“The word ‘eighteen’ is a highly sexualized word,” says 31-year-old gay Vancouver filmmaker Richard Bell about naming his new movie after a big birthday.
“When you say the word ‘eighteen’ in the gay community people are quite titillated, which is almost ridiculous,” he laughs. “But I’m quite pleased that people have those associations with that name because if it gets people to go to the theatre…” he trails off suggestively.
The 18-year-old in this case is a street kid named Pip (played by Paul Anthony) whose birthday gift is a cassette tape of his late grandfather (Sir Ian McKellen) recalling his own 18th year. Back then, Grandpa was a World War II soldier hiding from the enemy while tending to a frightened, dying comrade.
Pip’s own battlefield is the streets. On his slide from Shaughnessy to the Downtown Eastside, Pip fell down a rabbit hole and ended up in a seductive world of power plays in which everybody is somebody’s victim.
Pip is beguiled by gay hustler Clark (Clarence Sponagle), infatuated with pretty social worker Jenny (Carly Pope) and having his soul saved by a street pastor (Alan Cumming).
Clark, meanwhile, is attracted to Pip’s quiet intensity, adored by adorkable gas station attendant Jeff (David Beazely in a star-making performance), and stalked by a rough client.
While the journey may differ from the mean streets of Vancouver to the trenches of war-torn Europe, Pip’s passage to manhood and his grandfather’s coming of age in battle are not wholly dissimilar.
Part of the point of Eighteen is to show the parallels and contrasts of “being a boy in the 1940s and at the beginning of this new century,” says Bell, adding that he’d also like to provide younger audiences with “a new understanding of what our veterans went through with the world war.”
“They were just little boys,” he explains. “They truly were kids. It’s unfathomable to me that they were killing each other and dropping bombs on each other.”
What makes Eighteen so provocative is that Bell’s own grandfather actually recorded tapes for Bell and his brother. “Listening to these cassette tapes was quite a profound experience for me,” Bell recalls. “It was very emotional; spooky even. I was so enchanted with the idea of leaving a legacy behind from one generation to the next and I wanted to make a story about that.”
Even though his previous movie, 2000’s Two Brothers, was well received, Bell says Eighteen “was an incredibly hard movie to get made. I was a salmon swimming upstream for the last five years.” At one point he flew to Australia to record McKellen’s voiceover with “absolutely no money.”
But a funny thing happened when the studio (which also released the homo-friendly Latter Days) saw the finished movie.
“They were actually a little disappointed that it wasn’t as gay as they wanted it to be,” Bell recalls. “They were kind of hoping there’d be more flesh.”
Instead what they got was a movie with street smarts; an earnest meditation on the corrupted state of human libido. In one scene a dad receives oral sex in a car while his baby cries in the back seat. In another, a thug knifes a street kid who gay-baits him.
“I wanted to portray just how hard and terrible and ugly this world was for a lot of these characters in the film,” says Bell. “I wanted to create a tragedy.”
As far as Canadian films go, Eighteen has a lot going for it-and against it. The musical score is grand and operatic but the acting is punishingly sincere. The script is flawless but the pacing is glacial. The movie has the scale of waydowntown but the ambitions of The Sweet Hereafter.
One of the things Bell is most proud of in his movie is the relationship between Pip the street kid and Clark the hustler.
“I don’t think it’s really been done before in mainstream cinema where we see a meaningful and intimate relationship between a straight guy and a gay guy,” he says.
“I was also very interested in the Second World War story-about doing a story about the tenderness between men in combat,” he adds.
With Eighteen, Bell has dared to make a wartime story about ostensibly straight men that explores, he says, “the intense, life threatening scenarios men in combat endured and how [that] must have brought them closer to each other.”
Being on the threshold of death, these men “must have experienced moments of great vulnerability, tenderness and intimacy-cradling someone as they die, or sticking your hand in their gut to stop their bleeding, or huddling together freezing cold in a hole in the ground,” Bell explains.
“And I think that as tragic as these situations are, there’s a real beauty in them,” he continues. “In our society, men don’t share that kind of intense bond with each other. Some straight guys can’t even sit side by side each other on a bus; they sit one in front of the other.”
The men-in-combat movie has always been popular with redneck straights. But the genre is a fetish (and fashion) for many gay men, too. The military is just a really big gym anyway-sort of a male beauty pageant sponsored by the country.
It’s no wonder that Eighteen’s young, hiding comrades-in-arms conjure up thoughts of Brokeback Trench.
Bell, however, says he simply set out to make a movie about equal forms of love, as illustrated by his favourite scene, the intersection of three storylines late in the film.
“Pip and Jenny in the shower, Jeff and Clark on the bed with the toys, kissing, and then the scene between the two comrades. Because I think it’s a beautiful bit and I think if you don’t get that scene then you don’t get what I’m trying to do with this movie.”
What he’s trying to show, he says, “is that the love and tenderness between Jenny and Pip is just as equal to the love and the tenderness between Clark and Jeff, and just as profound as the camaraderie and the tenderness between [the soldiers].
“I think that what [the soldiers] share is just as profound as romantic love,” he says. “And what I’m saying here, and with this entire movie, is that love is just purely love.”