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REVIEW – Shank (2009)

December 1, 2009

Videovista have my review of Simon Pearce’s Shank, a gay indie film that attempts to challenge the tendency of these films to be all about smug middle class people.  The film makes some interesting moves and has some rather strange sexual politics floating about in it but none of these possibilities ever materialise into anything concrete, leaving a lot of potential and very little substance.

6 Comments
  1. mark c permalink
    December 3, 2009 12:28 pm

    Hi Jonathan,

    I have read about this film, but as all the reviews have emphasised the bad acting and general amateurishness, I doubt I’ll be seeing it.

    I don’t think the film makers attempt to show a lower class milieu is as laudable as you. “Chavs” and “Scallys” are the latest section of manhood to be fetishised by the UK gay scene – there is a porn company (Triga) that pretty much specialises in “council estate” hardcore action and several scally themed nightclubs and fetish nights where you have to dress up in tracksuits and trainers to get in. Today’s young hoody finds himself in the same position as a skinhead in the late 70s or early 80s – being objectified by gays who are scared of being beaten up by them. Nowadays when you see a well turned out skinhead in the street you’re as likely to think he’s gay than a traditional skin, so maybe in 20 yrs time it will be the same with chavs!

    Without having seen it of course, I think the film looks like less an attempt to explore lower class gay life than a typical bandwagon jumping exploitation film based on what is currently fashionable…

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  2. December 3, 2009 2:32 pm

    Hi Marc :-)

    That’s a really interesting insight actually, thanks a lot. I think that, actually, there probably is a bit of exploitationism going on here only it’s catering to a slightly different set of tastes than the American market. Clearly, I was lacking your vast knowledge of gay porn when I wrote my review ;-)

    This does actually set up quite an interesting cross-cultural difference. American Gay indie films seem to be animated by a desire to turn the straight guy. Frequently their stories are about people who are in the closet but who invariably have great jobs and loving families. In a sense, all they’re lacking for perfect happiness is ‘the right guy’.

    In contrast, this British film seems to be about a different kind of forbidden. It’s about blokes that you can’t have because they’re straight and they’re scary and they’d kick your teeth in.

    The mechanics are the same but the fantasy is slightly different. In a sense, Shank is no different to the rest of TLA’s output, it’s just that it addresses a different set of fetishes.

    Actually, if I’d known that, I would have given the film a lower mark than I did.

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  3. December 6, 2009 3:46 pm

    > Clearly, I was lacking your vast knowledge of gay porn when I wrote my review ;-)

    A frankly unforgivable shortcoming!

    > This does actually set up quite an interesting cross-cultural difference. American Gay indie films seem to be animated by a desire to turn the straight guy.

    Certainly there’s an element of truth to this – I recall Todd Haynes stating as much when making Velvet Goldmine. But I think it’s difficult to gauge the differnces between gay cinema outside of pornography in the UK and in the USA simply because there’s so few gay UK films upon which to form an analysis. In the USA, one can immediately think of prominent directors (Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Bruce LaBruce…even Brian Singer) who explore gay themes without reducing the subject matter to that of mere subculture. I’m racking my brains to think of the UK equivalents – ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’, ‘Priest’ and….? With this dearth of material in mind no wonder ‘Queers As Folk’ was such a breatth of fresh air when it first aired on Channel 4. Weirder still, I can think of numerous examples of films with gay content from France, Spain, Japan and Australia. So why the reticence in the UK?

    As for the appropriation of Chav culture, this is hardly suprising, and continues a long history of festishing bad boys, from Slyvia Plath’s unfamous, ‘every girl loves a Facist’, through Morrissey’s celebration of rough trade,East End boxers and mexican hustlers, to Jake Arnott’s hymns to London’s criminal underworld and its many sexual ambiguities.

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  4. December 6, 2009 3:47 pm

    “Queer As Folk”! Mea culpa….

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  5. December 6, 2009 7:44 pm

    You do get the odd British gay film but you’re right that Britain seems to punch below its weight compared to the grand tradition of queer directors in the US.

    There was a film a couple of years back called Cut Sleeve Boys all about the anglo-chinese corner of the gay community but while it promised much, it eventually wound up being rather dull in a number of ways.

    Sad really :-(

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  6. December 19, 2009 12:27 am

    Interesting comments from all. However, as the co-writer/producer (and British) may I make some comments?

    Firstly and thankfully the one American voice on the production wanted us to call the film CHAV but we felt that this would most definitely pander to the preconception that this was a porn-lookalike-exploitation tale. So we stuck to SHANK a British colloquialism for cock/dick/penis and also appropriately also slang for a knife!

