The only gay movie protagonist in recent years whom I’ve identified with is the titular antihero of David Jacobson’s exceptional biopic Dahmer. Whether this reflects on the state of contemporary gay films or merely my own psychological shortcomings is debatable, but with Dahmer, Jacobson has achieved the unthinkable: He humanizes a notoriously brutal psychopath and, in the process, leaves the audience with an unwelcome sense of complicity.
Many oft noted elements of Dahmer’s life appear: the chocolate factory job, the stolen mannequin, Polaroids, skull drillings, and even the drugged-out teen who escapes but is handed back to Dahmer by the police. But Jacobson eschews serial-killer chic in this fictionalized narrative and keeps the gore to a relative minimum. As portrayed by Jeremy Renner (of WB’s Angel), this Dahmer draws more on Holden Caulfield than Hannibal Lecter, reshaping the Milwaukee monster into a doe-eyed Sad Young Man. His disturbing cuteness is key: It grants some breathing room between the movie character and the real-life Dahmer, but also allows us to imagine how anyone could get suckered into going home with a killer.
Films from M to Natural Born Killers have positioned criminals as touchstones for societal ills. But here the mass-murderer-as-metaphor strategy turns inward, making this public enemy a symbol of public anomie. Like those of Chuck & Buck‘s obsessed protagonist, the nerdy Dahmer’s clumsy attempts at human connection feel seat-squirmingly familiar—as when he awkwardly seduces a high school wrestler after getting him stoned or nervously negotiates a boisterous pickup bar. Dahmer is depicted as a solitary outsider moving through a subculture composed of same—an unflattering rendering of gay life that nonetheless exploits deep wells of loneliness. Powerfully unsettling, Dahmer encourages us to love the alien, or at least understand how inner pain can become tragically exteriorized. Empathy for a cannibal is an uneasy proposition, but perhaps disgruntled gay outcasts will now discover their own twisted Jeffrey.
More quirky urban psychology, though of a far more benevolent manner, appears in Doris Kornish’s Not Nude Though (at the Pioneer), a charming documentary of New York artist and filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt, who died in 1999. Burckhardt’s photographs and short films of New York street life fit in somewhere between the surrealism of collaborator Joseph Cornell and the homespun camp of the Kuchar brothers. One of the founders of East Village mainstays Films Charas, Two Boots, and the Pioneer Theater, Kornish takes a quintessentially downtown tack: Focusing on the welcoming warmth of artistic community, she interviews Burckhardt’s friends and family, sometimes around cramped kitchen tables. He was “one of the world’s most tender artists,” says painter Mimi Gross, and Kornish has crafted an appropriately tender film as tribute.