The Fluffer, an oddly coy peek into the workings of the gay adult-film industry, opens with a knowingly porn-like twist of fate. Fresh-faced aspiring filmmaker Sean (Michael Cunio), on a video-store tour of the classics, somehow ends up with a copy of Citizen Cum. Confronted with a prime cut of sirloin who calls himself Johnny Rebel (Scott Gurney) and instantly bedazzled, he applies for a job at the Men of Janus production house (vandals frequently erase the “J” from the sign on the front door), a haven for onetime hot young things wizened into leathery entrepreneurs. Sean’s fondness for arty compositions soon disqualifies him from camera duties. But as the gay-for-pay Johnny tends to require stimulation between takes, Sean is deployed instead as a “fluffer,” readying the star for his money shots.
This collaboration between porn veteran Wash West and Richard Glatzer, who made the subdued AIDS elegy Grief (1993), settles first for easy snickers, mostly involving punny titles (Tranny Get Your Gun) and ungainly scenarios (pool-cleaner seduction, barnyard orgy), though the funniest moment is more traditionally cinephilic—film geek Sean buzzed on crystal meth, monologuing on Vertigo (“totally porno!”). Keeping sex almost entirely outside the frame, the movie enacts a Boogie Nights spiral in miniature, enlisting Johnny’s put-upon lap-dancing girlfriend (Roxanne Day) for additional pathos. The third act strives for a debased melancholy and topsy-turvy wisdom only Almodóvar could pull off; perhaps intuitively, The Fluffer even heads south of the border for its finale, as if hoping that warmer climes will energize its fitful melodrama.
West’s script flirts with knotty questions of idolatry and identity, specifically in the relationship between gay men and their straight lust objects, but it’s also prone to presumptuous diagnoses and spurious equations. To fluff, in this film’s schema, is to be humiliated. The Fluffer connects its title character’s fruitless obsession to his own self-loathing and semi-closetdom, which it further traces—via black-and-white flashbacks—to a traumatic childhood event. (Sean’s arrested development is mirrored by his kitchen clock, whose arms have been frozen since he frantically dislodged its batteries for Johnny-related VCR use.) The closing credit scroll is accompanied by the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love,” which communicates in three blistering minutes what The Fluffer takes about 30 times longer to demonstrate.
The documentary Bombay Eunuch also starts out in the realm of queer theory, only to find itself sidetracked—profitably, in this case. Filmmaker Alexandra Shiva explains in voice-over that she initially approached her portrait of Indian eunuchs as a gender-studies project, but after she and codirectors Sean MacDonald and Michelle Gucovsky spent months in Bombay with a community of hijras, what emerged were stark tales of survival. Born male and voluntarily castrated at a young age, hijras hold a unique place in Hindu lore (their blessings were courted, their curses feared), but poverty and prejudice have eroded their divine status over the years.
Hijras are by definition celibate, but the ones in the documentary have been forced into prostitution and live in a Bombay slum with their den mother, Meena, who emerges as a bossy, canny operator (she charges the filmmakers a daily fee). Even more horrifying than the gruesome accounts of unanesthetized castration is the astonishing level of HIV ignorance. (Safe-sex precautions amount to a crotch grab: “If he says ouch, then we know he has the disease.”) An American academic provides historical context and gender theorizing, pointing out that eunuchs differ from transsexuals in that they don’t conceptualize themselves as women, though some of the testimonials directly contradict this view. A happy ending of sorts arrives out of nowhere—against unfathomable odds, the string of awful ironies ends, for now, with sweet justice.
Routine art-movie tedium with brand-name stars (Diane Ladd, Sarah Polley), John Greyson’s adaptation of Dale Peck’s The Law of Enclosures is a strange choice for centerpiece of MIX 2001, the experimental lesbian and gay film and video festival. Greyson (Lilies) muddies the formal ingenuity of Peck’s novel and trips up on his own metaphysical gimmickry. A touted DV featurette from Hong Kong, Kit Hung’s I Am Not What You Want is an endearing but wholly un-original first-love vignette. The shorts programs are generally good for discoveries, but this year’s sampling afforded only one standout: Abigail Child’s found-footage sonata, Surface Noise, previously screened at the New York Film Festival. Whether a sign of the times or just an off year, it’s worth noting that the 15th edition of MIX could almost pass for any given installment of its more conventional sibling, the New Festival.