Thursday, November 14, 2013

Bridegroom – the Documentary - A Review

Thomas Lee Bridegroom
If you google Knox, Indiana, you will learn that it is a remote small town in Northern Indiana.  According to the “City of Knox” website, it has a population 3721 in the 2000 census.  No mention of the 2010 census, which shows a drop to 3704, the figure you get from the Wikipedia page on Knox, Indiana.  The city flag is a picture of the Starke County Court House designed by a 16-year old who received $50 for her efforts.   The photo gallery on the website includes a picture of the red brick waste water plant and another the smiling face of somebody who would appear to be an employee of the waste water plant.  Among other pictures available for viewing is one of a very large man with a very dirty hoodie sitting at a table with a bag of potato chips and a bottle of Pepsi in his hand.

The more you read up on Knox, Indiana, the more you wonder if you haven’t been lifted into a skit on Saturday Night Live about small town America.

For all I know, the town could be a desirable place to live.  I’ve never been there.  I do know the average price of a house is around $82,000, about a tenth of the cost of houses in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live.   When people talk about two Americas, this is what they are talking about.  And we are still in the 99%, not the 1%. 

I come from a small town way back when and I understand the appeal.  Who knows?  If I had not been introduced to the place in such a negative way I might find it appealing.

I doubt it, actually.  Three folks from Knox decided to make a film satirizing the place.  They were so proud of their video they even created a blog giving background on how it was made.  Now that I’ve seen the corn and the grubby hoodie, I’m not making any plans.

The reason I know the name at all is that it’s the home town of Thomas Lee Bridegroom, a man who died a tragic and absurd death and became a celebrity when his lover told their story on YouTube. 

That story has now traveled around the world with four and a half million hits to the YouTube video and has been made into a documentary by filmmaker Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, which she titled Bridegroom.  It has been making the rounds at LGBT film festivals.  Its boosters include Oprah and Bill Clinton.  (Clinton showed up unexpectedly to introduce it when it was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.)  I saw it on Netflix streaming.

Bridegroom is the kind of film that you can’t criticize without at least a twinge of guilt and suspicion there might be something wrong with your heart.  Or unless you are totally committed to the belief that it’s your duty to turn your nose up at anything that smacks of sentimentality.  Or unless you need to trot out your sophistication by claiming to see through the maudlin display of emotion.  Why, you wonder, would anybody upload such personal agony onto YouTube.  The guy (Tom’s lover, Shane) clearly has a self-serving agenda.

This is a media-age story if ever there was one.  Tom and Shane kept video diaries and recorded their thoughts and feelings on a regular basis.  They sang and danced and recorded themselves singing and dancing.  Photographed not only their travels to Paris and Peru and the pyramids at Giza, but captured aerial shots of themselves hang-gliding.  When Shane expressed his grief, it is not surprising that he would put that online, too.  He called it “It Could Happen to You.”   

It was this ten-minute summary of his grief, which he posted on the first anniversary of Tom’s death, that gave Linda Bloodworth-Thomason the idea for a documentary.  Shane’s purpose in the video is clear – to warn others who are not able to get married that it is not enough to live together, own a business together, adopt a dog together, if you don’t have a will, unless you live in a state which recognizes same-sex marriage; Tom and Shane missed it in California by two years and twenty-days.  If it had not been for the Catholic/Mormon effort behind Prop. 8, they would have made it.

One critic – the one negative criticism at Rotten Tomatoes at this writing - called the film “monotonous, self-serving and downright mawkish.”   To defend his view he adds, “True, no one should have to go through what Shane Bitney Crone has gone through to keep his late potential husband’s memory alive… but no one should have to watch it in such excruciating detail either.”

Which brings up the heart of the matter, how much emotion can you include in telling a story before you cross the line into the offensive and the socially unacceptable?  Can grief be shown in the raw or must it be edited out?  Must you go into your closet when you cry?

