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Queer horror film chokes on surrealist pretensions in ‘The One You Feed’

Amateurish feel prevents story from realizing its potential

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The One You Feed, gay news, Washington Blade
Rebecca Fraiser, Gareth Koorzen, and Drew Harwood in ‘The One You Feed.’ (Photo courtesy Koorzen)

According to actor/producer Gareth Koorzen, half of the two-man team responsible for “The One You Feed,“ the concept for the movie came to him in a dream.

That advance knowledge might help when you sit down to watch this new, queer-skewed thriller, because without it, you’re likely to be very confused.

Set in an unforgiving wilderness, it follows a young man (played by Koorzen) who wakes up in an isolated farmhouse after being mauled by a mysterious animal during a desert camping trip. He is in the care of a woman (Rebecca Fraiser) in an old-fashioned pioneer dress, who has cleaned and bandaged his wounds but offers no information about where they are or how he got there; her muscular, long-haired buck of a husband (director Drew Harwood, the film’s other creative partner) is a mostly silent figure who tends the chickens that seem to serve as the couple’s only source of sustenance. As the stranger recovers, he becomes part of an unpredictable, sexually charged household dynamic that alternates between tenderness and abuse; gradually, he realizes that this enigmatic couple are both his rescuers and his captors, yet his impulse to escape is tempered by a growing attraction he feels to the husband, in whom he senses both a kindred spirit and a dim recognition of something from his own disjointed memories.

Even that brief synopsis is enough to tell you that “The One You Feed” draws inspiration from that certain genre of horror film centered around mysterious, possibly murderous hicks in a remote rural setting – the kind of movie that found its zenith in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and spawned decades worth of similarly themed gorefests from there. But what becomes clear only upon watching are the roots that can be traced – albeit through a few tangles – to a range of cinema artists from Jean Cocteau to David Lynch. Esoteric and illogical (or rather, following a hidden logic of its own), the film as conceived by Koorzen and Harwood evokes not only a dreamlike reality, but plays like a surrealist morality play, a kind of parable about things so primal that they – like the characters themselves – don’t even have a name.

Fortunately, the filmmakers themselves have answered at least a few of the questions that arise from their ominous opus, which is now available on Amazon and other VOD platforms. For instance, we know there’s romance underneath all the backcountry creepiness. As Koorzen further explains in the film’s publicity material, “We wanted to tell this love story between two men in a dreamlike manner.”

“We really wanted to make an LGBTQ film that expanded our current understanding of sexuality,” adds Harwood, who besides directing also wrote the screenplay with his co-star. “We want to help normalize sexuality and sexual orientation and remove labels… We wanted to display sexuality and sexual expression in its simplest form and for that to be beautiful. I really feel like we succeeded.”

In fact, there is a kind of beauty to “The One You Feed.” Harwood brings a studied sensibility to his work behind the camera, displaying a knack for the visually striking in his choice of framing and angles; even more effective is the filtered, golden sheen of Samuel Ott’s cinematography, which goes a long way toward capturing the hallucinatory aesthetic required to render the impression of a lucid dream.

In terms of depicting the beauty of human sexuality, however, any claim of success would have to be described as subjective, at best. For one thing, the depictions of actual sex that occur – and they do, in both opposite-sex and same-sex pairings – are so intertwined with domination, punishment, and hostility that they will likely feel to most viewers like problematic expressions of a fetish. On top of that, though the film features many scenes of bare skin being caressed, washed, stroked, and otherwise sensually explored, each of these are so coupled with a tangible sense of non-consensually invasive transgression – along with more than a dash of body horror – that they become about as un-sexy as naked flesh can be.

The problem goes deeper than that, though. In building their ambitiously archetypal saga, Koorzen and Harwood have pushed so far into the realm of the unconscious that their film becomes not only opaque, but obtuse. Their messaging about sex and sexuality is jumbled together with observations about the struggle for power in personal relationships, the conflation of roles between oppressor and protector, the animalistic impulses that can blur the thin line between sex and violence, the projection of our own desires and fears onto the world and the people around us, and any number of other weighty, wide-open topics that could (and have) provide fodder, each to themselves, for a thousand other movies.

The result comes across mostly as a confounding muddle. While the deliberate vagueness of circumstance effectively serves the movie’s disorienting tone, it leaves the audience so distracted by trying to make sense of the situation in front of their eyes that they have little attention left for contemplating any of the deeper subjects being explored within it. It’s a problem that can’t be fixed by the simple suspension of disbelief necessary to avoid questioning the plot holes in similar horror movies; the questions we are forced to ask ourselves in this movie go far beyond watching a masked killer catch up to his fleeing victims even when he never moves faster than a shamble – they have to do with basic information that the characters not only never seek for themselves, but don’t even seem interested in finding out.

