Most of us are likely to have a list of favourite gay movies. To mine (which includes “Maurice,” “Beautiful Thing,” “Latter Days” and “Grande École”) a short film from 2007 has recently been added: “Heartland” by Mark Christopher.
The director and screenwriter was born at Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1963. He studied communication sciences at the University of Iowa and obtained an MFA at Columbia University, New York. For some years he lived in Portugal and Brazil; he is chiefly known as the maker of “54” (1998) and “Pizza” (2005).
Mark comes from an agrarian family (he learned to drive on a tractor), so it is quite possible that the adventures of the main character of “Heartland,” the farmer’s son H.G. Gudmanson, are at least partly based on Mark’s own experiences.
The twenty-one-year-old H.G. is studying cultural anthropology in New York and is having “the time of his life” there. But problems besetting his parental home, where his mother is conspicuous by her absence, force him to leave his lover, Martin, for a few weeks to offer a helping hand at the farm. Once there he realises how much he has become estranged from his roots. An evangelical friend from school who is wooing him creates a scene in the bar where he admits to her that he is gay.
The news spreads like wildfire and makes H.G.’s unstable father have even greater recourse to the bottle than usual; he refuses to leave his bed. The son would be all alone if it were not for Ryan McGonagle, a young farmhand who, after the death of his parents, is faced with the task of looking after his two sisters and his little brother. That brother is difficult and gets into trouble with the police. Ryan hardly gets any support from his friends: “They think I’m a loser, doing this. I mean, taking care of my family.” “Oh, great friends,” says H.G. And he promises to help the attractive Ryan wherever he can.
It is a highly charged scene. When H.G. takes off his T-shirt, Ryan casts a stealthy look at the undergraduate’s chest. Something is going on.
H.G. finds himself in a cleft stick: he is “a member of one tribe belonging to another.” On the one hand he forms part of liberal, intellectual New York where he doesn’t have to be ashamed of his sexual preferences. On the other hand he neither can nor wants to tear himself away from his native soil, the patrimony of his ancestors who toiled all their lives to build the business which is now about to collapse.
By night he drives his car to a lonely spot, “the middle of nowhere in the middle of nowhere,” to muse and play a bit on his guitar. Ryan happens to pass by and sits down next to him in the vehicle to drink the beer which H.G. offers to him. “I guess my biggest fear is losing momentum,” the student says. “Well, New York is not going anywhere...” says Ryan. By now the viewer suspects that he is not exactly waiting for H.G.’s return to the east coast. “It’s not so bad here. I mean, you’ll see... when you’ve got friends...”
The two clink their bottles, a significant silence ensues, and then the storm breaks, the boys embrace and kiss one another like mad. Paradise by the dashboard light! It is an impressive scene, masterly acted, masterly directed, one of the strongest homoerotic scenes I have ever seen on the silver screen. Full marks for the American Corey Sorenson, who plays H.G., and for the Briton Lachlan Nieboer, who plays Ryan.
Mark Christopher talked to Gay News on the phone and told me that shortly before shooting began in Pennsylvania, Sorenson and Nieboer were called “fags!” by a passer-by. “I then said to myself that I had hit upon a good combination,” he says with amusement. “They really act very well. The final scene is a bit violent, because pent-up frustrations explode.” It is Ryan who takes the initiative, who accepts his homosexuality, which constitutes a big step, considering his narrow-minded surroundings.
The only criticism of “Heartland,” I tell the director, is really a compliment: the film is all too short! The intriguing story deserves a more elaborate form — a long feature, or perhaps even a television series. “That’s right,” says Mark, “although I love short films. But I should like to turn the story into a fourteen-part serial. The script of the pilot is already written.”
In the concept H.G. uses his grant in an effort to solve his father’s financial problems. Ryan’s situation will be developed in much greater detail. He gives his recalcitrant brother a black eye and thereby ends up in the social service’s black books. And H.G.’s grandmother suspects from the start what’s going on between her grandson and Ryan. When the rest of the village finds out, the farm of the Gudmansons becomes a target for vandals. A state of affairs which in some parts of America is not unusual.
It is to be hoped that some day Mark will get the opportunity to make the series “Heartland.” He will have to find other actors for the main parts, though, for Sorenson and Nieboer (who has since made a guest appearance in “Downton Abbey”) have become too old. In the meantime one can see the short version on DVD, on Youtube or on the director’s website: www.markchristopherfilms.com.