The difference between traditional narrative cinema and documentary cinema is that documentary cinema purports that it is the truth.
Really, it’s as trustworthy as that asshole who said they would hold the line for you at Chipotle, and does, but then conveniently forgets to tell you about the whole e coli deal, so you’re left on the toilet, praying for death and hoping wherever you end up has a solid Wi-Fi connection.
From artful verite like Grey Gardens to slightly more questionable info dumps like Ancient Aliens and Dyson vacuum cleaner ads, nonfiction filmmaking runs the gamut of styles, and approaches, investigating the meaning of truth. The best art prods at that very notion. The worst does not know what “notion” means.
The search for verisimilitude, or reality, begins and ends with the title card of Boys Beware! Homosexuals Are on the Prowl (which, in my opinion, could use a colon, which is sort of ironic if you think about it).
It reads: “Produced with the cooperation of the Inglewood Police Department and the Inglewood Unified School District.” Director Sid Davis seems as terrified of quality framing as he is of homosexuality, which is to say he is so terrified that there’s a tacit yearning to it. Or maybe I’m projecting.
You can watch the film here if you want to play along at home.
CW for depictions of sexual abuse and sincere, however ineffective, homophobia.
Lieutenant Williams gives away his age and distance from any sense of modernity by using the label “young people”–I’m sure his personal lexicon also contains the phrases “do the Mary Jane”, “smoke a doobie”, “What is Amazon Prime?”, and “I Googled myself”. One can easily imagine his pan sized thumbs trying to text his nephew, blithely unaware of the anachronism.
On his way to talk to these vulnerable “young people”, he passes hitchhikers standing in the middle of one of those island things built solely to make part of metropolitan California look like it has foliage outside of the well-to-do families’ houses. It is technically outside, albeit 30 feet away. They stand with their thumbs hung out, about waist level, clearly indicative of the fact that they have never, ever hitchhiked before. Come on, y’all, put your back into it!
Jimmy Farms, who, after a baseball game, is too lazy to walk what I assume is, like, a mile home, wants to “thumb a ride”. That’s verbatim. If this hadn’t been made the 1950s, and had a picture of Tom Dailey suddenly appeared on the screen, I would have assumed Davis had stolen from my diary. (Also in my diary: pictures of Matt Bomer, Aydian Dowling, Emma Watson holding a copy of The Second Sex, Michel Foucault with doodled on sunglasses, Roxane Gay rolling her eyes.)
Jimmy is, of course, a clean cut, All-American Boy. Read: white, middle class, white, twinky, masculine presenting and performing, and white. Did I mention he was white?
(Editor’s Note: How white was he?)
Even his boxer briefs experienced white privilege.
He jumps into the car, blithely unaware that the man who picked him up–wearing dark sunglasses and a mustache that would seriously offend John Waters–is nice and attentive for a reason. Like a would-be sequel to stranger danger films, there’s nothing more unsettling than an older man who buys you a soda and tells “off color jokes”.
You know what’s worse? When they don’t even bother to buy you the soda.
Jimmy, though, is excited that an older person would make adult jokes in his presence; it is the ultimate sign of trust. That and investing in a pyramid scheme. And then they hang out. And then they go fishing. And then the older man shows Jimmy pornographic pictures. That escalated quickly.
The pathologizing of homosexuality in this is fascinating in that the video seems to lack the self-awareness that it’s super phallocentric. The straw in the soda. The fishing poles. The minigolf club. The implied baseball bat. What is this film saying? Besides the comparison to smallpox (which one can be protected against via vaccination with a needle), Sid Davis is sending mixed messages to me.
There’s a paradoxical homoeroticism to homophobia, especially because it exhibits through particular norms which encourage homosociality. Abercrombie and Fitch were never overtly homophobic, but that image of projected masculinity has roots in an erotic appreciation of the male form. And when overt homophobia does present itself, it does so in sometimes confusing manners. Hence the homophobic group La Manif Pour Tous, who are seen here mounting a giant pole in pink shorts (sounds like my last date, heyo!).
It seems to suggest two things: one, on a more serious note, to perform heterosexual masculinity, a brand of “no homo” self affirmation nonetheless adheres to a kind of homosociality where eroticism is subtext. Ostensibly, appreciation of the masculine (purporting the idea that gays and queers alike are all feminine presenting/performing) follows the rules of heterosexual masculinity, without realizing that those rules and boundaries are either easily queered or can be rendered obsolete and thus limitless. Two, straight guys are so, so gay.
