Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

25 April 2017

Florida Film Festival 1 of 5: Pushing Dead

Last night I saw my first film from the 2017 FFF. I am excited for these movies.

The FFF is usually big on comedies. Most of the films they bring to screen are funny in some way, even movies that are potentially serious wind up being quirky or have some humorous take on the material. I tend to avoid most of these movies, I have to say – I focus instead primarily on the "International" selections.

Tom E. Brown's Pushing Dead is a self-styled "AIDS comedy", so it obviously fits the usual FFF mold – the one that I would normally avoid. But I was excited that there was going to be a movie about gay subject matter, and Danny Glover is in it. So I went. (The title, incidentally, is a play on the idea that someone could be pushing 40. In this case our protagonist is only forty or so, but he's pushing dead. This is the character's sense of humor about his own mortality – something that doesn't really translate into a movie title.)

But Pushing Dead is very, very funny. I laughed a lot, in fact. The premise is that an HIV+ poet in his early 40s, through an odd little event, gets pushed off of his insurance and needs to try to figure out how he is going to pay for his drugs. There is a bunch of other (delightful) nonsense happening, but this is the premise of the movie.

I really liked this film. It's silly and hilarious, the script is clever, and the main performances – by James Roday, Robin Weigert, Danny Glover, and Khandi Alexander – are all very funny.

The weird part for me is that Pushing Dead is just not very gay. Like, so strangely not gay. At one point early in the film I remember thinking Oh maybe the quirkiness here is that this is a straight guy living with HIV. And then I thought about it for a bit and figured out that he was actually supposed to be a gay character. But there are only three gay characters in the film, and the main character (played – of course he is – by a straight actor) has no gay friends at all. This allows for the whole thing to be "universal" or something, I guess? But it also seems to have no connection to the real world.

Object of desire Tom Riley – also not played by a gay actor
Even more than just the interactions between characters, the filmmaking is not very gay. For example: Although our main guy goes on two dates, and although we see him in flashback with a past relationship, the men never kiss. And breaking from all the rules of gay filmmaking, there is literally not one shot of a guy without a shirt. This is not actually a problem with the filmmaking, of course, I'm just noting that the film didn't feel very gay. It clearly, in other words, was not intended for a gay audience. Even worse, one of the gay characters is presented as a kind of curiosity or surprise. This isn't done in an offensive way, at least as far as I could tell, but in a film with so few queer characters, it seems an odd way to use one of its three queer folks.

Pushing Dead does have some really beautiful poignant moments, and these occur when the film (paradoxically) ventures into non-"universal" territory, like when it discusses living with HIV for a long time, or dating with HIV, or the early years of HIV in club culture, or young people like our protagonist struggling with mortality. But the film seems less interested in these things; they seem rather to be a kind of backdrop for the film's humorous antics.

Pushing Dead left me fairly cold.