The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me

| April 6, 2001

I’ve always preferred films to plays. For whatever reason, films tend to be more powerful experiences for me. However, I have from time to time seen a play that is so amazing (HBO’s Wit comes to mind) that I want to keep it forever. And this may be the temptation behind adapting theatrical pieces to film. To be able to revisit over and over that fleeting experience.
Or it could be ego.
Either way, it’s a daunting task. Translating theater onto film is probably only surpassed in difficulty by translating dance onto film. Both utilize a certain degree of abstraction and an audience dynamic that often make for unsatisfying film experiences if treated literally. Historically, though, theater has long been considered a potential source of material for films because, at its core, most theater pieces have clear and easily recognizable story-telling conventions.
There are generally two approaches in translating a stage experience to the screen, and the choice of approach often owes heavily to the type of stage material being adapted.
One approach is to “open up” the material so that the story incorporates actual locations and characters that couldn’t realistically be brought to or presented on the stage. Plays (with multiple characters portrayed by various actors) seem ready-built for this method, though the results can vary dramatically.
The second approach is to “document” the show. Monologues and one-man shows have mainly been restricted to this “document” approach, perhaps because they are often closer structurally to essays rather than stories. At its worst, this second method is what happens in high school gyms all the time: set up a video camera at the back of the audience and let the show play out in front of it. At its best, it allows for an experience like The Night That Larry Kramer Kissed Me, which adapts the material to the cinematic medium rather than merely documenting a theater performance.
In this sense, Tim Kirkman’s film of David Drake’s one-man show follows in the tradition of other adaptations, which at their best are exemplified by Lily Tomlin’s The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe. Certainly her live show had some extremely powerful moments; but so did the film. The fact that they weren’t the same moments simply points to that area where film and theater are different. Search lives up to the hope that a work designed for one medium can find its footing and equally powerful moments in another. That’s probably the most one can hope for when adapting from stage to film or vice versa, and the director has to clearly understand both media in order to work with the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Monologues pose a special problem in that they are internal and verbal; decidedly not visual. A major challenge for film. To make it work on the screen, the director needs to become a collaborator, using cinematic elements to enhance the material.
Kirkman, whose previous film (Dear Jesse) is an open letter to Jesse Helms, is up to the task. Each segment of The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me utilizes a different cinematic style — camera placement (height, angle), mobile framing and shot duration — depending upon the particular story being conveyed at that moment. The flashiest and most effective is the gym sequence. The camera becomes all the guys cruising our hero, voyeuristically looking at his body in quick and furtive glances while he works out, the camera whipping around so as to never really get “caught” looking except every once in a while when it pauses just long enough to be “flirting.”
Another sequence, Drake’s coming out to his parents, is handled quite differently through rapid editing and shifting camera heights, but to equal effect. And the recounting of deaths due to AIDS, though staged in a fairly predictable way, has some graceful camera movements that hint at the smoothness of loss, the slipping away from our lives.
Kirkman and Drake less successfully navigate the hazards of any one-man show’s potential lack of dimension in the characterizations. Ironically, monologues and one-man shows are often viewed as character studies, but the secondary characters can seem one-dimensional, because they are filtered through the main character’s point of view. And the main character, by virtue of being isolated from interactions with other physical beings, may not develop a dynamic tension in order to feel fully realized. In a way, it’s a paradox that may be inherent in the form; it goes with the territory, balanced a bit with either exceptional writing or an exceptional performance or in the best cases, both. In this film, the performance exceeds the writing. It’s difficult to imagine Larry Kramer kissing anyone but David Drake.
More than in adapting multi-actor plays to film, one-man shows are often so associated with the original actor that it is difficult to rethink casting. This becomes even more of an issue when the actor has written the material. If the actor isn’t able to create a screen presence (a different type of charisma than that needed for live theater), the adaptation can suffer if the director isn’t willing to recast the role.
Kirkman and the producers made the right call. At its best, Drake’s performance works in perfect harmony with Kirkman’s visual style. Throughout the film, Drake effectively expresses with his body and voice the nuances of being a 6-year-old boy, a 16-year-old, his parents. A flamboyant queen. A gentle lover. An aggressive stud.
Shyness, rough-and-readiness, sweetness, arrogance. I knew I wanted to take him home. I just wasn’t sure what we’d be doing when we got there. And that’s largely why the film works. Drake is an appealing presence on film; he finds his footing (with Kirkman’s help) in both media, theater and stage.
Which brings us to representation. And content.
For The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me raises questions of content and representation: it is about a gay man. The key word in that sentence is “a,” not “the.” Gay cinema, like other “minority” cinemas, has long debated whether or not there is room for representations that may be seen as stereotypical or negative in a non-reflexive or non-ironic way. As a director working in mass media formats like film or television, one is perhaps under more scrutiny on this issue than the director of a small theater show is.
Some film reviewers have called into question the stereotypes (another term for one-dimensional characters) in The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me. Which I’m not sure is entirely fair. It is essentially a monologue, after all. Certainly, Drake’s experiences as presented are pretty far from my own, but I do not find them offensive or shocking, nor do I expect him to represent the entire spectrum of human (much less gay) experience.
Certainly my expectations when seeing a monologist is that the material will be presented from a singular point of view and representative of the world as he or she sees it. Not necessarily as how I see it. And to be honest, that’s part of the point. Part of the reason to go to monologues and one-man shows. To see more explicitly how someone else views things, how he or she experiences the world.
The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me is a snapshot. Of a time. Of a type. And of a particular person. Beginning with a brief homage to theater (particularly musicals), the play becomes more political in intent, though never overbearingly so. My only real complaint is that about half of the sequences feel too long; they make their point but then keep going, in effect diminishing some of their power. In this category I’d put the gym scene, the disco scene and perhaps the first prayer scene. I have mixed feelings about the AIDS scene’s length. However, several scenes are hard to imagine being any better, particularly when his parents catch him kissing a classmate and the last scene set in a far better future. The moment near the end of the film where Drake looks squarely into the camera (and thus at us in the audience) is one of the most effective uses of direct-camera address that I’ve experienced.
Overall, Tim Kirkman does a fine job of creating a cinematic stage on which David Drake can perform. And Drake takes full advantage of the opportunity.

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Mass Effect. But sleep gets in the way. He's made a few films. edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers.
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