Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The 24th Day: A Gay Misfire

LOGO has been showing a 2004 film called The 24th Day a lot lately. It comes off to me as a film that exploits gay and HIV subject matter, throws in some interesting tidbits, but doesn't really know what to do with them, mostly due to the insufficiencies of the screenwriter. Based on a play by one Tony Piccirillo, it was also written and directed by him. According to Piccirillo, he got the idea for the play after he got strep throat or something after a brief affair with a woman (sic), and a nurse suggested he should get tested for AIDS. He confronted the woman, who told him he was making too much of it. This somehow evolved into an essentially gay film (what -- heteros don't get HIV?) about a married-and-in-denial guy, Tom (Scott Speedman) who ties up an out-of-the-closet gay man, Dan (James Marsden of X-Men) because he thinks he gave him AIDS during an encounter years before. It turns out that Tom was married, and his wife committed suicide after learning she had AIDS. He claims that he is essentially straight and had only one sexual encounter with a man -- Dan. He feels that Dan to all intents and purposes murdered his wife and ruined his life. Dan says he didn't force him to commit adultery with a man and it's Tom's fault if he passed HIV along to his unknowing spouse. Tom takes a sample of Dan's blood, gives it to a friend to take to a lab, and says he'll set Dan free if he's HIV negative, and kill him if he's positive.

Yuchhh. First let me say that the main problem with the film -- and there are many -- is that we've got a situation where a self-deceptive, self-hating, homophobic closet queen somehow holds himself to be morally superior to an out-of-the-closet gay man. There doesn't seem to be any indication that Dan knew he was HIV positive (assuming he is) at the time of their encounter, and Tom himself takes no responsibility for having unsafe sex. Dan does suggest that Tom may well have had many more homo encounters than he's admitting to, and also advises him that since his wife had symptoms first, she actually might have given the virus to her husband. To be fair, this is an intriguing (if melodramatic) situation, but the movie doesn't make the most of it, going awry long before the conclusion.

Unwisely, the film tries to be trendy when it comes to sexual identity. Dan admits that just because he has sex with a woman now and then doesn't mean he's straight (or even bi), that he has absolutely no intention of giving up men and getting a wife. Fine. But he seems to agree with Tom that an occasional episode with a man doesn't make a man gay or bi, which is ludicrous at its core. If we didn't live in a world that was full of homophobia and yet devoid of heterophobia (which affects every gay person even on a subconsious level) I might buy this notion of "bicuriosity." On the contrary, I think it's bullshit. Bicurious men are men who can't quite accept their homosexuality, plain and simple, political correctness and bisexuality be damned.

Instead of really exploring this issue -- one of internalized homophobia -- Piccirillo gives Dan a ludicrous speech about not putting people in boxes, and how men who are essentially straight but also attracted to men have a more difficult time of it than women in the same (if opposite) situation. "It's totally messed up for guys who prefer women and have a slight curiosity about men. ... "

And : "Being with a man or wanting to be with a man doesn't make you gay ... "

Uh, sure.

Let me make it clear that this speech is not given to Tom, the closet case, but to Dan, the gay guy! But it's just the sort of thing that gay guys in denial are always saying. [Read my controversial post, Seriously in Denial.]

Now another problem with this project is that it doesn't seem to be the product of what you might call gay sensibilities. The two lead actors are apparently straight. All I know about Piccirillo is that he had a four-year-old son at the time of the film's release and once upon a time was afraid he'd caught AIDS from a girlfriend. And isn't it ridiculous that in the 21st century we still don't really know who's gay or who isn't or who's in denial and who's supposedly "bi-curious" and even if we do know we can't come right out and say because even though there's nothing wrong with being gay saying someone is gay can still be considered as libelous as saying someone is a serial killer or a terrorist. (All right -- take a deep breath after that sentence.)

That being said, I also must say that I have no personal knowledge of the private lives of Marsden, Speedman, or Piccirillo. Another truth is that The 24th Day comes off as the project of straight men who are totally out of their depth (and closet cases -- not that I'm saying that that's what we're dealing with here -- might just as well be straight due to their lack of any gay sensibility). One has to ask why Piccirillo couldn't have used heterosexual characters in the same situations - after all he supposedly got the idea from an encounter with a woman. Did he think The 24th Day might get more attention or support as a "gay" movie? Does he still think AIDS is a "gay disease?" It's like having a Caucasian writing a play about African-Americans and inevitably getting it all wrong. Sometimes going for publicity-generating controversy is the worst way to go. (By the way, the title refers to the fact that Tom learned he had HIV 24 days before the film proper begins.)

The film is also a disappointment on the artistic front. A really great play could have been written employing these two characters and dealing with the same themes -- certainly personal responsibility as well as responsibility to others is important these days when it comes to the HIV pandemic (but this is as true for straights as it is for gays) -- but Piccirillo is stepping out of his league in tackling these matters. As a director, he fails to imbue his film with enough thrills or tension (it's supposed to be a thriller, after all, but mostly comes off as a talky videotaped stage play). The performances of Marsden and Speedman are certainly not awful, but the actors aren't quite up to the script's challenges, and soft-spoken Speedman is often unintelligible. They don't really seem to understand the characters -- but neither does Piccirillo. [Does he relate at all to Dan? Does he relate to the pathetic Tom?] To be fair to Piccirillo, he makes an effort, but whether the problem is lack of identification or lack of talent or both, it just isn't enough.

And why on earth does Picirillo have the two men go on and on about the show Charlie's Angels, which these characters, given their relative youth, could only have seen on TVLand if at all? I have had countless conversations with gay men of all types and ages over the years but I've yet to have a conversation about Charlie's Angels, be it TV show or movie.

I don't know if Dan was originally conceived as a "pig," a gay man who will try just about anything, safe sex be damned. There's no denying that men like this exist, but they also have their heterosexual equivalent. But there are a great many gay men who are constantly conscious of safe sex, carry condoms at all times, and are responsible to themselves and to their sex partners. Straight characters [a widow whose husband died of AIDS confronts the male drug user who gave her HIV, for instance] might have actually made the play/movie even more controversial and timely, given how HIV infection is rising in the heterosexual community.

Given its subject matter, I guess I can't fault LOGO for airing the film so that the three or four people who've heard of it can make up their own minds. Frankly The 24th Day muffs so many great opportunities for drama and enlightenment that I can't think of a better place for it than at 5 AM in the morning. Too bad. Interesting situations and discussions are sort of frittered away in a two-man acting exercise where the uncertain actors sort of sink to the level of the exploitative material.

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