Streamers (review)

Don’t Ask? Do Tell

It’s almost impossible to watch this 1983 Robert Altman film today — Streamers is finally getting its first Region 1 DVD release (it has been available in Region 2) — with the mindset of the time in which it was created. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing… and in fact, that mental schism ends up highlighting just how much some things have changed in so relatively short a time. And how much some things haven’t changed.
Based on a play by David Rabe that was written in the late 1970s and set in the 1960s, this is the tale of a band of soldiers about to be shipped off to Vietnam who discover that one of their own is a homosexual. Years before the abomination of the military’s policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” gay soldiers weren’t telling anyway, because they knew the crap they’d have to endure as a result, and the threat of that impending crap is what looms over the story. Small-scale and made for the stage, the film is compact in its physical and emotional space — it takes place entirely in one night in the soldiers’ barracks; on the retrospective bonus featurette, actor Mitchell Lichtenstein calls Altman’s (A Prairie Home Companion, The Company) descision to constrain the production to one location “the best of theater and film,” and actor Matthew Modine praises it as “claustrophobically trapped” — so that looming is the primary suspense the film holds for us today.

There was an additional suspense Streamers would have held for viewers 30 years ago: Which of the soldiers is the gay one? It’s not revealed for quite a while as the soldiers talk about their lives, their fears, their dreams, and all the things that people on the verge of a major personal upheaval — like going to war — worry about. Is it Carlyle (Michael Wright: Oz, V) or Roger (David Alan Grier [An American Carol, Bewitched], in his first film appearance), for whom gayness would be an additional burden on top of their blackness in a society that denigrates both? Is it handsome, arrogant tough guy Billy (Modine: Transporter 2, Le Divorce)? Or is it sensitive, introspective Richie (Lichtenstein), who proudly calls himself pretty?

It is obvious to a 2010 audience that, clearly, Richie is gay… so obvious, in fact, that I spent half the running time second-guessing myself and the film. Wouldn’t it be dramatically interesting and vitally cliché-busting if it were Billy who turned out to be the one keeping the secret of his homosexuality? But a twist like that would only work today, when the openness of the past 30 years has led to new clichés (like that a “tough guy” can’t be gay, or that a sweet, fey guy must be). Of course mainstream audiences in the early 1980s — in the time before everything gay came out of the subculture closet — likely wouldn’t have guessed which character was gay. Hell, we didn’t even know the Village People were gay back then, and the thought that we could have been so blind sounds ridiculous.

No, Streamers is a product of a time when more basic misconceptions were still at work in the zeitgeist, and those are the ones getting explored here. And merely because we can look at this tale through eyes that were more enlightened than might have been conceived of when it was made doesn’t make it any less worthwhile. The performances alone are must-see — the ensemble cast, which also includes Guy Boyd and George Dzundza (Law & Order), won an unprecedented Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1983. But it’s the prospect of getting your mental boat rocked in an unexpected direction that is the most provocative reason to check this out. Attitudes can change, it seems, sometimes even for the better. That’s an optimistic notion for a pessimistic time.

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