Notes on MOONLIGHT and KING COBRA

1.

I now tweet infrequently, and I rarely use Twitter in the way that it’s supposed to be used. The Twitter controversies that I was involved with on an almost weekly basis years ago are a thing of the past and if I miss the fact that The New York Times once called my twitter stream “brilliant” in 2013 I’m now tired of it and can barely even be rallied to tweet that much at all. I announce new episodes of this podcast on Twitter though a much more effective way to promote it is on my official Bret Easton Ellis Facebook page. But sometimes I’m struck by something and will tweet my thoughts—for example, HBO’s 10-hour mini-series The Night Of seemed to me to be the final nail in the coffin of the theatrical experience for American film was one such recent tweet, pretty harmless—and a few weeks ago I happened to see two movies back to back, randomly, for no other reason than they happened to open the same Friday and this inadvertent pairing of them, both gay-themed and about gay male desire, seemed instructive to me since Moonlight was written and directed by a straight man (Barry Jenkins) and King Cobra was written and directed by a gay man (Justin Kelly). I am not a believer that only gay people should direct gay-themed films but in the case of a gay themed film like Moonlight that is at heart about desire—the whole thing hinges on it, its third act is completely depended on it, that hand-job on the beach seals it—it seemed to be at times the strained “progressive” attempt of a straight artist to present what it’s like to be a version of gay. The actual physical desire depicted visually in Moonlight is pretty much non-existent and when there are flashes of it the movie seemed to me so obviously not the work of a gay sensibility that it pretty much undermined the movie for me, a movie that has broken out of the crowd because it checks off every box in our current obsession with ideology (black, queer, homophobia, bullied, toxic masculinity, victim—it’s a veritable rainbow for The New York Times cultural coverage and approval). And yet at times its aesthetics save it from drowning in ideology and not quite letting the queer black man at its center be presented as magical elf or saintly E.T. or baby panda and it moves into something slightly more original than only that.

The aesthetics of King Cobra are not as fancy-literary as Moonlight and there’s no way I’m going to be talking about it as a better movie yet its ideology is more interesting to me on an aesthetic emotional level because King Cobra just presents a true crime story where all the lead players just happen to be gay in the crazyreal-life drama of it all—and it’s not about bullying or victimization or marginalization or inclusivity, the things listeners of my podcast know I don’t respond to in American movies. Of course the boy in Moonlight got a losing ticket in the birth lottery and grows up poor whereas the gay white dudes in King Cobra are distinctly middle-class and therefore have more opportunities to squander their white privilege, which they do spectacularly. Moonlight loves Chiron’s pain because without it, the movie wouldn’t exist—it’s a victim narrative. The teeming sexuality of King Cobra—and the business of gay masculine desire, the filming of it, the buying and selling of it, the trademarking of it—is what gives that movie a reason to exist. Gay men as superficial capitalists driven to crime seems to me, in this moment, a more progressive step in post-gay cinema than yet another anguished victim scenario. Your approval of Moonlight is supposed to make you feel virtuous.

The tweet was going to suggest all of this in 140 characters and compare the two movies in the way they handle sexuality (one is upfront about its nudity and sex scenes, the other is so chaste that it is borderline unrealistic and that oneis written and directed by a straight man, while the more explicit one is written and directed by a gay man with straight actors bringing their game on) and because Twitter has no context I added that instead of having the conversation here on Twitter there would be a discussion of the two movies on an upcoming podcast. And yet staring at the tweet before I posted it complete with the posters for both films—oddly enough almost identical in their design and blue and pink neon color patterns—I thought the tweet could be taken as racist even though race had nothing to do with what I was thinking about—it was purely about how gay sex is represented aesthetically within the dream-bubble of each movie. I was going to tweet something like “I get the ideological importance of Moonlight but King Cobra speaks to me more on an emotional-aesthetic level that I prefer” or something like that. The tweet was fine and innocuous but putting up the two posters side by side revealed the black face of a male child compared to four white male faces, two younger men, two older men. The black face looks contemplative and sad—he’s a victim, by the way—and the four white faces are cocky and determined, worried and suspicious perhaps like they’re afraid they’re not about to get away with something, and that’s what King Cobra is selling; the two younger men are shirtless and very handsome and they are selling the come-on of the movie, which is sex, because King Cobra is set in the world of gay porn and based on a true-crime story from about a decade ago. My admiration and problem with both movies is not grounded in race or in ideology but in aesthetics and my own personal tastes.

