Two longtime best friends — early thirties guys, one married, one single — reunite and, after drinking, dare each other to make a gay porno video together, not because they’re in love with each other (even though they say “I love you, man” a lot), but as an “art project” for an amateur porno movie contest, because you see, they’re really straight, and making the video would prove they’re not homophobic, right? Sounds like something out of the Judd Apatow concept file, or perhaps a query to Dan Savage’s “Savage Love” sex advice column.
It’s neither one, although Savage gets his props in an offhand way. Humpday is the brainchild of Lynn Shelton, a female writer and director of indies who bravely goes where squeamish filmmakers would fear to tread, into the realm of the “extreme”-seeking, stupid-drunk man-child — that is, the place where Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard) dwell. What she does with them and their friends is something to see.
Bearded world traveler and nonstop raconteur Andrew arrives unannounced on the Seattle doorstep of Ben and his wife Anna late one night, effervescent with camaraderie, and commandeers a sleeping bag on their floor. Next day he’s already found a kindred spirit, the bisexual Monica (played by the director), and together they invite Ben (and Anna, halfheartedly) to join their circle of friends in Monica’s shared house, “Dionysus,” for dinner, drinks, drugs, and what-have-you. Group sex is a definite possibility. Anna declines. She’s already cooking a special dinner at home, ostensibly in honor of Andrew.
Ben, a pudgy transportation planner with a prematurely middle-aged face, is in hog heaven at the prospect of partying with his long-lost buddy, but we can see Anna is just being polite. She and Ben are trying to conceive a baby, carefully having sex according to a fertility calendar, and she doesn’t need Andrew’s yodeling boho, neo-Kerouac-ian frolicking at a time like this. While Anna is sitting dejectedly at home over a cold pork chop, oblivious party guys Ben and Andrew, encouraged by their new friends, decide to enter “Hump!”, the amateur porno contest sponsored by The Stranger, Seattle’s wacky alt weekly. “It’s beyond gay,” they enthuse about their proposed video. They’re going to “push the boundaries.” Of course.
Could Humpday be the first bromance to actually carry excessive male bonding to its logical conclusion by having two beer-drinking buddies consummate their relationship? Not so fast, brothers and sisters. These are middle-class people here — they don’t just jump up and start fucking without a lot of consultation. What begins as a subtle dare escalates alcoholically into classic one-upmanship, and the boys essentially talk themselves into it. Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno pussyfooted around the idea of a “normal,” romantic, male-female couple having sex on camera for pay (they couldn’t bring themselves to do it), and countless bromances sing the praises of sticking by your best pal forever, but it took Lynn Shelton to force the issue.
If they had asked Savage about their “art statement,” the provocateur sex columnist would probably offer Ben and Andrew a variation on his opinion of men wearing thongs: that if they even thought of having sex with each other on video, they’re gay. But Shelton and her cast — all the dialogue was improvised in rehearsal — know better than that. The first clue as to how the dare will play out happens in a scene in which Andrew joins Monica and her girlfriend Lily (Trina Willard) for a three-way. As soon as he spots their dildos, Andrew raises a fuss and hastily walks out. Then and there, you know he’ll never go through with having sex with Ben. As he admits later, “I’m a total fucking fraud.”
So what is Humpday really about? If anything, the power of women — at a preview screening with Shelton in San Francisco, it was remarked that if Ben and Andrew had been women, they would have gone ahead and done it. Also, there’s the residual habit of monogamous conformity. Anna’s confession to Ben about her own drunken party sex fling somehow carries more weight than Ben’s story to Andrew about fantasizing over a male video clerk. We believe her; with him it smells like face-saving bravado.
We’re reminded of Verona and Burt, the earthy, grounded couple in Sam Mendes’ Away We Go. Shelton’s twilight of the slackers is not as self-consciously “written” as that movie, and her handheld camera work screams “art film,” but the nesting instinct is the same in both cases. By the time the two guys’ hot night in a hotel room devolves into an Eric Rohmer talkfest (My Night at Ben’s?), the relief on their faces tells us all we need to know. Maybe they should’ve invited Brüno.
Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings was one of the best documentaries of 1996, an irresistible chronicle of the hoopla surrounding Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight championship boxing match with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974, aka The Rumble in the Jungle. Almost as big as Ali’s presence in the “African homeland” was a massive, three-day soul-salsa-jazz concert held in Zaire to coincide with the fight. The talent was impressive — James Brown, B.B. King, the Spinners, Bill Withers, Celia Cruz and the Fania All Stars, the Crusaders, plus Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba to give the basically American show an African tinge. The musical performances in Gast’s doc only whetted the appetite for more. But now comes Soul Power, essentially the outtakes of the first film, organized by director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte from the Stewart Levine-commissioned original. What leftovers.
The footage, captured by ace fotogs Albert Maysles, Paul Goldsmith, et al., is astounding, and it keeps on coming: Ali clowning for the locals (“The flies here are faster than they are in the states”); a terrific jam featuring Afro-Cuban diva Cruz and B.B. on the plane over the Atlantic; Withers’ unplugged perf at the festival; B.B. doing “The Thrill Is Gone” (and the Zaire crowd relating to him); a street corner band in Kinshasa; Cruz and Ray Barretto tearing up their red-hot salsa set; and an extended look at Soul Brother #1 breaking the sound barrier while singing his hits of the day, “The Big Payback,” “Cold Sweat,” “I Can’t Stand It,” etc.
But nobody, not even James Brown, can steal the spotlight from Ali — it’s his show and he’s always political in his comments. Along with Kings, Wattstax, and precious few other docs, Soul Power is a window into a time when anything seemed possible, as long as it brought the funk.