Most people looking for a movie to watch want to be amused, entertained or edified, not emotionally exploited.  Exploitation, though, is like insult.  It can't happen if you don't take it in. I expect the full spectrum of reactions to this display of sorrow and loss.  In my case, I didn’t feel exploited at all.  Terribly sad and angry, but justifiably so, I think.  The last thing I would ask of the storyteller and filmmaker is that they tell their story another way.  One could have cut some of the tears perhaps, (and if you watch both the ten-minute video and the documentary, you’ll note that the filmmaker did just that), but to rub off the rough edges of this tragedy would have been to dishonor Tom Bridegroom’s memory.  It is, in my view, a story worth telling that will stick with you when you’re done.

Enough said about a single negative review.  There are two very good reasons for watching the movie.  One is that it’s an exquisitely touching love story.   Gay people have not had a whole lot of love stories to identify with.   We’re only now getting away from the main gay film genre, the tortured process of coming out.  Although the “I thought people like that killed themselves” genre is now history, if it’s not about coming out it’s likely about drugs and alcohol or falling in love with the wrong person.  Or centered on the stereotypes of catty, fashionable and always ready to party.  What a relief to see two men who can’t keep their hands off each other, can’t stop staring into each other’s eyes, and are constantly looking forward to the next great adventure together.

The other reason is to sound the warning: if you come from people poisoned by toxic religion, don’t you dare die before doing whatever it takes to prevent them from moving in on your partner after your death.  OK, so you're young and believe you are invulnerable.  Shane's video title is "It Can Happen To You."

Shane Bitney Crone was raised by religious homophobes in Kalispell, Montana, Tom Bridegroom by religious homophobes in Knox, Indiana.  Both of them ran like hell from their small towns to the big city, found each other, found love, found meaning, found happiness.  In time, Shane’s mother and father put their son above all else, became part of the couple’s lives and added to their happiness.  Tom’s father, on the other hand, pointed a gun at him and told him he’d be better off dead than gay.  Tom’s mother did her best to signal to the world that Shane did not exist.

Tom was doing a photo shoot on a roof one day and got too close to the edge and fell to his death.  As he lay dying, the hospital would not permit Shane to see him because he wasn’t family.  When he did die, Tom’s mother rushed in to fly the body to her home in Indiana (and 
the place he had run from) and put out word that if Shane tried to attend the funeral he would be attacked by members of the family.  Tom is buried in a plot with space for his mother to lie on one side of him, his father that pulled a gun on him on the other.   The message is clear.  Shane, whom they blame for turning their son gay, is expressly excluded for eternity. Curiously, Tom's siblings are also not included here, except with an "also ran" line across the bottom of Tom's stone, and we are left to suppose that this too is a reflection of their grief.  The siblings may form families of their own, you see.  Tom had no family other than mom and dad.

How you respond to all this will say much about the kind of person you are.  You can do as I did when I began this review with an implied sneer at the small town the Bridegrooms call home.  Or you can do as Shane did, and hold a second memorial service and make a point of including pictures of Tom with his family, in sharp contrast to the way he was treated.  Shane still managed somehow to see the Bridegrooms as victims and not just ugly personifications of a small-town mentality.  Possibly it was his own mother who showed him you can be a small-town religious Republican and still have a heart.  Possibly it was in-born.  Tom, from all we see of him, seemed to have had the same kind of loving character, despite his roots among people with a breathtaking propensity for cruelty.  Shane understood that becoming obsessively possessive about a lost child and sinking deeper into hateful religion was a way of grieving.  But he also realized that he couldn’t allow Tom’s mother to prevent his grieving also, and that he could channel that grief into a warning to other gay couples not to make the same mistake he and Tom had made through their youthful naivete and the belief they would go on living forever.

The moral of the story, if there is one, is that sometimes the apples do fall pretty far from the tree, and there is hope to be found in future generations.

Photo credits: Tom Bridegroom

Also worth seeing are two videos, one of Colleen McMahon singing Beautiful Boy, a a song she apparently wrote for the film and another of Colleen and Shane together singing Brave, as well as the Facebook memorial page

gravestone: grabbed from the documentary film

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