Part of this has to do with the aforementioned surrealism that goes hand in hand with the movie’s dream-ish milieu. While at times “The One You Feed” might spark comparisons to the work of playwrights like Beckett and Pinter, whose characters often interact within a timeless setting and behave according to inexplicable motivations, it never approaches (or even seems to acknowledge) the absurdity inherent in its action – something that, arguably, almost defines the work of those pioneering artists. Likewise, while it seems imbedded with symbolism that is keyed to deeply personal associations from its creators – much like the work of David Lynch – those symbols are at once too ordinary and too oblique to make us care.

All of that could have been alleviated, perhaps, by a cast capable of finding truth within the conceits and translating them to the screen in a form that at least resonates with real human emotion. The performances we get instead are little more than adequate, perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the amateurish feel that keeps the movie from ever realizing its hypothetical potential.

Does that mean “The One You Feed” isn’t an interesting piece of filmmaking? Not necessarily. There is much to fascinate in this leisurely paced (but mercifully short) art film/horror hybrid, and curious fans of the genre may well find themselves engaged in spite of its shortfalls.

On the other hand, they might be better entertained re-watching “The Hills Have Eyes.”

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‘Hamlet/Horatio’ queers the Bard

A contemporary take on classic play

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Andrew Burdette and Themo Melikidze in ‘Hamlet/Horatio.’ (Photo courtesy Glasshouse)

While it’s not exactly a pressing topic in most people’s lives, the subject of Shakespeare’s sexuality has been hotly debated by literary scholars, theater artists, and historians for centuries. After all, not only are his plays filled with gender-swapping characters and sexual confusion, he also wrote a series of sonnets, widely considered the most romantic poems ever composed in English, and dedicated them to a mysterious young nobleman. Even in the Renaissance, when the “cult of male friendship” was a real thing and male artists could create breathtakingly erotic depictions of young men to be displayed in a church, such a bold gesture of affection from one man to another must have raised at least a few eyebrows.

It’s a controversy that isn’t likely to go away, considering the fact that anyone who might give us first-hand knowledge on the subject has been dead for about 400 years. And while some contemporary artists, across various media, have been willing to explore the playwright’s work through the lens of his possible queerness, most cinematic interpretations – with a few notable exceptions, like Derek Jarman’s “The Tempest” – have kept things decidedly hetero-centric.

Paul Warner, director of the soon-to-be-released “Hamlet/Horatio,” which riffs on a central but often overlooked relationship in Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, can’t imagine why. A graduate of both Harvard and the American Film Institute, Warner is currently a senior instructor of acting, directing, and producing at The New York Film Academy. He’s also a Shakespeare veteran, having been involved in many stage renditions of the Bard’s work (including a rock musical version of “Twelfth Night”) throughout his career – and as he tells the Blade, it’s obvious to him that the revered wordsmith was either gay or bisexual.

“There’s a tremendous amount of exploration of gender fluidity in his work,” he says. “There’s never a label on it, but it permeates Shakespeare. There are a lot of characters who fall in love with the soul of the person, rather than the gender.”

While these themes may run through comedies like “Twelfth Night” or “As You Like It,” they are considerably less obvious in Shakespeare’s tragedies – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there, and Warner’s new film hinges on using them to illuminate one of the most iconic male friendships in literature.

For those unfamiliar, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is the tale of a Danish prince, who is visited by the ghost of his recently murdered father and told to seek revenge against the murderer – none other than Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, who has not only murdered the former king but taken both his throne and his queen, Gertrude, who is also Hamlet’s mother. Seeking confirmation of the crime, Hamlet engages in a game of cat-and-mouse with his uncle, in which both Hamlet’s presumed future bride Ophelia and her brother Laertes become unwitting pawns. It goes without saying that things don’t turn out well – but through it all, one steadfast and trusted figure stands at Hamlet’s side: his confidant and companion, Horatio.

“Hamlet/Horatio,” which Warner directed from a script by playwright (and frequent stage collaborator) David Vando, reimagines the original play through an unusual conceit. In his dying moments, Hamlet (Andrew Burdette) sees his life flashing before his eyes, unfolding through a film that Horatio (Themo Melikidze) directs to tell his story. By shuffling dialogue, resetting scenes, and leaning deeply into subtext, Warner reframes Hamlet’s experience into a story of spiritual and humanistic transcendence – and reveals a deeply intimate, loving bond between these two young men that has perhaps been “hiding in plain sight” all along.

