I had just proposed to my boyfriend over the phone from Key West, Florida when a skinny silver-haired pavement philosopher named Durf caught my eye with a “wanna see what I do?” invite. Elated by my man’s answer and an overwhelming experience on what is the Florida Keys biggest and most glittering of baubles I too offered a firm “yes”. Durf instantly sat cross-legged on the kerb between two parked cars and produced a flat pane of wood and a magnifying glass. Possibly endorsing a mantra written on his own pushbike – “Key West – where the weird go pro” – Durf proved that the Key West weird can also go beautiful as this literal burning man continued a magnifying glass sun-seared portrait of John Lennon onto the idle piece of wood. And with no need for a dollar tip or faux interest on either side, the encounter was over.
Despite its growing scene and historic queer pockets, the state of Florida is not historically known for its LGBT tolerance. The infamous orange juice magnate and crucifix licking Anita Bryant became one of America and Florida’s most famous homophobes in the 1970s (and in turn gave the queer scene a great, inadvertent platform to prove her sentiments wrong). But things change. Even America. And even Florida. So leading that particular march at the southern tip of the United States is Key West – the lowest hanging glitterball on the American map. And just like Durf and his John Lennon portraits, it is not afraid to put its gay culture under the magnifying glass and let the sparks fly.
Just 127 miles off the Miami coast, Key West is nearer Cuba than mainland America and shares the climate and flora of the Bahamas. It is estimated about a third of Key West’s population identifies as LGBT, with the other two thirds possibly identifying as not bothered. Pink icons Divine, Sylvester, Grace Jones and Madonna would appear at the now-gone disco havens The Copa and The Monster, long-term resident Tennessee Williams penned landmark works in his Duncan Street pad, a significant 1980s tourist push fuelled predominantly by LGBT businesses taking a punt on ailing streets and premises gave a renaissance to the island, openly gay men and women are elected to political, police and civic office without fanfare (the Key West of the 1980s boasted one of America’s first out gay mayors) and today it is estimated nearly a quarter of a million LGBT folk a year visit from around the globe.
There’s a sort of Saturday-whatever-the-day feel to Key West. Moped-straddling tourists clutch half-quaffed Mojitos as they weave through the chilled tsunami of mopeds and push bikes, palm trees stand sentry over gingerbread timber cottages with wraparound verandas and freshly rolled cigars are as plentiful as the keynote roosters crossing the road like feathery drag queens on the 5am walk of shame home. Boasting a near Caribbean climate (there is no winter as such) and flanked by the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, Key West may well be only four square miles in size but climate and attitude facilitate plenty of year-round allures.
Gay Spring Break, Kamp Key West, Key West Pride, the SMART Ride, the annual LGBT Cocktail Classic Competition, Fantasy Fest, Tropical Heat, Womenfest, the Headdress Ball and Hot Pink Holidays are just some of the more official circles on Key West’s gay calendar. Often spearheaded by the LGBT Key West Business Guild (whose welcoming Information Centre on Truman Avenue comes with its own must-see, free and camp-as-Christmas Tennessee Williams exhibition), these wholly inclusive events are testimony to Key West’s commitment to celebrate not tolerate. And it doesn’t take much for a celebration in Key West.
Often at the epicentre of these events is the popular Island House resort. Habitually heralded by the likes of OUT Traveller as “the best gay resort in the world”, Island House is an all-male, timber-decked enclave of contemporary and sizable rooms with all barely a towel flick’s distance from a pool and its well-equipped bar, food, hot tubs, steam rooms, gym, sundeck and sarong stash. The clothing optional Island House welcomes non-residents (as do many of the key B&B’s) and is often the happy hour launch pad for many a raucous night on the Key West tiles. Likewise, the Equator Resort and Alexander’s Guesthouse are notable pins on the LGBT hotel map with an equal focus on poolside hellos, hook ups and cocktails. Equator possibly caters for more of the male traveller, his partner and any new friends that might be collected along the way in that glass bricked hot-tub, whilst Alexander’s Guesthouse and Lighthouse Court have a fresher, more bespoke slant and perhaps a more inclusive clientele that bucks the [sometimes] male demographic of Key West’s scene. Lighthouse Court was a striking base for this writer with its émigré fixtures, canvas canopies and lush greenery. Ernest Hemingway’s elegant home and nearby mid-19th century lighthouse are neighbours – with the latter becoming my really useful marker when doing that walk of shame home alongside those roosters and the former becoming a tranquil, iced-coffee-in-hand antidote to the revelries of Duval Street only a block away.