    Secondly the film was intended by the writers to be something that challenged the too frequently produced (on both sides of the atlantic) saccharine lovey dovey ‘will he won’t he’ come out/fall for college classmate fare that has graced our screens for years now. This is a brutal love story that shows beauty and horror. It is a love story both tender and violent – as in real life. It is we think a return to the social realism of cinema wrapped around a gay story. And this makes it different and new and fresh as over 50 festival directors have commented. Incidents in the film are mostly all taken from real life situations or personal experiences that have happened here in the UK.

    If you like it was a treatise on the genre and we wanted to push the traditional coming out across the divide and attract both gay and straight audiences – which in the main we were successful with doing here in the UK. Indeed it’s one of the reasons we used a 21yr old straight director to work with. We wanted to declare the tried and tested sweet ‘coming out’ story dead and usher in a more frank and in your face narrative.

    The true genesis of the story came from a gang of middle class kids who ‘appropriated’ a lower class status (chav if you like) as a style and image who went on to beat up a french foreign language teenager who they suspected was gay. Leaving him for dead they ran off. The kid suffered from brittle bone disease and had 60% of his bones broken but managed to crawl 2 miles to eventually get help.

    This catalyst set us on the path to shaking the middle class reader of Murdochesque newspapers to sit up and realise what was going on outside of their cosy worlds – to realise what their kids were getting up to or masquerading as or engaging in.

    The female gang leader was eventually caught and imprisoned.

    There was no intention to fetishise a sub-cultural image or lower class personalities.

    The nudity and sex scenes in the film are deliberately there to show innocence and love blossom. If nudity appears in a straight film it’s not condemned by critics or audiences for being exploitative or pornographic and we think that a gay audience shouldn’t feel that it’s right to accept or make the same criticisms of films intended for that constituency. In some ways I see this as a form of homophobia. If you take The Reader for example – which showed an older woman (35) fucking and seducing a 15 year old boy (played by a very good looking 18yr old) no critic gay or straight nor audience member accused them of making an exploitative or pornographic film. And they were right not to.
    The number of reviews that have criticised the bad acting have been far outweighed by the innumerable reviews that have praised the performances. The film has won awards, been nominated for best film in over 12 international festivals and has played in over 65 cities worldwide in over 50 international festivals (not just gay ones) to over 27,500 people. It has also been one of the most successful gay films out of the UK in years. We are particularly proud of the quote “It’s like Beautiful Thing on Coke..” Beautiful Thing having paved the way for us to be more graphic in telling it like it is and pushing the envelope.

    We wanted to challenge and we have succeeded. Your comments are all valid – but I would urge Mark C to try and catch it – on the dvd there’s a 35 minute documentary on the making of the film and I elucidate better on there what I’m miserably failing to articulate here.

    To be truthful I also feel angry about gay bashing and the rise of intolerance despite legislation that attempts to protect us. This anger is there in the film. It was most edifying for us that we hired a young crew and cast (all straight) and with the assistance of Golden Globe/Emmy/BAFTA nominated/winning professionals tutored and mentored them through the process of making a feature film. They were all dedicated and believed in the subject matter and gave their all.

    As a testament to the film’s continued resonance and impact it is now part of the British Council’s Outreach programme in South Africa where it is playing in classrooms up and down that country to South African teenagers – amongst whom (again despite legislation) there is a radicalisation of intemperate and hostile attitudes towards gay people because of religious interference and influence. Similarly here in the UK it is being heralded as a tool to aid discussion of homophobia amongst youth.

    Sorry if I sound preachy but sometimes I think it’s important to give some background and information and you guys all appear to be intelligent people with whom I thought I’d engage in the discussion. I hope I was right.

    Incidentally you are very right about the lack of gay films coming out of the UK – that’s because (a) funders don’t want to and (b) when you make a gay film over here the only outlet for it is usually the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival who rejected the film! There was only 1 British film in that festival alongside 14 US features…..we’re self funding and self releasing our films and trying to address the imbalance as best we can….with provocative films and narratives – we hope!

    You might like to know we’ve done the same again – possibly with a more mature subject and cast (which will undoubtably go against it amongst some quarters for not having young guys having sex in it). Although I can report that festival directors who have been sent a rough cut have all again praised it and want it for their festivals because it is a different type of gay film. The film tackles head on religion and it’s attitude towards gay men – in particular a gay priest – it’s “Priest’ for the 21st Century! http://www.release-movie.co.uk

    I’d love to know your thoughts on this when it comes out…..

    Thanks for the blog and debate….christian

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