Gang of Four
Kyle Henry's 'Fourplay' fights expectations about what sex should look like onscreen
Despite a long tradition of moral hand-wringing, American film has essentially always been conservative. A square-jawed man will meet a full-lipped woman. His schlubby pal will give sage advice. Somewhere along the way our hero will give into temptation. Then danger or shenanigans, it ends up the same – an endlessly repeated mimeograph of mainstream values. Perhaps that is why almost 10 years after Chloë Sevigny dropped jaws in The Brown Bunny, Kyle Henry's Fourplay still seems shocking. Leads can debase themselves – but they're not supposed to enjoy it, right?
When contrasted against that Hollywood norm, Fourplay can be jarring. Henry's experimental feature – which begins a weeklong theatrical run at the Alamo Drafthouse this Friday – is made up of four vignettes, named after the cities they were shot in, that not only tease the joy out of humanity's basest acts, but find spirituality in them, too. The film tempts outrage by exploring private acts that major studios are afraid to touch: A church choir member overcomes repression with the help of a frisky bichon frisé. A cross-dressing sex worker finds transcendence with a quadriplegic john. Baptism is sudden and viscous.
The bravura, however, is anchored by a commitment to character. Says Henry, a longtime Austinite now based in Chicago: "I wanted to make sex the key narrative act. It's so often a titillating diversion, but it's not observed in detail to see how sexual acts can be transformative." With that in mind, he gave his two screenwriters, Jessica Hedrick and Henry's romantic partner, Carlos Treviño, a challenge. "I knew I wanted to make four short films that dealt with deviance and deviant sexual behavior," Henry says, "so I asked them what sort of sex they found deviant and what sort of characters would be able to subvert stereotypes. But I always wanted to find the human being beneath the behavior."
That Fourplay does find humanity is somewhat of a feat. The film's sensibility sometimes veers towards the baroque. "I find catharsis in the extraordinary," Henry explains. The third section, "Tampa," is a dizzying set-piece – a sort of profane take on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's album cover. Henry laughs. "It was like directing a Buster Keaton comedy with lots of dildos. Everyone had a blast. Stifling laughter was the biggest obstacle. But I think with all forms of comedy, we're laughing so hard that information is seeping in without us knowing it. We see them for the pure joy and entertainment, but comedies carry more complicated messages about the world than most Academy Award-winning dramas."
Henry is quick to credit Treviño for digging deep in the sexual slapstick. "Every single bit of 'Tampa' was scripted by Carlos. It came in one of those thunderbolt strikes. It was inspired by Tom of Finland [whose homoerotic art featured improbable bacchanals], but his guys all had the same face. Carlos thought what would it be like to put a really normal – or in this case an under-average guy – in the same setup."
"Tampa" inverts cinematic expectation by letting the schlubby pal be the leading man, while "Skokie" explores the complicated sexuality of a closeted woman. Both are a direct strike against stifling heteronormativity. "I wanted to challenge the heterosexual mainstream in film that depicts women in a certain way, that decides what things they get to do with their bodies, that determines who gets to be the lead and who gets to be the best friend." Henry points to filmmakers like Lindsay Anderson or Ken Russell as inspirations. "They made films that were queer, not so much as camp, but in their laser sharp eyes for the outsider." With Fourplay, Henry continues that tradition – a low-budget David chasing after a Hollywood Goliath.
Still, firing the slingshot required some personal readjustment. Henry admits, "The character of Aliya [played by Paul Soileau in the 'San Francisco' segment] was based on a real cross-dressing sex worker named Chloe who Jessica knows. She changed both Carlos' and my mind about sex work. She thinks of her work as a calling. The genesis for us wanting to dive into the material came from meeting Chloe." Treviño borrowed the basic plot from one of her stories. "Chloe performed a session arranged by a quadriplegic boy's mother," Henry explains. "We changed it so the wife is the one allowing it to occur because we were interested in how a wife would have had to wrestle with this thing."
The scene, though graphic, is achingly poignant. It reverses the neutered depictions of the disabled so often dangled as Oscar bait. The honest depiction of marginalized people extends throughout the film. "I wanted to get beyond labels and see the person. The last thing I wanted to do was to replicate stereotypes. In some small way, ['San Francisco'] is about the strength we give each other through sex – even though it is a form of communication that is reviled. The actors quickly developed a relationship that was no bullshit. They were able to invest every moment with life. And life is so much more than the transactional experiences."
It's telling then that one of the vignettes is set in a porn shop arcade. The "Austin" segment exposes the soullessness of celluloid sex. It's a happy coincidence that it's also the only section of the four to feature a heterosexual coupling. "We also thought we would make heterosexuals the minority, reversing the normal paradigm," Henry jokes. The contrast between the jellied detritus of commercial eros and the complicated decision-making of family planning gives the scene its friction.
The lead performances (Danielle Rene and Atticus Rowe) couch the act of conception in Fassbinder flatness. "By the end of the evening, when we filmed that scene," Henry says, "we were all oversaturated with porn images, but Fourplay is not pornography. We were interested in what was going on in people's faces. We are with those people psychologically. Porn is about creating a product."
Indeed, Fourplay's focus on the emotional perversely erases any erotic charge. Henry jokes, "Don't wear a raincoat to the Alamo." Arousal, it seems, will have to come from the senses. "I was hoping that the story would be a cultural conversation piece. I like talking and being accountable. We have a limited release in ten cities so we can do Q&As at the screenings." Perhaps in a film engineered to make John Waters blush, Henry's accountability is the most shocking thing of all. It's a reminder that filmgoing, too, is more than just a transaction.
Fourplay opens theatrically in Austin on Friday, Feb. 8; see Film Listings for review. A special screening benefiting the Texas Filmmakers Production Fund happens Thursday, Feb. 7, with cast and crew in attendance; see www.austinfilm.org for details.