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Entries in Do I Sound Gay? [2014] (1)

Friday
Jul102015

Do I Sound Gay? (2014)

Exorcise Routine

Here's how I know that writer/director David Thorpe is really onto something with his new documentary, Do I Sound Gay?: after the film ended, I talked for two hours with my wife and sister-in-law about identity, culture, media, and the evolution of protest. Like many of the modern DIY docs pioneered by Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, Thorpe's asks a big question and enlists the world to help him figure it out. Thorpe's need to reconcile his "gay-sounding" voice with society's perception of it (as well as his perception of its perception) leads to interviews with friends, speech pathologists, people on the street, and a slew of gay celebrities. The film is introspection as spectacle. But just as pride parades are the flamboyant wrapping on a painful, multi-generational struggle, this film's premise is a gimmicky gateway to enlightenment and, perhaps, positive generational change.

Recently dumped and foggily navigating his forties, New York-based writer Thorpe began wondered if there was something inherent in his personality that repelled potential boyfriends. On the train one day, he found himself surrounded by jabbering "queens", and realized that he, too, had a stereotypical gay-man's voice. Maybe it wasn't his inner workings that prevented him from connecting with Mr. Right: maybe his body's expression of himself was faulty.

So begins Thorpe's journey to not only understand where that voice comes from (turns out it can't be pinned to a region or even a sexual orientation), but to see if he might alter his own to sound more "straight". The film alternates between the filmmaker's consultations with specialists and Hollywood voice coaches (who help him sound more confident and less traditionally feminine) and assorted interviews that paint an alarming portrait of media stereotypes stretching back to at least the 1930s. One of the film's most striking segments is a montage of gay-tinged Disney villains who appear to be anthropomorphized clones of cinema's first gay villain, Laura's Clifton Webb. Whether these decisions were conscious or unconscious on the part of the creators, I guarantee you'll never watch certain films from the Mouse House the same way again.

These insidious messages, the film suggests, may be a driving force in society's fear and disdain of gays, as well as what one of Thorpe's friends describes as a "generic self-loathing around my gayness." When Thorpe visits Ohio teen Zach King, whose savage beating in a classroom was caught on camera and made national news, he discovers an imaginative, hopeful young boy who feels (rightly or wrongly) that he must restrict his natural theatricality to bedroom performances--for fear of making his xenophobic peers uncomfortable to the point of violence. One issue the film does not address is whether or not Gay Pride memes in the media (that of the loud, leather-clad, rainbow-wigged performer, for example) hinder closeted teens and adults in parts of the country where the first step towards tolerance is not scaring the hell out of people.

The film touches on, but doesn’t grapple with, the paradox of gay icons from the 1960s and 70s (like Paul Lynde, Liberace, and Charles Nelson Reilly) establishing a cartoonish idea of homosexuality in the mass consciousness that modern gay culture seems to want to both eschew and take ownership of for very similar reasons. Thorpe watched these performers on TV as a kid and identified with their being “different” in the same way he was (though actually addressing their lifestyle was strictly taboo); I imagine that was empowering on some level. But his adult struggle with somehow feeling wrong for sounding too effeminate, too exuberant, too whatever, can likely be linked to the pop-culturally-ingrained notion that “those people” aren’t to be taken seriously.

Thorpe illustrates the broadening of the pop spectrum by interviewing the likes of David Sedaris, Dan Savage, George Takei, and Margaret Cho (among others)—present-day standard bearers of empathy and human dignity whose ability to entertain don’t rely on the flaming clown persona. Homosexuality is an integral part of their lives’ work, but it’s not their defining characteristic. Along with Thorpe’s closest friends, who own and manage their mannerisms to varying degrees, these celebrities help Thorpe to realize that the question should not be, “Do I Sound Gay?”, but, “Do I Sound Like Me?”

The trajectory of Thorpe’s quest is predictable, but the points along the way are not. Do I Sound Gay? isn’t a vanity project disguised as a comedy disguised as journalism. It’s a genuine work of filmic reporting in the Gonzo tradition. By making himself the story, Thorpe picks apart an objective subject with subjective insight and gains access to a variety of scientists, artists, and thinkers. More importantly, he gives them ample room to talk, to share, to ask questions of the audience that reach far beyond the movie’s cute title. This is a film about finding your voice, loving it, and using it to help others love themselves. How's that for a conversation starter?