They are about tone and approach and especially about how gay desire is presented by both movies—how one seems imbued with a gay sensibility, while the other doesn’t at all—and therein lies an aesthetic problem for me. I fixed the tweet and posted it and then forgot about it until a couple of days later when I began making notes for a podcast I was recording with Anne Heche.

 

2.

On my podcast Mark Duplass said that one of the reasons he’s glad to be a new member of The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (he was asked to join last year) is so he can support a movie like Moonlight and we were talking about this after I had my suspicions that making the Academy even slightly more diverse isn’t necessarily going to result in more nominations for diverse fare—it might but it didn’t work for the blockbuster when they opened up the Best Picture nominees from 5 to 10 in the hopes of the blockbusters getting nominated in order to boost ratings for the Oscar telecast, and unless the studios are actually making and promoting diverse Oscar fare such as Denzel Washington’s turgid stage-stuck adaptation of the August Wilson play Fences, then it is doubtful that just because a movie has diverse casting in it means it will automatically be awarded by The Academy (though it does look as if Viola Davis in that movie has become a shoo-in now to win Best Supporting Actress). I hadn’t seen Moonlight when Mark, who is white and straight, was on the podcast and the movie hadn’t even been released yet but there was a certain kind of voice on social media that was supporting the movie unequivocally without having seen it—people in essence saying they would definitely support this movie that was an example of queer black cinema—weeks before the movie opened, without knowing if the movie was any good or not.

 

My one black friend—yes, my one black friend, I admit it, an entertainment lawyer in Hollywood—had not seen Moonlight yet either and as a gay black man over dinner with me on the Thursday night before Moonlight opened that Friday, his excitement at seeing what he saw as a representation of a queer black male in a big indie drama was palpable, and my friend doesn’t usually give into hyperbole. It reminded me of our heated debate over Ryan Coogler’s 2013 movie Fruitvale Station starring Michael B Jordan about the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant. Aesthetically I thought it was clumsy and sentimental with heavy doses of amateurish irony and metaphor—and my friend wasn’t that far from me when looking at Fruitvale Station from an aesthetic level—his taste, like mine, also runs to the big grand flourishes that the theatrical experience can offer and like me he prefers genre movies. But he admitted to me that Fruitvale Station had shaken him to his core because he so rarely sees a young handsome black man in movies trying to get by, trying to live his life, without hassles, without the burden of being black, and that as a black man he became susceptible to the movie and in the final sequences of Fruitvale Station when this black man is casually shot and killed my friend was emotionally overwhelmed and the movie wrecked him—not necessarily because it was so good or accomplished but because as a black man he related even if he was from a different class than Oscar Grant (though not by much growing up) and he felt part of his story was being told as well and this was way too rare for him—and he couldn’t stop choking up that day after he saw the movie. As he was describing this reaction to me I began to see the movie on his level, through his eyes—the movie wasn’t for me but I now could understand how someone could be affected by it, and I am still moved by that conversation I had with my friend in the summer of 2013 and I thought about it a lot even though it didn’t change my aesthetics.

Fruitvale Station; dir. Ryan Coogler

 

Though of course there were people who rejected my aesthetics about Fruitvale Station and seemed to suggest I should like it no matter what, hinting in fact that I was a racist because I simply didn’t like the aesthetics of the movie. But this is the age of Comrade Snowflake judging everyone so harshly if one resists and questions the threatening groupthink ideology of what their idea of progressive inclusivity is for all or else. Meaning we can’t make fun of our differences, everybody has to be the same and you become a bad person if you don’t like something, and you’re automatically a racist or a sexist if you refuse to join the group. This is what happens to a culture when a culture doesn’t care about art anymore.

 

3.