Despite his interest in exploring the relationship between Hamlet and Horatio, Warner insists that he didn’t set out to make a “gay Shakespeare movie.” Indeed, he is adamant even now that the intention behind Vondo’s script (which he helped to adapt into a screenplay) was to “move past” that conception.

“Part of it was trying not to make things ‘gay’ or ‘straight,’ or ‘this’ or ‘that’ anymore, but really it’s about two people who are flip sides of each other,” he explains. “They are spiritually two sides of the same coin. And they’re in a relationship – it’s clear that there is a repressed love there. And there’s definitely an exploration of their homosexuality, but also of the fluidity of their sexuality.

“This is why the characters don’t wear their ‘identities’ on their sleeves. We wanted to show something more closely resembling a non-binary, gender-fluid vision of love and sexuality that is part of a bigger story about human truth.”

To that end, he envisioned a version of “Hamlet” in which the Denmark’s Elsinore castle bears a striking resemblance to the Trump White House. The usurping king is a despot posing as a benefactor, exerting an authoritarian rule and setting the people close to him against each other to prove their loyalty, while his queen turns a blind eye to his increasingly obvious misdeeds.

“Maybe I’m one-sided, but I tried to depict the ‘ickyness’ of that Melania-Donald dynamic between Claudius and Gertrude,” he says, not without a hint of relish. “I’ve made her trapped, like Melania, and she’s constantly drinking – she’s an immigrant, and she doesn’t speak up because she’s controlled by his finances.”

In this light, as Warner puts it, Hamlet becomes a hero of resistance, who rises to “slay” fascism, while Horatio is the filmmaker who documents it.

“It’s ultimately about Hamlet’s spiritual journey to fullness. It’s about him letting go of rage and embracing the light.”

Yet, when all is said and done, it’s the love between these two men that shines above all else.

“Hamlet eventually sacrifices his life to root out the corruption and to save those who are still alive – which is basically Horatio, his boyfriend, because everybody else is dead.”

“Hamlet/Horatio” has already played in front of audiences at a number of festivals, and has taken honors at several of them – including a Best Feature Film Jury Award at last year’s inaugural FFTG (Film Festivals to Go) Fest. The enthusiastic response has given Warner reason to hope that, despite his “queering of Shakespeare,” his film will find a “wider audience” when it debuts on digital platforms in June.

Of course, Warner fully expects to be raked across the coals for some of the liberties he has taken, such as the choice to cast transgender Native American actor Ty Defoe as the Player King and the inclusion of a scene where Hamlet and Horatio take a steam bath together – “which is not anywhere in ‘Hamlet,’ of course,” he says with a laugh.

Still, for him, his approach to the material rings true to the source.

“There’s a timelessness in the way Shakespeare deals with the danger of rage, and how that threatens spirituality. In his plays, you always have the autocrats, who want to control others, and then you have the purer people, usually younger characters, like Hamlet, who propose love, who pursue a humanitarian vision against them. That’s Shakespeare, who was, of course, writing under a monarchy.

“And after four years of authoritarian rule under Trump, I think he was way ahead of his time.”

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JxJ celebrates Jewish LGBTQ film at festival

Movies include ‘Kiss Me Kosher,’ ‘Marry Me However’

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A scene from 'Bra Mitzvah'

For this year’s festival lineup, JxJ will be presenting its “Rated LGBTQ” series, which highlights films with LGBTQ themes, characters, and creators. The festival will run from May 23-30. The films featured include: “Kiss Me Kosher”(outdoor screening at the Bender JCC May 30 at 8pm, $12 per person); “Marry Me However” (virtual screening, $11 per household); “Sublet” (virtual screening, $11 per household); “Bra Mitzvah” (short film, part of the Run the World (Girls) virtual shorts program, $11 per household); “I Want to Make a Film About Women” (short film, part of the Breaking Through virtual shorts program, $11 per household).

Tickets and information about the films are available here.

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Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs screens ‘Eat With Me’

David Au’s directorial debut presented

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In celebration of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, The Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, DC Public Library, and the Mayor’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs host a screening of “Eat With Me” for May’s #DCQueerFlix on May 14, beginning at 6 p.m.

“Eat With Me,” David Au’s directorial debut, features the story of a mother and her gay son learning to reconnect while trying to keep their business afloat. The film offers a novel take on love, life, and food in the center of Los Angeles.

“Eat With Me” will be available on the Kanopy streaming service and is free for D.C. library patrons.

To register for this virtual event, visit the Eventbrite page.

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