Should you not want to walk – though it is sometimes the quickest way to navigate the connecting back-alleys and witness the flourishing Bahamian vegetation, side bars and pop-up eateries – local companies offer easy moped and push bike rentals. Though please remember some bicycles’ reverse brake mechanism as this cycle-novice writer didn’t and nearly had to do some major back-pedalling when almost crashing into a loaded hearse and its mourners wending out of an episcopal church. With a camera in hand meander on foot from Duval Street’s main drag of bars, wine and song to Mallory Square’s family and sunset skewed plaza – a sort of 1950s Disney take on a Cuban precinct. Or go in the opposite direction and literally walk to the southernmost point of America and witness the southernmost line of tourists waiting to get a southernmost snap of themselves being southernmost. There is something gloriously yesteryear about cycling through Key West, seeing your passing reflection in the bay window shop fronts, checking the small planes overhead as they soar the line of the telegraph wires and throwing that new shirt into the basket for him back home. Assuming you do not rise to kerbside bar-flies jokily suggesting one challenges the neighbouring car to a drag race start when the lights change – I did, and lost – the bike option is much recommended. As is remembering where you’ve parked said bike after a few early evening libations at the island’s many drinking holes.
Of course the Bourbon Street Pub complex is now a Key West gay classic with an ever unfurling array of drinking zones, dance-floors, outdoor pools, hot tubs, bars and carpeted split-level sundecks. One spacious bar houses the nightly go-go dancers – a smiley, ever rotating mix of ‘Men of Bourbon’ carefully navigating folk’s drinks and comfort zones like a laser-lit, Yo Sushi chorus line. It would be a lie to say we didn’t pocket a dollar or two away (to see just where some tattoos ended) but it is all done with a knowing wink from a uni-twink or two just “working their way through college”.
The Key West Pub is a brand new LGBT drinking pin on the map and provides the best Dark & Stormy cocktail (I know because the writer pals I was with got me one on engagement day and I have yet to find one as good – and I have put in the field work, believe me). The drag-sync circuit is ably served by 801 Bourbon and the Aqua nightclub and its fierce queens, the Aquanettes. Despite a seemingly regular crowd of out-of-town college girls and hen nights hard at work Instagramming just how queer-friendly they are, the likes of former Miss Gay America Maya, the gymnastic Elle and her fellow Aquanettes ably hold court.
And just behind 801 Bourbon is Saloon One and its Friday night Cock Shock – a veritable appendage ‘competition’ far less daunting and tawdry than it sounds. This writer believed the morning-after prizes on his bedside table were for “most travelled” member – which made reassuring sense as my journey from London and a flash of the passport was surely enough to bypass any podium displays of said appendage. When the vodka and cranberry clouds cleared a few days later I remembered there was a “ginger prize” too. And I may have won that. Here’s hoping the judging criteria at 1.30am was clutching at straws and nothing else. But that is the allure of Key West. The wheels come off. And often stay off.
Key West’s most striking attribute is easily its vibrant sense of community. There is an infectious passion to the restaurant, bar, hotel and shop owners. It is predicated on a pride of produce, a pride of location and a pride of community. The eateries particularly are not always awash with tourists. These are places everyone goes to – locals, workers and those keen just to hang out. Of course there is an influx of folk at the weekends. But one of the inadvertent spectator sports is watching the straight, middle aged rocker couples slowly falling out as she wants to stay and he has realised there are gay bars on all sides.
Food wise, at the more lavish end is the palatial Pier House and its Harbourview Café. The deck seating, syrup-hued evenings and the Crispy Tailed Yellow Snapper with jasmine rice is a beyond sexy combo. As is the marina backdrop to any lunch at the Hyatt Resort and Spa – a veritable game-show prize of moored yacht indulgence and recovery cocktails. More low-key is Square One – the restaurant legacy of a gay couple who worked up its reputation before moving on but have left one particularly skilled veteran barman Patrick (known brilliantly as Patticakes) who can spin up a mean Manhattan to flank your crab-cakes and shrimps. Aside from the family run Abbondanza Italian restaurant and its nifty cannelloni, one of this trip’s dining highlights was easily the pared down but no less polished Flaming Buoy Filet Company. Run by Star Wars mad couple Scot and Fred (but fear not – aside from a Boba Fett figurine propping up the bar this ain’t a fan diner), the force is mightily strong with their vision of a neighbourhood restaurant and a pan-seared Fresh Catch with a Banana Salsa and broccoli cake sent from heaven (or Endor).