When did people start identifying with victims and when did the victim’s worldview become the lens in which we look at everything? Why is Moonlight so inordinately drawn to the character of Chiron who over the course of the movie we see at three different stages in his young life—child, adolescent and man in three separate sections? Because Chiron, born poor and to a drug-addicted mother and absent father, throughout the movie, is a victim—and here we are in American indie movies favorite scenario: a victim with a Capital V and from his very first scene Chiron is a victim of bullying. He’s a passive and spiritless boy, though we do get a snippet of him joyfully dancing in a scene at school and I wish more of this Chiron had been center stage in the picture because then there would be something to lose, something at stake dramatically, and I’m talking within the realm of the movie and not what happens exactly in real life. If Chiron was openly different and an outsider who was also a fighter, had sass, an attitude (that type of boy) instead of a mute and expressionless victim, this would have made his eventual victimization and his downfall and his withdrawal from life all the more devastating—we would have really felt the erasure of this boy’s personality that bullying can cause. But Chiron is devoid of personality and individuality from minute one—which of course the movie wants to argue is the whole point—and how could he possibly be any of those things I mentioned if the world won’t allow him? Well, conversely that is why people explode and express themselves, often exactly because of a societal pressure. So he’s mute and in pain. Why would you want this to be your point person in a movie—any movie? What is there to lose with this character? The movie’s reason to exist is Chiron’s pain, and you can find this fun and enjoy movies like this or you can patiently sit through it, occasionally admiring the artistry while enduring the boy’s torture and unhappiness.

Chiron is endlessly bullied, he’s a gay martyr and his mother is a crack-head and she’s like a more clichéd, less entertaining Monique. Moonlight is basically a thin boy’s Precious complete with therapy session scenes—angry outbursts, tearful apologies—but without Lee Daniels crude and invigorating showbiz vulgarity. We have been over this material so many times for decades—just maybe without the woozy poetic stuff. The movie is at times a compendium of the most clichéd scenes from ghetto cinema 101 as reimagined by Terrence Malick perhaps. And yet this approach mostly works because the style mutes the cliché’s. Mom wacked out on drugs begging her son to get her cash (check!), one friend is urged by the forces of toxic masculinity (check!) to beat-up another friend in order to prove his toxic masculinity. And that scene makes no sense—it hasn’t been prepared enough for us to understand the action of the bully; we don’t know why Kevin would be persuaded by another student who we’ve never seen him with to commit this act of violence. But it doesn’t matter because the movie wants to get to the beating of Chiron because this is when the movie is most excited by the victimization as it is in the following scene with Chiron bloody and sobbing in the principal’s office, an adult figure who offers him nothing.

 

The movie keeps asking us to endure Chiron’s pain. And yet: why? There’s nothing to love about Chiron, there’s nothing at stake except his sadness and pain. He’s not into anything—he’s not into music or poetry or comic books—he’s a cipher. And because of this Moonlight likes those bullying scenes best when the movie becomes active and not passive and this is when Jenkins is strongest and most direct as a filmmaker. Watching Chiron victimized is the movie’s reason for being. The movie is an elegy to pain and it’s bursting with one feel-bad moment after another—a litany of rejections. But suffering is what awards season loves most, as does the new audience enthralled to victimization. Sometimes Barry Jenkins doesn’t make a big deal of things and that’s when the movie works best—as visual mosaic, casual and loose. Other times the violins and cellos and oboes start swooning over the soundtrack indicating to us a more aspirational high-minded movie and sometimes its earnestness is everywhere and the movie is pristinely well-intentioned and wants you to admire its style and good taste. The movie is enthralled to pure victimhood when it badly needs more humor, more lightness, more sexual flash; the whole thing is dour and downbeat, and it doesn’t seem to understand that these two styles could co-exist. It doesn’t understand that we’d be interested in Chiron if there was a fighter in him but the movie believes in the noble suffering of victimhood and has little interest in making Chiron a stronger character. He’s an enigma and the movie is curiously fascinated with him—but why? Because: he’s a chaste, beautiful, sad-eyed teenage angel and victim.

