’s expense, because he is totally serious.
Likewise, the portrayals of Mormons are even more simplistic. Elder Davis’ mother is a bitter, shrill harpie and his father is given nothing to do but disown him. The scenes between them are played broadly for tone, but not for character or plot; there is no sense that Elder Davis was ever part of this household. The scene where he is excommunicated is particularly pat: Elder Davis sits in a spotlight facing a long table of old men in a dark room. He shouts at them for their hypocrisy, and they simply read their decree and walk out. Is this how it really happens? Maybe in melodrama, but not to real people with conflicted beliefs about love and tradition.
Their circles of friends don’t fair much better. The African-American and feminist female roommate, the witty waiters Christian works with, and the wise and glamorous restaurant matron are all safe, uninspired PC bits — typical cutouts from other gay indie films. The young Mormon men, outside their piety and intolerance, remain largely unknown.
Most disturbingly, Cox continues a trend by gay filmmakers in ogling beautiful men while making them suffer for their beauty. It creates a sort of sexual shock treatment for the audience. Between the bouts of scorn heaped upon him, Christian is stripped and screwing for laughs and titillation at every opportunity. The camera lingers over his hairless chest, tanned traps, and tight ass while the story hammers home his depravity and frivolousness. By comparison, the sex scene between Christian and Elder Davis is lengthy and very erotic, until it stops for a long, tortured monologue to reinforce the sex scene’s romantic context.
With its limited insight and narrative pitfalls, the film seems caught in an arrested development, somewhere between coming out and coming to terms with American culture. It sees the world as conflicted between two opposites, as opposed to moving along a continuum with infinite possibilities. The best conceits it offers are two weak ironies: the play on words of film’s title, and naming its party boy “Christian.” It is a very ambivalent indie film actively courting mainstream ethics.
Still, this is nothing new. The Fluffer (2001) features an impossibly egotistical porn star as a love interest. In Love! Valour! Compassion! (1997), the most beautiful man in the film is also blind. Trick (2000) thwarts the hook up of a stripper and his admirer until they agree to date first. And, of course, the bad behavior flaunted in U.S. version of Queer As Folk (2000) serves only to reinforce traditional values.
A better example of liberated thinking can be found in The Adventures of Felix (France, 2000), where Felix, HIV positive and in a relationship, has sex with a stranger on a road trip. The episode is a simple joy without baggage, and carries the same narrative weight as Felix having tea with an old woman. Another case could be Love and Death on Long Island (Great Britain, 1997), where an older gentleman’s latent homosexuality is aroused by a young film star. When the actor rejects the man’s advances, the scene is bittersweet, because neither get the relationship they wanted, and both are allowed to keep their dignity. Perhaps the U.S. indie movement could take their cues from moments like these.

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