Wine buffs are notably served, with restaurant and wine bar staff very agile at explaining the reasoning behind their best bottles. VinO on Duval is a sprawling, elegant example (with a great hidden door switch for the restrooms – well, it was great after that second glass of Merlot); as is the insight of Mark Certonio’s Lush bar. The quietly passionate Mark has not only created the annual Key West Food & Wine Festival (January-February), but also hosts a fascinating chocolate bean-to-bar experience at Lush with carefully chosen wines to augment the chocolate tasting, and vice versa. Provided with a hot pestle and mortar, crushed cocoa nibs, butter, chipped fruit and Mark’s savvy palate, the chocolate bar creating and wine tasting session at Lush is a full-on workout of the senses, arm muscles and preconceptions. And you get to take your efforts home with you.
Likewise, Paul Menta’s First Legal Rum Distillery is a blessing for the rum and Coke fans. Aptly housed in a former 1903 Coca-Cola bottling facility, Menta’s workplace and zeal is equally addictive. Flanked by pipes, coolers, barrels, gauges and all manner of fine-line physics, Menta’s distillery is a lesson in patience and knowhow. See, it’s that passion again.
Hot on the notion of protecting and promoting that “community” is Kate Miano. A welcoming firecracker of a Key West hostess, Kate owns The Gardens Hotel – a graceful tropical retreat of luxury Bahamian style apartments and gardens. The likes of Oprah Winfrey and George Clooney fill out the guest book and a Sunday gin, jazz by the pool and maybe another gin is a local favourite for residents and non-residents alike. Miano will read out local notices and announcements, underlining that sense of community and you realise you have bumped into a lot of faces twice already (though hopefully not at Cock Shock). Another similar drinking hole is La Te Da. A restaurant, hotel and cabaret venue (the beautiful upstairs Crystal Bar is worth a reservation or at least a look), La Te Da is a hardwood and check-tiled social marker boasting high-end drag and cabaret performers, a lobby piano bar and classic Conch dining. La Te Da is also where the chattiest, friendliest women seem to be found and is all the more refreshing for it.
Duval Street particularly (where the majority of rainbow flags hang) has maybe the more diverse array of shops, stores and art galleries. Yes there are the ubiquitous beach shops shifting plastic and nylon, but Towels of Key West is now stocking a great range of original vintage tees designed by the owner Kent Henry (including bygone airline logos with Florida links – such as Pan Am), Graffiti is a flashback-dream of belts, trainers, shirts and delicious satchels and Evolution stocks the Long Lost Tees range of fresh eyed t-shirts and logos from the island’s 60s and 70s clubbing, air travel and bar heritage.
Like all islands, Key West – or Bone Island as it used to be historically known (oh the schoolboy sniggering we had when ghost tour guide David Sloan asked why that might be) – has a water culture that informs and steers the island. This is still a key dictated to by the elements. But assuming they are on side (and they usually are), take the time to explore the waters. The team at Lazy Dog took us on a glorious, hangover-busting kayak trip through the mangroves. From someone who it seems cannot stop a pedal bike, taking to the iguana flanked waters could have posed dicey. But under the relaxed tutelage of the Lazy Dog team this became a seriously great chapter of the trip as a detailed kayaking tour of the crabs, jelly fish, sponges and birds of the mangroves and environs soon unfurled.
A slightly grander [gayer] trip is the rainbow flagged Blu Q cruise. A predominantly male only trip, this is nevertheless an energised sail out onto the dolphin-flecked Atlantic with snorkelling, kayaking, lunch on a sand bar or doing absolutely nothing as options. There is something fairly addictive about pounding along with Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album at full blast, clutching a Sangria and mentally sticking two fingers up at the sedate boats and married passengers realising the rainbow flag means a boat load of scantily-clad gay pirates who will pounce – or flounce – at any time. Of course like a lot of Key West the Blu Q trip has a clothing optional element but I didn’t partake – mainly because my prize-winning Celtic ginger undercoat would not have benefitted from such snorkel and flipper accessorising.
Equally exquisite was possibly my highlight of the entire trip. Danger Charters (who are anything but) mount a nightly Wind and Wine Sunset Sail into the Gulf of Mexico on a bygone schooner. Never one to get totally excited by sunsets (Key West is very proud of theirs), I had my mind changed in, well, the time it took for the sun to descend quite spectacularly onto the ocean’s horizon. Attended to by the lovely Amber and her lush platter of fresh hors d’oeuvres, the sunset sail is marked by at least seven individually sourced wines, beers and Champagnoise. With plentiful top ups and a realisation why the skipper asks all passengers to keep hold of the ropes when standing, this final night trip was the stuff of pipedreams you never realised you had. That syrup-hued sunset, petrol blue waters and the timber silhouettes of fellow schooners was beyond incredible and easily the greatest visual gift the keys gave me (aside from one or two of the tattooed go-go boys at Bourbons and maybe a chicken literally crossing the road).
