Photo by Ted Soqui
IN MY EARLIEST RECOLLECTION OF Laura Nix, she is leaning out of her window, handing me a post card announcing a screening of the first rough cut of her film, The Politics of Fur. She has just moved into the apartment in front of mine. She is excited; the film, which she made while a graduate student in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California, San Diego, is premiering at a film market in New York.
I didn't know it at the time, but the film wasn't finished. She had shot it in nine days. An independent-film consultant she'd hired to assess her work had gently counseled her not to show it to anyone. And yet she was holding out a dim hope that someone -- a producer, a distributor, anybody -- would believe in her work enough to write her a check.
No one did. "I met people in New York who really loved the project," Laura told me recently. "But all of them were completely frank with me. The market is worse than it's ever been for independent film. It's completely, totally saturated. It's not like in the old days, when making an independent picture had some cachet. Now everybody and their brother goes out and makes an independent film. Less than one in 100 movies made in this country right now gets distributed.
"And here I am at this film market," Laura remembered, "with gazillions of people who are exactly like me. They've all spent their last dime. They've all convinced their family members to give money, and their friends to work for free, and they're all walking around with their sorry-ass post cards and T-shirts trying to get people into their screenings. And everybody's watching their dreams go down a hole.
"It was," she said, "the most depressing thing I'd ever done."
Nearly three years later, I am sitting in my living room with a tape of The Politics of Fur sitting on top of my VCR, trying to muster the courage to watch it. By this time, ä Laura and I have become friends. We have danced at each other's parties; we have looked after each other's pets; we have unwittingly dated the same advertising copywriter. (After having been dumped for "someone more interesting," I recognized the Porsche convertible in the driveway.) For three years, I have watched her go to work each day at the company she started with Jeffrey Schwarz, Automat Pictures, where she produces slick, obliquely subversive documentaries to accompany the DVD releases of movies like Rambo and John Q. On the morning of September 11, I brought her a cup of coffee, learned she didn't drink coffee, and held her hand as CNN broadcast the live, unimaginable news. Given the proximity of our lives, our affectionate neighborly relationship and my overall respect for her intellect, I want to respond to her movie with integrity. I want to be honest. I desperately, feverishly want to like it. And I am morbidly convinced that I won't.
SOMETIME BACK IN MARCH, A MAN NAMED MICHAEL Lumpkin, with whom Laura worked as an associate producer on a documentary about gays in film, The Celluloid Closet, asked her what had happened to The Politics of Fur. Now the director of the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, Lumpkin wondered whether he could consider the film for inclusion. "I told him, 'Michael, I haven't finished it,'" Laura recalls. "'I don't know how to finish it. I've run out of money. I can't find any money.'" But she gave him a copy anyway, and he accepted it, along with Automat's documentary Whether You Like It or Not: The Story of Hedwig, about the making of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. In the following weeks, Laura got calls from L.A.'s Outfest and the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, both asking for prints. The New York festival would happen in mid-June. The movie needed close-ups. It needed exterior shots. It needed re-editing. It needed sound, post-production work, new scenes. Laura had two months.
She called her friends: Adele Horne and Catherine Hollander, two women I'd seen hanging around her place over the years, re-appeared in the driveway, with new recruits Sara Grady and Kerry Tribe, wearing walkie-talkies and serious expressions, asking me to rearrange my potted tomato plants to make room for their dolly tracks and stands. She called in her actresses, Brynn Horrocks, whom her close friend and casting director, Bill Ingram, had met while working in a restaurant, and Katy Selverstone, who has since scored a role in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, both of whom had radically changed their hairstyles since the first shoot. She made the "crucial but necessary decision" to finish the movie on video, knowing that the print would look muddy on the blown-up screen, but also knowing that at somewhere around $10,000, the cost of the film print would be prohibitive. "It broke my heart not to finish it on film," Laura says. "The gray in my hair is all from shooting it on film." But on video, at least The Politics of Fur would exist.
