Two gay men are in a nightclub, surveying the doings of the cruising men. In a philosophical mood, one inquires of the other, "Do you believe in love?" His friend's response is quick and to the point: "For how long?"
This exchange takes place in Cruise Control, a short film by Lawrence Ferber that will be screened at this week's N.C. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Ferber, along with Raleigh-based filmmaker Art Stone, is one of two artists with North Carolina roots that will be presenting work in this year's festival.
The fleeting, yet overpowering nature of male desire is a common thread between the the filmmakers' work. However, the 31-year-old Ferber mines the gay dating scene for humor, while Stone provides more somber explorations of male love and libido in his two entries in the festival.
Cruise Control, a six-minute film shot on digital video, provides a farcical take on what Ferber calls "the cruising face," the unintentionally awful expressions on some men's mugs when they're attempting to appear dangerous and alluring. Ferber had noticed and mocked this phenomenon for years, and after moving to New York in 1997 and spending time in Chelsea and West Village nightspots, he became even more attuned to it.
The premise of Cruise Control is slight, but amusing: A slab of beefcake named Josh inexplicably finds it difficult to pick up men at a club called the Flapjax, due to the "cruising face" he makes at the do-or-die moments of introduction. One potential trick after another flees in terror, until finally, a kindly gentleman comes up with an imaginative solution.
Ferber shot his film in one day, in the fall of 2000, at the Manhattan club Speeed. Making an appearance in the film is Ferber's friend Anthony Rapp, best known as one of the original leads of the rock musical Rent. But Ferber's bigger casting coup came when he was able to recruit two leading lights of downtown drag clubs for brief cameos--the delightfully monikered Hedda Lettuce and Flotilla DeBarge.
Ferber, who works as a journalist and filmmaker in New York City, moved to North Carolina in 1990 to study filmmaking at N.C. State University. During his seven years as a North Carolinian, he became active in the local film scene, both as a filmmaker in collaboration with his brother Matthew, and as a programming consultant to the N.C. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. He eventually moved back north, however, after realizing that "if I was going to stay in filmmaking in North Carolina, I was going to be making industrials, and that didn't interest me."
Once in New York, Ferber began writing and making films, and he also took on programming duties for a monthly queer film series at Anthology Film Archives, New York's longtime home for avant garde cinema. Ferber's work as a freelance film journalist has had the happy side effect of introducing him to actors and producers. One such contact, Sonia Braga, the Brazilian diva best known for Kiss of the Spider Woman and Sex in the City, liked Ferber's films so much that she asked him to write and direct a short film for her.
Ferber sees himself as an artist who makes films principally for a gay audience. "I like to make films with a knowing wink to gay audiences, without worrying that things will go over their heads," he says. Ferber submits his films only to gay festivals, such as those in Los Angeles, Austin, Washington and Montreal, which are past and future venues for Cruise Control. However, he notes that gay audiences have not been uniformly amused by his depiction of the "cruising face." "They're in denial," Ferber snorts.
If Ferber delights in finding humor in the superficialities of the gay dating scene, "body fascism" and the sentiments of love that last only till sunrise, 38-year-old Art Stone brings a sad and rueful perspective to his two submissions to the festival, In Wisconsin the Blind Can Hunt and Let's Get Serious.
In Wisconsin explores the vicissitudes of being young and in love--the overwhelming passions and the sudden, unexpected disillusionment. In voiceover, a woman explains the change in Wisconsin law that enabled blind persons to hunt with the assistance of a seeing guide. The film's artiness is sometimes obtrusive, but this precious quality reflects the innocence and idealism of a young artist.
In its evocation of youthful romanticism, at once fervent and transitory, this film evokes the early work of Bernardo Bertolucci--particularly Before the Revolution. Stone composes images both melancholy and memorable, such as one in which two lovers lie in bed while rain is seen falling outside the window. If the central metaphor of the title finally seems a bit strained, the film remains an effective document of a young artist's clarifying awareness of a world in which love and spiritual fulfillment are not easily realized, if ever.
Stone's second offering is more assured. Shot in both color and black and white a couple of years after In Wisconsin, Let's Get Serious is a five-minute montage of hedonistic abandon. Male and female actors are shown in pansexual couplings, triplings and quadruplings, in the Weimar-Germanic mode. Stone's narration, however, makes it clear that the sex is fantasy, an imaginative rendering of the sexual freedom denied to us in the age of AIDS. Stone laments the need to be responsible, to practice safe sex when such prudence is incompatible with the unruly beast of sexual desire.
Driving home the point is an image that might send the squeamish scurrying for cover: A naked man lies under a pane of glass as an unseen (and untouched) partner first drops semen, then blood, on the glass. Elsewhere in the film, we see a rubber replica of porn star Jeff Stryker's remarkable appendage. The second time we see this organ, a woman is stretching a condom over it, as a reminder of the inhibiting, antiseptic quality of sex in the world we must share with our malevolent fellow citizen, HIV.
"The film is a little dated," Stone acknowledges, perhaps too readily. Although medical advances in the mid-'90s helped blunt the terror of AIDS in the developed world, Stone's film is an excellent record of a widespread feeling of loss among gays of his generation. "When I came up, sex was very clinical, and the past, the '60s and '70s, were spoken of romantically by older people who'd come along sooner," he says. "You couldn't help thinking that you were missing out on something."
However, not all in the hothouse atmosphere of this film is gloomily nostalgic. There is also some welcome humor. Two women in tuxedos and slicked-back hair are applying mustaches to themselves with great solemnity. Then the camera reveals an ordinary girl who covers her mouth and laughs. As Roger Ebert once pointed out, there is nothing so fascinating as our own sex fantasies, and nothing so ridiculous as someone else's.
Stone shot both of these films in 16mm during his student days at Virginia Commonwealth and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. After receiving his MFA, Stone went to work on other people's films, most notably serving as lighting director for Go Fish, Rose Troche's popular romantic comedy about young, hip lesbians, which appeared to great acclaim and modest profits in 1994.
However, Stone found himself struggling to make a living as a filmmaker, and decided to go to law school. After graduating from Chicago-Kent School of Law, he returned to his Raleigh hometown a couple of years ago, where he now works as an immigration attorney. Stone says that he wasn't necessarily looking for a fertile film industry when he moved here, "but I was very surprised when I got back to find a community of filmmakers. That's very important--not only do you have other people to inform your work, but logistically, it's good to have access to a knowledgeable crew."
Stone recently completed a 35-minute film, titled Lying Together, which he plans to begin submitting to festivals. But for now, his two older films will be screened in a program of shorts this Sunday night, while Ferber's Cruise Control will screen at 5 p.m. Thursday, a mere hour after his flight from New York is scheduled to touch down at RDU. "It's going to be a little crazy," he notes.