Key West is within quick reach from Miami International Airport. American Airlines operate their uber-easy Eagle service for the final leg and the small Key West Airport is a pared-down delight of a cute terminal with at least one hot security frisker one should try and make a post-fluffing beeline for. Key West is a place of great privilege – with perhaps the utmost benefit being the people you will meet. It is a soul-feeding glitterball hanging off the coast of Southern America, a brassy mistress of an LGBT destination.
With thanks to Steve Murray-Smith, Carol Shaughnessy, Jo Thomas, the Key West Business Guild, the Florida Keys & Key West Group and KBC PR & Marketing. And of course Douglas Baulf, Kenny Porpora and Collin Spencer.
For further information, or to visit Key West, go to: www.fla-keys.com
This article originally appeared in Beige magazine.
All photos © Mark O’Connell
As part of LGBT History Month, Catching Bullets’ Mark O’Connell is joining a host of academics and artistes as they discuss artefacts from the Petrie Museum’s Egyptian collection and the stories they tell about the concepts of desire, both ancient and modern. And yes, 1970s Egyptian bullet The Spy Who Loved Me may well come up in conversation (!).
OBJECTS OF DESIRE
Thursday 26 Feb 2014 / 6pm (doors open 6pm, event starts at 6.30pm)
The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
University College London
Tickets – £3 (over 16 years old )
020 7679 4138 | firstname.lastname@example.org
For tickets and more details : http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/whats-on/#1211
Hosted by Egyptologist and cineaste John J Johnston. Mark O’Connell will also be signing copies of Catching Bullets and the evening promises to be a fun, informative and relaxed look at Egyptian culture and the representations and interpretations of desire.
Please note : on Thursday March 26th 2015 the Petrie Film Club is hosting a screening of the Egyptian bound The Spy Who Loved Me at the Petrie Museum. What better way and setting to experience Roger Moore’s 1977 Egyptian foray.
For more details : http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/whats-on/#1211
Opening on a quietly hilarious riff on the all-macho city-break that is Deliverance, Season 2 of HBO’s intelligent, honest and razor-witted Looking once again rows gloriously upstream against the tide of gay telly clichés with a tighter confidence one only gets in the sophomore year.
“I really think that this weekend should be about the three of us together, not two hundred naked homos crammed in a pool” – Patrick (Jonathan Groff), Episode 1, Season Two
Of course it is not long before Patrick’s sober plans to hug ancient redwood trees and observe rare woodpeckers are swiftly replaced by booze, pills, plentiful peckers of a different kind and doing all sorts of nocturnal things against trees. One party invite from some sandbank-partying homos (“bring the clone and the seal pup!”) and a camp Cockette-ish fawn giving directions in the moonlight and we’re off – lost in music amidst a glorious opener marked by savvy slo-mo, some sharp editing and rich photography, a Sister Sledge classic and some pretty hot censor-baiting loving.
So where are our triumvirate of characters now? Ex-artist and career narcissist Augustin (Frankie J. Álvarez) is still trying to be less Augustin with varying success. Pop-up restaurateur wannabe Dom (Murray Bartlett) is now playing gay rugby and half-dating the “Dame Gladioli of The Castro” and flower shop mogul Lynn (Scott Bakula), but still over-panicking at the hands and minds that want to help him. And unlike the audience, main character Patrick (Jonathan Groff) appears to be over the soulful, barber boy Richie (Raúl Castillo) and the romance which so marked out Looking at the non-cynical tableau of gay American life. Or is he…? Following the end-of-season cliff-hanger (though Looking is not really a cliff-hanger show – it just ends on perfectly random anthems and bittersweet conclusions), the single Patrick is now seeing British software boss Kevin (Russell Tovey) who it seems is far from single. Series Two very quickly (though quietly) does not want us to like this new direction for Patrick.
Afraid to tell close friends Augustin and Dom he has been seeing Kevin all over the workplace, over-sensitive Patrick is however more confident about sex – both doing it and talking about it. The joy of Looking is the raw, fresh and recognisable dialogue. Looking talks like people talk (“straight people never have to think about squirting water up their ass before sex”). It is not about being candid or shocking. It is about being real. Part of the continued authenticity in season two is that – from the outset – these three characters believe they have evolved and learnt their lessons. The show naturally has to update and evolve. But Looking knows life is not like that. There is of course a sense of progression, but possibly marked more by the side characters taking to the story podium too. This is still Patrick, Dom and Augustin’s gig. However, Wave Two of Looking astutely lets some the support figures evolve proceedings too.
