In Queer Cinema, Sebastian Fortino, editor of ProudQueer.com for Portland, discusses the latest films relevant to the LGBTQ+ community. Not necessarily as film reviews, but how they represent queer lives. If you’re a fan of films, and would like to write something about current releases, contact firstname.lastname@example.org with a pitch.
"My film After Louie is a portrait of what happened to us — the generation who endured the AIDS epidemic, a generation whose shared history continues to haunt us. In confronting the end of a traumatic era and provoking a conversation between generations, I dare us to dream of a new and vibrant future, again. After Louie is a testament to the joys of the fully lived life and the inseparability of art and living." — Vincent Gagliostro
In the first installment of Queer Cinema, we talked about “Love, Simon” and other coming-of-age films, such as “Call Me By Your Name” and “Clueless.” With Vincent Gagliostro’s film “After Louie” we visit the theme once again. Although it’s not a teenager coming out or growing up. It’s a man in his 50s.
Alan Cumming plays Sam Cooper, a former HIV activist. He saw New York City when its gay community was eviscerated by the disease. Professionally he’s a painter. But, he has stopped painting to focus on a documentary about his friend William, who died in the late 1990s. He shares parts of the film about WIlliam with Rhona, a gallery owner who has represented him in the past.
“Isn’t it a little bit late in the game to start trying something new,” asks Rhona, played by the always-fabulous Justin Vivian Bond. Sam defends himself. But, she quips back: “No one wants to see this, Sam. They want to see your paintings.”
In that early scene we learn Sam can’t help himself from dwelling in the past. He's lived in his apartment for 20 years. But, one friend remarks, it doesn’t look as if he’s really lived in it at all. The film doesn’t spell out “survivor’s remorse,” but implies it through Sam’s behavior.
He smokes, interestingly enough in his apartment which is probably illegal in New York. Shots in his apartment show empty beer bottles. One thing I noticed, the bottles they actively drink from are O'Doul's, a non-alcoholic beer. Early on in the film he puts $200 in the shoe of a young man after sex. They don’t explain whether he was an escort, or if Sam just pays his one-night stands. I think the latter, to make it a business transaction, not a tryst.
Sam, so obsessed with making his film, even distances himself from his friends. He wants all the archival materials possible for his film project about William. But, he’s reminded by his longtime friend Jeffrey (Patrick Breen) that William just didn’t belong to him. He reminds Sam their late friend is "not a symbol.” When Jeffrey and his partner Matteo (played by Wilson Cruz, who is always great fun to see on film) announce they were married, Sam is not pleased. He calls marriage oppression, and a tool of the patriarchy.
You feel for him, but you find his behavior almost petulant and rather predictable. All of this self-destructive, self-loathing behavior has to come to an end. It does. In the form of a younger man named Braeden (played by newly out actor Zachary Booth) who he meets at a bar. Later, the younger guy asks him why Sam is only into younger guys. Is he trying to recapture his youth?
“When I was your age, younger, all my friends were dying…dropping like flies. I went to funerals twice a week. So yeah, I guess I am trying to recapture my youth.”
Fair enough. When Braeden talks about his open relationship with Sam, there is a nice contrast between the two generations. Braden says this about describing his open relationship to a straight male friend.
“Well when you really love someone and you start a family with them, then you don’t wanna see them with someone else,” he tells Sam about the straight guy's reaction. “Like I’m some you know, disgusting, promiscuous, gay friend who doesn’t understand how to really love someone.”
He gives him $500 the next morning. Braeden is offended Sam thinks he’s a sex worker, but as he and his boyfriend struggle to pay the rent on their Brooklyn apartment he takes it. I must say, whenever I watch films set in modern-day New York I find myself wondering how they make their rent. I admit, almost as closely as I watch the story. His boyfriend Lukas (Anthony Johnston, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Gagliostro) takes the money. They go to brunch, which like Sam's smoking and drinking, seems age-appropriate for the younger couple.
Later, Lukas reveals to Sam he’s positive. Sam is angry Braeden hadn’t told him about his boyfriend’s status. Later, the two go to Sam’s apartment for a photo shoot to appear in the movie he’s making. The two younger men object to the way Sam wishes to photograph them. An argument takes place. They tell him it’s not Sam’s business, in terms of knowing Lukas’ status. It’s their business. It's not Sam's business to know Lukas is undetectable and Braeden is on PrEP. They then leave the apartment in a huff. They feel their generation is trivialized, as does Sam.
The story shows the disconnect between the two generations. One was on the frontlines of a battle, fighting for the rights, health, and welfare of future generations of gay men. While the younger generation came out while the disease no longer carries a death sentence. Before they leave, Braeden thanks Sam for what his generation did. But, it’s time to move on.
There seems to be a swift progression from Sam’s unwillingness to change to embracing it. Before William died, he wanted his memorial celebration to be a Christmas party. They never got around to doing it. So, to celebrate Sam’s birthday and honor promises made to a friend, they host one in July.
We see Sam cutting up the ACT-UP memorabilia in his otherwise bare apartment. He's letting go. He cuts out faces of deceased friends and symbols, turning them into ornaments for the aluminum Christmas tree. Braeden and Lukas are there, which I found a little out of place. If you were so insulted just a few days before, why would you attend a party thrown by the offending person?
In sum, “After Louie” leaves many questions unanswered. I think this was intentional on the part of the filmmaker. Sam and William seem to have been friends, not lovers. Why does Sam seem to want to own so much of his story? Is it because he wished to be lovers? Is he carrying a torch for more than just the memory of a friend? What is Sam's HIV-status, since he seemed left out by not knowing Lukas' status? Really, where exactly is his angst coming from? This is a slow, brooding, beautifully shot film, which allows viewers to draw their own conclusions about Sam, and about the legacies older and younger generations will leave to the gay community.
After Louie has already won several awards and been nominated for others among LGBTQ film festivals. You can find it streaming on iTunes.