The movies of Gay Pride Month.

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June 6 2003 5:55 PM

Here, Queer, and Used To It

The movies of Gay Pride Month.

The choice is between honesty and community in Trembling Before G_d
The choice is between honesty and community in Trembling Before G_d

"I have a couple of little boys who are available in Vietnam. How about I e-mail them to you? If you like them, you can put one of them on hold."

This sounds good to Jeff Danis, who, at 48, has decided he wants to adopt a child with his boyfriend, Don Pike. Danis is an agent at ICM in Los Angeles; his clients include some voice-over actors and Linda Blair of The Exorcist. Having taken an office poll about which .jpg is cuter, Danis and Pike travel to an orphanage outside Saigon to claim the baby Joe, né Lam Xuon Chin. Adorable Joe takes quickly to his new dads and, before long, he's scampering around an immense and fully loaded house in the Hollywood Hills.

This is the true story of He's Having a Baby, which premiered on Wednesday as the first of four weekly documentaries that Cinemax is scheduled to air in celebration of Gay Pride Month. It's also a familiarly triumphalist story of rich gay men briefly struggling before they come upon lavish acceptance and love. Early in the movie,viewers are led to believe that adoption agencies might turn the gay couple away, but as it turns out, the women at the Vietnamese orphanage appear only grateful when Jeff and Don take Joe from his standard-issue crib to their deluxe hotel in Saigon.

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Similarly, in Big Eden (2000), Friday on Sundance, a fairy tale in which young-adult-style wishes are sumptuously fulfilled, New Yorker Henry Hart (Arye Gross)—a sulky, unattractive, but prosperous painter of twinkly skyscapes—arrives in Montana to care for his grandfather and meet guys, and open-hearted townsfolk greet him with reverence and lust. A local widow, for example, agrees to prepare all of Henry's meals, and a taciturn, godlike American Indian named Pike (Eric Schweig) volunteers to deliver the food to his door. Worried that the widow's Family Circle recipes are not up to Henry's refined tastes, Pike goes on to study culinary arts so he can prepare Henry's meals himself. At the same time, Henry's old friend Dean (Tim DeKay) bucks Henry up, offering to help shoulder his many but inchoate cares. Spoiled, Henry spends the lugubrious, amber-tinted movie making a pleasurable choice between two hot mountain men.

It's baffling that Henry inspires such devotion. Short, beaky, bald, and clumsy, he utterly lacks physical charm, while he's also nervous and diffident. He's chronically unhappy, but he's not soulful. In fact, he brings very little to Big Eden, though they love him nonetheless. Morally, they must, for he is gay.

Trembling Before G-d (2001), an award-winning and scrupulously reported documentary that premieres on Sundance Saturday, visits a less gay-positive scene: The world of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, who, like many religious groups, periodically engage in futile attempts to bring doctrinal certainty to sexual questions. Traveling to New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Tel Aviv, the filmmaker Sandi Simcha DuBowski gets significant access to gay Jews agonizing about the implications of their coming out. To many, being openly gay appears to entail ostracism from religious life; they feel cruelly forced to choose between honesty and community.

The movie is limited, unfortunately, by the insistence of several of DuBowski's key subjects on anonymity. They are shown in shadows, 60 Minutes-style, which might work if they were whistle-blowers or protected witnesses; in those cases, interviewees have something to say of public import, and it's enough merely to listen to them. By contrast, in a film like this one whose topic is personal life, the chief variable among the subjects is personality—and it's very hard to divine personality without seeing faces. As a result, the stories of temptation and inhibition run together, or seem rote. (Gay Baptists or even Catholics seeking divorces might testify to similar institutional repressions.)

At other times, however, DuBowski's crossing of two such robust themes—gay sex and Judaism—gains him transfixing effects. An impromptu dialogue between a high-strung gay man who feels rejected by his religious family and a young, easygoing, lapsed Hasid in New York's Borough Park shows an amusing collision of sensibilities. The younger man listens patiently through the other man's Ginsbergian recitation of his life's serious indignities, only to suggest simple solutions. Why not go home for Shabbat? Oh, you hate your dad? Want to hear my Al Pacino impression?

But as such sparks of novelty make clear, it's the digressive interludes in all of these films that carry them; too much deference to gay-pride themes twists the movies into propaganda for a daffy utopia of absolute sexual liberation coupled with absolute familial approval. A nice idea, maybe, but nicer still are the beauty shots of the mountains in Montana in Big Eden, the sound of slangy Hebrew-English in Trembling Before G-d, and, in He's Having a Baby, the sentimental home video of Joe in the Vietnamese orphanage where his fathers found him.

Virginia Heffernan is a television critic for The New York Times. Her book, The Underminer, which she wrote with Mike Albo, comes out in February.

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