When Frisk first screened as the closing night film at the 19th San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in 1996, Todd Verow’s first feature film was greeted with a furious reaction. According to Barry Walters of the San Francisco Examiner, “At least half of Castro Theater’s 1,500 sold-out seats were abandoned as filmgoers left seething with anger, some even screaming at the screen.” On the audio commentary for the new DVD, Verow explains that after first reading Dennis Cooper’s notorious novel of the same name, he threw it across the room, similarly infuriated. But the sexually graphic bloodlust depicted in the book lingered long enough in Verow’s head to convince him to adapt it to film.
The hostile response recalled that for William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), in which gay s/m practices were depicted as perverse, pathological, and criminal. As the documentary adaptation of The Celluloid Closet (1995) shows, by the time of Cruising‘s release queer audiences were tired of pervasive stereotypes of queers as killers and hairdressers. Hollywood movies repeatedly reinforced heterosexuality at the expense of gay and lesbian characters, whose individual psychoses were related their “pathological” sexuality.
But time and DVD releases tend to heal wounds. Cruising is now a curious piece of queer camp, and Frisk hardly warrants the spanking it got in 1996. To put it into context, Frisk came out during the wave of ‘90s new queer cinema. According to B. Ruby Rich, these “were doing something new, renegotiating subjectivities, annexing whole genres, revising histories in their image.” Like Poison (1991), Swoon (1992), and The Living End (1992), Frisk does not pander to queer viewers’ demands for sexually and politically “appropriate” role models. Instead, it challenges stereotypes that conflate queerness with disorder and death.
Following a group of disaffected queer men involved, to various degrees, in s/m sexuality, the film is set mostly in San Francisco. Frisk unravels in flashbacks from the perspective of Dennis (Michael Gunther), establishing right away that he hungrily consumed a steady diet of gay porn as a teenager. The most memorable imagery he saw was “snuff” photographs, featuring what appeared to be a young dead man, wrapped in plastic.
Much later, Dennis finds a kindred s/m spirit in Julian (Jaie Laplante), who, in turn, meets Henry (Craig Chester) in the bathroom at a fetish party. Henry has just engaged with some rough trade, and his fingers and chest are bleeding from being rubbed with broken glass. Julian takes down Henry’s phone number and agrees to meet later for sex. When Julian and Dennis call on Henry for a threesome, Dennis realizes Henry is the same person who played dead in the porn shots he obsessed over in his youth.
As Julian is tiring of Dennis’ deepening sexual obsessions, he follows a new lover to Paris, leaving Dennis unfettered by a conventional boyfriend. In an attempt to satisfy his fantasies, Dennis rents German gay-for-pay porn star and hustler Uhrs (Michael Stock), then begins writing sexually charged letters to him. The only other person to whom Dennis writes is Julian, though Julian’s younger brother Kevin (Raoul O’Connell) spends more time poring over the descriptions of sexual violence than Julian does.
For a time, Dennis’ addiction to describing such acts in letters appears to prevent him from fulfilling his desire to kill someone: he spends more time detailing the poetics of s/m than he does actually performing such acts. That is, until he teams up with serial killer couple Ferguson (Parker Posey) and Pete (James Lyons). Dennis’ confidence is spurred on in their presence. The threesome picks up a junkie hustler (Alexis Arquette), with whom they all fool around. Dennis wants to fuck him without a condom, and the hustler is too preoccupied with getting high to “give a shit.” In an attempt to arouse Dennis further, the hustler screams, “You’re fucking my dead body!”
It’s not hard to imagine why Frisk might have upset queer audiences. The scene where Dennis fucks the hustler without a rubber, then helps to slash him to red ribbons can be heavy going. But is the knee-jerk reaction we might have to such images the result of political correctness being so inextricably linked to AIDS, as if the depiction of unsafe sex be blamed for furthering the spread of AIDS?
Films about killers are supposed to be disturbing. Is it less disturbing if the killer in question is heterosexual? As soon as he’s gay, alarm bells go off the world over, because the image appears to “equate” homosexuality with criminality and blood. Frisk demonstrates that blood and violence in the age of AIDS represent something more specific than some abstract “evil,” but instead, amoral horrors, like infection and disease, along with perversion and madness.
Dennis narrates, “The detours around AIDS weren’t set up yet. A lot of guys my age were testing positive: sick, dead.” Frisk reveals that the cinematic imagery around AIDS also hadn’t yet been fully set up. And for that reason, the film invokes the crisis without ever really being a movie about AIDS. Unlike Christopher Ashley’s film Jeffrey (1995), Frisk never grants us easy answers as to how sexual practices—especially those fetishizing death—might be modified to eliminate risk. We never even know if any of the characters in Frisk are HIV positive.
The hostility directed at Frisk suggests that gay audiences, at least in 1996, expected gay filmmakers to make “safe” gay films. If this were true, depictions of s/m would become off-limits, because the performance of risk is central to such practices. By invoking the specter of AIDS in relation to s/m, Frisk might still be an uncomfortable experience for some viewers. But it shouldn’t be dismissed simply because of audience expectations, as these have surely changed since 1996. In retrospect, it is easier to acknowledge that the terms are more complicated than “negative” and “positive” portrayals, and that cinematic merit cannot be judged through the blind spots of political correctness.