Dick Without a Dictaphone
My second ever interview. I still suck at it, but I’m improving, possibly. Maybe if I get a tape recorder things will go better. For the time being I am trying to record things with my brain, with the aid of scribbled notes. This tends to break the flow, and when I write down my impressions of a conversation with a few scanty quotes from the “subject,” there is a danger of creating the impression, entirely false, that I am the articulate one.
Kirby Dick’s feature documentary OUTRAGE tackles the alluring subject of prominent Republican politicians who are gay, in the closet, and voting against gay rights. Like Clerici in THE CONFORMIST, it seems like a protective strategy, joining the enemy and finding safety within it. The movie explores the subject politically, socially and psychologically, with a very articulate set of commentators. Having just re-watched KD’s previous movie, THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED, I detected a sort of connection — the idea, expressed in TFINYR, that people put their sexuality in a kind of compartment to separate it from the rest of their lives. A previous Dick film (don’t titter, it’s a very fine and Scottish surname), SICK: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BOB FLANAGAN, SUPERMASOCHIST, looked at a character who had very successfully integrated his sexuality with the rest of his life, to the point of turning a very difficult situation into something positive.
So it seemed as if connections are becoming apparent between the various movies in the Dick oeuvre.
“At last!” he laughs. Rather than consciously staking out a territory, the filmmaker feels that “each new film seems to alienate the audience of the previous one.” And the films do cover a lot of ground. The Flanagan film was followed by CHAIN CAMERA, about kids in racially-diverse LA high school, with the kids themselves given a camera to shoot the film. That was followed by DERRIDA, which is quite a jump. And then SHOWGIRLS: GLITZ & ANGST could be said to occupy a different plane from its precedssor, with 2004’s TWIST OF FAITH heading into fresh territory, exploring the issue of child abuse within the Roman Catholic faith. Dick hasn’t found himself typecast yet, and hasn’t really faced pressure to carry on in one vein, apart from the desire of backers to get something commercial. Such as? “You know, anything with kids in it. Kids and competitions. I’m not sure if there’s actually been a good film made about that subject, but…”
The top half of a man, interviewed in I AM NOT A FREAK.
As part of my extensive research I’d gotten hold of a very early Dick film, I AM NOT A FREAK, his third work according to the IMDb. I definitely think he’s improved since then. Part of the trouble is that the subject of disability and deformity has become a staple of supposed “science shows” especially here in the UK. These shows don’t contain any science, really, they’re an uncomfortable mix of human interest and freakshow. I AM NOT A FREAK doesn’t wholly escape that trap — I’m not sure if it’s possible to do so. Maybe just acknowledging the trap would be enough. I wondered if there was anything Dick regretted.
“Mainly I wish I’d been a producer on that. Because I didn’t get paid much and I have a feeling it’s made quite a bit of money over the years. Because the subject is kind of evergreen, you know.” The film’s best quality is it’s empathy for its characters, which is a quality it shares with all Dick’s films. “I think I have empathy for all my subjects — except Joan Graves in THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED.” Graves is the ratings board chairperson who denied the film a rating, thereby assuming the role of villain within the film itself. I asked if Dick was surprised at what he found out in the course of making that film. Not really. He’d been aware of the problems within the MPAA for twenty years. Hiring a private investigator to identify the raters, whose identities had been a closely-guarded secret, Dick was able to expose the studios’ ethically dubious stranglehold on the system of film censorship (which you’re not supposed to call censorship) in America.
Because Dick isn’t really on the studios’ radar, he didn’t have any trouble in the aftermath of the film — as an independent he’s not likely to be going cap-in-hand to the studio people who are connected to the MPAA. And once again with OUTRAGE he’s made a film which in some ways confounds the expectations created by his previous work. While TFINYR addressed head-on the MPAA’s discomfort with homosexuality, it had a “strong heterosexual appeal, due to all the clips we were able to use.” But then OUTRAGE, which is all about homosexuality, isn’t necessarily a film with a specific appeal to “the gay audience” — it’s more likely to appeal to an audience of gays and straights and whatevers that wants to see politics dealt with in an intelligent way. One would like to think that audience is large…
OUTRAGE is so articulate and well put-together that I struggled to actually come up with useful questions, but I was intrigued by the figure of Dan Gurley, who was basically forced out of the closet by another of Dick’s interviewee’s, Michael Rogers. I got the impression from the film that Gurley was still a bit upset about this, even though he’s now working for gay rights and seems to have become a far more positive figure as a result of coming out. “Yeah, he’s still angry.” Dick wanted to bring Gurley and Rogers together for a discussion, and nearly managed to organise it, but Rogers’ reputation for ferocity intimidated Gurley and it didn’t quite come off. Nevertheless, the access Dick was able to get to politicians and political commentators was more than sufficient. Many of them had their own first-hand experience of hiding their orientation from the world, and “They want people to know the damage of the closet.” One of the film’s most moving sequences is a montage of same-sex weddings — after an hour of talk about repression and oppression, this has the same freeing impact as the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. As John Lennon cries, “We’re out!”
Of course, people like Charlie Crist and Larry Craig, still officially heterosexual, would never appear in a film like this, but even if they did they would simply deny everything in that robotic and uncomfortable way, so the archive material Dick uses serves the same function admirably.
I wondered what other Republicans think. Do they know these guys are gay? It seems pretty obvious. “I don’t think they care. They kind of have a live and let live attitude about it. From a liberal attitude, you think, ‘Why would you vote against yourself?’ But from a conservative vantage, it’s not about aligning the personal and the political, it’s about keeping them separate.”
This is where the empathy factor is most effective. It’s a fundamentally different film from a Michael Moore agit-prop affair, because it’s all about the impact of the personal and the political. “Personally I feel that politicians should be allowed all the sex they want. It’s a tough job. It’s stressful enough.”
Me: “Yeah, we don’t want a stressed man with his finger on the button.”
Kirby: “Or woman.”
I picture the 1980s Margaret Thatcher, and imagine the sexual energy and finesse of Denis Thatcher being the only thing standing between mankind and doomsday, and simultaneous shudders run up and down my spine. We’re all lucky to be here.
I ask if Kirby Dick has plans for his next film.
“I do. Can’t talk about it. Don’t want the assholes to know I’m looking into it.”