We learn more about Tovey’s Kevin and his British childhood in Romford (“is that like Wimbledon?” wonders Patrick). He confesses to adolescent stirrings over breakfast TV to boy-band Take That (and many a Brit guy of a certain age will wholeheartedly attest to taking that as all we could get pre -internet) and the click-rate on one of the band’s earlier twinky videos will rise when folk see Kevin’s rendition of the dance moves in question. He is not painted as such, and it is because he is not the kind Richie (in many ways the most personally sorted and clued up of all the Looking characters), but Kevin increasingly feels like the series villain despite thawing towards Patrick when their sex life finally finds a bed rather than a works store cupboard to continue in.
Of course firecracker fag hag Doris (the brilliant Lauren Weedman) is on early hand to lead the boys astray – “so you guys thought you were going to have your little sausage party without me?!”. But instead of being some comedy appendage, or “catnip for the lesbians” as she describes herself, Doris is soon afforded her own love story as the forty-something party girl meets her own [tangled] love story. Though that is very much after we are told Doris was last seen at the redwood party topless on a jet ski and offering a Navy salute to the lesbians. And there is a new character in the bear-shaped, Trans support worker Eddie (Mean Girls’ Daniel Franzese) – “the hairy assed mother of the Mission”. One moonlit skinny dip later and the kind Eddie is soon embarking upon a steadier, purer friendship with Augustin that the latter might be used to. Added to that, Castillo‘s Richie is accidentally back in the mix (yay!) and Bakula’s Lynn is possibly a gift horse with sharper teeth than Dom imagined.
When it launched in early 2014, everything the detractors threw at Looking was exactly why it worked. As Season Two underlines now even more, it is still not a peaks and troughs screaming cliché of a comedy-drama. If anything – and this is possibly the point – Tovey’s gossip-shy Kevin is the queer cliché, the less content and more troubled victim of the piece. Kevin is soon part of the uncomfortable Richie/Kevin dilemma Patrick is battling with – all of which is heightened with the latter’s scary talk of work-visa expirations and asides about gaining citizenship through marriage. At least Augustin’s problems don’t stem from his homosexuality. Or Dom’s. Or even Patrick’s. They might think they do with a private sense of martyrdom that some gay guys are wont to have, but the skill of Looking is it adeptly pricks all that with narrative ease and a scathing quip – always suggesting the characters fears, inadequacies and paranoia are actually universal to us all.
HIV/AIDS and the [now] higher agenda of the Trans communities situation have a greater presence than Season One. Hypochondriac Patrick gets a whole episode to worry that letting the bed bug bite might be something worse in a town where HIV tests are “given out like coffee stirrers“, and bear Eddie’s “Home In Virginia” status and telling tattoo is introduced with an ease and normalcy San Francisco has of course had to become the master of.
The momentum of the glorious nirvana that is the opening episode is somewhat lost in the couple that follow, but that is no fault. Every triumphant weekend needs a comedown – especially in San Francisco. Still sharply aware of the corridors of social media all our thumbs roam up and down (“You can’t shout at a homeless person…homeless people have Twitter accounts“), show runner Andrew Haigh, creator Michael Lannan and fellow writers are now free of the need to establish these characters and their world. Now is the time to enjoy the series template they have established. San Francisco is still the fairy godmother to the show, but without the gay landmarks turning into postcards of themselves. This is still a very familiar gay-by-the-Bay town. With a clever and often joyous soundtrack (continuing Looking’s musical habit of reminding you loved certain tracks you haven’t heard for years), it is already a TV privilege to be in these character’s company again.
Season 2 of Looking begins in the US on January 11th 2015 and in the UK on Sky Atlantic at 2255 on 5th February 2015.
Some thoughts on Season One of the show, Through the LOOKING Glass.
With thanks to Sky Atlantic and HBO.
From an opening fumble in the cruising bushes of a San Francisco park, HBO’s new series Looking makes great play of not really being another gay show that starts with an opening fumble in the cruising bushes of a San Francisco park. Our main guy Patrick (Jonathan Groff) is already on the phone joking with his nearby pals like friends lost in a zoo no-one visits anymore. Already the path-paving brilliance of Russell T Davies’ Queer As Folk and its American remake cousin with all their nubile young lovelies and their helium heels hauled skywards now somehow seems so turn of the century.
