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SLGFF presents Dennis Cooper shorts of surreal - and graphic - nature
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SLGFF presents Dennis Cooper shorts of surreal - and graphic - nature

by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

Trial by Fire: Dennis Cooper on Film October 24, 11:59 PM Central Cinema

If William S. Burroughs kicked in the door and nudged us through for a peek, Dennis Cooper strolled right in, sat down on the soiled couch, and jacked off.

Dennis Cooper may be the most controversial American writer you've never heard of. If you know his work, pat yourself on the back; you are urbane and intellectually courageous. If you don't, run over to Bailey-Coy Books and order a copy of Closer.

The three short films based on Cooper's writing make up Trial by Fire: Dennis Cooper on Film. Bug Crush is about a disconnected small town teenager whose fascination with the mysterious new kid takes him to some dark places. Not actually based on Cooper's writing, the director, Carter Smith, counts Cooper as a major influence and recently worked with him on another project.

Userlands, directed by Brandon Walley, was produced as a trailer for the anthology of the same name. The anthology is a collection of stories written by authors Cooper contacted through his blog. This three-minute flick is an aimless surreal jaunt inside our collectively sick head. (The word "surreal" is used here like André Breton would have used it.)

These two flicks are seriously dark, especially Bug Crush. Userlands is fascinating to look at, but as a trailer I don't believe it was ever intended to develop serious tension. However, the film that will really mess you up is Weak Species, directed by Dan Faltz.

Queer journeys are often marked by violence and disconnection. Cooper's writing and these films go to the heart of both. Weak Species caused quite a stir at the Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival this past May before winning Best Short Film. It is one of the most frightening and disturbing films I have ever seen. And I loved every second of it.

Erik Smith is mesmerizing as George, a self-destructive teen who runs into a couple of nasty men who are happy to help him realize his destructive desires.

Weak Species is a terrifying film. About 10 people left the theater during the screening in Honolulu. However, our minds do most of the work filling gaps with things more frightening than what's on the screen in perfect Hitchcockian mode.

Some viewers argued the violence is salacious, but I believe it works metaphorically when you consider how disaffected Queer youth can so easily end up in the hands of nefarious sorts who they think are fulfilling their desires.

I met up with Faltz in L.A. this past September to talk about Weak Species.

Scott Rice: The Weak Species screening at the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival has been designated, along with the classic Jack Wrangler porno Gemini, as 21 and over. Are you relieved to know that 18- to 20-year-old Queer folks are being protected from seeing your film?

Dan Faltz: Well, we're certainly in good company with a legend like Jack Wrangler! We've been suggesting that programmers put out a clear warning for audiences. The film has certainly made some people upset and caused a few to faint, so I definitely understand programmers wanting to post an age restriction.

Rice: Would you let your 16-year-old see Weak Species?

Faltz: Hard to say; my 16-year-old would probably know how to access bootleg Japanese horror films online, or play multiplayer online games that are much more graphic than this film. The subject matter is certainly covered in police procedurals each week on television. There are meaner-spirited films that are PG13, so I dunno&.

Rice: Weak Species won best short film at the 2009 Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival. I know there was controversy (and lots of drama) around its selection for the festival in the first place, and the win caused a bit of a stir, too. Why do people react so strongly to this film?

Faltz: It meant a lot to hear that the committee felt the film was the best-crafted film in the festival; it was incredibly rewarding to be acknowledged for the technical craft of the creative team that made the film. I think in many ways, whether we consciously know it or not, many people go to LGBT festivals to feel affirmation. And we all bring something to what we see - our experiences, our personal history, our perspective, that filters our experience of a film. To me, for all its grit, Weak Species is ultimately a hopeful film. I hope audiences can take that away.

Rice: I spoke to people in Honolulu who didn't like the way the film portrayed Queer characters. There were actually two areas of concern: First, the violence is gratuitous, and second, the characters don't represent the Queer community. What do you say to these people?

Faltz: Dennis Cooper uses abuse and death as recurring themes to take an internal trauma and make it external where we can hold it up and examine it. As teenagers, we're often in an emotional state of emergency. No one has it easy; straight, Gay, no matter how popular. And many of us turn to risk as an outlet, to feel, to connect, find ourselves - whether that means sex, trying drugs, or just plain looking for danger. I think of the crazy things my friends and I did in high school with no thought about the possible repercussions. There's an invincible feeling at that age that informs our choices. To me, what is important is the communication between characters and the feelings they have. The sex and violence is very meaningful to the people involved; I wanted to find a way to show what goes on in one's head, or what someone communicates to their partner during sex. One of the characters in the film makes a terrible choice, but he makes the choice; he is not an innocent victim. I think that is ultimately the most upsetting part. I made a point of obscuring the sex and the violence. I think what viewers embellish with their imaginations is worse than anything I could explicitly show. I think that is what audiences are reacting to.

Rice: What can you tell us about the feature project?

Faltz: The feature script is much closer to Dennis's story and poetry. I think it's a richer, scarier, moving story. It's a difficult climate for indie film, especially gritty, Gay stories. We're hoping to find someone to produce who will take good care of the film and fight to keep Dennis's work intact. It means a lot to have Dennis's blessing for the project; he's been amazing.

Rice: What drew you to Dennis Cooper's work?

Faltz: Dennis's writing is so sparse, like poetry - short sentences that tell you a huge amount. To me, that seems much like filmmaking, revealing more information shot by shot. I tried to film his story in a poetic way, to isolate feelings, faces. I found the ending of Closer very hopeful. And I think he knows the way teens think and act; he really gets that adolescent state of emergency we all go through. I wanted to see that on the screen.

Rice: How is Cooper's work valuable to the Queer community?

Faltz: Many of the writers I love observe and depict the world and people with all our deep flaws; I think Dennis's writing takes us to a place where we have to ask ourselves dark questions about the nature of our desires. He is an important voice in literature in general, as well as a unique and groundbreaking Gay writer. His writing really changed the way I write and how I think of writing. He is also incredibly supportive of emerging artists and encourages creative collaboration.

Rice: Why should people go see Weak Species?

Faltz: It means a lot to have one's film selected for audiences to see, and of course I'd love for folks to see the film and even send me their thoughts. But I'd encourage folks to take the time to see a program at the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival to support film by and about LGBT people. We have fewer LGBT shows and characters on TV and cable than we did just a few years ago. In this media climate, it's so important to make sure our stories and voices are seen and heard. I'm always glad I saw that film that surprised me or changed my mind or made me see my community in a different way. We're lucky we can do that.

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