 

This chasteness reveals the hetero sensibility at work in Moonlight in relation to how it portrays gay male desire. Not that Moonlight needed to go all Gregg Araki on us but the movie has no sexual heat and except for the bullying it sidesteps scenes by aestheticizing them because they might be—what? Too upsetting for an audience? As when Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris) screams at him as a little boy and calls him a faggot but we don’t hear the word (we lip read it) and the film over-stylizes the scene by playing it in slow motion with music ladled over it and the distance lessens the pain. It seems evasive as if this primal gay boy versus mother scene is something the straight writer-director just couldn’t comprehend. A group of schoolboys compare dick size and the scene goes nowhere—but you could argue that’s the movie’s style: elliptical and noncommittal. There are two dreams—one with teen Chiron (Ashton Sanders) watching that classmate, Kevin, having sex with a girl but both of them are clothed, and oddly enough there’s a dream the man Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has of the older Kevin (Andre Holland) standing outside a restaurant smoking a cigarette, also clothed and just in close-up, that is so arousing to Chiron that it makes him ejaculate in his sleep. For those of us who have had wet dreams, I have no idea why this happened to Chiron based on the dream itself, but Moonlight is only a movie and Barry Jenkins can make any movie he wants (and he seems to have done it with little or no interference and that’s a good thing) but there seems to be missed opportunities in depicting gay desire as there are elsewhere in this very mild movie.

Moonlight makes it very easy for straight and black audiences to respond to it by removing actual gay sex from the equation but I also think this is why audiences outside of the mainstream upscale Hollywood-liberal bubble are laughing at the movie, as a writer posted in Vulture last week in a post called “The Sad Surreal Experience of Seeing An Audience Laugh at Moonlight—the writer posted about the differences of seeing the movie at a press screening and then seeing it with a paying audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on a packed Friday night, noting that the audience was rejecting scenes and laughing at them in the way the scenes portrayed sexuality. I don’t think the audience is wrong in the way the writer takes them to task—their reaction is real and if that’s “sad” and “surreal” to you then I think you might be a bit out of touch—I think that audience is more hip and modern than the sentimental narrative wants us to believe. The movie approaches everything way too evasively and with such solemnity that I’m not surprised paying audiences are giggling at the self-seriousness of the movie and its lack of being upfront about shit. In the beach scene involving the teens Chiron and Kevin the movie slows down and starts talking poetically—I cry so much I’ll turn into drops, Chiron says at one point. There’s half a kiss—no tongue, no skin, no flesh, no reciprocating. No matter how damaged and passive Chiron might be this would be the films opportunity for him—and the movie—to explode with awkward passion—let all the pent up feelings finally out in this secret moment. And maybe this would scare Kevin who we have assumed is straight up until now and would have laid the groundwork for the severe beating that happens later—which still after two viewings makes absolutely no dramatic sense to me at all except that the movie just wants it to happen.

 

When we finally meet Chiron as a man in the third section and it’s ten years later and he’s a somewhat successful drug dealer and he’s almost as mute and sullen and inexpressive as he was when we last saw him, I kept thinking wouldn’t it have been a more progressive view that Chiron had defeated his victimization and this big and beautiful black guy could have easily found so much physical intimacy and affection and maybe even love on the down low—maybe dissatisfied, maybe unhappy, but that would have been a dramatic progression. Instead he is just a man-child who has not had sex since that hand job and Moonlight wants us to believe that the most chaste hand-job in the history of movies stunted this stud into celibacy. (If the boys had given each other blowjobs I doubt the movie would have been as wildly acclaimed.) Obviously Chiron still gives meaning to this shoreline encounter from a decade ago and I guess that’s the real romance of the movie—Chiron the romantic victim—but maybe if he had a boyfriend, if maybe he had a semblance of a sexual life, maybe if he was defiant and a fighter: all of this could have deepened the drama. (The one moment the teenage Chiron takes action and commits an act of violence the movie suggests the Chiron I wanted to see more of as a moviegoer.) And then we could have found out that he’s still obsessed with Kevin and that’s why he drives all the way from Atlanta to Miami ten years later to see him. I would have found that profoundly more moving than the mute childlike Chiron who can barely even tap into his emotions, and I found the movie’s set-up—as drama and not as sociology—somewhat regressive. But I believe audiences and straight critics prefer it this way and that Chiron remaining a VIP (Victim-In-Pain) is what sells the movie to them. (Maybe it’s telling that the lone negative Moonlight review is from the gay black critic Armond White—though both Wesley Morris and Hilton Als loved it.) Maybe if Chiron had stepped up but was still wounded by what happened to him—that would have made so much more dramatic sense—even if this is not what always happens in the real world. But Chiron as a flawed but strong black queer male would have destroyed the ideological victim fantasy of it all even if it aided in the drama—and let’s face it: it would have been a harder sell in our everyone is a victim culture.

