Credit cards slide, change is made. Anxiously bright packaging is shoehorned into digestible rows. It's right there in the names: Kwik-Stop, Go-Mart, In-and-Out. We're not supposed to linger at gas stations. But where most of us divert our eyes in the body memory of commerce, Yen Tan keeps his wide open.
Pit Stop, Tan's third feature, uses the coldness of a convenience store to warm a different sort of transaction – uneasy agreements made in desperation and foolhardy compromises made in stasis. The film follows two semicloseted men in rural Texas dealing with the weight of former relationships. Gabe (Bill Heck) returns to the comfort of his ex-wife after an abrupt affair with a married man. Ernesto (Marcus DeAnda) juggles the animus of a live-in ex-boyfriend with the sickness of another past love.
The characters were a bit of an accident. In 2003, Tan was spending much time traveling between Dallas and Houston. Observations led to imagined plot points and then research on the rural sections of then-popular hook-up site Gay.com. "From the very beginning, I was drawn to the setting because it is not an environment I was familiar with. Small-town America fascinates me. Being gay adds another level of intrigue. A lot of the men I chatted with were married, closeted, or semicloseted. Most had blue-collar professions, but they were somehow fine with living in small towns."
For the Malaysian-born, city-raised director, the challenge was in making the story relatable. "We're tempted to say that you're more lonely as a gay person in a small town. But with Pit Stop, I was stripping it down to basic human emotions – the feelings you are going through when you're getting out or about to get in a relationship, that semi-drunken call to an ex. Those transitional moments are very identifiable for most of us." But where the film could have very easily drowned in melodrama, Tan pulls back. His approach is more akin to Bergman than Sirk. He explains: "Cinematically, I like putting characters in solitary confinement. ... In taking a moment to allow for introspection in the character, it allows us to have an introspective moment with ourselves."
Still, if not exactly a tragedy, Pit Stop does spend most of its running time in quiet grief. Tan admits the film may not be for everybody, laughing at a particularly snarky Sundance review from The Hollywood Reporter. "What is considered as boring or slow is such a subjective thing," he says. "If you are connected at a very early point, a film can be slow and you are still along for the ride. Even with action films, it's funny how we take the image for granted." Pit Stop's slower scenes may not give the viewer whiplash, but they nudge the plot along, and the viewer's patience is rewarded with a novelistic intimacy. It's a bit like those crowded gas station aisles. You only find what you want if you're looking.
Friday, March 8, 9:15pm, Alamo Slaughter
Monday, March 11, 9:45pm, Stateside
Thursday, March 14, 1:45pm, Stateside
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