Less a gold lamé baton handed on from the hindsight, camp and shock of Tales of The City, Will and Grace and Queer As Folk respectively, HBO’s Looking is not about running forwards. Like British director Andrew Haigh’s previous [and pitch-perfect] feature Weekend (2011), this is about half-seen exchanges outside busy bars and stolen conversations on various Lower Haight sofas as the work talk and weed pipes get passed round as inconsequentially as the prawn crackers from a Thai takeout (not a euphemism!). “I’m proud of you – you’re a pervert now” dismisses one of Patrick’s friends as Looking quickly proves it is not about coming-out stories, Cher gags, fantasy Madonna dance-offs in the bus queue or bottom licking commotions. This is not Sex And The City but just done with gay men replacing the ladies. We’ve had that. It was called Sex And The City.
Everything the possible detractors will level at Looking is exactly why it works. It is not a peaks and troughs screaming queen of a comedy-drama with sexual pratfalls and verbal grenades. Nor does it wear its politics on its leather/denim/tattooed sleeves. Equal marriage, Prop 8 and DOMA is not its agenda as it is not all of ours either. The show and us are aware of the principles at stake, but how many of us really fuss about it 24/7? When very straight comedies and dramas are tapping gay marriage as a narrative normality, it would be wrong of Looking to be throwing its bouquets out the pram in every episode (a wedding episode obviously touches upon such matters but from Patrick’s perspective of messing life up with his intended plus-one).
The opening story especially is a wilful almost inconsequential slow build – an afternoon-paced overture to these characters lives that may lose some viewers, but please stick with it. Episode Five is a beautifully languid Before Midnight exploration of a day off in Golden Gate Park, the planetarium and the kind of affecting character interplay which only Haigh’s Weekend ever got right in recent times. Yes, Looking is savvy enough to throw in a Golden Girls put-down (what isn’t, Rose?), but its gay pulse is not predicated on them.
Spring-boarding off creator Michael Lannan’s previous short film Lorimer (2011), there is actually an affecting delicacy to the lives and exchanges of games designer Patrick, lost artist Augustin (Frankie J Alvarez) and nearly-forty waiter Dom (Murray Bartlett). Like San Francisco itself, the differences and expressions of everyone’s sexuality is a given. There are no closeted jocks or intimate-shy handmaidens here. Moving too fast is a deliberate fault of some characters sex lives, but never the show’s writing or insight into at least three generations of contemporary gay men. These are [almost] nice people doing their thing – the Augustin character is a deliberate hard sell and carved with such pitfalls of attitude one realises he is totally familiar. The difference here is that for gay audiences – for good or bad – this is our thing now; and as one character astutely notes, “guys are guys”.
A key motif of Looking is “being who we think we are”. For the trio of main characters “looking” is indeed key. But looking for what? Maybe some are looking for love, intimacy, a better street to live on, better praise from their peers, better sex from a threesome (or not) or just looking for others who are also dissatisfied with their lot to validate everything (Augustin’s problem). All held together with a solid cast, the show slowly pulls you in. Whilst how Groff’s Patrick really knows Alvarez and Bartlett is perhaps not flagged up enough early on, the friendships are believable with a pleasing short-hand and explanations do arise without surprise.
Likewise Lauren Weedman’s Doris is a savvy, bubble-bursting best mate, Raúl Castillo’s Richie is a hot and kind Mexican and Scott Bakula is an old guard Castro florist with age and hindsight on his side – “we still had sex, but it was friendlier” he notes about the one-night stands of the 1980s and 1990s. Cyber-dating is of course a support app of the show – unavoidably used but not exclusively. Though there will be many a moment when some of us in the audience look to our overpriced brogues with acute embarrassment at the behaviour on show. Patrick and pals research their past and present dalliances and shag-obsessions on the Instagrams, okaycupid.coms and Grindrs of this world. Characters over-worry about the Instagram photos of a dinner date and the successful exes now with their own Wikipedia page. But their real stories are often advanced from chance encounters on the MUNI train, accidental glances through a bar doorway, in an empty sauna and works drinks nights. The relationship between Patrick and Richie is particularly lo-fi, not remotely reliant on new technologies. The politics of “friending” on social media and being “an 82%” match“ is rolled out, but so too are the real-life concerns about what messages Patrick gives his new Brit boss Kevin (Russell Tovey) when working overtime on a Sunday and when exactly does a three-way become a problem or a plus? And just when is it no longer polite to mock the Brits after too many bottles of free Bud?!