 

You can kind of see Chiron’s repression when he teases one of his boy-dealers working for him about money—you can imbue this ragging as a sexual tease on Chiron’s part though the movie dares not go there. And because of these evasions the movie doesn’t seem like a gay man’s journey to anywhere. And this seriously hampers part 3 of the triptych because what happened in episode 2 doesn’t carry the weight of what starts happening in episode 3—the pieces fit better in part 1 and into part 2. The big scene in the restaurant near the end of act 3 feels like it’s from a play—fake and stagey and yes from a gay playwright—and yet the actors and the director sell it even though the Vulture writer noted that the Brooklyn audience watching the scene reacted to it as if it was watching a sitcom. Sexy Chiron as a smart man with desires would easily—with his body and looks—have gotten a lot of action anywhere he went but the movie wants to keep him a neutered angel boy-man who cries about his mom and still thinks of a hand-job he got from Kevin ten years ago. This is a literary conceit, the hand job that could not be forgotten. That the adult Chiron would not be on the DL and satisfying his desires is also a literary fantasy—but that’s part of the sullenness of the movie and underlines the basic conservativeness of the movie as well, proud of its values and what it represents, an Oprah movie perhaps; when it comes to sex it feels like the movie is pulling punches, and it becomes slightly maddening. The wet dream is just a brief montage of Kevin smoking a cigarette—maybe if it was the younger Kevin it would make sense but since Chiron hasn’t even seen the older Kevin at this point you wonder who is he dreaming about—audiences according to the Vulture piece laughed at this sequence too. As a dramatist and especially as a gay man, something feels off to me and I’m not sure why more gay men aren’t talking about these omissions and the chastity of its ending where Chiron goes back to Kevin’s house after the restaurant and then nothing happens—forget sex, what about a kiss? But no, instead of sex—we get a hug. When asked about this Barry Jenkins has said that what Chiron needs at this point is affection more than sex. Well, the question is: can’t he have both? And aren’t the two intertwined? Jenkins answer is a straight man’s answer. Not a gay man’s answer and that’s why the movie feels emotionally lopsided.

 

Certainly Moonlight is a Black Lives Matter movie and the black bodies of the adult Chiron and the kindly saintly drug dealer Juan who took care of him as a child seem now in this moment as a defiant rebuke to the endless parade of lifeless murdered bodies of black men we have been privy to in the media in shooting after shooting after shooting—seeing so many black man slaughtered this year makes one understand the importance that is being placed on Moonlight’s fragile shoulders. And part of the rapturous response the movie has received from the mainstream media is that it portrays a different kind of black man that we haven’t seen in movies—and this is a new thing and something to be celebrated. But really is replacing the thug with the over-sensitive and victimized man boy a sign of progress? The movie seems created to be idealized by our victim culture. Chiron’s not messy, he’s not difficult, he’s presented as squeamish about gay sex as much as perhaps the straight men in the audience are. The movie is almost overly thoughtful and solemn—about drugs, crime, sex, being gay—and it embraces shame and guilt as primary motivators. It’s almost delicately miserable-ist but the rarity of its main character gives the film somewhat of a free pass allowing people to overrate it. We are in a strange moment where Moonlight becomes something that it’s not: a masterpiece. It’s a story that needs to be heard, of course, no doubt. And yet the over-protectiveness of the reaction to Moonlight can be seen, of course, no doubt, as condescending as well.

 

4.