Ralph, this older man, always wears sunglasses; he looks like he walked off the lot of a knock off Federico Fellini film. His hair coif confuses me–he looks like he’s in the running for Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace. Choose an aesthetic! Like my mother told me when I came out to her as bisexual, you can’t have it both ways!
(In the same breath she mentioned that Fellini references were not great tactics to get someone to, you know, sleep with you. Tell that to the boy who’s been stringing me along for the last year by making jokes about poststructuralism and David Lynch!)
But soon, after it is established that the dynamic between Jimmy and Ralph is basically not consensual, Jimmy is thrown into juvenile detention. He’s let off, though, with Ralph being used as an example of a “passive homosexual”. Williams does not elaborate on what the dichotomy is between a passive homosexual and the other kind of homosexual he does not actually name, beyond the fact that the latter kind is more physically violent.
There’s something to be said about performance though: impressively (I use that lightly), though the stereotypes offered here (of lecherous men that prey on boys) is atrocious in its own right, WIlliams and Davis don’t rely on the archetypes of the Sissy or even the Cross Dresser. They’re just creepy old men. Yet, the performance of passivity doesn’t seem to be directly related to masculinity or femininity: the homosexuals we see in the film, though presenting as masculine, fit as de facto masculine performing men. If it weren’t for the sexual subtext, they’d even seem devoid of sexual desire.
Unfortunately, Williams does not elaborate on the idea of the “passive aggressive homosexual”. Figures.
As a point of comparison, we meet another stranger, also dressed in dark clothing, watching the proceedings of a basketball game voyeuristically. We know this film isn’t trying for any kind of veracity because I know no homosexual willing to watch basketball, even if it meant bedding someone.
Mike is younger, and pretty good at basketball for such a twerpy looking kid. Davis is fixated on kids that play sports, which, as far as representation goes, is kind of unfair for those of us whom prefer reading, or watching movies, or organizing their Pinterest profile. Sports is just such a masc thing it can barely be contained in this film alone. Just look at the movie Moneyball.
Unfortunately, “he traded his life for a newspaper headline”. It’s the educational version of clickbait.
Lt. Williams mentions that public restrooms are a favorite hangout of the homosexual, and…well, yes. It’s where we read.
True though that may be, Davis seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of how to build tension, or intimacy. We never really get to know these characters or their desires, and we don’t have a very good scope of the setting with respect to the context of that supposed tautness. The music, faux chirpy, does nothing to alleviate these issues. There are aspects of framing which hypothetically could work: the expansiveness of the area and the looking threat of gayness, but it’s always undermined by too short a shot or the next image lacking a cohesion with the sequence as a whole.
What I’m saying is that these homosexuals aren’t scary. I’ve experienced more terror hearing someone scream “Yaaasss” in a bar in West Hollywood. But this could easily be rectified by the follow: the confrontation of why these people are dangerous, since so much of the film is precluded on inference and arbitrary rules; even the sensationalistic kidnapping of a young boy is severely undermined by its peppy score, any legitimate dread dashed in favor of a more pedagogical tone. The film establishes itself first and foremost as within the style of an educational infomercial, more concerned with the structure of exposition than a coherent message.
Finally, Lt. Williams warns us of any man that becomes too personal with you, which is to say that Lt. Williams would not do well on Tinder. It’s hard to be offended at this, because even ideologically it seems underdeveloped. It’s about as offensive as any screenplay pitch I’ve had to sit through during class. Then again, I’m talking from an ultra-lefty, east coast, queer, middle class, cisgender perspective. Its laughable qualities have more to do with it being an anachronism to me.
There’s still valid reasons to be disgusted by this, and not necessarily in the kind of naive manner that might permeate an after school special of why homophobia is bad.
Fear of homosocial bonds, not homosexual sex, make up the DNA of this film.
Thinking retrospectively, it’s hard to completely understand the ripple effect this video had. It’s a myopic and limited presentation of gay people, even as enemy, so as an index of how to "spot one", Boys Beware doesn’t seem like it would work. And yet, at the core of this, however mishandled in its presentation, is the very fear of homosocial intimacy, romantic or otherwise. That men should not touch each other, be kind to one another, or breach any of the social codes that might suggest being an Other is deeply embedded in the film.
The Body Snatchers rhetorical technique is effective in its ability to have destroyed the very bonds between heterosexual cisgender men, relegating them to a rigidity which has contributed to the oppression of others, and Others.
Instead, this is just ineffectual, not unlike most white boys.