But is it identifiable to non-San Franciscan, non-American audiences? Of course it is. In the same way Haigh’s Weekend chimed with Top Ten film lists the world over, Looking is a wholly identifiable show, carved with the same incisiveness of its creators previous work. “If I was embarrassed about it, I wouldn’t do it” is a telling line from content, well-earning sex-worker CJ the adrift artist Augustin desperately wants to be like. Not every piece of dialogue need be a barnstormer. Not every quip requires its own t-shirt. Though “you gave him a winky, smiling face? What are you – a Japanese teenager?might do the rounds. It is never a glib show. Nor is it a dot.com, labels and luxury lifestyle fest. With an easy blend of ages and social backgrounds, Looking is thankfully never about whiny, white rich gays. The basement apartments, corridors and streets of Looking are worn and lived in. Like the characters and their love lives, not everything is new and shiny but all of it is functional. That is what San Francisco affords this series. And that is why it is the vital fourth character. Real-life Castro drag artists Peaches Christ and Honey Mahogany are on well-manicured hand, the Castro Theater cinema is the noble granddame backdrop it always has been, the leather-bound Folsom Street Fair plays itself to great effect mid-way through the series, Dolores Park plays Dolores Park, The Stud bar is a location must and the forever-vintage streets of Mission Dolores, Market, the Castro and their pizza [and men] by-the-slice sidewalks are recognisable to anyone familiar with the worlds of Maupin and Milk. What San Francisco brings to Looking is what the show itself gets very right. It is that sense of community, of a neighbourhood of characters and shared experiences often ticking over through nothing but an inexplicable and shared shorthand.
We may not have had the best timeline of televisual representation over the decades. But what doesn’t always embody us makes us stronger – and all that article-writing jazz (maybe). The landmark likes of Tales of The City, Queer As Folk, Will And Grace, Angels In America, Beautiful People, Queer As Folk and the queer Carrington boy in Dynasty may have been all we had. But they were still ours. Looking represents a smart new chapter. Season Two has been greenlit and audiences – despite a minority of initial and lazy reactions declaring “it’s boring” (it’s not) – have grown and spiked just as the series and its wise writing has. And in the fun, warm, unexpectedly raw, real and fresh-telling style it has on offer, going through this Looking glass could well bring us to a wonderful wonderland.
“I have always been rather better treated in San Francisco than I actually deserved.” – Mark Twain
With a candid, fun, emotional, unpredictable and very contemporary tale of gay by the Bay life in 2014 San Francisco, HBO’s imminent comedy-drama Looking is to set a few tongues wagging, a few hearts pounding and a few digital-daters looking to their overpriced brogues in acute embarrassment.
What HBO say :
“Looking offers up the unfiltered experiences of three close friends living — and loving — in modern-day San Francisco. Friendship may bind them, but each is at a markedly different point in his journey: Patrick (Jonathan Groff) is the 29-year-old video game designer getting back into the dating world in the wake of his ex’s engagement; aspiring artist Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), 31, is questioning the idea of monogamy amid a move to domesticate with his boyfriend; and the group’s oldest member — longtime waiter Dom (Murray Bartlett), 39 — is facing middle age with romantic and professional dreams still unfulfilled.
The trio’s stories intertwine and unspool dramatically as they search for happiness and intimacy in an age of unparalleled choices — and rights — for gay men. Also important to the Looking mix is the progressive, unpredictable, sexually open culture of the Bay Area, with real San Francisco locations serving as a backdrop for the group’s lives. Rounding out the Looking world are a bevy of dynamic gay men including Kevin (Britain’s Russell Tovey), Lynn (Scott Bakula), and Richie (Raul Castillo), as well as a wide-range of supporting characters like Dom’s roommate Doris (Lauren Weedman), Agustín’s boyfriend Frank (O.T. Fagbenle), and Patrick’s co-worker Owen (Andrew Law).”
Directed by Brit director Andrew Haigh (whose feature Weekend regularly frequents global lists of the top LGBT films of all time and is one of the most honest, incisive looks at British thirty-somethings regardless of sexuality) this HBO-produced 8 part series is a frank, fresh, political, post-Grindr and purposely zeitgeist-steered look at all kinds of looking in the one city in the world where every street has a view and every view has a story.
Shot in the Fall of 2013 throughout the city, Looking features such fitting locales as The Castro and its pizza [and men] by the slice culture, the legendary Stud Bar, the leather-bound Folsom Street Fair, the Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences, the remnants of the Sutro Baths and Mission Dolores. Added to that ample location support cast, Looking peppers this first series with apt nods to and appearances by San Francisco’s real-life LGBT cast members (including the vixen cine-matrix herself Peaches Christ and Midnight Sun’s Honey Mahogany).