When TV creator and show-runner Shonda Rhimes was accused a year or so ago by a viewer complaining that there was too much gay sex on her TV shows, Rhimes shot back, wagging her finger, that what the viewer was watching was not gay sex but just sex, and some of us scratched our heads. It is? As a gay man who is not neutered by his homosexuality when I look for pornography online I’m not typing in “sex”—I’m typing in gay XXX, gay website, or gaytube or whatever. I understand what she means of course but this notion that all sex is the same and we shouldn’t label it as being different is a nice PC idea that in reality serves no progressive function whatsoever—it’s just victim attitude socialism. King Cobra has, for a mainstream indie, a lot of simulated gay sex in it and with heterosexual actors (James Franco, Christian Slater) going for it. King Cobra is a movie where all the main characters are gay and involved in a narrative that is blessedly free of ideology and gay suffering. The suffering in King Cobra is caused by capitalism and being gay, for the most part, is not the point, or part of the pain. The gay men in King Cobra have already worked through their gayness, their issues—they have other issues and problems to deal with. Both Moonlight and King Cobra are progressive movies in terms that they both are about things we rarely see depicted in mainstream American indie films and Barry Jenkins proves in only his second movie that he has an eye for composition, texture, and rhythms and knows mostly what to do with the camera. I’m not totally convinced Justin Kelly—and King Cobra is his second movie as well—is an artist yet but he knows how to shape scenes somewhat and even when the movie goes to hell in its last few minutes he’s been attempting something daring and new. There is no way I can make the case that King Cobra is a better movie than Moonlight and yet on a kind of personal aesthetic emotional level I prefer it because in its own casual tossed-off way it has no problems visualizing complicated reserves of gay male desire, regardless of who or what the movie is about. Juxtaposing King Cobra with Moonlight reveals that white privilege makes it easier for the guys in King Cobra to effortlessly connect and publicly exploit their sexuality and bodies and yet, and this is key, all of the sex scenes in King Cobra don’t take place on porn sets in front of the camera, but they are private scenes among the characters that reveal their desires and motivations—meaning the gay sex in King Cobra is not dictated by the porn milieu it takes place in, and this is why the movie seems a step ahead of Moonlight.

It’s the summer of 2005 and Sean Lockhart a broke openly gay teenager from San Diego has become lured to the production offices of Cobra Video looking for some quick cash and suddenly Brent Corrigan (Lockhart’s screen name) became a gay porn internet-superstar at the age of 18 (though actually it was 17—but sshh, don’t tell anyone, Sean didn’t) in a number of clips that capitalized on his boyish good looks and an appealing and wholesome boy next door quality—he wasn’t particularly well-endowed, and he wasn’t fey, and he wasn’t trying to butch it up. He was just the handsome dude in school that you had a secret crush on, and he was incredibly enthusiastic in his sex scenes, where he was mostly a bottom—Corrigan became the poster boy for Twink. Like a true star, the videos he made were hot because of him—not the editing, not the kind of sex being had, not the hotness of his co-stars—Corrigan could have been doing a crossword naked and guys would have wanted to watch him. Garrett Clayton has thicker features than Brent but he’s more movie star handsome and he goes for the role in raw and unexpected ways, simulating being fucked by other dudes and being comfortable enough in the role that he completely passes muster—he’s good in it—and yet Clayton has said he doesn’t want to talk about his own sexuality when promoting King Cobra which follows the Hollywood rule book that tells its young actors with leading man looks not to come out if they want to keep working—this is proud liberal Hollywood’s reality in the moment blinded of course by capitalism—the hypocrisy is breathtaking—GLAAD please take note.

 

The guy who discovers Brent is Stephen (played by Christian Slater), and James Franco plays Joe, the “head” of a rival company, Viper Boys, who wants to sign Corrigan after Brent leaves Cobra when he finds out how much money Stephen is making off of him and refusing to share in the profits. And I put “head of company” in quotation marks since Joe’s and Stephen’s companies are just themselves, working on their laptops out of their homes. Stephen is just shooting porn in his upper-middle-class suburban Pennsylvania tract house and then uploading it to his Cobra video site and selling it, as is Joe with his site Viper Boys—this is the moment when porn culture and the internet collided and there was briefly real money to be made. Stephen is closeted to his sister but doesn’t care—it just makes his life easier and he moves on, reveling in his job as pornographer. He delivers a monologue to Brent about being outed in college but Slater delivers it warily, almost flippantly, as if being outed was what opened his life up to all the lovely boys he films and fucks. Joe is involved with the lead porn star on his site (Harlow played by Keegan Allen) and James Franco as Joe is as raunchy and fiercely committed as ever, especially in his two very brief sex scenes with Harlow—and though Franco leans toward comic effect and parody in the sex scenes, this is the best performance he’s given in what seems like forever. And the same must be said for Christian Slater as well who plays Stephen as tired romantic, a straight-acting guy brought down by his own anxieties over aging and punishing Brent who he has become angrily obsessed with. The weakest parts of the movie involve the two women who are seen in about only four or five scenes—Sean’s mom played by Alicia Silverstone, and Slater’s sister played by Molly Ringwald.

