We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
I don’t expect to live long enough to acquire a taste for Dennis Cooper’s fiction. His 1989 novel, Closer, a collage of terse episodes narrated by seven virtually interchangeable characters, depicts a group of affectless white gay teenagers staggering through an orgy of sex, drugs, pornography, and sadism. Innocent yet depraved, they cache hallucinogens in Mickey Mouse caps, offer their bodies (and excrement) to jaded chicken hawks as well as each another, and fantasize about murdering and disemboweling sex partners, all the while endlessly expressing their boredom. A representative paragraph from the first chapter conveys the rancid flavor of Cooper’s writing. “‘Kill me,’ the silhouette rasped. ‘I can’t feel anything. I mean you’re o.k. Shit, I don’t know…I guess I’ve wanted somebody to kill me for over a year or whatever so don’t fucking worry. Do what you want to with to me. I don’t care. Really. When I’m dead you can fuck me as much as you want. I’ve tried to kill myself lots of times. I just can’t. Anyway, nobody knows I’m here. You won’t get caught—’ ‘Stop,’ John said, waving his arms, ‘wait, I feel…’ He vomited down the front of his shirt.”
A little of this stuff—S.E. Hinton rewritten by Jeffrey Dahmer, with editorial input from Bret Easton Ellis, de Sade, and pseudonymous stroke-book novelists—goes a very long way. Cooper’s admirers, including Edmund White, Kathy Acker, and Luc Sante, praise the purity of his language and the honesty and daring of his vision. I can abstractly understand Cooper’s appeal in the same way that I can watch people greedily gobble handfuls of raisins, but both make me gag. Admittedly, the rapes, coprophilia (“A prize emerged, ripe and hot from its bowel oven”), and ritual killings are premeditatedly off-putting, but even more odious are Cooper’s humorless, deadpan tone, a style beyond parody, and his intermittent, transparently half-hearted attempts at moralizing. Under the guise of exposing the lower depths of the American nightmare, he’s clearly wanking to boytoy dreams or, in Humbert Humbert’s phrase, “winking happy thoughts into a little tiddle cup.” The degenerate poet-protagonist of Nabokov’s sublime comic allegory about the transcendent power of love manages to achieve partial redemption, but Cooper’s amorphous adolescents, at least the ones who don’t end up in body bags, blindly continue their interminable quest for stronger dope, tighter butts, and fresh corpses to excavate.
Cooper’s books rank high in the pantheon of unfilmable works, but writer/editor/director Todd Verow, assisted by co-scripters George LaVoo and James Dwyer, has taken a stab at the task in his adaptation of 1991’s Frisk. (Forgive me, but I hadn’t the heart or stomach for reading another Cooper novel in preparing this column.) Apart from protecting himself by casting actors considerably older than their roles—using actual teenage boys would probably have landed them in jail—Verow has achieved their goal with unpredictable effectiveness. Cooper aficionados longing to see his work on-screen now have the opportunity to do so, though, as one of the film’s characters observes, “I can’t imagine anyone liking this shit.”
From San Francisco, Dennis (ruggedly handsome Michael Gunther in his screen debut) writes letters to his L.A. pals, Julian (sibilant Jaie Laplante) and his younger brother Kevin (perky Raoul O’Connell), describing in graphic detail how he has executed his fantasies of killing sex partners. (Dennis has screwed both brothers.) Since he was 13, Dennis has been obsessed by mock snuff photographs shown to him by a porno shop manager. He’s frustrated by the limitations of skin and hungers to explore what lies beneath. He says of one masochistic, drugged-out trick—Henry (Craig Chester), the young man who actually posed for those photographs—“If I had a knife, I would have torn him to pieces.” (Henry is subsequently stabbed to death in the dungeon of a sadistic leather man.) After realizing his ambition of having sex with Uhrs (semi-intelligible Michael Stock), a German porno actor/prostitute, Dennis claims that he’s killed and dismembered a young hustler, then joined forces with a pair of serial killers—Ferguson (Party Girl’s Parker Posey) and Pete (James Lyons, who also plays the porno shop operator)—to dispatch additional victims while recording their activities on videotape. Julian and Kevin visit San Francisco to see if Dennis’ letters are factual or fantastic. The ambiguous fade-out leaves that question unresolved, although a final shot—following the closing credits—implies that the letters, like Cooper’s books, one hopes, are fabrications.
Frisk’s press synopsis begins, “For as long as they can remember, Dennis and Julian have had their heads bashed every day. Raised in the suburban outback of southern California, the two ex-lovers have grown up swimming in a flood of psychic and sexual violence—on television, in the news, outside the windows of their shiny BMWs. The bodies they see, the lives they witness, seem more ‘real’ than their own.” Unfortunately, none of this hermeneutic back story appears in the film itself—no suburbs, no head-bashing, no BMWs. Like Cooper’s literary partisans, the movie’s distributors provide a constructive framework to disinfect and legitimize the writer’s masturbatory effusions. Dennis asserts that he kills people “to find answers,” but neither the answers nor the questions are clearly articulated. Devoid of any social or psychological context, Frisk, like Larry Clark’s Kids, amounts to little more than a semipornographic catalogue of escalating aberrations. Despite the press kit’s gloss of trendy, jargon-riddled Queer Theory—“By exploring the way our culture deracializes and desexualizes identity by homogenizing and hegemonizing under the supremacy of reductive sameness, Frisk unveils the monster in all of us”—few, if any, viewers are likely to exit the theater with enhanced insights. Many, I suspect, will be long gone before the movie has run its gruesome course. (I’ve omitted mention of the blood-sucking, armpit-licking, cigarette-burnt flesh, and self-immolation with broken glass.)
Verow, in his feature debut, depicts this appalling stuff with unnerving conviction; his speeded-up transitional montages, shot in the style of West Coast experimental filmmaker Bruce Baillie, are deftly assembled. Cinematographer Greg Watkins’ crisp, richly hued images, particularly his meticulous rendering of skin tones, are uncommonly accomplished for such a shoestring production, and Mark Jan Wlodarkiewicz’s techno-pop sound design effectively complements Verow’s rapid-fire editing. With few exceptions, the sizable cast, veterans of New Queer Cinema productions including Swoon, Grief, Wigstock, Postcards From America, Poison, The Doom Generation, and Fun Down There, turn in unsparingly pungent performances.
Still, one is left questioning whether Frisk, however well executed, is an advisable undertaking given the present political climate. An unabashedly transgressive cinematic translation of Cooper’s hermetic fantasies, it fans the flames of homophobia sparked in this election year, not only by fundamentalists but by those allegedly sympathetic to gay issues. (Consider Clinton’s craven capitulation in the trumped-up same-sex marriage debate, a subject about which he could easily have remained silent without losing an inch of political ground.) Frisk’s rebarbative perverseness plays into the hands of homophobes far more effectively than right-wing video screeds like The Gay Agenda, because it is a product of gay artists themselves and could easily be manipulated to boomerang against the homosexual rights movement. Of course, in an ideal society, there should be no restraints placed on creativity, but at the moment, with the gay community under siege, it’s naive to pretend that freakishly bestial artistic expressions cannot have devastating ramifications. Reflecting on his sanguinary erotic compulsions, Dennis muses, “We want things we shouldn’t have.” Frisk, I fear, is one of them.CP