Looking debuts on HBO in the US on January 19th 2014 and in the UK on Sky Atlantic on the 27th January 2014.
A review will follow.
And if you haven’t seen Andrew Haigh’s previous Weekend, then it is a British-must!
November 13th 2013 marked the night the Polari Salon had its annual Polari First Book Prize. Catching Bullets – Memoirs of a Bond Fan was on the shortlist this year so attendance in spesh clothing and clean shoes was a must. And no, I didn’t wear the Octopussy dressing gown or Roger Moore ski-suit despite hinting on Twitter I would (the many open stairs at the Southbank Centre rendered the Octopussy nightgown a no-no for anyone underneath not wanting to cop a peek).
And what a grand night it was, putting – as ever for a Polari gathering – the great and the
good better all together to honour all guises of the queer word – spoken, sung, poetry, narrative fiction, non-fiction, stand-up, performance art and speech. And that was just host Paul Burston’s entrance!
Before the Prize winner was announced, Polari took on its more familiar monthly form. The nights are held at London’s Southbank Centre, cost a very fair fiver and represent two hours (plus interval, book and beverage stall) of the best LGBT readers and writers out there. This month’s menu of salonistas included Rosie Garland, Patrick Flanery, Dee Chanelle, Helen Lederer, Dean Atta and Charlotte Mendelson. It is hard and wrong to underline faves, but Patrick Flanery’s prose was fragile and quick-fire, Dean Atta’s stand-up poetry struck a very contemporary and sadly apt chord (“racism is institutionalised thinking“), singer Dee Chanelle gave the Brazilian street dancers a run for their volume-levels next door and Helen Lederer (a comedy hero of mine) was typically self-deprecating all over the podium.
And then to the grand master-plan, the denouement of the night and Polari’s crowning glory – the Polari First Book Prize 2013. Announced in true “Acadamee Award” style by the quietly incisive VG Lee (a new comedy hero of mine), the Societe Generale sponsored trophy went to Mari Hannah and The Murder Wall. A lovely winner clearly in awe of her charity telethon sized and much deserved cheque took to the stage and made winners of us all. Okay, she didn’t at all. Nor should she. It was her moment and she earned it. Us other four shortlistees got to go home with the ‘win’ that Polari and Paul Burston took us under his sterling wing. Not only have I been asked to read at Polari this year but I have seen first-hand the immense value and support mechanism it represents for queer writers. Writing is a lonely practise at the best of times. Paul himself has rightfully remarked how writing needs a reader to complete the process. Polari allows all manner of voices a podium or chair or even sometimes just a Re-Tweet and gives an audience to so many people, including myself. That is worth its weight in gold. The use of words as help and support versus the use of words to hate and incite is still the centuries old dilemma of language. Even now the use of phrases like “dyke” or “queer” is over-worried by the over-worriers, when it is up to gay individuals to adopt it into their parlance and out of the box marked “abuse”. Included in the audience was Nigerian activist and TV host Funmi Iyanda and out-gay Nigerian Bisi Alimi (now a welcome UK resident having had to flee his home country and family). The pair have their own [and sadly very] valid LGBT story to tell and THIS is where Polari is more than a few dykes and queers supping Pinot from plastic glasses in the name of literature (not that Burston would allow that complacency to sink in – hence his ever changing rota of readers and performers).
Polari and the work and efforts of its alumni, audience regulars (the life and pulse of each monthly gathering), venue owners and just those that pass the word on is one of the greatest LGBT assets in London and indeed the UK (where Polari is stretching its wings north – see here).
Furthermore, Paul and his team of judges give their time and efforts to reading the longlist and shortlisted titles and for my tale of a 1980s Bond fan to even get dropped on the “to read” pile is the stuff of privilege.
The Polari First Book Prize 2013 judges this year:
Paul Burston (Chair of Judges) – author, journalist and host of Polari.
Bidisha – writer, critic and broadcaster
Suzi Feay – literary critic
Rachel Holmes – author and former Head of Literature at the Southbank Centre
VG Lee – author and comedian
Joe Storey-Scott – books buyer
The Polari First Book Prize 2013 shortlist:
The Murder Wall by Mari Hannah (Pan Macmillan)
Tony Hogan Bought Me An Icecream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson (Chatto & Windus)
The Sitar by Rebecca Idris (self-published ebook)
Catching Bullets – Memoirs of a Bond Fan by Mark O’Connell (Splendid Books)
The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf (Chatto & Windus)
For more on Polari and why you should get along, click here.