Thursday, January 14, 2010

Reverend’s Reviews: Streamers DVD a Unique Time Capsule

The late, iconoclastic director Robert Altman wasn’t gay, but several of his films reflect an open-minded attitude toward GLBT people. Although best known for the 1970’s hits M*A*S*H and Nashville, Altman made a string of adaptations of stage plays in the 1980’s. Among them was Streamers (1983), which will be making its DVD debut on January 19.

Written by Tony Award-winning playwright David Rabe, Streamers stars Matthew Modine (in one of his first screen roles) as the leader of several young Army recruits waiting to be deployed to Vietnam. In the interim, they find themselves increasingly torn by issues of race, class and sexuality. David Alan Grier (in his film debut), then-hottie Mitchell Lichtenstein and Michael Wright round out the main cast; all give riveting if occasionally overwrought performances.

The film is most noteworthy today for its startling take on homosexuality in the armed forces a good ten years before military leaders adopted the controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Lichtenstein plays the barely-closeted Richie, who is prone to wearing a non-regulation Greek fisherman’s hat, parading around the barracks in equally unorthodox tighty-whities, and coating himself with baby powder after taking a shower.

Richie also makes no bones about his attraction to fellow draftee Billy (Modine). While Billy vehemently defends his apparent heterosexuality against Richie’s flirtations, cracks begin to show in his macho veneer. Richie challenges Billy at one point with the question, “What are you afraid of?”, and ultimately declares to Billy, “Lies and ignorance offend me.”

Even though he is homophobic, their barracks mate Roger (Grier) takes Richie’s sexuality a bit more in stride. That is, until things become complicated by Carlyle (Wright), a lower class, mentally unstable black soldier who comes on to Richie. Carlyle and Billy end up fighting over Richie — and specifically over whether Billy and Carlyle can have sex — with tragic results. As Carlyle prophetically proclaims, “If I can’t be where there’s free men, I don’t want to live.”

Confined to its single barracks set, Streamers feels stagey at times but the intimate cinematography helps. The men’s’ faces are so close to one another in some shots that they carry a (possibly intentional) homoerotic charge. There is also some great artillery choreography over the film’s opening and closing credits.

Altman, who passed away in 2006, summed up Streamers thusly at the time of its release: “Men — no, boys — from different walks of life thrown together cause enough trauma for any story. Billy, Roger and Richie: all different, yet forced to live as if they were the same. Then Carlyle, the intruder, enters their world and declares it is not his world. He eventually proves it is not a world for any of them.”

The DVD includes retrospective interviews with Modine, Lichtenstein and George Dzundza, who plays one of the men’s drunk, oblivious sergeants. Dzundza’s character has one of the film’s best, most enduringly pertinent lines when he compassionately tells Richie, “There are worse things than being queer in this world.”

It would be good for the original architects of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” approach to gay and lesbian service members as well as those currently trying to repeal the misguided policy to watch Streamers. The movie effectively illustrates that it isn’t the differences between people that create conflict; rather, it is our failure to acknowledge and respect those differences that tear us apart.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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