 

The director gets the narrative going quickly, it’s deftly laid out, and the movie is unfussy and neutral with a dark-toned and surprisingly elegant look at times, especially for a one-million dollar budget, and it feels like a queer-cinema anomaly in that it doesn’t camp things up (though sometimes it comes close)—it’s post gay in the fact that it’s not about the closet or AIDS or bullying or gay rights or gay marriage or any kind of political leaning. If the movie flirts with a bitchy camp aesthetic it has been folded into the true crime narrative of it all—the movie is soapy, not campy, and sometimes King Cobra likes to blur those lines. The movie is also never erotic, though depending on how attractive you find some of the performers you might find the nudity and fake-fucking titillating even though the sex sometimes borders on the cartoonish and there is early on an inelegant montage of Corrigan’s brief rise unfortunately paired with Scissor Sister’s camp-disco classic “Filthy/Gorgeous” played over it to kind of jazz everything up when it doesn’t need to (most of the music cues are jarring)—the montage is explicit and quick, and one wishes that the movie had the nerve of a Boogie Nights in taking things a little bit more slowly and seriously, that Kelly might have at least taken the time and played the scenes out so they might develop more tension and rhythm—he hasn’t found a way to fully trust the material, or to let the sex scenes play out in a dramatic way—and sometimes Kelly veers toward pretension by connecting a parallel thematic scheme between the two older men, Slater and Franco, who never meet in the movie, involving both of them being jealous of their younger lovers as a motivating force—meh, whatever.

 

But that’s not King Cobra’s style—it’s a soft-core exploitation film, sleazy and energetic, and it wants to be fun and it wants to be trashy, and it’s not afraid to be tacky, and you are reminded sometimes that artlessness is an aesthetic too—and I like this, a lot. The best scenes in the movie involve gay men talking about business and money and negotiations and the power games they enact on each other and not about how they are so shut down by the ideology of being gay and their attendant suffering and misery. The most compelling scene is a long take in a sushi bar with three of the leads discussing business and it’s done in a very very slow zoom and full of behavioral details and funny asides and digressions that suggests the movie King Cobra could have been—if only the rest of the movie had taken this scene as its main cue.

 

The problem is that King Cobra is only 90 minutes long in its bare-bones retelling of this somewhat sordid crime and that is not enough time to cram in all the particulars—including who these people were before the crime and what happened to them afterward—and it reveals as so many American movies do now compared to the way TV storytelling works, that the cinematic format can be and is now a major limitation. Moonlight is actually perfectly suited for the movie format—and not as a serialized experience—it has been worked out to fill the contours of the theatrical experience. You can easily watch King Cobra on TV—perhaps it benefits from VOD, while Moonlight should be seen in a theater. The lack of a real budget and a shortened running time alters the meaning of the King Cobra story and because of this the movie finally descends into camp. King Cobra could probably have worked better as a much longer mini-series because in its movie format it just has to race along breathlessly to get in all the info and because of this it lacks nuance—it’s all short cuts and it resorts to using montage to pump up emotional effects in what should be instead a series of scenes, and the movie is also completely, eerily under-populated—as so many indies are now because of economic reasons. It just hits the basic beats of the story and the murder happens so suddenly that it’s as much of a surprise to its victim as it is to us. There’s a scene that should resonate where Brent has dinner with a porn star it seemed way earlier in the picture that he was falling in love with and then just disappeared and we’re wondering why is Brent sitting across from this guy now—where did all of the scenes leading to this dinner end up? There seems to be forty minutes missing between every scene in King Cobra, which is frustrating because it reminds you why this is such compelling material for a gay-themed movie, and so I can’t recommend King Cobra, and yet I can’t quite work up recommending Moonlight either.

 

Moonlight has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, and King Cobra has a 50% and the truth for each movie lies somewhere in the middle, they’re not as good or as bad as critics say. I’m never going to make the case that King Cobra is a better movie than Moonlight (Moonlight is a labor of love, King Cobra decidedly isn’t), yet I kind of prefer King Cobra because it’s the rare post-gay film where no one is tortured about being gay, no one is bullied, no one is ashamed, no one has passionate coming out scenes with their parents, there are no tears, there is no gay shame or suffering—and isn’t this, in our new acceptance of gay lives and equality, the more progressive path?