WHILE THE FILM WAS BEING COMPLETED, I LOOKED on skeptically. Some mornings Laura, normally a pretty, slender 36-year-old and a tidy if eccentric dresser, would emerge from her apartment in her sweats looking as though someone had slugged her -- in each eye, with equal force, nine or 10 times. I'd ask her how she was; she'd roll her eyes and shoo me away with a wave of her arms. U-Haul trucks monopolized the driveway so aggressively I sometimes could not squeeze past them with my groceries. Solemn strangers hovered at all hours around our doors. Laura smiled only fleetingly at the end of the day, when she'd act out for me the story of some triumph: The people at Kodak who discovered she hailed from Rochester, New York, and granted her 12 rolls of free film; the color-correction lab, Company 3, which did several thousand dollars' worth of work for $400 just because they liked the picture. Then there was the "genius" hair lady, Stacey Bergman, the stylist on The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, a lead she snagged with a pleading call to the hair-and-makeup department at Warner Bros., who showed up at Laura's door slinging curling irons and blow dryers at 10 on a Thursday morning.ä
When Laura first explained the problem to Bergman, the genius hair lady was circumspect. Selverstone, who plays a blond named Una in the movie, had let her hair grow back to its natural dark color and didn't want to dye it. Horrocks, who plays Una's lover B., has a dark, spiky cut onscreen, but now wanted to preserve her longer, lighter hairstyle for the print work she was getting. According to the performance Laura gave on the porch impersonating Bergman, the stylist had barked over the phone, in a tough, slightly New Yorky accent: "You're crazy! You need wig work! Do you realize that? That takes days to figure out. When's the shoot?"
"That was Wednesday," said Laura. "I told her the shoot was Saturday."
And Bergman said, "Do you know how much it costs to rent wigs? $400 a day! Do you realize that? What are you thinking?"
And Laura said: "You are right. I don't know my ass from my elbow. All I know is that if I don't get their hair fixed, it's not even worth it to do these reshoots. Please help me to live."
As Laura remembers it, Bergman took a deep breath and said, "You know, I just got off the phone with a gig that was paid for this weekend, and I turned them down. And I'm on the phone with you for some goddamned freebie and telling you yes. I have no idea why. But I'm going to help you, because you need help. You need a lot of help."
Bergman, said Laura, convinced Selverstone to dye her hair.
"Stacey Bergman," Laura whispered, reverentially, an inch from my face. "Genius."
EXACTLY TWO MONTHS TO THE DAY later -- in fact, the very day Laura has to go to New York, leaving me with her house key and instructions to feed her cat, and abandoning her car parked behind mine in the driveway, goddammit -- The Politics of Fur comes back from Woodholly, a post-production facility, synched and QC'd and ready to go. Laura has delayed her trip a day to make sure it's done. The film festival gave a reviewer for The Village Voice a rough cut, and "she ripped me a new one," says Laura. "I told them not to give the rough cut to the media!" But a critic on GayWire.com has heralded the movie as "the pinnacle of queer film." At home in Los Angeles, I bury The Politics of Fur under a pile of books. Only after Laura leaves do I, in a fit of bitchy curiosity about those hairdos, decide to scour it for continuity flaws.
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I find none. After the first 15 minutes, I forget I'm looking. In Una, a glamorous and controlling impresario ("I make people," she tells B.), I recognize a classic figure from so many love affairs, the one who believes she has all the remedies and none of the problems -- until her obdurately independent lover, a rock star on the rise, rebels. The sex is nervy and hot: In one scene, the young gay man, Dick (T. Jerram Young), who attends to Una's yoga asanas and appointments, fucks a boyfriend Una has bought for him as Una tousles his hair and reminds him to brush his teeth before he goes to bed. I even like B.'s song. It's a good song. The Politics of Fur is a good movie. It's funny, steamy and, I think -- at least on the video print on my small television set -- beautiful. I'm relieved. I'm amazed.
Laura returned from New York happy. The question-and-answer sessions were smart, the audiences laughed in the right places. Her parents saw it: "Good job, kid," said Dad, "that looked like a lot of work." Mom: "Oh, honey, it was so multilayered!" A few weeks later, she came home from San Francisco on a cloud. She and her cast had been escorted from the airport to the Westin St. Francis by a friendly man with a blue mohawk, and then advised to schedule their massages for the afternoon. At one point, it occurred to her: "Oh my God. They're treating me like this movie means something." Lumpkin introduced her as "one of the high points of this year's festival." A critic from Variety compared the film favorably to Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. Laura copied the review and marked it in big black Sharpie: "Yay." I found it in my mailbox.
The Variety reviewer offered one serious caveat, however: The Politics of Fur needs to be finished on film. Laura doesn't know whether that will happen. The film, she says, "isn't completely satisfying to gay and lesbian audiences," because the machinations of Una and B.'s edgy and finally brutal romance are "not something that Joe Blow moviegoer is psyched to experience -- and that includes gay and lesbian Joe Blow moviegoer. Because the truth is that gay and lesbian audiences want Go Fish." Nor is the film totally satisfying to an art audience, she says, "because it's not arty enough." And it's not satisfying to a mainstream audience, "because it's difficult in certain ways." But it was, in the end, satisfying to me -- in an odd way, her harshest imaginable critic. Next time, maybe, I'll be carrying a walkie-talkie in the driveway, too. For free.LA
The Politics of Fur screens Friday, July 19, 5 p.m., and Saturday, July 20, 9:15 p.m., at the Directors Guild.