Film review by Jake Webb, West Hollywood, California
When I received the screener for Before You Know It, the latest documentary from director PJ Raval, I had no idea the mark it would make on me. But the film, which chronicles the lives of three gay men in their 60’s and 70’s across the country, brought me back to my own experience with the first out generation of LGBT seniors.
In college, I bartended at Woody’s, a gay dive bar in Tucson, Arizona. The owner, Dave, assigned me the opening shift during my first sleepy desert summer – a time when the college students returned to New Jersey or California for red Solo cup evenings, leaving only the Social Security snow birds to patronize my bar.
Every shift, I welcomed the same five customers – two aged lesbians and three grumpy gay men. My customers were characters: larger than life, interminably intoxicated, and artifacts of our gay history. They weren’t highly educated or polished, but this was an 11 a.m. in a gay Tucson dive bar on a Tuesday; I didn’t expect to serve Renaissance men.
As I continued to work at Woody’s, stories from gay history past popped up here and there like little groundhogs and I realized in hearing their tribulations how incredibly lucky I am to grow up a millennial.
These people, my customers, witnessed wars, racism, long lives punctuated by oppression and lost opportunities, the Stonewall riots, the AIDS outbreak, gay riots, gay pride, Madonna’s Blonde Ambition, Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball, the repeal of DADT, and intellectual, political conversation surrounding gay marriage.
These soldiers survived the effects of ignorant intolerance and unwarranted prejudice from our hetero neighbors, marching forward through their lives, all the time paving a better life for the current crop of gay youth.
But, society has turned its back on the pioneering veterans in the fight for equality. Where we have active involvement for gay youth with outstanding non-profit organizations like the Point Foundation and The Trevor Project, the activist population forgets the elderly gay community, apparent in the lack of programs and funding for non-profits like SAGE.
Perhaps it’s because as a society we define our culture through sexuality and perceive old age to be un-sexual. But it’s the elderly, wacky, un-sexual members of our community who cement our found homes and defined the quirks scattered in our culture.
As Paris is Burning studied the created families that arose during the pageant-era in Harlem and Brooklyn, Before You Know It studies the LGBT community’s elderly population, observing that it’s the inter-communal, formed friendships that defines family, love, and the end of loneliness.
Before You Know It, is sparse in terms of production value and editing, but this cinema verite approach to this documentary aids the audience in jumping directly into the sometimes stale realities of the film’s subjects. You feel the isolation, the comfortable silence, and the awkward tension from the lack of sound and visual stimulation editing can layer on a film.
PJ Ravalweaves together the stories of three poignant characters:
Dennis is a gentle-hearted widower in his 70s who begins exploring his sexual identity and fondness for dressing in women’s clothing under the name “Dee.” Dennis is the most melancholy and bittersweet of the three characters, but he’s also one of the most fascinating. His story takes us from Portland to Florida and eventually to a gay cruise where the late, RuPaul’s Drag Race winner, Ms. Bianca Del Rio, makes a cameo.
Ty is an impassioned LGBT activist who hears nothing but wedding bells once gay marriage passes in New York. There is a magical moment in the film where Ty is interviewed outside a Brooklyn loft at the very moment NY passes gay marriage. His interview quickly ends as a celebration of life and love quell through the screen.
Robert “The Mouth” is a feisty bar owner who presses on when his neighborhood institution comes under threat. Robert is the mayor of his small, gay community in Galveston, Texas. But what happens to the family when its matriarch is on the outs?
All three characters suffer persona dilemmas and all three experience growth as the film progresses. The film, more than anything, proves that coming out of the closet is not a singular moment but a lifelong experience. We continue to learn about ourselves, our culture, and our sexuality as we continue to turn with the world.
The film’s themes are not exclusively homosexual as our fears, in terms of aging, are not exclusively attributed to homosexuality, but rather the fulfillment of our greater needs as humans: companionship, financial security, and love.
This is a gentle film that slowly roots itself in your brain. It will sprout in your mind continually a few days after watching. The film is contemplative, but gleans moments of light purity and humor that make it a worthwhile watch to guide you through a potpourri of emotions.
The film opens Friday, June 13th at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills, and will also do a one-week run starting June 20th at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood.